Read Five Star Billionaire: A Novel Online

Authors: Tash Aw

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

Five Star Billionaire: A Novel (8 page)

BOOK: Five Star Billionaire: A Novel
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He did not have time to celebrate his victory, because he was signed by an artists-management company that arranged for him to go to Taiwan two weeks later. He stayed in a hotel with a bathtub, in which he had his very first bubble bath. The furniture was modern and new, with clean lines and leather upholstery. The room smelled of paint, but he thought that it was extremely luxurious. Now he realizes, of course, that it was only a modest and functional hotel used by sales companies wanting somewhere cheap to hold their training conferences. These days, Gary stays in only the most exclusive hotels in every city he visits.

In just under eight years in Taipei, he released four albums that each sold more than three million copies across Asia. In the months following the release of his debut album,
Rainy Day in My Heart
, he narrowly missed out on winning the Best Newcomer category at the Golden Melody Awards, and he starred in a film as an apprentice cop who ends up accidentally shooting the gangster girl he has fallen in love with. The film was a total failure at the box office, but everyone who saw it remarked that Gary’s face was perfectly proportioned, beautiful to look at from every angle. Maybe you saw it too and came to the same conclusion. Teenage girls began to send him presents—designer clothes, jewelry, watches, homemade CDs, cards with photos stuck to them, and even highly personal items, such as the girls’ own underwear and antiques that had belonged to their families. Every week his record company would receive enough of these gifts to fill a small room. He would stare at this unwanted pile and feel guilty that so many fans wanted to give him such valuable things. He could not bear the thought that all these people, whom he did not know, were thinking of him. They were thinking of him so much that they would spend time and money sending him objects that represented parts of their lives—of themselves. And he felt bad because he was not strong or big or deep enough to accept their love. The record company arranged for it all to be donated
to charity or simply destroyed, but still he could feel their desire lingering over him like a rain cloud on a muggy day, refusing to budge.

Early last year, on the eve of a major concert at the Taipei Arena, Gary collapsed and was admitted to the hospital. The diagnosis was not serious: He was anemic, which explained not only his famously pale complexion but his frequent dizzy spells. He was also found to have low blood pressure and an elevated cholesterol level for someone so young. It was all the takeaway curry, the pizzas, and other junk food he ate during late-night sessions recording in the studio. His punishing work schedule exacerbated all these underlying conditions, and it was no surprise that he eventually succumbed to the pressure, the doctors said. They prescribed a fortnight’s complete rest, some supplements, and a balanced diet. Before he left, one doctor asked Gary if he was
stressed
. When Gary appeared to be somewhat confused by the question, the doctor posed it again, this time asking whether he found it difficult to deal with the pressures he had placed upon himself and whether, for example, he worried about things beyond his control. Gary thought for a few seconds before truthfully answering no. Because when he stopped for that moment to consider his life, he realized that there was nothing in it that was within his control. Every minute of his day was organized by his management company, even the number of hours he should sleep. It had been like this for so long that it made him wonder if he had ever known a different way of living.

The press was full of hysterical reports. Some said he had fallen ill from toxins ingested while eating moray eel down on the coast; some said he had suffered from an overdose; others said he had AIDS. He had not been seen in public or photographed by the paparazzi for only five days when one tabloid newspaper began to surmise that he was dead. From his apartment, he peered out between the metallic slats of the blinds and saw a group of teenage fans holding a vigil for him. At night they lit candles and huddled together to console one another. In daylight he could see that some of them had been crying. He wished they would go away, and after two days he began to resent them. Their presence weighed on him and he couldn’t sleep. He longed to be free of his apartment, which he hated even at the best of times. He had gotten used to having the blinds down all the time—from the moment he moved in, he had never seen the apartment in daylight, not even for one minute. It was always night in his home.

