Tue, Apr 16, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Book review: Five Star Billionaire

Tash Aw’s novel of life in contemporary Shanghai fails to capture the city’s nuances, and offers up characters with few intellectual virtues or interests

By Bradley Winterton

Five Star Billionaire, by Tash Aw.

Taiwan should be interested in Tash Aw. He was born here, to Chinese-Malaysian parents, but the family moved back to Malaysia two years later. He then moved to the UK for his university education, and got himself into Cambridge where he read law. His fictional debut, The Harmony Silk Factory, appeared in 2005 and won the Whitbread Prize for a first novel. This new book, Five Star Billionaire, is his third. It features five characters, all Chinese from Malaysia, living and struggling to succeed in modern Shanghai. One of them is a pop-singer who found his first success in Taipei.

The five are Phoebe, who travels to Shanghai to take up a job that no longer exists; Gary (the pop star) who is far less certain of himself than his public performances would suggest, and who gets into a pub brawl with disastrous consequences; Justin, the off-shoot of a family with a long history of entrepreneurial success, who’s also less than perfectly fitted for his role; the ambitious Yinghui; and the enigmatic Walter, the only character to speak in the first person and, among other things, a writer.

Inevitably the lives of these characters interact. This involves coincidences, but this wouldn’t be a novel without them, and anyway they’re much less unbelievable than the coincidences that proliferate so enjoyably in Anthony Powell’s classic A Dance to the Music of Time.

I wish I could have enjoyed this ambitious novel more than I did. In an interview Aw has said that the novel that most influenced him was Moby Dick, but there isn’t a shred in this new publication of Melville’s poetic, world-ranging romanticism, let alone any obvious concern for nature (except in passages about Walter’s father, who’s trying to restore an old hotel back in Kota Bharu) or sense of the wonder and mystery of the world. Instead, it’s all about Shanghai’s commercial life, and the characters’ attempts to come to terms with it. In any event I found this depressing, even claustrophobic.

Five Star Billionaire

By Tash Aw

431 pages

Fourth Estate

Paperback: UK

None of the characters show any interest in matters unrelated to the commercial life of the city. There’s no one concerned with medicine, say, or scholarship, as there are in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, the inevitable bench-mark when considering long novels with interacting characters. Five Star Billionaire might form the basis for a good TV series, where characters don’t usually have intellectual interests, but I for one expect a novel to display greater imaginative daring.

It’s arguable that Aw is highly critical of Shanghai’s commercialism, and that this is the whole point of his novel. This would make it a work of social criticism, but if this is the case then it should display its author’s attitudes far more openly and vibrantly than it does. As it is, the book lacks any sense of danger, any caustic bite, and, inevitably, any comedy. This makes it a bland read, an especially serious shortcoming in a work of social criticism.

Presumably the great novel about this city is Han Bangqing’s (韓邦慶) The Sing-song Girls of Shanghai [reviewed in the Taipei Times June 22, 2008]. This novel is characterized by the tricks and ploys used in classic urban stage comedies, with “extortionists, blackmailers, con-men, messengers, locked boxes, abductions, hen-pecked husbands, cheating lovers and meddling mothers,” as I wrote about it five years ago. Five Star Billionaire needs a liberal dose of this sort of thing to relieve it from the aura of sameness that tends to characterize its pages.

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