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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)
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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.”

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Andrew Whittuck
Tash Aw

Hamid, in fact, goes further by deploying the genre’s hortatory second-person singular. He addresses his book to “you” and we never learn the narrator’s own name. As in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, the second-person form of address helps Hamid to speculate impishly, in the postmodernist way, about the nature of collaboration between readers and the text: whether, for instance, the “you” to whom the novel is apparently addressed is the same as the Anglophone reader of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, who, bewildered by “distant lands that because of globalization are increasingly affecting life in your own,” seeks out non-Western novels like Hamid’s for a bit of self-help.

Elsewhere in the book, Hamid uses the self-help genre’s predisposition to generalize, construct ideal psychological and sociological types, and narrate the generic drama of his self-made narrator—a seventy-year-long life driven by a simple impulse of self-aggrandizement. Liberated from conventional novelistic obligations of scene-setting, character development, and narrative progression, Hamid casts a wry, probing eye on the underworld of shady businessmen, venal politicians, and bureaucrats. We learn about the practices and rhythms of small and medium factories. We see how the logic of capital transforms everything: even the well-funded organization of Islamist students at a college is basically “an economic enterprise,” useful to politicians for its “street-filling capability” and “show of force.”

“The idea of self,” Hamid writes early on in his novel, “in the land of self-help is a slippery one.” The only useful self is one that has a chameleon-like ability to adjust quickly to new business circumstances. For this is a world in which bureaucrats “wear state uniforms while secretly backing their private interests,” and bankers “wear private uniforms while secretly being backed by the state.” Indeed, Hamid underscores the primary lesson of the last half-century of Asian capitalism as his antihero bribes politicians and bureaucrats for privileged access to lucrative contracts. There is not an invisible hand or free market at work. Indeed, “entrepreneurship in the barbaric wastes furthest from state power is a fraught endeavor, a constant battle, a case of kill or be killed, with little guarantee of success.”

Hamid’s prose draws satirically upon the business school jargon that infects ordinary conversations as well as political speeches and newspaper editorials in Asian societies obsessed with economic growth. “Until the age of about twelve, when the opportunity cost of forgone wages becomes significant, most children in your area do in fact manage to go to school.” The higher rationality of opportunity costs, it turns out, has a chilling effect on all human feelings. “As far as getting rich is concerned,” Hamid warns, “love can be an impediment…. It dampens the fire in the steam furnace of ambition, robbing of essential propulsion an already fraught upriver journey to the heart of financial success.” Even sex is either furtive or joylessly mechanical: “They engage in a degree of sound suppression, but muscular grunting, fleshy impact, traumatized respiration, and hydraulic suction nonetheless remain audible.”

Women—and children—generally fare badly in the hypermasculine world of the hustler. Phoebe, a fortune-hunting Malaysian in Tash Aw’s novel, is reduced to reading books titled “How-to-get-a-man-and-keep-him.” Pondering her choice of wardrobe before a crucial date, she opts to follow the counsel in her self-help manual: “Dress for Sex-cess.” The childhood object of infatuation of Hamid’s protagonist, described in the novel as a street-smart “pretty girl,” grows up to be a fashion model by indiscriminately bestowing sexual favors. Self-commodification is also the fate of his wife as she shaves off her pubic hair and dresses in racy lingerie. To no avail, as it turns out, since her husband, locked into a business rivalry, is absorbed with fantasies of violence. In fact, Sam Kandy in Boyagoda’s Beggar’s Feast is prepared to use violence against his own wives: he pushes the first out of a moving car, “a tumbling whiteness flattening out upon the black ground like a wave at night.” He has an equally murderous exit strategy for his second wife; he also forces his fiendish son, who has spectacularly violated a dozen virgins, into the army.

These desolate loners are very far from feeling solidarity with anyone in the present, let alone remembering the visions of national strength and dignity that flourished following their countries’ liberation from Western domination. In a society that is primarily jungle, with men and women little more than beasts of prey, there hardly seems any possibility of an effective political community. The long-bearded Islamists with whom Hamid’s protagonist briefly falls in at college only serve to underscore, like the Communists, the superiority of the profit motive.

But a life so impoverished of human values can breed unrest in even the most underdeveloped of souls. Hamid’s character sees a glimmer of transcendence only after he loses his fortune; then, defying all anti-romance strictures of the Asian self-help genre, he shacks up with the woman—the ex-model—who has given him his only real experience of tenderness and passion. Failure and a sense of drift also soften the hard carapace of Tash Aw’s gold diggers in Shanghai. Accordingly, toward the end the chapter titles of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and Five Star Billionaire take on a phlegmatic, even wistful, cast: “Focus on the Fundamentals.” “Blow through the fluff,” Hamid writes, “see the forest for the trees.” “Strive to Understand the Big Picture,” Tash Aw echoes, “Know When to Cut Your Losses.”

Their lost characters stumble toward the melancholy wisdom that “Nothing in Life Lasts Forever.” Hamid’s unlikely lovers, in particular, are preoccupied with what Henry James on his deathbed called “the distinguished thing.” This gives an unexpected maudlin tone to the concluding pages of both novels. It is as though Hamid and Aw finally recoil from the extraordinary lovelessness of the worlds that their cynical formulas for success have described; they cannot, it seems, accept the implication, written into the hard, philistine code of the self-help genre, that human life is endless struggle, devoid of spirit and beauty.

They also cannot subscribe to its conservative ethic, which blames the imperfect individual for his failure, rather than the social system rigged against him. Across Asia, capitalism seems even less an equal opportunity game than it did when only some people were allowed to get rich first. The severe ruptures it causes—between rich and poor, urban and rural, local and global—are too plainly manifested, whether in India’s Maoist insurgencies, or the tens of thousands of demonstrations annually in China. Living in Pakistan, Hamid is alert to its savage hierarchies and the

rising tide of frustration and anger and violence, born partly of the greater familiarity the poor today have with the rich, their faces pressed to that clear window on wealth afforded by ubiquitous television.

Threatened by anarchy and vengeful brutality, the minority of the affluent take refuge in gated communities, of the kind Hamid’s protagonist supplies water to, while the rage of those left definitively behind goes on the boil in countries with overwhelmingly young populations, such as India, Pakistan, and Indonesia, which together account for one fourth of the world’s population. “At times,” Hamid writes, “watching the stares that follow a luxury SUV as it muscles its way down a narrow road, you are nearly relieved to have been already separated from your fortune.” Certainly, Hamid’s novel could have completed its arc of nihilism by concluding with the casual and perfectly meaningless murder of his protagonist during an armed robbery—a generic end to a generic life that is featured every day in the crime sections of Asian newspapers. In that sense, his character’s preference for a life of moderation before his death by natural causes hints at a survival strategy for Asian plutocrats, and outlines an addendum: “How to Get Filthy Rich and Still Die with Dignity in Rising Asia.”

In many Asian countries, the rising tide of frustration and anger has been contained by authoritarian states, which, while relying on brute force to maintain basic order, can also furnish visible evidence to back their emollient rhetoric of progress and development. Large regions of Asia today are construction sites, pregnant with the extravagant promises of consumer capitalism. Toward the end of Yu Hua’s Brothers, the main character, one of China’s beneficiaries of the “collusion of business and government,” demolishes the town of his youth, replacing it with shiny shopping malls, restaurants, and residential complexes.

Everywhere across Asia remorseless speculators are obscuring the dust and grime of hardscrabble lives with a modish antiquarianism, such as in the coffee shop Hamid’s protagonist frequents in his old age, whose “faux-wornness” conceals the eviction of the fruit seller who previously stood at its site. The past, abandoned without regret, is only another source of profit. The property developer in Five Star Billionaire hopes to turn an old, much-loved cinema in his hometown Kuala Lumpur into a “mixed-use development,” a boutique hotel with luxury brand-name retailers.

Returning to his village at the age of one hundred, Sam Kandy oversees its transformation into a model tourist attraction, one cleansed of its creator’s many crimes. Here in this “authentic” Sri Lanka, “history and memory” are “conveniently located and reasonably priced, and also reachable by safe roads lined with newer rest-stations and only a few army checkpoints.” Some useful employment is generated: “Villagers not selected to be villagers became ticket takers and staffed the refreshment stand.”

But there still remains that immovable mass in the great Asian hinterland that, as Boyagada writes, is made up of

little men in cheap slacks and T-shirts and Bata slippers smoking in the shade, men who never studied like they should have when all of them were village boys, and so could now only watch as those who did study left the village again, while they remained here, weeds in this the garden of the world.

The unsettling last image reminds us of how numerous and unwanted are those left behind—and destined never to catch up—in the Asian race to Western-style abundance and glamour. Though largely mute in these dramas of Asian capitalism, the future really belongs to this invisible majority of the “filthy poor”—people who can’t even try to enlarge their limits of possibility, but retain the silent potential of weeds that can overrun the world’s most zealously maintained gardens.

  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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