Read Five Star Billionaire: A Novel Online

Authors: Tash Aw

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

Five Star Billionaire: A Novel (9 page)

BOOK: Five Star Billionaire: A Novel
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That evening, when he had finished the last round of press obligations, Gary went back to his hotel. He promised his agent that he would have a bath and a massage and go straight to bed, but of course he turned on his laptop instead and began to search idly for sites that did not load properly. He did not feel like drinking on his own while continuing with his frustrating search for Internet porn, so he took a cab to the Bund, where he knew the high-end Western bars were located. Going out in public, unaccompanied, just before a concert, was contrary to all the advice he had ever received, but he thought that if he went to a place frequented by only Westerners he would not easily be recognized. His guess proved to be correct. He found a place with a view of the wide sweep of the river and the skyscrapers of Pudong. Although the music was loud and there were plenty of people in the bar, it was large enough to have plenty of darkened nooks and comfortable chairs where Gary could sit on his own and watch the crowd of foreigners, some of whom were dancing in the spaces between the tables. They were heavy-footed and big-thighed, their buttocks clattering into chairs and occasionally upsetting the drinks of passersby. He ordered several unfamiliar cocktails that turned out to be too sweet and then began to order vodka. Throughout this time, he kept his baseball hat on, having decided that the sunglasses would be too ostentatious. It was a relief for him to be away from his hotel room, to hear music that he did not have to perform. He spent at least two hours in a spot near the windows, quietly sipping his drinks. He felt his cheeks flush with the alcohol and his temples started to throb, but it did not matter, for he was not alone.

His discomfort began when he noticed a few of the Chinese waiters huddling together and whispering. They were trying not to look openly at him, but their curiosity was such that they could not resist glancing at him. He did not want to leave the bar. It was not yet one o’clock, and there were too many hours of darkness left ahead of him. And then the pleasant Australian couple sitting near him—who had just been holding hands and kissing—left, and their place was taken by a sweaty Western man, who tried to engage Gary in conversation. The man was drunk, but Gary did not feel like moving from his spot. Soon the man would grow tired and leave him alone.

“What’s the matter, cat got your tongue? Don’t feel like speaking, eh? Jeez, you Chinese are so goddamn unfriendly. Hey,
look at me
when I talk to you.”

Gary looked around. The bar was full and there was nowhere to move to.

“Hey, I’m
to you.”

Gary turned and said, “Fuck off.”

The reports that appeared the following morning were full of inaccuracies, as usual, and there were conflicting accounts from bystanders as to who had provoked the ensuing argument, what the altercation had been about, who had taken the first swing. What was in no doubt was that Gary had swiftly lost control and knocked the other man off his feet, even though the man was heftily built. The Internet was full of photos taken with camera phones—grainy and badly lit but clearly showing Gary standing over the man with his fist raised. The now-infamous video—again captured on a mobile phone and freely available on YouTube the next day—shows Gary swaying and unsteady on his feet, then bouncing up and down like a boxer ready for a fight, before stumbling toward the man on the ground and aiming a casual kick to his midriff, as if toe-poking a football. When the man shouts out an inarticulate insult, Gary attempts to pick up a bar stool, presumably to attack him with it. But the bar stool is fixed and doesn’t budge, so Gary turns his attention to a signboard that says
! and he rips it off the wall, using it to attack the man. When some of the waiters attempt to restrain him, he fights them off and shouts, “Don’t touch me, do you know who I am? Do you know who I am?” The camera wobbles and cuts out, and when it starts to play again, Gary is seen surrounded by a group of consoling friends. The rest of the bar is emptying and the music has stopped. His head is in his hands, and his shoulders are heaving up and down as he sobs. In the gray-pink half-light of the video, he is briefly shown in profile, silhouetted against what seems to be a curtain made from shimmering glass beads that look almost electric in the way they sparkle. Although it is dark and his face is not properly lit, Gary’s features are unmistakable—the perfect straight nose that ends in a delicate point, the soft angle of the jaw, the hair that falls over his brow. His head is bowed, his shoulders hunched and defeated. It is this image that graces the cover of all the tabloid newspapers the following evening.



. These days, there were no longer any brutish demands by creditors or feeble excuses from nonpaying clients, and the daily ritual of beginning with emails had become a pleasurable affair for Yinghui, to be carried out at an almost leisurely pace over a cappuccino. There were, among other upbeat messages, an invitation to the opening of a new hotel on the river in Shiliupu and an interesting proposition from someone wanting to build a carbon-neutral cultural center in the middle of town. New contacts and possibilities revealed themselves nowadays without her even having to seek them out. What a change, she thought, as she finished her coffee.

Business was going well for Yinghui. The two upmarket lingerie stores she’d established were flourishing, and in little more than a year she had broken even and was now watching the profits accumulate, week by week, the spreadsheets filling out with handsome-looking figures bursting with promise. Occasionally, when she glanced at the documents her breathless accountant showed her, she ceased to take note of the substantial numbers, for their trajectory was so steep that she had difficulty imagining where they would take her twelve months hence. And yet she was not a person with a modest imagination—quite the opposite.

Her ad campaigns had been striking and wildly successful. She had
used only Chinese models, never mixed-race ones, and they never flaunted their bodies in an overtly sexual way. Although they did display a good deal of bare skin, the models were styled beautifully, and the overall aesthetic was classy rather than trashy. The catchy taglines were mysterious and playful, like the images themselves.

