A sightseeing ship on the Huangpu River against the night skyline of the Pudong financial district in Shanghai, China.
A sightseeing ship on the Huangpu River against the night skyline of the Pudong financial district in Shanghai, China. - 
Listen To The Story

There's a side to China's incredible economic growth that we don't always hear about: Those who are moving to China from Southeast Asia in search of a better life. 

Tash Aw's new book "Five Star Billionaire" is fiction, but it feels like a very real glimpse into a modern China dealing with just that issue, in much the same way that many American novels tackle themes of migration and upward mobility.

"I was trying to show how China is shaping the lives of hundreds of millions of people," says Aw. "Countries like Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia -- all these people are reacting to the rise of China ... And the rise of new China is something incredibly complex."

The story takes place in Shanghai, a place Aw chose because it is "the most symbolic of all the big Chinese cities. The most international, the most obviously capitalist."

The book centers around five main characters trying to make it: A factory girl. A property developer. A manipulative tycoon and others. They all encounter different slices of Shanghai society, and face different barriers in trying to move forward.

"It's a story about how money shapes people's way of thinking," says Aw.

Many of the chapter titles in the novel also reflect this focus on money in the New China.

"I don't write for a global audience," adds Aw. "But I think we're all interested in how the world is changing, in shifting boundaries. The way I see it is that coming from small town Malaysia and going to Shanghai isn't necessarily very different from coming from small town Iowa and going to New York to reinvent yourself, to seek a new life. If I think about my reader, I'd really like them to take away the fact that everything is ultimately very universal in spite of the fact the setting may be different."

Read the foreword from Aw's novel here.

Excerpted from FIVE STAR BILLIONAIRE by Tash Aw Copyright © 2013 by Tash Aw. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Follow Lizzie O'Leary at @lizzieohreally