King of the mountain

How one stressed businessman beat the system by heading for the hills

cuckoo in mao cap

China Cuckoo: How I lost a fortune and found life in China
By Mark Kitto
Pier 9, Sydney 2009

Reviewed by Paul Bartholomew

Aside from its song, the common cuckoo that arrives each English spring is known for laying its eggs in other birds' nests. Former army officer, metals trader and 'mini media mogul' Mark Kitto has built two nests of his own in one of the most testing environments for foreigners — China. The second of these, appropriately, is high up in a bamboo–clad mountain, about two hours' drive south-west of Shanghai, known as Moganshan.

China Cuckoo is Kitto's autobiographical love-letter to Moganshan. It is a place, which initially offers him sanctuary from the unrelenting noise, heat and commercial bearpit of Shanghai, as it did for the first laowai (foreigners) to venture there in the 1930s. It is 'a place where I could pretend I was not in China'. Later on, the mist-clad mountaintop getaway provides a means of income and home for the Englishman, his Chinese wife and children, when they open the area's first coffee shop.

Kitto arrived in Shanghai in 1998, a Mandarin-speaking Sinophile determined to ride the freshly breaking waves of a city aspiring to become one of the world's financial powerhouses. Within a few years, he had established a successful portfolio of Time Out-style publications — That's Shanghai, That's Beijing and That's Guangzhou — and was feted by the international media.

Distinguishing between mollycoddled 'ex-pats' and entrepreneurial adventurers like himself, he believed 'we were the people getting the most out of China and putting something into it too'. For the first time since 1949, when Mao's Communists took power, young foreigners were 'building businesses in China'. But Kitto's pioneering zest is quashed when the 'capricious' Party seizes his business, along with everything invested in it, and ensures his persona non grata status by accusing him of being a 'Muslim separatist'.

Kitto attributes his downfall to arrogance and to not playing by his host's rules. 'My obstinacy, considering I was an Englishman trying to build a business in China, was bloody rude,' he says.

Just one of the 16 chapters in Kitto's book is devoted to this episode of his life, but his deep sense of being wronged remains evident. Kitto still lives in China however and patently does not wish to stir up his 'enemies' in government offices, by raking too closely over the past. Instead, like the 'ragged' Daoist poets he studied at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, the Englishman renounces the city — in this case Shanghai, a place he clearly despises — and quietly retreats to his mountain 'hermitage' at Moganshan to begin again. Hence the book's subtitle: How I lost a fortune and found a life in China.

New books on China written by Westerners appear each week on the front tables of English–language bookstores in Beijing and Shanghai. Most of them are of the anodyne 'how to conduct business in China' ilk, or are historical. China Cuckoo is a rarer bird in that it is one of the first contemporary 'city dweller moves to small foreign village, eventually befriends locals, has problems with builder' type books written about China.

In Kitto's case, his landlord is the People's Liberation Army. Unlike many books of this genre, though, he does not turn his fellow villagers into grotesques. Instead, he gracefully accepts the local way of life, even if on one occasion it involves eating a baby owl.

Seven years of living and working in Shanghai have left Kitto oblivious to the neon promises of the one-time 'Paris of Asia' but on Moganshan, he displays a naturalist's eye. Sizeable portions of the book see him exploring both the local habitat — clambering through the bamboo on epic bush walks, confronting wild boar and bamboo cutters — and the mainly decrepit villas, which foreign missionaries and wealthy business people left behind some 50 years ago.

Towards the end of the book, a small dinner with local dignitaries, where China's notorious baijiu liquor flows freely, takes on an almost redemptive quality, with Kitto appearing to be accepted into the village, and perhaps by extension, into China once more.

At times, the prose can be a little pedestrian when it involves the nuts and bolts of renovating the villas and setting up The Lodge coffee shop. But it is a quiet life in Moganshan, as this reviewer discovered during a recent trip from Shanghai, despite the growl of Kitto pulling up outside the coffee shop on a vintage motorbike-sidecar. All smiles and amiability, he appears none the worse for those years down the mountain. Another eccentric Englishman abroad perhaps, or just plain cuckoo?

Kitto's forensic approach to exhuming the villas, tennis courts and swimming pools, and their original privileged inhabitants brings alive some of the 'forgotten' European history of Moganshan. Proud of being 'the first foreigner in 50 years' to live on the mountain, he has enough insight to recognise that he is also a kind of living 'ghost', particularly to older villagers who remember the first laowai on the mountain.

Paul Bartholomew is a writer and editor based in Shanghai