Elegant Outside, Passionate Inside

Secret Exciting

Amazing Beautiful You

Although she had originally thought that the shop would cater mainly to the wives of high-ranking Party officials and low-profile billionaires who wanted a discreet custom service, Yinghui soon found a huge demand among ordinary professional women who were willing to spend upwards of four hundred
for the simplest bra. The low lighting and shadowy spaces of the stores, together with the women-only entry policy and touches of luxury such as the Venetian chandeliers, created an ambience that proved incredibly popular, with many clients lingering on the plush sofas and leafing through the glossy magazines and catalogs as they chatted and decided what else to purchase. Before long, Yinghui had taken over the adjoining shops and added a coffee bar in one store and a wine bar in the other, extending the opening hours and turning both venues into destinations in their own right. The lingerie was all but removed from the store itself and transferred into specially designed semiprivate “modeling rooms,” and the newly vacated space was now filled with stylish mannequins, artwork, and giant floral displays.

The income and publicity generated by the two stores made it possible for Yinghui to seek business partners for new ventures on a much larger scale, and her financial projections were such that banks were suddenly willing to listen to her requests for loans. Her plans for expansion included a chain of small shops in metro stations, which would sell the basic Amazing Beautiful You range; twelve shops selling clothes for teenage girls, called FILGirl (Fly in Love Girl); an Internet-based cosmetics brand called Shhh, aimed at women over the age of forty; and a luxury spa modeled on a northern Thai village, the construction of which was nearing completion.

These exciting ventures made people in the retail industry take notice
of Yinghui, and the expatriate community was especially interested to learn that a foreigner was able to negotiate the complex world of Chinese retail. She began to give talks to the various foreign chambers of commerce, speaking to budding entrepreneurs about the pressures of being a foreigner and a woman in a male-dominated world. As she became more visible, she did an interview with the
Shanghai Daily
—a small article, nothing more—in which she was asked to reveal the key to her success at a time when many small businesses were experiencing difficulties due to the global recession.

“I smile every day while coolly evaluating my business model,” she replied, smiling coolly. “I remain one hundred percent optimistic even in a crisis, while being decisive enough to act as required.”

Was she ruthless? the interviewer asked.

“Sure,” she said. “You have to be tough to succeed.”

Even as she said it, she regretted the way she sounded—matter of fact, unthinking, as if nothing bothered her. She tried immediately to laugh and find common ground with the interviewer, a young woman in her mid-twenties. But as Yinghui joked about things in the news—celebrity gossip, cute pop singers, and the latest films—she could feel the journalist withdrawing behind the safety of a polite smile, the gulf between them widening. She felt old; her laugh sounded fake and robotic. The girl merely smiled and listened as Yinghui’s jokes became more and more risqué.

That interview sealed her growing reputation in more ways than one. Her image hardened into this: a bold businesswoman, certainly, but also a superefficient, humorless automaton who would coldly plunge a knife into you, except she wouldn’t bother to do it in your back, she’d stick it in your chest. She saw this written in a “joke” email circulating in her office, copied to her by mistake. Ultrawoman, Dragon Queen, Terminatress, Rambo—these were some of the nicknames for her that she discovered as she scrolled down the email chain, which was full of comments on her boring suits and severe hairstyle.
Like a rural Party official dressed for an interview with Hu Jintao
, someone joked. Some months later, at a cocktail party thrown by an American law firm, she heard one Western man say to another, “Hey, look, there’s that Chinese lesbian.”

She had gotten used to having her hair short—it had been her style for almost twenty years, ever since university days. There was a time when people found the look charming and gamine, like Jean Seberg in
À bout de
, from which Yinghui first got the idea. She didn’t think she’d changed much since then—she didn’t look very different from the Yinghui she saw whenever she looked at her college photos—but she wondered if she was getting a bit old for the hairstyle now. No woman in Shanghai had short hair—they all seemed to have long glossy locks that fell to their shoulders or gathered in a dramatic pile on their heads in the style of air hostesses. She began to grow her hair out and was frustrated by how long it took. At first it became thin and shabby, like a scarecrow’s, then thicker but still messy, like a schoolboy’s. When finally it reached a decent length, her hairdresser said, “Don’t expect me to perform miracles.”

She began to dread the social functions that were becoming an increasing necessity in her professional life: A thrusting entrepreneur had to go out and be seen, but a single, always-unaccompanied woman of thirty-seven was, in Shanghai, an invitation for people to comment. The locals had names for women like her, whom they considered sadly past their prime.
Shengnü, baigujing
—that sort of thing. Sometimes she wondered if she were really that: a leftover woman, the dregs, or a shaggy monster waiting to be slayed by the Monkey God.

“Style issues.” This was the phrase her friends used to describe what her new priorities should be. She needed to find a look that projected an image: someone effortlessly successful, who had accomplished all that she had while remaining gentle and feminine—a real Asian woman. She wanted to ask what a real Asian woman was, whether, in some way, she differed fundamentally from a real African woman or a real American woman. And if she wasn’t a real Asian woman, what was she—a fake one?

These new concerns
—style issues
—were not a welcome addition to her list of considerations. She woke at 6:00
, had a glass of fruit juice, and then went for a forty-five-minute run on the treadmill. After a breakfast of soy-protein and mixed-berry fruit shake, she would head down to the office and begin to deal with phone calls and emails, before her daily meetings began to force their way into her day. In a city where lunch breaks began religiously at 11:30
., she rarely had lunch, unless she had arranged a business meeting at a restaurant. Most of the time she would work through midday and simply forget to eat. Afternoons were reserved for visiting her various businesses, spending time chatting to the staff in the stores, gauging their morale and energy levels—the little human touches that made her a good employer. The evenings were nowadays
taken up with entertaining or being entertained, which she neither enjoyed nor disliked. She would get home at eleven and answer any outstanding emails on her BlackBerry while in bed, in the few moments that other people might have spent reading glossy magazines to wind down. At precisely midnight, she would put the light out and swiftly fall asleep, rarely allowing the thoughts of her day to overspill into her sleep.

BOOK: Five Star Billionaire: A Novel
6.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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