Five Star Billionaire
A Novel by Tash Aw
2013 / 400 Pages
I read the synopsis for this one about two weeks before I started reading thinking that a humorous look at rich Asians in Singapore would be just the thing to ease me into this year’s BookerMarks project. As I got to about the 3rd or 4th chapter (still waiting for the hilarity to kick in) I realized this wasn’t the book I thought it was (Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan). Five Star Billionaire is actually a kind of boring book about depressing Malaysian immigrants pretending to be people they are not living in Shanghai. Oops! My bad!!
The story begins with Phoebe a young girl who wants to change her fortune by moving to China. She has been promised a job by an old friend who is a no-show when she gets there. She decides to stay anyway and (somehow) finds a place to stay (with Yanyan– the jobless, Hello Kitty pyjama wearing room-mate who reads her diary and eats ice cream with Justin Lim). She works odd jobs off the grid and becomes fixated with finding a boyfriend to take care of her. She eventually steals another girl’s ID card and becomes sophisticated enough to get a job in a hoity-toity spa. She is very successful until she meets a man.
Yinghui is an ex-hippy coffee shop owner who left Malaysia following the death of her political failure of a father and the break up with her fiance (the notorious Lim family’s cherished youngest son C.S– brother of Justin). She has somehow become a famous and successful business woman in Shanghai (she owns a chain of high-class spas and has hired Phoebe to be one of her managers). She has bad hair but decent fashion sense and realizes that she has been faking her way in the business world. She tries to prove herself by throwing herself wholeheartedly into a business project with a man who she hopes will become more than just a business partner.
Justin is the first son of a “business family” (read– mafia) and has been pegged to be the new closer of the family business now that Sixth Uncle is getting up there in years. He has a sense for picking the best areas of town for development and is in Shanghai to make a deal. Rumours circle that the family business is now bankrupt so he decides to lay low at a cheap building where he meets Yanyan and buys her ice cream. He happens to run into his brother’s ex-fiance (Yinghui) at a business function and remembers that he has always had a crush on her. He must reinvent himself and tell her that he loves her.
Gary is a washed up pop star who hasn’t left his hotel room for about 6 months. He is obsessed with chatting on-line with girls and watching porn. He meets Phoebe in a chat room and thinks that she has changed his life. She chats him up, boosting his confidence and belief in his own music. He is determined to tell her who he is but then she disappears for a few weeks. In the meantime he is discovered again (by Justin) and is set to play at a grand opening. Phoebe finally returns to the chat room and Gary reveals who he is (the FAMOUS Gary!). She doesn’t believe him and tells him “Goodbye, you FREAK” and they actually never meet (the whole Gary part could have been left out of the story and it wouldn’t have been missed).
And in the background, touching all of these lives is Walter Chao– the Five Star Billionaire whose story from humble beginnings to billionaire status is peppered in between chapters. Turns out he is a fake, a crook and was only interested in revenge and humiliation.
Lessons Learned: money is everything; better to be a fake than unsuccessful; Shanghai is a cut throat place to live. That is it.
I waffled between giving it a 2.5 (Meh, take it or leave it) and 3 (Good, recommend with reservations) and decided on the higher rating because I did enjoy the descriptions of the city of Shanghai and it didn’t take me as long to read as I thought it would.
You can’t stay in a city like Shanghai forever. You will leave too, and so will I.
This review was simultaneously posted on Literary Hoarders.