Five Star Billionaire is a dazzling, kaleidoscopic novel that offers rare insight into the booming world of Shanghai, a city of elusive identities and ever-changing skylines, of grand ambitions and outsize dreams. Bursting with energy, contradictions, and the promise of possibility, Tash Aw’s remarkable new book is both poignant and comic, exotic and familiar, cutting-edge and classic, suspenseful and yet beautifully unhurried.
Below are discussion questions for you and your book club to join as you dip into this vibrant work of fiction. Happy Reading!
Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Discuss the roles of money, ambition, and status in the novel. Wealth seems to bring respect. But in what ways are money and success a kind of burden for the characters? At the novel’s conclusion, which character comes out the most successful, and why? How do you think the author defines success?
2. The novel takes its title from a fictional self-help book, Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire, and the chapter titles are mantras such as “Reinvent Yourself,” “Always Rebound After Each Failure,” and “Perform All Obligations and Duties with Joy.” Why do you think Aw chose to frame the novel in this way? How did this structure affect your reading of the book and your interpretation of the characters?
3. “The first rule of success is, you must look beautiful.” How true does this statement ring by the novel’s conclusion? Does a “beautiful” appearance have a positive or negative effect on the lives of the main characters?
4. “Shanghai is a beautiful place, but it is also a harsh place. Life here is not really life, it is a competition.” Five Star Billionaire takes place in Shanghai, a city that changes as quickly as the characters’ lives. In fact, Shanghai is as much the subject of the novel as the characters are. How does the city itself reflect the lives of its characters?
5. One of the chapter titles in the novel is “Nothing Remains Good or Bad Forever.” Another is “Even Beautiful Things Will Fade.” When describing China today, one woman says, “Every village, every city, everything is changing.” Discuss the role of impermanence in the novel.
6. “Like everything in life these days, I suppose you could say it’s a copycat—a fake.” Everything about Phoebe—from her personal history to the designer clothes she wears—is fake. Why does Phoebe portray herself in this way? Is she, as the statement suggests, symptomatic of our modern society? Do you think the entries quoted within Phoebe’s “Journal of My Secret Self ” contain her true nature?
7. When Pheobe finally takes up with Walter Chao, the Five Star Billionaire of the novel, she loses control and finds herself unable to continue her charade. Why do you think things fall apart so quickly for Phoebe? In what ways do the other characters, in addition to Phoebe, struggle to create new identities? Do you think any of the characters ever succeeds in reinventing himself or herself?
8. “She would become like so many other people in cyberspace, hiding behind an image of something other than themselves.” How do the characters in the novel use the Internet, and what do their online habits reveal about them?
9. The characters in the novel seem to be constantly haunted by their pasts, even though they often try to block their memories and pretend that events never happened, in order to thrive in the present. Do you think we can ever truly put the past behind us? Does the characters’ denial help them in any way?
10. With which character did you identify most, and why?
11. “When will you ever be your own man, with your own life? When will you be free?” Family is important to Justin and Yinghui. How do these familial ties affect their lives. Do they, as Yingui suggests here, restrict these characters’ freedom?
12. Five Star Billionaire ends with Gary returning to the stage to sing. In the final passage, Aw writes, “[Gary] feels, for the first time in a big concert, that he is alone in the auditorium, but it is a loneliness that feels calm, as it did many years ago, when he was still small. Only he can fully appreciate the quality of his voice filling his lungs, filling the vast space above him.” Why do you think Aw decided to end the book the way he did? How does this relate back to the Foreword of the book, in which the Five Star Billionaire tells us, “Fortunately, you do get a second chance. My advice to you is: Take it. A third rarely comes your way”?
13. There are many novels that examine the immigrant experience. With its main characters all immigrants from Malaysia, Five Star Billionaire is a fresh examination of the immigrant novel, as the city of hope its characters move to is Shanghai. Discuss Five Star Billionaire as an immigrant novel. By setting the novel in Shanghai, does Aw shed new light on the experience? How does the novel compare to novels about the American immigrant experience?