Book review: Five lives in flux in Five Star Billionaire

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 3, 2013

ST 20130303 MAR01 3546512m

FIVE STAR BILLIONAIRE

By Tash Aw

HarperCollins/ Paperback/432 pages/$22 before GST/Major bookstores/****

In Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw skilfully surfs the tide of the times.

The third novel from the Malaysian writer currently residing in Singapore follows Malaysians seeking fortune and fame in Shanghai. It was released here on Feb 21, two weeks before Mohsin Hamid's equally tongue-in-cheek title, How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia.

A reader looking only at the contents pages of these books could be fooled into thinking these are how-to guides. Chapter titles are maxims for anyone who wants to get ahead: Aw's first chapter is headlined Move To Where The Money Is, a sentiment endorsed by Hamid as Move To The City.

Both writers clearly realise what will attract contemporary Asian readers. We may not have shaken off the post-colonial identity crisis, but we would certainly prefer to sideline it in favour of jostling ahead in the overcrowded race towards wealth, power and designer handbags.

Joking aside, Five Star Billionaire is a special treat because it reflects the current reality for South-east Asians, rather than the historical epics favoured by many writers from the region. Consider Tan Twan Eng's The Garden Of Evening Mists, rooted in World War II Malaya and shortlisted for last year's Man Booker Prize, or Aw's Map Of The Invisible World (2009), set in 1960s Indonesia, or The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), again situated in 1930s Malaya. All were engaging - and The Harmony Silk Factory, won the Whitbread First Novel and Commonwealth Writer's Awards - but what readers here really need today is fiction that takes us forward.

For much of South-east Asia, the race for success requires riding on the economies of China or India, on playing fields that are both alien and familiar. South-east Asians may be ethnically Chinese or Indian but have created a separate culture that is different from that of the ancestral countries.

It is a disconnect echoed in the experiences of the main players in Five Star Billionaire, who make difficult adjustments or even remake themselves entirely in their quest for success. Take, for example, struggling bottom-feeders such as factory worker Phoebe, who seeks to reinvent herself through language tapes and dating rich men, or Gary, a small-town boy from Kota Bahru who becomes a Taiwanese pop star. People like them might spend their lives attempting to leap one rung on the social ladder in their home country, but their dreams can become reality in the new China.

In contrast, members of the old order such as financier Justin and entrepreneur Yinghui, are rudely shaken by the rapid pace of economic change and unable to keep up.

Shaping and shaking up their lives are the nouveau riche such as self-titled "five-star billionaire" Walter, a reclusive money-maker who lines his pockets via mysterious machinations, and who harbours a grudge dating back to his impoverished days in Kelantan.

Every protagonist, no matter how well off, is relentless in his or her search for a new and better identity. In some cases this leads to identity theft, as Phoebe palms the photo ID of a richer girl and uses it to get a better job at a spa. It is a move that echoes dormant yet uncomfortable questions for many in South-east Asia - who are we really, what do we want and what have we become?

Take the field of literature: Bibliophiles here could easily be buried in translated work from China and books from South Asia, books that reflect certain shared cultural mores and are highly enjoyable, such as Pakistani writer Hamid's new novel.

But for all their wit and bite, such books do not - and cannot - satisfy the way a book like Five Star Billionaire does, simply by smoothly and naturally reflecting South-east Asia's culture and socio-economic situation.

One longs for more good English fiction from the region, fiction marked by instantly recognisable tastes, experiences and emotional baggage. We know, for example, without the author telling us, why only Chinese women might work in a karaoke bar in Malaysia. We can appreciate, without it being spelled out, why a wanna-be pop star from Kota Bahru would have to sing in Malay, English and Mandarin to gain popular acclaim.

We empathise with the protagonists' struggle for something better, a struggle that echoes the immigrant dreams that brought ancestral migrants to this region from China and India in the first place.

Only in a new land can the old order be shaken and dreams be dreamt afresh. Five Star Billionaire is both realistic and kind with its dreamers, realistic enough to let Shanghai swallow some of their dreams and kind enough to grant them a future beyond that defeat. If only all immigrant stories had that happy an ending.

If you like this, read: Mohsin Hamid's How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia ($30.98, Riverhead, major bookstores), the inventive tale of an impoverished boy who becomes a corporate tycoon.

akshitan@sph.com.sg

Tash Aw is currently Nanyang Technological University's writer-in-residence. For news and events, follow him on Twitter @Tash_Aw