Searching in Shanghai

Updated: 2013-11-15 08:28

By KELLY CHUNG DAWSON in New York (China Daily USA)

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Searching in Shanghai
Aw's new novel Five Star Billionaire.

In the early 20th century, the first of a Chinese community that now comprises a quarter of the population began making their home in Malaysia. Today many of their descendants have made a reverse migration, resettling in China in hopes of finding economic fulfillment that has little to do with identity or heritage. For Taiwan-born author Tash Aw, who grew up in Kuala Lumpur before living in both Shanghai and London, lonely outsiders with the superficial appearance of belonging are the defining story of life in this century.

Nominated for the prestigious Man Booker Prize, Aw's new novel Five Star Billionaire continues the exploration of expatriate culture first introduced in his award-winning 2005 book The Harmony Silk Factory, and 2009's Map of the Invisible World.

Following the seemingly unrelated stories of five Malaysian-Chinese immigrants in Shanghai, Aw takes a look at how striving can be a lonely undertaking.

"I think that it's how many people feel these days," Aw said. "Even if you've never left your home town, I think it's possible to feel incredibly lonely… The whole idea of living in a culture which isn't your own is something that drives all of my work."

Searching in Shanghai

Transplants from non-Western cultures have been more likely to be labeled migrants than expatriates, a Western-centric nomenclature that lingers despite the rise of Eastern nations. But in Aw's China, the West fades in importance for characters whose perspective of Asia has been shaped by a changing power structure that places Asia at the forefront. The West appears only superficially, in the physical import of handbags, clothing and other status symbols; characters enjoy Western books, depending on the amount of education they've received, and yet no character expresses interest in the so-called American Dream. China's story today is increasingly one of migration, in which China itself is "Gold Mountain", that Mecca for which so many Chinese once made the journey to the US.

"I wanted to represent the West as I see it being experienced by most people in Asia these days — they may dress in Western labels and listen to some Western music, but their identity remains wholly Asian, in a pretty unequivocal and untroubled way," Aw said. "Influences mingle across borders, of course, and shape our tastes and appearances at a superficial level at least. But loneliness and ambition are things that are the same all over the world. What do we sacrifice when we move to a big city to try and make our mark in the world? We experience these things in the same way anywhere in the world. That's what really lies at the heart of the novel."

Among the men and women who form the core of Five Star Billionaire are a humiliated pop star, a former factory girl with a stolen identity, a rising businesswoman with bohemian roots, the son of a formerly wealthy family, and the eponymous billionaire whose self-help advice is woven through the book in chapters with titles like "Pursue gains, forget righteous"; "Nothing remains good or bad forever"; "Reinvent yourself"; and "Cultivate an urbane, humorous personality."

Aw's characters pride themselves on being modern; the supposed degradation of traditional values is exciting and natural in the context of sex, relationships and business. But ultimately some attitudes remain fundamentally Asian: Old-fashioned barriers related to class, gender and wealth remain ever-present despite shifting ideas of morality, he said.

"That's one of the reasons China is interesting to me," he said. "The changes that have occurred over the last two decades have been so swift that the moral compass has been confused."

Five Star Billionaire questions the personal cost of progress, in individual stories that yearn to find each other.

"Time is sprinting past you, faster than you think," cautions the mysterious billionaire for whom the book is named. "You're already playing catch-up, even as you read this. Fortunately, you do get a second chance. My advice to you is: Take it. A third rarely comes your way."

The resonance for characters who have staked everything for a future far from home is obvious.

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