Read Five Star Billionaire: A Novel Online

Authors: Tash Aw

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

Five Star Billionaire: A Novel (7 page)

BOOK: Five Star Billionaire: A Novel
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Late one sleepless night, the hundreds of emails and voice mails on his BlackBerry did not seem so terrifying, so he began to work his way through them, deleting most before getting to the end of them. There were dozens of messages from his family—his uncles, father, and brother—whose title headings charted a growing sense of worry. It was fine, he thought: He was immune to their anxiety. A few weeks ago he would have been panicked by their panic, but now none of it touched him. It no longer bothered him that he was unreachable.

But among the more-recent messages, one caught his attention: a voice mail from his mother, who rarely rang him. It began calmly, saying they missed him and, whatever wrongs they might have committed against him, would he please forgive them. They needed him now; he was the only one who could save them; his brother was not good at this sort of thing. His father had become very ill because of the situation, and there were creditors hovering like vultures. She sounded as if she was beginning to cry: She didn’t understand this sort of thing very well, but she knew the situation was very grave.

The situation
. What situation? He checked earlier messages from his father. His tone was, as always, dry, the messages dictated and typed out by his secretary. There was no unnecessary information, just the basics: The family insurance business had collapsed. It had not withstood the global
crisis. The biggest, oldest insurance firm in Southeast Asia, founded by his grandfather, was no longer. Now an investor was offering them one dollar to buy the entire company, which just a year ago was worth billions. It was humiliating. They were facing ruin. He was their only hope. Maybe the property market in China would save them. Whatever the case, he had to take over the running of the entire family business now.

One other message he checked said simply, Where are you, my son?

He turned off his BlackBerry and stared at the skyscrapers. It was after midnight, and most of the lights were off, but still the buildings glowed softly. He went to bed without drawing the curtains, gazing at the watery quality of the sky, the swell of the low rain clouds illuminated by the fading lights of the city. He tried to feel something—anything. In his head he replayed his mother’s tearful voice, cracking, weak.
We’re sorry for things we might have done
. He imagined his father, proud even in his humbled state.

But none of those images and sounds moved him. He felt nothing. As he closed his eyes, he could just make out the very tip of a skyscraper, a sharp rod stretching into the sky. It seemed fixed not only in space but in time, its metallic glint impervious to the passing of the days, months, years.

And he thought, I am free now.


reatness is never measured purely in terms of money. You must always remember this. For history to judge a man as truly remarkable, that man has to leave a legacy more profound than a collection of Swiss bank accounts for his children. He has to enrich the world around him in a way that is permanent and

Recently I have been thinking of ways to leave behind something meaningful to the world once I am gone. My various philanthropic efforts are well documented, but I nonetheless feel that I have not yet given enough to mankind. All my donations to charity are, I feel, ephemeral; the giving of cash to the needy is a mere Band-Aid on a gaping wound. If I were to die tomorrow, I would be known primarily as a visionary entrepreneur and perhaps a brilliant motivator. Occasionally at public events, someone will realize who I am and insist on bathing me in compliments, which embarrasses me, for I have always scrupulously avoided the public eye. Adulation is a funny thing. Most people seek it in vain, often unconsciously, from their spouses, children, professional colleagues, or—the ultimate dream—from the public at large. To be admired by people who don’t know you would seem to be the summit of human achievement. Yet those of us who are in this position will know that to be the center of attraction in this way is not only distasteful, it is empty.

Once and only once, I gave an interview. I was young and just beginning to make waves with a succession of audacious acquisitions. I was also, I admit, slightly prone to vanity in those days. My interviewer, a young woman from
a respected local newspaper, peppered me with banal questions about my business strategy and then probed me with inappropriate questions about my private circumstances. Did I find it difficult to sustain relationships because of my punishing schedule? What did I look for in a partner? Was it true that I was so dedicated to my work that I had broken off not one but two engagements in the past? Had I even cut off contact with close family members? What about rumors that I’d changed my name to make myself appear more Westernized? She kept calling me “Walter,” in that familiar way that young people do these days, assuming it would be fine to address me by my first name rather than by “Mr. Chao.” I asked if it was truly necessary to obtain this information from me. She shrugged and said that her editor had asked her for a “personal angle” to the story. So incensed was I by this intrusion that I ordered the feature article to be reduced to a mere footnote in the business pages. Then, as an afterthought, I asked for even that small vignette to be deleted altogether. (There is a postscript to this, because, a few years ago, when the newspaper was ailing, I bought it and fired the editor who had commissioned the interview. He was in his sixties and ready for retirement, anyway.)

