Fourth Estate, £18.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Five Star Billionaire, By Tash Aw

In a novel about the rocky road to riches, Chinese Malaysians seek their fortunes in Shanghai.

Famines, disasters, turmoil and poverty have driven millions of Chinese people from their homes to foreign lands for centuries. Now the grand-daughters and grandsons of the original "sons of the yellow emperor" are returning home; history has turned full circle.

In his third novel, Tash Aw, who was brought up in Malaysia, brings together five disparate – and desperate – Malaysians of Chinese origin caught in the vortex of fast-changing Shanghai. Through their intertwining lives, he presents a bleak picture of desolation and loneliness, where money can't buy happiness.

Aw's award-winning debut, The Harmony Silk Factory, was set in Malaya during the Japanese Occupation, its protagonist a double-crossing textile tycoon whose son describes him as "a liar, a cheat, a traitor, and a skirt-chaser".

Map of the Invisible World took place in the turbulent Indonesia of 1960s, when the dictator Sukarno's deluded rhetoric was taking a toll on the lives of the poor, as two brothers sought to understand their past from different vantage-points.

In Five Star Billionaire, Aw introduces rich and poor overseas Chinese, trying to make their mark by leaving Malaysia for China. Uprooted once, never feeling entirely at home, many looked abroad – and in this century, that often means China.

Phoebe escapes rural Malaysia for Guangdong, meant to be a stop on her way to Shanghai. She is determined to find herself a boyfriend, later a husband, who would care for her. Devoid of scruples, she will recreate herself, building confidence via questionable self-help books and an imaginary narrative.

The anonymity of internet chatrooms facilitates her own pursuit of happiness. Justin, from an old moneyed family, determines to strike a property deal that would make his family's mark in Shanghai. Leong Yinghui has left her bohemian past to become a successful businesswoman, targeting products and services that pamper the wealthy.

Then there is Gary, a pop idol on the cusp of global fame whose career nosedives after an entirely foreseen altercation at a night club. And there is mysterious Walter Chao, whom every maitre d' in Shanghai seems to know, but about whom, curiously, the banks know little.

They carry the curse of self-destruction. Insecure, they assert their identity through worldly possessions, and sink into the numbing depression that the loneliness and soullessness of the big city brings. Concerned only with success, and unable to articulate what it would mean, they remain shallow, constantly seeking a deeper meaning that eludes them.

Shanghai is a psychedelic city here, pulsating to its own beat of punishing schedules, where an ignored message on a BlackBerry can snuff out a lifetime opportunity. And at the novel's core is that old emotion, revenge – of getting even, across generations, with the sins of the fathers visited on the sons and daughters.

The five characters are distinct, and Aw manages to bring them together well at most times. Their lives get intertwined and enmeshed. Some of these chance encounters are inventive, but a few stretch credibility.

Aw brilliantly recreates the intonations and vocabulary of someone educated only in Chinese, but when his characters express unexpectedly profound thoughts, it is difficult to separate the author from the character. In a novel where each character seeks a happier future, nobody ends up happy, and the city has no time to pause for the fallen to rise again.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum