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Asia: ‘The Explosive Transformation’

Five Star Billionaire

by Tash Aw
London: Fourth Estate, 434 pp., £18.99 (to be published in the US by Spiegel and Grau in July)
Jillian Edelstein
Mohsin Hamid, London, 2011

“Let some people get rich first,” the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proclaimed a generation ago, inaugurating a strange new phase in his country’s—and the world’s—history. It now seems clear that nowhere has capitalism’s promise to create wealth been affirmed more forcefully than in post–World War II Asia. By now we have all heard about the rise of China and India as economic powers. But as early as the late 1960s, the rates of economic growth in South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and even Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia were double the rate in European and American countries.

In most of these nations, collaborations between the military or authoritarian-minded governments and businessmen ensured the rise of big, often monopoly, conglomerates, such as the South Korean chaebols. Most ordinary people suffered from a long denial of democracy and then, following free elections, the subversion of democratic institutions; after decades of uneven economic growth they now try to cope with the irreversible contamination of air, soil, and water. Long working hours, low wages, limited mobility, and perennial job insecurity are the lot of most toilers in Asian economies, especially women. Nevertheless, some people have gotten extremely rich in Asia’s own Gilded Age: for instance, in “rising” India, the number of malnourished children, nearly 50 percent, has barely altered while a handful of Indian billionaires increased their share of national income from less than 1 percent in 1996 to 22 percent in 2008.

Such concentrations of private wealth are now common across Asia, which accordingly has produced several Horatio Alger–type legends of its own. Born in 1928, Hong Kong’s Li Ka-shing, today Asia’s richest man with an estimated wealth of $31 billion, started out as a poor immigrant from China hawking plastic combs. Another kind of morality tale is illuminated by the career of the Indonesian Mochtar Riady, who worked in a bicycle shop before he turned his modest enterprise, with the help of the Indonesian strongman Suharto and the “bamboo network” of overseas Chinese businessmen—the greatest Asian economic power outside of Japan—into a family business empire drawing on global resources.

Most Americans first heard of Riady when his banker son James was convicted of funneling illegal donations to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1996; he was also accused of links with Chinese intelligence. But then similar stories of corporate and political intrigue are not unknown in the history of capitalism in the West. After all, families owned businesses, ran banks, and sought to manipulate political processes in Victorian England and Wilhelmine Germany. Robber barons dominated the early phases of American industrial capitalism before the oil, steel, and railway tycoons, and their family members, descendants, and cronies, gave way to relatively transparent, shareholder-friendly companies.

What is new is the growing literary assessment of the ideology and practice of Asian capitalism. In Sea of Poppies and River of Smoke, the first two volumes of a projected trilogy of novels, Amitav Ghosh panoramically depicts the arrival in Asia of Western-style capitalism on the back of gunboats and indentured labor. Three new novels set in contemporary Asia, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid, Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw, and Beggar’s Feast by Randy Boyagada, examine the deeper perils and fantasies of an economic system that Asians themselves deem mandatory across the continent.

It is a kind of moral reckoning that happened at another time in the West. For European and American fiction writers in the nineteenth century, or American ones in the early twentieth, a state of affairs in which money is the measure of all things, and material success redeems intellectual and emotional inadequacy, was still radically new. Writers—from Dickens to Balzac and Zola and Dreiser—regarded with appalled fascination not only the gigantic and impersonal workings of business and industry but also the sudden respectability of selfishness and greed, which had been stigmatized for centuries by traditional religions and philosophies. A sense of outrage over conniving bankers and politicians, and their apparent handmaidens, the press and the judiciary, drives Balzac’s La Comédie humaine and Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and The Titan. In the early twentieth century, Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others, described, even tragically enacted, the doomed individual search for a meaningful ethical principle and aesthetic value in what were then cultures of unprecedented conformity and social-climbing.

In our own time, the cash nexus has seemed deeply absorbed into cultures throughout the world. Apparently unalterable and ever-present, the ruthless mechanisms and built-in injustices of capitalism no longer provoke the same degree of shock, revulsion, or fear among writers. It isn’t just that capitalism, which had lost much moral legitimacy between the two world wars, was exalted by default in the post-1945 era in comparison with its illiberal, inept, and now defunct ideological rival, communism, or that it now underwrites the existence of many literary novelists. Literature on the whole has grown more private and less concerned with larger socioeconomic processes, which are also harder to identify. Capitalist society no longer clearly resembles, as it did to Balzac, a jungle populated entirely by fools and knaves. The bourgeois civilization created by capitalism has helped mask crude ambition, overt aggressiveness, and vulgar ostentation; the exceptions, such as Donald Trump and Sheldon Adelson, throwbacks to a more garish era, prove irony to be the dominant mode of our own age. Egalitarianism in dress and manners softens class divisions, and big capitalists, while increasingly philanthropic, also appear to promote, through social media networks, ideas of community and cooperation.