What bothered him was the lack of activity. He wasn’t used to having
time on his hands. Now that he was rested and feeling better again, he could not stand the hours spent watching DVDs or surfing the Internet. He tried strumming tunes on his guitar or tinkling on the piano, but the apartment was too dark and oppressive, and he could feel no enthusiasm for music. He began to spend too much time on the Internet, on websites he shouldn’t have been looking at. In fact, it was during this period of imprisonment that he discovered sexually explicit sites. At first he hated himself for trawling endlessly through them, but he was surprised at how his initial feelings of wariness and guilt soon gave way to an unthinking numbness, and he would spend hours sitting in the semidarkness, staring at images that were at first shocking but soon became dull. He would fall asleep at odd hours because he could not stop sifting through the pages for new images, even though he felt nothing when he looked at photos of graphic sexual acts. He went to bed feeling empty and full of anger at his fans outside, for they were the ones who had forced him into this position.

Finally his management company called a press conference at which Gary appeared happy and smiling, saying that he had taken time off to return to Malaysia to spend time with friends and family following a “sad occurrence,” which he would rather not discuss in public. Relieved to learn that he was alive and in good health, his fans did not press him any further, assuming that his temporary disappearance was somehow linked to the fact that he was an orphan, raised by distant relatives with whom he had enjoyed no closeness. His troubled youth following the death of his mother was well documented—it was something that made him appear human and vulnerable to his fans. As his manager once told him, his childhood tragedies were a great selling point. But though he was grateful for his fans’ loyalty and adoration, when he looked at the mass of jubilant teenage faces at his next concert, he found their joy so empty and unquestioning that it unnerved him, and he could not get rid of the feeling that had entered his soul during the ten days of confinement in his night-dark apartment. It was unmistakable. He had started to hate them.

That three-week period of internment and difficult public relations upset his tightly packed schedule and cost him in many ways. Not only was the canceled concert an expensive write-off; the negative publicity surrounding his sudden and mysterious disappearance caused several projects to be suspended, and one or two sponsors even doubted whether they should continue to support him. His calendar became compressed to
the point where he could not fulfill his obligations, and his scheduled participation in the Beijing Olympics song and music video was canceled, depriving him of a chance to be seen widely by the biggest audience of them all.

Now he had to work twice as hard to penetrate the Mainland market, his management team said. Everything they did over the coming year would be geared toward establishing him in China—every song he recorded, every TV show he appeared on, every commercial he shot, every hour he slept, every meal he ate. He had everything it took to be a superstar in China, but it would be hard work. He had to be ready to sacrifice everything. Gary thought about life’s great sacrifices—friends, a social life, family commitments, love, relationships. And he was not at all frightened by what he was about to embark on, because he had none of the things that people normally hold dear. He had nothing to sacrifice.

THE GIANT BILLBOARDS THAT
stood along the elevated highway bore the poster announcing Gary’s groundbreaking concert in Shanghai.
MUSIC ANGEL HAS ARRIVED! THE ANGEL OF MUSIC IS HERE TO SAVE US
.… His image was spread across each billboard—his newly gym-toned torso showing through a shirt that had been strategically slashed to display his abdominal muscles, which were the result of eight months’ work with a personal trainer. His head was bowed to show off his thick black hair, which looked slick with sweat, and computer trickery had provided him with a giant pair of angel wings that gave the impression that he was landing gently on earth after a celestial journey. It was impossible to miss these posters. As his car drove him along the busy highway, he reckoned that his concert poster appeared every two kilometers, each time positioned in the middle of a cluster of three billboards. On one side of him was a young woman dressed only in underwear, her index finger to her lips, which were pursed in a hushing shape; on the other side there were washing machines and refrigerators.

He had performed a sold-out concert in Wuhan last night, which had been widely covered in the local press and gained enormous publicity for his principal sponsor, a soft-drink company. To coincide with his tour, they had shot a special TV commercial, a big-budget production involving sophisticated computer graphics, in which the Angel Gary flies over a devastated
landscape, defeating gruesome monsters by shining a light that emanates from his heart. As Gary flutters softly to earth, the desert around him turns lush and green. “The power to turn darkness to light,” he whispers, looking at the camera with his trademark sideways glance before taking a sip of soda.

