Making it in Shanghai: Five immigrants find life challenging in Malaysian Aw’s third outing.
All five are ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. Phoebe and Gary are from the poor, rural North; Justin and Yinghui are from powerful, wealthy families. There’s also Walter Chao (more about him later). Phoebe has little going for her, but she knows from self-help books to re-invent herself. Gary, still in his teens, is a pop star; after wowing them in Taiwan, he’s preparing for his first Shanghai concert. Yinghui was forced to leave Malaysia when the family business collapsed; now 37, she owns two successful lingerie stores. Justin is here on family business to acquire real estate. When he and Yinghui, who knew each other in Malaysia, have a chance meeting, it counts as a hallelujah moment, simply since any character interaction is a relief from the long slabs of exposition. The only break has been the voice of Walter Chao, who addresses the reader directly. He has overcome poverty in Malaysia to become a successful businessman and author of self-help books (yes, Phoebe’s read them). Walter’s a philanthropist, he tells us, but is he reliable or a con man? The question gathers urgency after he persuades Yinghui to invest in a cultural center. The answer comes only at the very end, in one throwaway sentence, Aw having seemingly lost interest in his own handiwork. Shanghai, painted in broad strokes, is a city that never sleeps, an eerie replica of New York. There are numerous flashbacks to Malaysia, where Yinghui had a long relationship with Justin’s brother; the only interesting writing is the barbed treatment of these two Westernized poseurs.
A clunky novel.