SEVENTEEN YEARS before penning his seminal 1936 self-help bible, How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie helped himself by changing his surname. “Carnegey,” Dale’s father, was just a hick farmer from Missouri. “Carnegie” conjured up the gleaming cufflinks of the legendary tycoon and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (no relation). In Five Star Billionaire, Tash Aw’s third novel, five characters seek the sort of transformational success the man born Dale Carnagey proselytized and exemplified speaking to a sold out crowd from the lectern in — appropriately enough — Carnegie Hall. Many decades later, the American self-help guru’s prescription of perseverance and shrewd pragmatism seems to have found a new audience, across the ocean, in the most populous country on earth.
Considering China’s breakneck pace of growth and its attendant mass urbanization, this should hardly come as a surprise. The nominally socialist state has never practiced equitable distribution of wealth, and in recent years, the gap has only grown more unbridgeable. Aw’s expansive novel captures the lives of men and women who inhabit different cross sections of China’s rise but share the communal dream of “making it.” Like Aw, who was raised in Kuala Lumpur and educated in England, his cast of characters — including an entertainment icon, factory worker, entrepreneur and billionaire’s son — are all Malaysian natives. Unlike Aw, who recognizes the millennial boomtown as largely a mirage of myth and misplaced ambition, this determined quintet regards Shanghai as a mission of tangible achievement.
Phoebe, a factory worker from the backwaters, arrives in Shanghai and promptly appropriates a lost ID to pass herself off as a leisurely — and more importantly, legal — urbanite. In the neo-capitalist behemoth where materialism reigns as its own religion, a self-help guide — in the vein of Carnegie’s — called Secrets of a Five Star Millionaire becomes her career bible.
In instructive chapters entitled “Move to Where the Money Is,” “How to Achieve Greatness,” and “Pursue Gains, Forget Righteousness,” the book-within-a-book’s author, the self-made titular five star millionaire with secrets of his own, teaches his disciples to start a “Journal of Your Secret Self.” “Your past self will disappear,” Walter Chao assures, “leaving only the glorious reborn product of your dreams.”
Conveniently, these headings become the structural scaffolding of the novel, unambiguously baring Aw’s own deep misgivings about the ruthless amorality practiced and preached in the name of personal triumph.
“New China was amazing,” Phoebe marvels to herself and then remembers from Chao’s words of caution: “Do not let lesser people drag you down. You are a star that shines brightly.”
A pop star by the name of Gary lives in a poster on Phoebe’s wall and also happens to be the man she chats with daily in an anonymous online forum. Despite their similarity in background — as the children of poverty in rural Malaysia — neither can brave the shame of revealing his or her true identity. After an ugly PR scandal that derails his career, Gary’s performance catches the attention of Yinghui, a bold businesswoman hardened by heartbreak. Her ex-fiance’s older brother just happens to be the scion of the prominent family in Southeast Asia, a recent émigré to Shanghai, and, as luck would have it, an ardent admirer of Yinghui.
Aw pushes the story ahead by knitting the seemingly disparate threads of principal protagonists into an interconnected web that emerges gradually in the course of the 377-page novel. Every critical juncture in the story is an intersection between two unlikely acquaintances, punctured frequently by a character’s reminiscences of his personal history and its accompanying shadow of shame.
As the story progresses, it becomes evident that Aw’s novel is as much a contemplation of Shanghai’s present as it is the accumulating anxiety of its inhabitants who long to be rid of their backward past.
“No other city went so far, so ruthlessly” to drown out “all sense of history,” Yinghui, the steely entrepreneur, observes. “When you were here, you had no choice but to forget the past and all that you might have been attached to, and, for an hour or two, believe in what the city wanted you to believe in.” Yinghui’s sentiment seems identical to that mantra of her employee, Phoebe, a woman who literally co-opts another’s identity but explains her duplicity as an act of cultural assimilation: it doesn’t much matter anyway because everyone knows that “China was full of copycat products and people.”
The sense of impermanence and alienation Phoebe and Yinghui feel is certainly not unique. Many megalopolises around the world witness similar ebbs and flows in population. What sets apart the Shanghai that Aw presents, however, is the extraordinary rapidity of the changes and the relentless striving of individuals caught between a way of life they cannot entirely relinquish and one they are hesitant to fully embrace.
Here’s Phoebe meditating on where she comes from and hopes to be headed:
She thought of her mother living alone in that small town in the north of Malaysia, a town that was shrinking, becoming less and less alive as each year passed […H]er mother had never moved and soon, she, too, would be gone. Phoebe had left; she had gone out. But she could not go back.”
In a way, none of Aw’s characters can go back. Their suspension in an uncertain present, with its ever-receding potential of peace and prosperity, is what keeps their feet cycling at the pedal.
“If you stop for one moment, you fall, you disappear. No one remembers you,” Gary, the superstar, bitterly opines upon his own fall from grace.
Aw is an astute observer of today’s Shanghai; his descriptions of everything from coffee drinks that cost a day’s wage to “quality fake bags” ring true to the status-paranoid metropolis. He is at his best when narrating the learning curves of the city’s newest arrivals — “Internet dating had become like a book written in a language that she had mastered, just as she had conquered the rocky path to employment in Shanghai” — and at his least persuasive when he has his characters become entangled in shady business deals, of a sort with which Aw himself likely has little personal experience. In rotating amongst the viewpoints of four characters, Aw sometimes pans too broad a panorama of the city. As a result, the ending, the weakest part of the novel, reads like a madcap scramble that veers, too often, into predictable melodrama.
Still, like the city it captures, Five Star Billionaire is an admirably ambitious book that convincingly immerses the reader in one of the world’s fastest growing urban centers.
“Didn’t you dream of seeing the world? Didn’t you want to make lots of money and achieve great things?” Phoebe reproachfully interrogates her unemployed and broke roommate for wanting to leave Shanghai. In Chinese, the name of the city literally translates into “Above the Sea.” The girl does not respond immediately but considers for a moment the bits of seashell that she keeps by her bedside. “Where else am I supposed to go?” she finally answers. With the change of a single stroke, Shanghai can also spell “Loose at Sea,” adrift upon waters that may promise more than they provide.