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Authors: Tash Aw

Tags: #Literary, #Urban, #Cultural Heritage, #Fiction

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BOOK: Five Star Billionaire: A Novel
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Three times a week she went for power yoga at a studio in Xintiandi, never speaking to the other women, who had time to hang around and chat in the corridors. At the end of her practice, when she lay briefly on her mat, blinking at the pistachio-green ceiling, her mind would still be racing, energized by the thought of all the things ahead of her. Empty your mind and be still, her teachers would say, enjoy being in the present: Let go of all that has happened in the past. Do not think about what lies ahead but stay in the stillness of this moment. But this was not possible for her. There was too much for her to do, too many thoughts spinning and clashing in her mind. She needed to look ahead, map out her future, every minute of the day—like a constantly moving ocean creature that would drown if ever it stopped swimming, forward, forward.

She could never stand emptiness, and stillness was even worse.

She had a small group of friends, a mixture of local and expat women, with whom she tried to meet up for dinner once every other week—the last semblance of her dwindling social life. They usually met at a Hunan restaurant on the top floor of a Japanese department store on Nanjing Lu, not far from Yinghui’s office. Recently she had begun to notice during these get-togethers that they would casually mention male friends of theirs, all of whom seemed to be single or divorced men in their late thirties and early forties. Discussion of these men seemed innocent enough at first; Yinghui tried to shrug it off as merely catching up on gossip. But after a while she could no longer ignore the fact that her (securely married) friends were taking pity on her, particularly as the men in question were almost exclusively Western—for everyone knew that once a woman was past thirty-five, there was little point in even trying to hook up with a local guy: Westerners were so much more accepting of
age
.

“Are you trying to matchmake me?” she challenged them jokingly one day as the double-chili fish head arrived. She expected them to be embarrassed by the exposure of their scheming ways, but instead they were up front about it. “Let’s face it,” one of them said, beginning to pluck the meat
from the fish cheeks with her chopsticks, “you can’t be happy in a place like Shanghai if you’re single. We’re all feminists, blah blah blah, but this is not London or New York, you know, this is China. Without a husband, you won’t be successful in your work. You can’t expect to work the hours you do and come back to an empty apartment. Besides, if you want children, you have to get moving. We know it sounds cruel, but … get real.”

Yinghui stared at the dull-eyed fish, its eyes opaque and porcelain-white. She reached for it with her chopsticks and prodded it slightly without great enthusiasm. “I’m too busy for a relationship,” she said.

“Listen, where do you want to be in ten years’ time? Still hustling panties to rich women?”

Yinghui could not hide her annoyance, but nonetheless she allowed herself to be persuaded to go on a couple of blind dates—friends of friends of friends. The first was held in a Mexican restaurant near Tianzifang, the next in a Xinjiang restaurant at the far end of Hengshan Lu. On both occasions the men were polite, professionally successful, and dull. Toward the end of the second date, Yinghui decided that it would be her last. As she watched the man (Michael? Mark? A nice American lawyer) pull the leathery pieces of lamb off the skewer, she realized that she wasn’t able to summon any energy to be witty or flirtatious, to behave as she knew she should on a first date with a perfectly okay man. It wasn’t, as her friends claimed, that she was out of practice: She doubted she had ever known how to do so. The small talk left her feeling bewildered and exhausted, and she was constantly afraid that the conversation would turn toward more-personal things, toward the past: how and why she had first come to Shanghai—the normal things foreigners asked each other. She tried to seize control of the conversation, filling it with lengthy explanations of how each dish was prepared, what bizarre Xinjiang ingredients each one contained. The man listened politely and asked questions with the requisite level of cultural awareness, which made the transaction less painful for Yinghui. At one point, as she felt the evening slipping dangerously into the “tell me about your family” territory, Yinghui changed the subject abruptly by turning to the waitress, who had fortuitously arrived with more tea. She began to engage her in idle chat, hoping to glean insights on her exotic homeland, which she would then translate as conversation fillers, which would make it impossible for Michael/Mark to ask more-personal questions.
The waitress’s name badge read
ALIYA
. Such a beautiful Xinjiang name, Yinghui remarked; tell us about where you are from. The waitress giggled and shrugged—she was actually from way down south, Fujian province; she wasn’t an exotic Muslim at all. Mercifully, the lights suddenly dimmed for the entrance of the Uighur dancers. Yinghui was pleased that the music was loud and that the dancers yelped and shrieked all the way through their performance, for it meant that no further conversation was necessary. She smiled at Michael/Mark, and he smiled back.

