Saturday, 23 February 2013


Some time back, I'd read a not-very-glowing assessment of Map of the Invisible World. So, when given the chance to review this book, I steeled myself for some disappointment.

I needn't have bothered.

Five Star Billionaire can be laborious to read in places, but at least it's set in a contemporary period, so it feels real. Was there anything I could say about the writing? Cadence? Tone? Pacing?

No, there wasn't. Hey, it's Tash Aw.

If there was something off about the culture, people and places in the setting, I'll leave that to those who're more qualified.

Did I like it? Not much. I won't be pushing a copy into the hands of everybody I'd meet, though I will say "It's not as bad as some people say."

When a bunch of Malaysian Chinese balik tongsan

first published in The Malaysian Insider, 23 February 2013

This was heard at a "live" comedy act: "There are two kinds of Chinese: rich Chinese - and potentially rich Chinese."

The audience chuckled. How stereotypical and absurd.

But tell me: Which Chinese family doesn't believe its scions are meant for something greater?

Tash Aw's latest novel, Five Star Billionaire, charts the lives of five Chinese Malaysian emigrants - a mix of these "two kinds" - to bustling Shanghai, ranked the world's 16th most expensive city last year, as they journey along their yellow brick roads.

Meet our heroes
Duped by false promises of a good job, Phoebe Chen repackages herself in an effort to move up the social ladder, guided by the words of a "five-star billionaire."

Tash Aw at Silverfish Bookscover of ‘Five Star Billionaire’
Five Star Billionaire is by Tash Aw (left), who met fans, read some
passages from the book and fielded questions during a meet-up at
Silverfish Books in Bangsar on 23 February 2013

Entrepreneur Leong Yinghui, daughter of a disgraced former government minister and jaded bohemian, enters an urban development joint venture with a mysterious partner.

Hoping to improve the fortunes of his family's flagging property firm, Justin Lim's attempt to buy a piece of real estate is stymied by a possible rival.

Scandal-dogged pop star Gary (no apparent last name) struggles to rebuild his career after a bar brawl with a drunk foreigner - proving that only Bruce Lee or Jet Li can clock a white guy and still look good.

Finally, there's enigmatic business guru Walter Chao, whose soliloquies in the novel could have come out of a self-help book. Chapter headings reminiscent of stratagems from The Art of War enforce that feel.

Of course, their paths will intersect at certain points in the story. Otherwise, there wouldn't be any point to having so many characters.

This looks familiar
Like the stand-up comic, Aw serves up these flawed, sad bunch of could-have-beens for our entertainment and maybe some reflection. It's quite a pick: the pisau cukur wannabe; the scion of a property giant; the Idol contest winner; the single, lonely-yet-insecure, gaydar-tripping career woman; and the egocentric, emotionally distant know-it-all.

Though interesting and compelling, this is no beach novel. Aw's writing is lush and descriptive, and he packs his yarn with more about the protagonists than the casual reader can handle.

Much of it feels familiar. Phoebe's obsession with status and resentment of the upper classes and her perceived lowly station are infuriating, and just when her life starts turning around, she throws it all away. In Gary, we see the travails of talent-contest winners who crack under the glare of publicity and pressures of celebrity.

Yinghui the boho chick is heaps more annoying than Yinghui the entrepreneur who craves recognition for her hard-won business savvy. Her impassioned, self-righteous frothing-in-the-mouth over plans to demolish an iconic cinema building reads like so many Facebook posts.

We're so glad when those illusions are shattered but the crisp lapels she adopts later in life don't suit her and watching her try to fit into them is tiresome. And what is Justin doing, moping around, meeting strange women and trying to hook up with Yinghui after the deal goes pear-shaped?

What they all ultimately share are varying degrees of parental estrangement, the discomfort with who they currently are, and the need to prove something to the world.

Cautious optimism
You might have encountered at least one of these five archetypes in real life and, perhaps, sneered at them with derision or helped yourselves to some schadenfreude at their failures. You think nothing of it, until you begin exhibiting the same traits.

Reading about the media circus around Gary's fall and Justin being trolled by anonymous armchair crusaders online can get a tad uncomfortable. But we feel little sympathy for the characters. Maybe that's the mental defense mechanism kicking in, trying to blot out unpleasant truths.

Of all the lessons in this book, the strongest seems to be: nothing good comes from stepping outside the box.

All of Aw's characters – except maybe Walter – ventured out of their comfort zones and got burned. But does that mean there are no paths to Oz other than the beaten ones?

Towards the end of the novel, they still seem to be looking. That's when we really start rooting for them because, in the end, all of us believe that we are meant for greater things.

Five Star Billionaire
Tash Aw
Fourth Estate (2013)
434 pages
ISBN: 978-0-00-749416-3


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