Headline, June10, 2014 / Five Star Billionaire



Shanghai Tang. Tash Aw captures the piquancy of China's megametropolis.

Yes, a delightful must read for everybody:.......

The hungers and furies of the exploding Asian metropolis are all literary rage.

Arvind Adiga gave aspiring India a ferocious, vengeful voice in his  2008  Man Booker Prize  -winning debut novel, ''The White Tiger''.

Mohsin Hamid, in  How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, offers an allegorical rise and fall in the shape of  self-help  manual.

Tash Aw, in his    Five Star Billionaire, also serves up self-help maxims before every chapter, but his work aches with grieving humanity as it follows the crisscrossings ups and downs of-

Five migrant characters trying to make their mark on contemporary Shanghai. Insofar as the city   -a riot of fake  Vuitton bags, false promises and counterfeit identities   -is making itself up as fast as they are-

Every last effort to get the better of it seems doomed.

At the center of Aw's intricate canvas is a factory girl, from a small town, Phoebe Chen Aiping, who goes to Shanghai determined to remake herself as a dressed sex-cess party girl. In and out of her orbit float four other protagonists, all from Malaysia  -as Aw is-

And equally bent on self-refashioning; a fallen teen idol; a property developer whose family business has collapsed; an enigmatic, self-styled billionaire; a coffeehouse Bohemian turned businesswoman.

Every time the action flashes back to the simpler lives they've left behind, each registers that they'll lose something essential  -call it a soul  -if they realize their dream, yet lose their livelihood if they don't.

Towering about them all is the theater of illusions that is the novel's dominant character, Shanghai. Aw brings to its whirlgig, cashed up culture the hyperobservant eye and the sympathetic heart he displayed in:

The Harmony Silk Factory and Map of the Invisible World. Sometimes it seems as if he has ingested every last detail of rising Asia's latest glossy magazines, yet never lost sight of the emptiness in the models' eyes or the wistfulness in the lonely readers' heart.

Roaming tirelessly through Shanghai's glassy tower blocks, charity auctions and bare bedrooms, Aw gives us the books that  young girls try to master.

He conjures up   -in a single sentence- a flutter of blue-sky proposals from an ''Internet-based cosmetics brand called Shhh'' to ''a luxury spa modeled on a northern Thai village.''

True to his background as a lawyer, he knows how to read the small print of every business contract and how to call out the acquaintance who says, ''Let's have lunch soon, ya? Of course, I promise.''

As we orchestrate the overlapping of his lost souls, the story comes to acquire the mirrored complexity of its settings. No one knows who anyone is   -not even themselves  -and when one character reveals himself as a real celebrity-

He's taken to be the most shameless fake of all. And because Aw's polyphonic structure shows us every character as they to themselves, and as they're seen by others, we teeter at every moment on the gap between reality and appearance.

One hardly needs to notice that the cutthroat percepts Phoebe digests   -''If you place your trust in others, you will open yourself to danger and hurtfulness''  -echo survival tips invoked by her elders during the Culture Revolution. 

As an evocation of a world in which friendships are business deals and people conduct virtual lives   -pouring out their hearts to strangers online, late at night,-
Five Star Billionaire is hard to beat  

Perhaps it might have been more intense if centered on three characters instead of five   -Aw's women are more affecting than his oddly passive, sexless men-   but the ambition of the book perfectly reflects its subject.

In one scene, we're  introduced to a   ''folk guitarist whose slangy lyrics spoke of urban migration and loneliness. Aw might be describing himself, except that his threnodies are set to sophisticated modern jazz. 

With respectful dedication to all the Students, Professors and Teachers of ''different Cultures'' in the world. See Ya all on !WOW!  -the World Students Society Computers-Internet-Wireless:

''' Once &  Again '''

Good Night & God Bless!

SAM Daily Times - the Voice of the Voiceless


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