She really did not need a man to be successful.

THAT EVENING, YINGHUI LEFT
work early to get dressed for an evening function. Hours before the event, she began to feel anxious; even thinking about what dress to wear and how to style her still too-short hair made her nervous, which in turn filled her with a self-loathing for having allowed such trivial concerns to enter her life.

She had been nominated for the Businesswoman of the Year awards, in the Breakthrough category, in which she was the oldest person. The ceremony was held in the ballroom of a hotel in Jing’an, decorated with huge bouquets of pink flowers and banners bearing quotes from Sunzi’s
The Art of War:
OPPORTUNITIES MULTIPLY AS THEY ARE SEIZED. A LEADER LEADS BY EXAMPLE, NOT FORCE
. The other nominees looked the same to Yinghui—pretty, sylphlike, twenty-something local women, their hair effortlessly long, curling featherlike toward their collarbones. Yinghui wished she had been nominated in the Lifetime Achievement category, which was made up almost exclusively of older Western women; she might have looked more delicate and feminine lined up next to them when the group photographs were taken. Instead, surrounded by women ten years younger than herself, she looked square-cut and boxy. She did not win the award (which went to a girl of twenty-four who sold recycled toilet paper to Europe), but her work gained considerable publicity.

Among the guests were a few people she knew well, including one or two she considered friends, some business associates, and many others who were mere acquaintances. A man caught her eye, but she couldn’t figure out which category he belonged to. He had a familiar gait—stiff at the joints, the way an artist’s marionette might be expected to walk, like an arthritic soldier. He was about her age, possibly slightly older, tall, well
groomed, impeccably dressed, deliberate in his movements: the way he shook hands, firmly, or held chairs back for women, or leaned forward to kiss them on both cheeks in a courteous but professional manner. Every gesture seemed elegant yet practiced. He carried an air of privilege, but he was certainly not Shanghainese. He was well packaged, Yinghui thought, the right age too. The right age: She hated how she had come to assess men this way, the way they assessed her—it was a way of seeing people that had seeped into her thinking unconsciously, as if by osmosis. Right age. Good match. A real woman. Style issues. This is what happened when you lived in Shanghai. She couldn’t escape it now.

She circled him from a distance, trying to work out whether she really knew him. He was wearing a light-gray suit made of a fabric with a faint herringbone pattern, a pale-blue shirt, and a dark tie. His jawline was just turning from sleek to heavy, but his thick, neatly combed hair gave him the air of a college student—handsome, yes, but bland. She eased her way through the crowd of people, dodging precariously held champagne flutes, keeping him on the edge of her field of vision all the time. He was on his own now, reading a brochure, wandering away from the crowd, slowly circling the room. She moved closer, making sure he could not see her. Then, when the time was right, she turned and caught his eye. She felt a tightness in her throat, a quickening knot that threatened to turn swiftly into panic.

“Sorry—Chee Keong? Justin?”

“Yes. Leong Yinghui!” He made a movement toward her, his head leaning forward, but then he corrected himself and extended his hand. “Hi. My God, it’s been years. I’d never have thought I’d meet you at a business event.”

“Justin Lim Chee Keong. What a surprise.” She shook his hand as firmly as she could, giving it brisk up-and-down movements. She wondered if her voice sounded artificially confident, overbright. “How long has it been—ten years? More, perhaps.”

“I’d say closer to fifteen years. Though at my age I try not to keep count. You haven’t changed at all—I mean, not one bit.”

“You too,” Yinghui lied. Up close, she could see the lines drawing down on either side of his mouth, the dark circles that shadowed his slightly bloodshot eyes. His skin appeared to be dry and brittle. When he smiled, she saw vestiges of the person she had known—a young, physical man
with a full, open face. The same features were now touched with a certain hollowness, a glimpse of what he might look like as an old man. “So what brings you to Shanghai—don’t tell me, family business?”

