March 22, 2013 6:22 pm

Shanghai calling

An ambitious novel of immigrant life in modern China

Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw, Fourth Estate, RRP£18.99, 500 pages

Tash Aw, Malaysian-born and now living in London, burst on to the literary scene when he won the Whitbread first novel award for The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), which was set in 1940s Malaya. Five Star Billionaire, his third book, is an entertaining but uneven contemporary tale of the intriguing and much-overlooked phenomenon of Asian immigrants in China.

The title comes from a self-help bestseller written by a mysterious entrepreneur, Walter Chao. His Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire is excerpted throughout the novel as we follow the fortunes of Walter and four others who have moved from Malaysia to Shanghai in search of self-improvement and wealth.

Small-town girl Phoebe Aiping reads Chao’s book and slavishly applies its lessons as she remodels herself as a cosmopolitan Shanghai woman. Gary Gao has already been made over, morphing from village boy to an international pop sensation. Meanwhile, Justin Lim and Yinghui Leong, entrepreneurs from prominent Malaysian families, try to construct identities distinct from their origins.

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Aw sets himself the gruelling task of narrating the immigrants’ past and present lives in an attempt to reflect the multiple realities of the Malay community in one of the most sprawling metropolises in the world. Five Star Billionaire conjures a wonderful picture of the city of Shanghai as a great explosion of speed where, from dark tenement-like apartment buildings to lavish condominiums, lives are made and broken daily. In China, Yinghui realises, “the unfeasible had a habit of coming true; she had to believe the unbelievable”.

The storyline poignantly lays out the problems, dangers and crippling loneliness of a modern megacity. Phoebe recalls girls employed at a day spa telling her of “all these well-educated women in Shanghai who dressed well and had good jobs, but were single, unwanted – remaindered. What use was that?”

Justin seeks a new flat to rent by sifting through internet images of “thousands of boxy places that looked identical.” Phoebe, who has fabricated a glamorous life-story for herself, is tempted to abandon her self-help project by confessing to Walter that “I am lonely because I am just like you, I am a foreigner. But unlike you, I cannot go home, I must stay here. I am an illegal worker.”

Aw is at his best when investigating the complex social strata of Shanghai and the aspirations of its newcomers. But the scale of the narrative and juggling so many storylines becomes overwhelming for the reader, and Aw creates another problem: Five Star Billionaire is so intent on reaching a particular, admittedly intriguing, conclusion – involving a long-deferred revenge – that the characters are frequently unconvincing and formulaic as they move towards the denouement.

So we find that determined gold-digger Phoebe must come to repent her ways, and Little Tang, who once answered to rich-boy Justin, will become the boss. Gary the pop star acts out his discomfort with fame, feels angry all the time, and “loathes [his fans] for needing him in this way, for needing him to supply them with dreams”. Gary never quite emerges from prose that is as hard-working, cautious and muted as the character of Justin Lim.

Aw can be a thrilling storyteller, and much of Five Star Billionaire reads like a page-turner. However, it takes few of the necessary emotional and stylistic risks and detours to go beyond that: to borrow an analogy from the Chinese building boom, it has the scaffolding of a great novel, but the project is not quite complete.

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Krys Lee is the author of ‘Drifting House’ (Faber)

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