Book Jacket Letter for: Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw
4/5 Billionaire Stars
Letter Context: I just finished reading Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw. It was on the long-list for the Man Booker Prize this year, and I’m slowly making my way through that list. The plot intertwines the lives of 5 immigrants who in one way or another, at one time or another, land in Shanghai with their dreams (already shattered in some cases, or way too naïve in others). This is my first time reading Aw, and I navigated the book with ease because I was so enamored with the five main characters. In most books featuring multiple characters, I tend to prefer one or two storylines over the others, and skim the sections I don’t like (hey – we all do it). Five Star Billionaire didn’t suffer the same fate; I was totally engrossed with each character, especially at the moments when their lives overlap. Aw weaves the stories together in such a way that the reader is constantly left to expect the worst outcome from every possible situation, even when redemption seems so close at hand. Don’t expect a happy ending here, but it’s an engrossing read that really captures the fast-faced and hungry attitude of Shanghai and its inhabitants.
The Book Jacket Letter for Five Star Billionaire – left in the back jacket flap – inspired by the character of Phoebe Chen Aiping:
Imagine this: you wake up one morning, pack your bags, get in a car/on a bus/in a train and go. No note, no trail of breadcrumbs. This is the stuff movies and books are made of. Usually the pretty protagonist is pursued by an abusive spouse or the law or the lost love of her life. And the story’s ultimate theme is desire. For more. For something different. For a new start. But that’s just the romantic convention.
In real life, it’s a lot less romantic, isn’t it? One rarely leaves to pursue adventure; rather, it’s necessity, often poverty that drives the plot of life. No one leaves unless s/he has to. Need trumps desire…almost always.
Having lived in a wealthy country all my life, I have never been forced to run away from home or find a ‘better place’ than the place I’m in now. I’ve never had to arrive anywhere with nothing and couldn’t even fathom the lives of those who did. My students, many of them children of immigrants, often talk about the struggles their families faced when they arrived in Canada. How their parents came here with $100 and the entire family lived in someone’s basement – eating, sleeping, living – in one small room for years.
And I know I’m lucky. Trust me, I know. The thought of having nothing and depending on others totally scares me. I can’t imagine a worse fate.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
A tiny little part of me has the desire to live the romantic convention: to sneak off to a new life and begin again.
And I know what you’re thinking: to fantasize about that means I have no real understanding of what having nothing means. It’s just like the quote by Milan Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being: “The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is.”
In my case, the woman who longs for escape has no idea of the void she will create. But I still think of the freedom, the opportunity to redefine myself, the POSSIBILITIES! And I’m sure, the initial sense of freedom, of having no ties, no strings, no connections, would quickly wear itself thin but at this moment I’m still dreaming, naïve as it is.
Where would I go?
What would I do?
If I ever gather enough courage to leave my life and begin again, you will find me somewhere warm, Peru or Vietnam, happy and at peace. Writing, reading, teaching, doing yoga. Maybe one day I’ll see you there.