"My good sir, if you will only consider how much Shanghai has changed over the years," says a character in Kazuo Ishiguro's 2000 novel, When We Were Orphans. "Everything, everything has changed and changed again." The time was 1937. Since then Shanghai has undergone even more transformations and today can lay claim to being both China's thumping economic heart and the biggest city in the world. Its population continues to expand because outsiders flock to the metropolis to get a piece of the action and make their fortune. With luck, some of the city's success can rub off on them.
In his third novel, Tash Aw focuses on the dreams and schemes of five characters who have come to China’s largest metropolis to strike it rich. Presented as a self-help guide, it has an omnipresent sixth character – the city itself, writes Malcolm Forbes
In the world of fiction, success stories don't sell. Fiction prefers flops, or at least falls from grace. Dickens is more credible, and by extension more readable, when callously crushing his bright-eyed optimists with the incubus of interminable court cases than slickly reversing fortunes by way of convenient benefactors. Tales of success are best confined to real-life chronicles. They are the domain of the self-help guide, the rags-to-riches, heart-on-sleeve journeys shared by provincial losers turned international tycoons.
Five Star Billionaire, the third novel by Tash Aw - a writer born in Taipei, brought up in Malaysia and now living in London - charts the get-rich-quick schemes and dreams of five disparate characters that have descended on Shanghai and pinned their hopes on the city. It follows the lead of an earlier fiction release this year, Mohsin Hamid's How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, in that it fictionalises the self-help guide. Aw's chapters have advisory titles like "Choose the Right Moment to Launch Yourself" or "Be Prepared to Sacrifice Everything". Indeed, the chapters concerning self-made Walter Chao are supposedly excerpts from his autobiographical self-help bible, Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire, each of them headed with different "How-to wisdom".
If Hamid's novel dealt with a rising Asia, Aw's centres upon a city that has already risen. As a result, his cast is faced with a wealth of unexpected challenges: not every door is open, and many commercial avenues were long ago sealed off. Opportunity exists but isn't as bottomless as before. Phoebe, a recent arrival, faces the greatest slog - mired in factory work, thwarted by one broken promise after another, until the theft of another woman's ID card and the hard-won decision to find a rich man presents a way out. In contrast, Justin is "an unspectacular but canny businessman" who belongs to a rich dynasty swimming in old money. However, after realising the property game is not for him, he breaks down, burns out and slowly attempts to slough off his self-loathing and rebuild his life as the family empire goes bust. Gary is a manufactured pin-up pop star who also goes off the rails due to the overbearing pressure to succeed. We watch him unravel - fighting in bars, addicted to internet porn, suffering from insomnia - and fail disastrously, and then forge a new, lowlier career from the wreckage. LSE-educated Yinghui, described in the Shanghai Daily as "a super-efficient, humourless automaton", has flourishing upmarket lingerie stores and a high-class spa but is willing to take uncalculated risks to enlarge her influence. Walter Chao, the mogul who has truly made it, is also a philanthropist ("the work that really matters to me - the business of giving") but the more we read, the more we wonder if his intentions are entirely honourable.