Tash Aw says he is “by nature a solitary person.” No writing in cafes for him. He needs the solitude and silence of his small apartment in London to do most of his work.
But he wrote the middle section of his dazzling third novel, Five Star Billionaire, in Shanghai.
“I think I got caught up with the energy of Shanghai,” he says in British-accented English during a call to his borrowed office at Singapore’s Nayang Technological University, where he is finishing up a semester as writer in residence. At about that moment, a bell sounds and a polite voice in the background announces that the building is being evacuated, but Aw calmly reports that he is not in danger and continues our conversation. “At some point I became aware that I was writing with much more pace than I had been before.”
Five Star Billionaire explores the interconnected lives of five quite different characters who immigrate from Malaysia to Shanghai. “I’m interested in why people leave their homes to go to another country to start a new life. I think that’s one of the big themes in all my work,” he says of the earliest impulse behind the novel. “What I noticed about the process of immigration is that, for many immigrants, even though they want to commit themselves to their new life, their new country, what matters most to them emotionally is their old country. They’re trying to find something in their new country that they didn’t have back home.”
Aw, who is 41, grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and attended college in England. While there, he discovered it was possible to think of writing as a career, and he has made England his home base ever since. His first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory (2005), won several awards, and his second, Map of the Invisible World (2010), drew literary raves as well.
In his latest, Five Star Billionaire, Aw unfolds the lives of his characters in Shanghai as he slowly and subtly reveals the circumstances in their past that have led them there and the emotional holes they are hoping to fill.
“I think this book opens a window as to what’s happening in China in a way that makes China fathomable.”
The characters’ stories are captivating and complex. Phoebe, who arrives in Shanghai as a poor factory worker with dreams inspired by the self-help books she avidly consumes, steals an identity card and sets out to remake herself by finding a rich husband. Yinghui, a woman of a certain age, abandons her artsy past back home and comes to Shanghai to reinvent herself as a businesswoman. Gary is catapulted to instant fame when he wins a talent contest. Justin, scion of a super-rich real estate development dynasty, comes to Shanghai on family orders to extend the company’s reach. Walter Chao, who speaks in grandiose self-help terminology and is the author of one of the self-help books Phoebe reads, turns out to be working a different plan altogether.
The plights of Aw’s characters are by turns comic and sorrowful. He writes with such specificity about their circumstances that their stories feel universal. But there is another vibrant character in the novel that American readers will likely find just as fascinating: the city of Shanghai, self-proclaimed cultural and intellectual leader of the New China.
“Shanghai has a strong personality. It’s a brash, modern city, but underneath all that there are layers of history and tradition as well,” says Aw, who, with writing fellowships and the ability to speak Mandarin (with, he notes, a Taiwanese accent), was able to explore the city and absorb its energy for a year.
“Shanghai wants to see itself as the New York for our times, as the place where people can arrive from anywhere and reinvent themselves. And there is a hell of a lot of reinvention going on because the New China is growing so rapidly that people don’t ask questions about where you’re from. They need your presence, they need your work, they need your labor and creative input.”
As his characters move through their lives in Shanghai, Aw presents a visceral sense of the vast appeal of this burgeoning, sometimes difficult city. Aw thinks his ability to do this with such deep understanding has something to do with being a writer from Malaysia, a smaller Southeast Asian country.
“Malaysians, Singaporeans, Thais and Indonesians grow up being really aware of how one’s fate is linked to the fate of people in the other countries around you,” he says. “China and America are big countries. In many different senses—economically, culturally—they don’t need the rest of the world. What my work reflects is that if you live in a lot of Asian countries, particularly the smaller Asian countries, you have an inextricable link with the other countries around you.”
Aw was among the first generation of Malaysians to be educated abroad. “Identifying as coming from somewhere and being something sometimes defies logic,” he says. “The experiences that are important to me are those from my first 18 or 19 years, and my relationship with Malaysia is much more complex than it is with England. It’s much more screwed up in some ways, but I think that sense of having a very tangled relationship means that I have a stronger identification with the place.”
Aw remains closely connected to his parents and large extended family in the region. His decision to spend a semester in Singapore, which is roughly 10 miles from Malaysia, was influenced by his desire to act as a guide and mentor for young writers there. “I think it’s important for me to give back something, to try and be a part of the new writing that is coming out of Southeast Asia today,” he says as the emergency announcements blessedly end.
Returning to the question of his identity as a Malaysian writer, he says, “It involves hybridity. The whole meaning of what it is to be Malaysian is one of worldliness.”
For some readers the captivating worldliness of Five Star Billionaire will be a wake-up call. Aw says this was never his aim. “My aim was to record what I saw going on, how Shanghai is this magnet for people from all over the world. I think this book opens a window as to what’s happening in China in a way that makes China fathomable. It doesn’t make China weird and scary. It gives, I think, a straightforward, truthfully complex view of what’s going on.”