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Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
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Five Star Billionaire (2013)

by Tash Aw

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While China has enjoyed double-digit economic growth for nearly two decades, set at an average rate of 10 - 11%, much of that development was centred in the cities, where it may have been closer to 17% growth overall. Particularly in the period 2003 - 2008, the Chinese economy went supernova. This tremendous boom created tremendous wealth, in a country with very loose legal contraints and hardly any regulation. The harsh reality is that China is governed by the rules of the jungle, and that to many people survival means survival of the fittest. China's ancient classic The Art of War means that one should not shun to take advantage of any means to achieve one's ends. Conceit, double-dealing and deceit are all part of the game. In some sense life in China resembles a computer game, not in vitual reality but in the flesh-and-blood.

Shanghai is the commercial capital of China, and with its history of being a world capitalist city in the years leading up to the war, its creation a miracle on the scale of the rise of Hong Kong, created out of mud, the early Twenty-first century saw Shanghai arise again, like the Phoenix from its ashes, to engage in a wild dance with the dragon. It appears to be an excellent stage for a novel of greed and capitalism of the new century. In that sense, one might compare Five Star Billionaire by the Malaysian author Tash Aw with the novel of the 1990s, Money by Martin Amis. Unfortunately, Tash Aw as an author lacks the skill to pull it off.

For a start, Five Star Billionaire has a weak structure. The story is told in alternating chapters on a rotation of five, as the plot or rather five plots are centred round five characters, each telling a story in turn. Five, maybe the five points of the Red Star, is too many, and the structure of the novel seems contrived, rigid and mechanical. None of the characters is fully developed, and although interactions between the characters are suggested, this more surprises the reader than anything, and the relations do not become transparent. The plot as a whole remains obscure

The story told for each of the characters consists of a roping together of all the cliches that are written about China in popular media in the world's newspapers the year around. The characters are charicatures lacking a human dimension, and as a result they remain two-dimensional card board figures.

Being a Malaysian author, Tash Aw has created several characters who are Malaysian, and although there are many Malaysians of Chinese ethnic origin in Malaysia, the story's premise that they illegally immigrate into China and there compete with native Chinese employees seems implausable. Some of the characters in the novel speak Cantonese rather than Mandarin, and to engage the reader in this foreign-language environment, some words and exclamations are rendered into English. Now, in Mandarin this rarely poses a problem, but readers may wonder how aware either the author or his editor were of rendering "Hey" ("Hei") from supposedly Cantonese into English. Better not read that part aloud to prudish ears with an understanding of Cantonese!

Although Five Star Billionaire seemed interesting and exciting during the first 80 pages, the story becomes cliche, mechanical, and ultimately boring. Perhaps it tells us more about Malaysians than about China. ( )
  edwinbcn | Feb 8, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I loved this book through the first three quarters. I liked that the different characters stories were starting to come together and the reader was going to find out how five different people were connected in the large city of Shanghai, China. This did not happen as this is a sad story of revenge. Revenge may be a great motive to move a plot though, in the case of this book it falls a little flat. The ending is not satisfactory and leaves the reader wondering what the purpose was anyway.

The central character is an author writing how-to novels to make money to destroy a family who he believed stole
his father's life. When he meets the children of the two men who he believed took his fortune he takes theirs. He uses another character to destroy a would be partner's main business solely to exact revenge from when he was nineteen. This is a sad way to end what started out to be such a promising novel.

The book is well-written and so it can have four stars. There are a few f-bombs so those who like zero swearing may e disappointed. Shanghai sounds like a brutal place to have grown up or to live in currently and for all these Malaysians it must have been quite a culture shock.

