Posted by Alice Xin Liu on Friday, February 20, 2009 at 1:00 PM
First-time author and China hand Mark Kitto is perhaps most famous for being ousted by a government-controlled publisher for the That's magazines, which he helped start.
The ensuing lawsuit and drama has been another reason for Mark's well-known status. For a recap, see an earlier Danwei post: That's magazines: a cautionary tale.
But now there will be something else for people to talk about when they talk about Mark － his new book.
Here is a video from Mark's agent, about China Cuckoo:
China Cuckoo is published this month and can be ordered via Amazon. Mark will also be appearing at the Man Hong Kong International Literary Festival on March 15, and at the Beijing and Chengdu Bookworm for the International Literary Festival. Danwei interviews the author and excerpts from his book, below.
Why did you write this book?
I have a story － which many Danwei readers are familiar with I fear － and not much else left, after a dozen years of putting a heck of a lot into China (with my magazines), but that story is not an entirely unhappy one. In fact I have ended up all right. I hope the book might be an ‘uplifting’ read for people (and it sounds like a few people might need a little uplifting soon).
I also hope that the story of setting up a new life in Moganshan, on the surface a simple tale of life in a Chinese village, for a non-China based reader at least, might illuminate certain home truths about China, some comfortable, some not so, some remarkably similar to the reader’s own home truths and some remarkably different, in an entertaining context.
And by the by, it’ll be good to get some unpublicised details of the history of That’s Magazines out into the public domain.
For those who don’t know; what and where is Moganshan and how did you end up there?
Moganshan is a mountain and a village, about two hours west of Shanghai. It was set up as a heat retreat by missionaries and other foreigners in the early 1900s. After ’49 it became the “East China Sanatorium”, something like a health resort in a Kundera novel. Now it is gradually reverting to its role as a heat retreat, at least on summer weekends, for the Shanghai foreigners and local tourists. My wife and I leased a villa as our own ‘retreat’ when I was working in Shanghai and when that work came to its abrupt end, we moved to Moganshan permanently, to live the quiet life.
Are you worried that writing about your former state-owned business partners might make difficulties for you in China?
You mean like have them call me a Muslim terrorist again? I rather doubt it. Now that I have finally lost my trademark case in the High Court － the decision was made in November － there is nothing left for them to trouble me for. I suppose there might be some embarrassment but most of the people concerned have moved on. (I guess I have too.) And I always hold out hope that the senior minister who once said to the people who took my business away “I know Mark was getting out of hand but did you really have to be that nasty to him?” might read the full story at last, from my side, and, who knows, buy me lunch one day? Is that too much to ask? On second thoughts don’t answer that.
Was it unpleasant reliving the experience of losing your business?
Of course. But in China Cuckoo I try not to dwell too long on the unpleasant bits, or maybe just long enough to put the nicer bits in context.
Do you plan to stay in Moganshan for the long term?
I generally reply to that question with: “for the foreseeable future.” I’d love to stay here for the long term. It is a beautiful place. The locals are friendly. We live in a nice house. Life is good. But it is not perfect of course. My major concern, typical for someone my age I suppose, is: where to send the children to school? We might have to move for them. Or as you hint above, maybe I’ll upset someone and we’ll be moved on. Or maybe the Peter Mayle effect will kick in and we’ll be overrun by tourists… (wishful thinking).
Towards the end of the book you make some negative remarks about foreigners in China, including yourself, which might upset some readers. Think you might lose some friends?
Funnily enough, two China based western friends who have read review copies of China Cuckoo said how those comments were fair and honest. In fact the first one said he was actually moved by them. The second said I can expect to upset some people who might see themselves er, differently. He described them as the ‘self-important brigade’. That was reassuring.
Why the title China Cuckoo? Why Cuckoo?