I have never done anything for the sake of public acclaim. Even my books have been written under a pseudonym. I want to inspire people—
—not because I seek gratitude or glory but because I gain immense pleasure just from the knowledge that I might be able to help them, to change their lives. Giving without receiving, that is what truly satisfies me. In all the years of working hard, of the accumulation of huge wealth, I admit that I sometimes lost sight of this sentiment of charity, which is why I sometimes felt exhausted and dispirited and negative—as I suspect you do on occasion after a long, fruitless day at work. Maybe your boss has not acknowledged your talent and dedication. Maybe your clients are late in paying you. Maybe the taxman is being uncooperative. Maybe a colleague you thought was a friend is now brownnosing his way ahead of you. Maybe you’ve come home after a nightmarish day in the office and your partner hasn’t done the washing up or made you dinner. Yes, it is dispiriting. But only if you are working for yourself, if you are seeking
. Let go of this neediness. Say to yourself: I am not working for glory but for the joy of it. One day—soon—I will be dead, and who will remember my petty little promotion to assistant executive managing subdirector then?

Work to help others.

Elevate yourself from trivia.

That is the only way to true greatness.

All this brings me to the question of how best to leave my legacy without being thrust into the limelight. It is sad that even philanthropy these days is tied to celebrity, but I have to accept that this is the world we live in. Reluctantly, therefore, I might have to accept the accolades that will surely accompany my project. There are still many details to be ironed out before I can announce the nature of my venture, but for now I can reveal that it will be a sort of community center to benefit the young, the poor—all those who need nourishment, for either their stomachs or their minds or spirits.

The idea comes to me because, looking back at my own underprivileged childhood, I realize that the village school that I attended between the ages of six and twelve carried an importance far beyond its modest proportions. Its three classrooms and tin roof were typical of primary schools in rural Malaysia at the time, but it was also supported by wealthy benefactors, which meant that we had generators to power the ceiling fans and provide lighting during the monsoons, when the storms were at their fiercest and the feeble electricity supply most vulnerable to power cuts. There was a paved lane leading to it from the main road that carved its way through the jungle, and at the confluence of the two there was a bus shelter so that we could remain dry from the rain while waiting for the bus, which came by only three times a day. I was lucky, for my journey beyond where the bus deposited me was only twenty minutes long, on paths that rarely got flooded. Others had to walk more than an hour over muddy terrain with tracks that often got washed out by the rain.

None of us was ever earmarked for greatness. From birth, we were the also-rans of life’s great race, kept afloat because we were human and because someone—thank God—could not bear to let us wither away and die. So rich people paid for us to have the basics, salving their consciences, thinking that they were doing the bare minimum and nothing more. They never thought that their small acts of mercy would produce anything remarkable. They did not believe that, among those they had written off as menial and pathetic and worthy of only pity, there would be one who would rise to glory.

Some might say that my beginnings are irrelevant; that, wherever I came from, a man like me would still have been a success. Who I am today cannot be attributed to that little school. But that would be ungenerous, and I wish to
acknowledge those early days, because when I look back at them I feel something. Not much, but a faint glow of recognition nonetheless.

Despite the charitable nature of its aims, my project will not be modest. It will not be a modern version of the old village school. Its reach will be wide and deep and long lasting. A hundred years from now, its beneficial impact should still be felt. Every venture needs a physical space, its own village school, as it were. I think I know where mine will be situated—I’ve drawn up a short list of cities—and I am in the process of considering a suitable architect. At the moment I am leaning toward Rem Koolhaas, or perhaps Zaha Hadid. Someone iconic, in any case, whose work, like mine, will last well into the future.

When planning any venture, always think of how it will be remembered by future generations.

Always think of how
will be remembered.


seventeenth birthday. It was a small provincial affair in the north of Malaysia, not very professional, but it enabled him to move down to the capital to take part in a bigger contest, which was televised on all the main channels. The finale was watched by nearly four million people, and more than two million voted by SMS. At the time, Gary was amazed by these figures. He came from a town of two hundred and could not believe that so many people would ever listen to him sing. He performed three songs, one in Malay, one in Mandarin, and the final one in English—an arrangement of a Diana Ross song, the words of which he did not fully understand. He was the youngest contestant and was shining with the innocence of a boy recently arrived from the countryside. His hair was spiky and dyed with flame-colored streaks, which he had done himself. Recently he saw a video of this performance on YouTube and could not believe how bad he looked.

After the first song, the judges said that he had the voice of an angel. But even before that, from the moment he opened his mouth to sing the very first note, he knew he was going to win. He heard the strange pure sound of his voice amplified by the microphone in the vast auditorium, its echoes separated by a split second from the time he felt it in his throat. He recognized that the voice was his, but he felt distanced from it too. It
sounded as if it no longer belonged to him. In the audience, young girls were waving multicolored fluorescent batons that glowed in the dark. When he sang the love ballad in Mandarin, everyone screamed as he hit the high notes in the chorus. He felt the noise they made reverberating in his chest and rib cage, and he knew in that instant that his life was going to become confused and messy, full of privileges and sorrows he didn’t ask for.

He won by a landslide.

BOOK: Five Star Billionaire: A Novel
5.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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