It was remarked within the industry and by the public alike that Gary was looking great. After many months of limited public appearances, during which he was rarely photographed, he had unveiled his new image—muscular and with a streak of danger. He was still boyish and innocent-looking, but his presence now carried a faint physical threat, as if he had a dark side to him. His stylists and costume designers were showered with praise, as were the people at the record company who had devised the new marketing strategy.

“Thank goodness we invested so much in your gym work,” his agent said as they drove past the fifth billboard along the highway. “Your physical condition is crucial. We can’t afford to have a repeat of Taipei last year.”

Gary did not answer. As usual, the previous night’s concert had left him both exhausted and unable to sleep. It was always like this. The adrenaline of the performance would rush through his veins, and he would feel the deep pounding of the bass notes reverberating in his chest and rib cage hours after the concert had ended, when he was lying in bed trying to sleep. Every tiny light in the room—the green numbers showing the time on the DVD player, the red dot on the TV set—seemed noon-bright and blinding, even when his eyes were closed. Often, he would sit in front of the TV with the remote control in his hand, staring at the black screen. He could not even summon enough enthusiasm to turn on the TV. Sometimes he would eventually fall asleep at around three or four o’clock, but often he would just count the hours until dawn, which would come as a relief, because daylight brought with it activity, and he would not have to sit alone with only his thoughts for company.

In Wuhan the night before, he had tried to surf the Internet for the porn sites he had recently become addicted to, but had failed. This was the problem with China—he could not access any of his usual sites. It had become a late-night ritual for him: turning on his laptop and idly searching for new, more-dangerous sites each time. He did this after work or a concert, when he was alone in his apartment or hotel room and the night ahead of him seemed very long. He was not even excited by looking at
these sites anymore; they had simply become something like a calming reassurance after a long day. The moment he arrived on the Mainland, however, he was deprived of this source of comfort. He had spent several frustrating hours after the concert searching for the kind of hard-core images he was used to, but the best he could find were immodestly dressed women who wore more than the models he was now seeing on billboards in Shanghai. And so he had opened the minibar and drunk all the vodka in it, and when he finished he rang to order some more.

Drinking was a recent thing. It helped him sleep, that was all.

He had now been on the road for sixteen days, and in that time he had played fourteen concerts.

“But, little brother,” his agent continued, “you need to sleep. I don’t know what you are doing at night—probably chasing girls, I suppose—but we need to do a lot of public appearances, and you can’t wear your sunglasses all the time. The photo shoots—they’re okay, because we can always adjust the photos later, but in public … That’s different. You know what these Shanghainese are like. They will scrutinize your appearance to the very last detail! Please remember what a huge investment we have made for this album—who else gets concerts like the one you’ve just had? Don’t waste this opportunity.”

Gary adjusted his sunglasses. They were becoming his trademark—oversize black plastic shades that gave him a mysterious, futuristic appearance.

“We can’t say no to the press conferences and guests appearances at malls. You have to look good, little brother. To be honest, at the moment even our makeup artists are saying it’s hard to disguise the shadows under your eyes. If we send you out wearing too much makeup, these Shanghainese will laugh out loud. They’re haughty and not easily impressed like provincial Chinese, you know. Hey, little brother, are you paying attention? Shanghai is at your feet. You can be one of the biggest stars in China—you’re almost there! We have two weeks to charm them before your concert.”

As his agent spoke, Gary knew that sleep would be impossible. He tried to remember when he last slept through the entire night and woke up feeling refreshed and free of worries. It did not seem as if there had ever been a time. He could fall asleep easily on planes and in cars and have uncomfortable fifteen-minute naps, but night sleep was unattainable.

BOOK: Five Star Billionaire: A Novel
13.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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