Phoebe is a young girl following the advice in the self-help books of the author which will steal everyone's money although they may rebuild after the novel is over. I hope so because I would like to see a deeper ending than the one that I read. ( )
  kekmrs | Jan 13, 2015 |
Tash Aw came to BCLT to speak. I'm always amazed by people who write in a language other than their native tongue.
Started reading it before we left for Boston, finished it after we got back. Needed to run through the chapters afterwards
to piece together the characters and their relationships. Some were clear to me, others hard to recall. Enjoyed reading
about Asian mentality in viewing western 'lifestyles'. Good read, though a bit confusing at times for me. ( )
  KymmAC | Aug 27, 2014 |
Although I found the story slow going at first, I became more and more engaged with the struggles of the characters and the challenges of making it Shanghai, an uber city among cities. The novel crashed to and end as I found myself trying to turn one...more...page. ( )
  bookweaver | Mar 18, 2014 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
his mystery is set in a childrens' group foster home near Oslo. The director has been killed and the focus seems to be on a troubled child who has disappeared. Those Norwegians are a caring and kind bunch of folks, so this is hardly a gritty crime novel, but is an enjoyable read. ( )
  gbelik | Feb 16, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 46 (next | show all)
Five Star Billionaire deploys telling detail and idiosyncratic perspective to evoke the logic and feel of contemporary China. The prose is lucid and unhurried, and Aw keeps an impressively tight rein on a sprawling narrative. Besides spanning languages and plots, it is also a primer on popular Chinese culture, covering hallmarks from the zealousness of online communities to self-help books and food stalls.

The interlocking lives of the five Malaysian-Chinese living on the mainland are reminiscent of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities in how they reveal social gears and levers. Just as Bonfire endeavoured to do for New York City, Billionaire renders a sweeping cross-section of modern Shanghai. But it does so obliquely, giving the measure of the city the way a disease might be revealed through patient histories.

Aw excels at revealing the city's symptoms by layering detail upon detail - for instance, in this image of a rich Shanghainese girl as seen by Phoebe, a poor girl from a remote village in Malaysia: "Phoebe could not tell if she was pretty, but she sat the way a pretty girl would. Her dress was a big black shirt with loads of words printed all over it like graffiti, meaningless sentences … it was horrible but it was expensive, anyone could see that."
 
Five Star Billionaire is a brave, partly successful attempt to capture the size and variousness of Shanghai through the interlocking lives of five Malaysian Chinese immigrants, all searching for money and love: poor, unsophisticated, ambitious young Phoebe; rich, sophisticated, ambitious Yinghui; rich but unsophisticated and unambitious Justin, who is starting to crumble under the pressure of running his family’s commercial empire; pop icon Gary, who has left his poor, unsophisticated roots behind, thanks to a television talent contest, but who like Justin is crumbling; and the billionaire of the title, Walter Chao – the only character to get a first-person narrative, a fact that might put the reader on the alert for signs of unreliability.

Long before the end, the book begins to feel dispiritingly under-imagined. We’re told too often what conversations are like – awkward, cheery – rather than given the dialogue that might enable us to judge; emotions are asserted but unfelt; and the business of moneymaking, around which so much of the novel revolves, is always discussed in the sketchiest terms: a big property deal at the heart of the book is annoyingly unconvincing. Five Star Billionaire contains a lot of useful and interesting information about the way the world wags these days; but are useful and interesting what you read a novel for?
added by kidzdoc | editThe Telegraph, Robert Hanks (Mar 21, 2013)
 
Tash Aw's Five Star Billionaire opens with a bang, not a whimper. Four Malaysians are trying to make it in Shanghai, the new capital of the eastern world – but when we meet them, each of their lives is in freefall. There's Phoebe, the ambitious young Malaysian village girl who passes herself off as Chinese and has arrived in Shanghai on the broken promise of a job and a new life. There's Gary, a "Taiwanese" pop star who finds his fall from grace in a Shanghai bar endlessly replayed on YouTube and is reduced to singing in shopping malls. There's Yinghui, a steely and successful businesswoman whose friends tell her that to really succeed in Shanghai, she needs a man. And, finally, there's Justin, the lonely businessman adopted into a wealthy Malaysian family, who has lost his way while his family have lost their fortune. He and Yinghui knew each other in an earlier life and their reconnection is one of the fine threads that link the characters in this book. Though how many of those threads are held by the fifth character, Walter Chao – the mysterious "I" and author of the bestselling self-help manual Five Star Billionaire – remains to be seen.

