I have this book, autographed by the author in 2013, sitting on my shelf among the many unread books. A gift from my brother, I doubt I would have read it if not for NUSS book club email. I had participated once when my writing mentor gave a talk there and was thus in their circulation list. This book was their October book of choice.
Last night at the book club of about ten of us, only less than half finished the book. Two gave up, as they found the book confusing.
Based on the narratives of five Malaysians living in Shanghai. As the title suggests, the story tells how the five individuals arrive here to reap the harvest of capitalist China.
Phoebe, a small town girl who had been conned by the lure of a job only to become an illegal immigrant in Shanghai by stealing someone’s identity. She tries to transform herself into the many Shanghainese girls with their branded wears in order to hook a rich man. She gets lucky. First she finds a job working in a spa and got the attention of a rich man, Walter Chao in a dating website.
Leong Ying Hui. Phoebe’s boss from the spa, escape to Shanghai after a political scandal involving her father, and a romantic breakout. From a middle class family in KL, she was educated in the England and came home to KL to run a cafe in Bangsar with her boyfriend CS. She receives a business proposal from Walter Chao and finds herself attracted to him.
Justin, brother of Ying Hui’s ex-boyfriend, is the scion of a Malaysian property developer. He envies CS for living the life he wants and carries a secret crush on Ying Hui. In Shanghai to develop a property for the family’s firm around the financial crash of 2008, he meets the single Ying Hui again when his family went into financial trouble.
Gary is in Shanghai to reprise his singing career. He won a singing contest and was quickly propelled to stardom, except that he couldn’t handle the stress that came with it. Quickly losing his shine, he was given a second chance when Walter Chao invited him to sing in a charity concert for earthquake victims.
Finally, there is Walter Chao, whom many in the book club didn’t associate with the first person narrative in the book. He claimed to have written the bestseller The Secret of a Five Star Billionaire, whose advice is the title of each chapter. He has a role in the lives of the above four but this is never clear.
Tash Aw had been in a one year residency at NTU and the book club missed the opportunity to invite him. Long listed for Man Booker Prize for his first book, he writes beautifully, in such great details that some might find long winded. His Malaysian roots made reading this book familiar to this Singaporean as he described his hometown, naming a few small towns like Port Dickson. Last night, the book club facilitator read out a passage he had been impressed with: The handbag on the floor was made of leather so soft it seemed to melt into the ground. It spread out at the girl’s feet like an exotic pet, and Phoebe wanted to stroke its cross-hatched pattern to see what it felt like.
This passage made the reading of my manuscript at the coming Singapore Writer’s Club sounds almost pathetic.