Five Star Billionaire is the soon-to-be-released novel by Tash Aw, the award winning author of Harmony Silk Factory and Map of the Invisible World. This is a novel of the new China, specifically Shanghai. Aw was raised in Asia and has a gift for capturing life in China today. This novel centers on five characters who have come to Shanghai for different reasons, but their lives intersect in unexpected ways.
The first character we meet is Walter Chao, the five star billionaire of the title. Walter grew up poor in rural Malaysia, but was determined to become a wealthy man. Next we meet Phoebe, an illegal immigrant to Shanghai. Phoebe’s road to Shanghai also began in a rural village. Phoebe’s hope is to raise herself up, and also her family. She is uneducated, but willing to learn from her mistakes and work hard to achieve her goals.
Justin Lim is the eldest son from a wealthy family in Kuala Lumpur. He has been groomed from birth to manage the family’s immense real estate holdings. He is in Shanghai to cement the Lim family’s interests in China. Yinghui is a businesswoman who began her rise by establishing a chain of up-scale lingerie shops. She is also from a well-off Malaysian family; she and Justin share a history, but it was not always a pleasant one.
Gary is a pop star. He sells millions of record and performs concerts to thousand of screaming teenage fans. Gary also is from an impoverished Malaysian family. After winning a singing contest, he began a meteoric rise to stardom, yet he remains deeply unhappy.
It took me a few chapters to become accustomed to the style of this novel. Aw jumps around from one character’s story to another. The chapters are short, each one focused on the perspective of a single character. It takes much of the novel for the relationship between the characters to become clear.
Of course the sixth character in the book is the city of Shanghai. It is constantly being built and re-built. It is crowded and noisy. Shanghai is a magnet for immigrants, legal and illegal. Finding work is difficult-there are so many people willing to do anything to survive and send money to their families back home. The city is cruel to its inhabitants, yet it remains a beacon of hope throughout Asia.
Aw has set the stage for an interesting story, and Five Star Billionaire does not disappoint. I highly recommend this novel. Many thanks to the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program for sending this on to me.
Hardcover edition to be published-Spiegel & Grau-Jult 2013