There have always been places that cast an almost hypnotic spell over people. Their dazzle draws the less fortunate to their bright lights, like moths to a flame, in search of fame, success, wealth, and riches. Trite as it may sound, I came myself to London with a degree of simplistic ‘streets paved with gold’ in my thinking. But surely no city can ever before has glittered quite as gaudily, and in some ways quite as menacingly, as the Shanghai at the heart of Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire.
The story follows 5 Malaysians and the fortunes they seek to make, or to try keep, amidst the get-rich-quick-and-every-can-be-successful lure of Shanghai. Walter Chao is part motivational guru and part con man, author of a 21st self-help bible called the Five Star Billionaire, a step-by-step guide to making it big in China – or anywhere else for that matter. Phoebe is a by-day dreamer and by night call girl with dreams inspired and fed by Walters book. Gary is a manufactured Cowell-like pop star on the verge of moving to superstardom, compensating for the vacuous nature of his music with shit-hot marketing, Yinghui is an ex-rich girl, moving from archetypal airhead to sharp-suited businesswoman on the cusp of further commercial glories and Justin is the head of a family conglomerate putting his own morals on the back burner in favour of his extended family’s values – and that’s the problem, for Justins’ is a family which hasn’t GOT any family values, unless you count profit margins!
The stories of Justin, Yinghui, Gary and Phoebe are all unfurled and then finely stitched together by the almost invisible thread that is Walter Chao. It’s a turbulent ride flitting between the five to describe their contrasting and sometimes interconnected successes and failures and as they do the book plays wonderfully with your emotions as the reader, frequently setting you up to like or loathe one character one chapter and then flipping your sympathies or frustrations over in the next chapter. There are some pretty radical changes for some of the characters during the novel while others tend to sway and drift more. But it’s always powerful and absorbing.
Each of the characters is strong and so their stories are all engaging. They each have such different traits, back stories and futures, but they pulled me in and had me essentially rooting for them one way or another, even though you sense from early on that this might not be a “and every body lived happily ever after” book! The cleverest feat he pulls off with the characters is the way he slowly weaves connections into their lives. Given that Shanghai is a city of over 14 million people, it’s no mean feat to pull 5 seemingly disconnected characters together without making it all look rather trite or tenuous. But here it’s brilliantly done – and beautifully balanced with just enough connectivity to keep you on the side of the characters and making sure you never tip into thinking “nah…that would never happen!”
Perhaps the only character who didn’t pull me in to the same degree was Walter Chao, but if I’m honest that was because I thought he wasn’t quite dark enough. But even there, I suspect Tash Aw may well have structured Walter that way for a very particular reason. And that reason is the city of Shaghai itself because it is essentially the sixth character in the story, and it’s way more menacing and dangerous than Walter Chao could ever be!
Occassionally the setting for a book is so appealing I find myself thinking I’d like to visit. The Shanghai of Five Star Billionaire hasn’t exactly been drafted with future promotional use by the Chinese Tourist Board in mind! Here is a city which glows and hypnotises the poor and the lost and the desperate from afar. It’s the classic mirage. Up close this is a city which seems to be almost soulless and proud of it! You get a strong sense of a cold-hearted city, its skyscrapers blocking out the sun, creating an artificial and manufactured society to match its concrete and glass takeover of the sky. For its desperate scramble to push its buildings ever upwards is matched by the scramble of its inhabitants to do the same. Each of the five characters in Five Star Billionaire are deeply flawed in some way be it avarice, morality, obsession, cruelty, or whatever. Shanghai reflects all those weaknesses in a gaudy, neon glow and casts them in the cheapest, harshest light.
In some ways I get the feeling Shanghai might be a love it or loathe it city in real life. I certainly think that for anybody reading the book, the extent to which you love or loathe Five Star Billionaire might depend on how you feel about Shanghai much more than how you react to Walter, Phoebe, Justin, Gary and Yinghui. Personally I loved it – for all its soullessness and for all its stone-hearted feel – which in fairness probably says as much about me as it does about Shanghai!!!!!
This is a book of strong characters and an even stronger setting. While it’s not a gentle love story by any means there is a surprising degree of gentleness throughout the book. As I read it, I couldn’t bring myself to dislike any of the characters or the city for there’s something deeply moving, even in all the glitz, about what the human spirit will do to survive and prosper in the harshest of climates. As I read I felt a real personal connection to the characters. I frequently thought of my mum, who emigrated from Scotland to New York as a young woman in search of work and a better life, passing through Ellis Island and when I recall that I always think of the Emma Lazarus poem, written into the Statue of Liberty “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”.
So for that very personal connection, and for 14 million other reasons, I loved Five Star Billionaire!