“What else is there in my life?” His laugh was rehearsed, mechanical, and it made him seem tired, not happy. He looked at her with a hollow expression; she tried to look for traces of shock or surprise in his reddened eyes but could discern nothing. “It’s a real surprise seeing you here. I was just looking at the list of nominees for the prize, and when I saw your name I thought, No way, that can’t be the same person I knew. A
businesswoman
? I never thought that was possible. Amazing.”

Yinghui thought that he was going to follow up with questions about her life—how she had arrived in Shanghai, the nature of her businesses these days—but he merely continued to stare at her in a blank, awkward manner, exactly the way she remembered from all those years ago. “Stranger things happen in life,” she said, filling in the silence at last. “It’s not exactly the Virgin Birth, you know. Anyway, how is, um, how is your brother?” she asked. “I read about C.S.’s wedding about five, six years ago—it looked very luxurious. I knew the bride at school; she was in the year above me. And your parents, still glamorous as ever?”

“I believe all is well with them.”

“I read about your family’s business in the papers—not that I was looking out for it or anything, I just read an article by chance. Things must be tough.”

He shrugged. “It’s a global crisis, isn’t it? It’s tough for everyone—though you seem to be doing pretty well.”

A young woman appeared at his side and slid her hand around his waist, inviting him to do the same; but she was looking away from him, toward something behind Yinghui’s back. There was a sudden burst of camera flashes around them, two or three photographers taking pictures of the couple. Yinghui stepped back and watched them strike poses as they faced the cameras—he stiffly, his new companion sinuously and expertly. Yinghui recognized her from magazines she’d read in the hairdressers—a local actress on the verge of stardom. She certainly did not have
style issues
. From a distance they made a handsome couple, Yinghui thought, and she could already envisage the photos in the magazines: a perfect union of modern Chinese beauty and old overseas Chinese money. The lines of his drawn, tired face would not be visible, and the reader would see just his
good cheekbones, his perfect bearing and casual elegance—the sort of thing that could only have been produced by generations of good breeding.

He turned to look at Yinghui, mouthing the word, “Sorry,” and she mouthed back, “No problem.” She hung about for a while, wondering what to do. Should she slip away in a dignified manner without a proper goodbye or continue waiting for him, the feeling of being superfluous mounting with every second? She had almost decided on the former when she was suddenly seized by a need to talk to him—to
tell
him things. She felt a rush of unaired grievances welling up in her chest, pushing up into her throat; the need to vocalize them took her by surprise, shocked her. She wanted to sit him down, face-to-face, and speak at him. She didn’t need him to reply; she merely required him to be physically present while she said her piece. He could listen passively, unabsorbing, and she wouldn’t care, but she needed to catch hold of him.

This was ridiculous, she thought, just ridiculous. It was nearly fifteen years ago—what did it matter? She was an entirely different person now. The quick flash of irrational hatred that she felt for him began to subside. He was a few years older than she was, a man slipping surely into middle age; he had his own problems. She hadn’t felt even the slightest bit of malicious pleasure when she read the financial press about his family’s business going bust. She had felt entirely disinterested, her emotional detachment tinged with pity—much as she was feeling now. Look at him, taking up with a trashy actress fifteen years younger than himself. It was sad. He was sad. Yinghui had barely known him in the first place.

Never let the past affect how you perform. Every day is a new day
. That was something else she’d said in that defining interview, so she ought to practice what she preached. She gathered herself to leave and, as she did so, dipped into her clutch bag for her business card—she was a consummate professional, and this was a professional setting. She pushed through the crowd of people and handed it to him with both hands.

“So sorry, but I have to rush off now. Good to see you again, a real surprise. Here’s my card if ever you need to get in touch.”

He accepted it with both hands, and she realized that the formality between them was entirely appropriate: They were strangers to each other now. “Wonderful,” he said, slipping the card into his pocket. “Great. I will call you.”

BOOK: Five Star Billionaire: A Novel
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