Aw is a master storyteller and Five Star Billionaire can be read as The Way We Live Now for our times, for with the global triumph of capitalism, New York and London pale in comparison with the financial behemoth of Shanghai. Like Trollope's Augustus Melmotte, the mysterious Walter Chao has moved his base of operations to the new city: Phoebe, Yinghui, Gary and Justin stand in for the speculators and wealthy families ensnared by his plotting. At 400-plus pages, Five Star Billionaire is only half the length of Trollope's masterpiece. Still, it's a long book; and if there's a criticism to be made it is that the pace is too unvarying. Even where the narrative takes a dramatic turn, it is delivered in Aw's spare, fresh, cool, almost dispassionate prose, which though it succeeds in many ways somehow never quite leaves the page. Instead the characters drift towards their various destinies, caught in the whirlpool of Shanghai. There's more than a hint of fatalism in the air. Even when Yinghui is warned about her new business partner, she fails to conduct the most basic credit check on Walter Chao; she is too desperate, her dream too fragile.

Behind it all, perhaps rather predictably, is a tale of ruin and revenge. But it matters little, because by the time you work out that what you thought was going to happen is indeed going to happen, you realise that Five Star Billionaire is a gentler story than at first appeared: one of lives lost and found, of the transience of material success and the courage required to hope and to trust again, to forgive oneself and to believe in the possibility of love.
added by kidzdoc | editThe Guardian, Aminatta Forna (Mar 8, 2013)
 
At one point in Tash Aw's fine new novel about what people call "the new China" a young woman is trying to photograph herself on her mobile phone in a park in Guangzhou, hoping to enliven her internet dating profile with an image that doesn't make her look like an immigrant factory worker (which she is). An old man who sells tickets for the rowing boats on the lake offers to take the picture for her. He looks uncertainly at her phone. She wonders if he understands how to work it. Then he says: "This phone is so old. My grandson had one just like this three years ago when he was still in middle school." This is the world of the book, where traditional societies seem to have leapfrogged their way into a modernity without signposts, where the past isn't solid enough to build on but too substantial to be ignored.

The five main characters, three men and two women, all come to Shanghai (by some definitions the world's largest city) from Malaysia, though their backgrounds range from old money to rural deprivation. As a title, Five Star Billionaire is close to brash, and the book's storyline could persuasively be pitched to a producer in search of a blockbuster miniseries, but the reading experience it offers is coolly engrossing – with elements of frustrating evasion – rather than propulsive. Tash Aw doesn't exactly kill plot momentum or the emotional impact of the situations he creates, but he certainly keeps them in check. Narrative hints are often indirect, like clues in a detective story, as when a passing reference to a character having written an article deploring the architecture of Gaudí suggests that a conversation almost a hundred pages earlier wasn't in fact spontaneous.
added by kidzdoc | editThe Observer, Adam Mars-Jones (Feb 24, 2013)
 
Mr. Aw is a patient writer, and an elegant one. His supple yet unshowy prose can resemble Kazuo Ishiguro’s. The drawback to the author’s measured attack is that “Five Star Billionaire” is a long book that simmers without ever coming to a boil.

This simmering quality is one that modern readers have grown used to, now that ambitious literary novels so reliably hopscotch among points of view. Our novelists, like our chefs, deliver long sequences of small plates.

That thing that novels do so well, and that caused us to love them in the first place — envelop us, induce us to submit to the spell being cast — is repudiated. Can we pause for a moment to thank Charlotte Brontë for not hitting the shuffle button on “Jane Eyre,” splintering her novel into bite-size arias by Jane, Helen Burns, Mr. Rochester, Adèle Varens and Grace Poole?
 
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The city held its promises just out of your reach, waiting to see how far you were willing to go to get what you wanted, how long you were prepared to wait. And until you determined the parameters of your pursuit, you would be on edge, for despite the restaurants and shops and art galleries and sense of unbridled potential, you would always feel that Shanghai was accelerating a couple of steps ahead of you, no matter how hard you worked or played. The crowds, the traffic, the impenetrable dialect, the muddy rains that carried the remnants of the Gobi Desert sandstorms and stained your clothes every March: The city was teasing you, testing your limits, using you. You arrived thinking you were going to use Shanghai to get what you wanted, and it would be some time before you realized that it was using you, that it had already moved on and you were playing catch up.
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Dreaming of love and success in rapidly changing Shanghai, four individuals--a starry-eyed waitress, a wealthy developer's son, a pop artist, and a poetry-loving activist--confront unexpected realities in regional challenges.

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