The financial collapse of 2008, and the general sense of crisis since in the West, may now yield more novels like Zadie Smith’s NW, alert to the cruel inequalities of income and opportunity opened up by the boom years of global capitalism, the loss of fellow feeling, and the spiritual hollowness that can oppress even those relatively affluent and privileged. But the literary vision of capitalism red in tooth and claw is likely to be found mostly in fiction set in contemporary Asia. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger and Yu Hua’s Brothers satirically evoke the vast amoral landscapes of India and China, through which contemporary entrepreneurs make their way, some using murder as readily as breast-enlargement schemes and artificial hymens to get rich. Mohsin Hamid, Tash Aw, and Randy Boyagada fill in some more of the particular shapes of capitalism in Asia.

Though written by a Pakistani (Hamid), a Malaysian (Aw), and a Canadian of Sri Lankan descent (Boyagada), and set variously in Shanghai, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and, in Hamid’s case, an unnamed country that resembles Pakistan, they all trace a familiar trajectory: those of the young men and women who are forced to forsake their rural homes for the big city. “Moving to the city,” Hamid writes, “is the first step to getting filthy rich in rising Asia.” It is also a first step away from poverty, stagnation, feudal oppression, vile disease, and premature death in the countryside—the squalor Hamid evokes when he addresses his imagined reader in the early pages of his novel: “The whites of your eyes are yellow, a consequence of spiking bilirubin levels in your blood. The virus afflicting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral.”

Still little understood, this migration, the world’s largest, of hundreds of millions to cities that cannot accommodate them has sown political and economic turmoil across Asia, from fundamentalisms and revolutions in the Muslim world to intensifying violence against women in India and dizzying economic growth in coastal China. Hamid calls it “an explosive transformation, the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential.”

This is true, but what kind of productivity and potential does Hamid have in mind? His own main character emerges out of destitution by selling pirated DVDs, food products past their expiration date, and fake mineral water; he then goes on to strike lucrative deals with his country’s biggest business enterprise, its military-industrial complex. The education of Sam Kandy, the ruthless self-made businessman of Boyagada’s novel, begins early in the twentieth century in Ceylon, “in those bright and steamy knife-edge streets, where everyone with something to sell was the last honest man in Colombo.” But Kandy makes it rich while piggybacking, like the overseas Chinese, on the trade and maritime networks laid by European imperialists in Asia. The dreamy Malaysian seekers in Tash Aw’s novel are desperate to secure a place for themselves in Shanghai, the engine of Chinese capitalism.

Highly motivated as these Asian protagonists are, one immediately notices their difference from their nineteenth-century counterparts in the West. Serene self-confidence as well as commercial élan defines the elders of the merchant family in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks; even in the inspirational Horatio Alger novels, old-fashioned virtues of good character rather than hard-nosed scheming are upheld as the right path to personal fortune. But ambitious Asian provincials in the early twenty-first century enter a world already substantially shaped by modern industrial capitalism, in which mass production, mass distribution, and mass consumption are the norm. Human relationships are mostly impersonal, even anonymous, and transactional; and few people really believe in the fairness of the competitive market economy, or its ability to furnish billions of Asians with the consumerist lifestyles enjoyed so far by a minority of Europeans and Americans.

Innovation and originality don’t take you very far—and indeed there are few rags-to-riches stories coming out of India, where old, established business families and active investors in property development, construction, and mining dominate the economy. What is most lucrative for disadvantaged outsiders in this context is calculated conformity with the model of success—once it has been identified. Achievement doesn’t lie so much in the goods or services a businessman offers as in his projection of an appropriate personality. Hence, the rapid proliferation of certain types—the manufacturer of knockoff goods, the huckster, the fixer, and the middleman—who now make up an entire social class in Asia’s still largely informal and unorganized economies.

Hence, too, the profusion of the self-help industry across Asia: one of the biggest best-selling books in India during the last decade was Count Your Chickens Before They Hatch by a self-styled “management guru.”* It is not surprising that both Mohsin Hamid and Tash Aw should adapt the literature of boosterism for their fictional narratives. Of course, given the Asian setting, they have to modify the original American self-help formula—an amalgam of pseudoscience, mysticism, psychology, auto-suggestion, and pragmatism. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia starts by saying, “this book is a self-help book,” and its chapter headings include “Be Prepared to Use Violence” and “Patronize the Artists of War” as well as such conventional exhortations as “Get an Education” and “Have an Exit Strategy.” Tash Aw’s Five Star Billionaire features “Choose the Right Moment to Launch Yourself” and “Pursue Gains, Forget Righteousness”—harsh contemporary street sense leavened with the Confucian sagacity of “A Strong Fighting Spirit Swallows Mountains and Rivers.” One of Tash Aw’s main characters, Phoebe, is a close reader of books with titles such as “Sophistify Yourself” and indeed “Secrets of a Five Star Billionaire.”

  1. *

    For an engaging account of him, and his educational institutes that expensively retail mostly unemployable skills, see the opening chapter of Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India (Faber, 2011). 

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