It’s a kind of quadruple entendre with a double bluff U turn somewhere between the second and third meaning. In other words it is open to interpretation and, I hope, lively debate. I know which meaning(s) I was thinking of when I chose it. I’d like to leave it up to the readers to work out which ones those were.
Any plans to return to the media business?
In China? No. Maybe somewhere else. Besides, I’d hate to be labeled a “China Media expert” or someone like that. I think what I accomplished withThat’s Magazines was create content and a tone that appealed to two completely different audiences, local and foreign, in one publication and in one language. I’d rather be known for that than all the other stuff, and I hope it is something that is marketable elsewhere. I have an idea for a place to do it again actually. Like I say, maybe one day. In the meantime, I’d like to write books.
How is the book going to be marketed? Will it be published in the US as well as UK?
It’s coming out in April in the US as “Chasing China”, and with a different jacket illustration. Apparently the Americans do not get, or go, ‘cuckoo’, though my own straw poll proved otherwise. Maybe it’s only the ones who’ve lived in China, like me, who go cuckoo. As for marketing, it is being given the works, as is the way with publishing nowadays; radio, TV, festivals, talks, parties, above the line advertising, below the line, viral, intravenous… you name it. I am looking forward to getting stuck in myself. It’s been a while since I worked on a marketing or advertising campaign.
Do you think Moganshan will get too popular and eventually be Disneyfied by hordes of tourists?
Very good question. Very hard to answer. That all depends, ultimately, on the Zhejiang Provincial Government, who are the custodians of the place, and their local representatives, the Moganshan Administration Bureau. As with so many other great potentials for development in China, there are people with vision, there is stultifying bureaucracy, and there are politically sensitive issues, in this case: old foreign resort in China, unpleasant reminder of the bad old days and the unfair treaties, yet highly favoured by top Chinese officials as their own hideaway, but also potentially very lucrative real estate, and so on. On a simple level, one great advantage of Moganshan is that it is too small to overdevelop. There isn’t room for a golf course, or need for a chair lift, or a flat enough space for a bigger car park. I have said elsewhere in print that Moganshan could be the Chamonix of China, if certain people got together, and got their act together. It would be good if it does end up that way someday, but the current, snail-like, rate of change suits the place (and me) just fine.
History Repeats Itselfby Mark Kitto
There was one other dramatic death of a foreigner on the mountain, the famous, amongst the few who know of it, Felgate murder.
Lao Han had mentioned it to me once. “Some Chinese servants got fed up with their master and killed him,” he informed me with an air of authority that did not quite ring true.
I delved back into the North China Daily News in the Shanghai Library and uncovered a couple of brief reports. Then I did what anyone looking for dinner conversation does. I Googled Felgate.
Robert Joseph Felgate of Kentish Town, London, gave up a promising career as a carpet salesman and left for China to become a missionary in 1894 at the age of 34. He was married with two small boys.
Felgate’s religious zeal only lasted five years however, its disappearance coinciding with the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, when several of his colleagues had their heads chopped off or were burned alive. Felgate resigned from the Inland Mission and moved to the safety of Shanghai, probably along with a few of his parishioners, where he started work at the Seamen’s Mission. There he set up a profitable restaurant for the sailors that evolved into the Shaftesbury House lodging house. It was in Shanghai in 1907 that he heard of an opportunity in Moganshan.
For several years the Summer Resort Association had been looking for a resident manager to relieve them of the onerous burden of running the place during their holidays. In the years up to 1907 every report of the annual meeting repeated like a bashful plea for help, “failed to find a resident manager.”
Felgate took the job at a salary of 150 Mexican dollars per month. But it does not sound like the Association was prepared to give Felgate the full executive powers which they were dying to rid themselves of. I can’t help thinking they did not entirely trust him. Perhaps this mistrust was prompted by Felgate’s character, which was later described by the British Consul in Hangzhou as “somewhat restless and highly-strung.”
Within a year of his appointment Felgate was engaged in an acrimonious dispute with a workman in the village, Carpenter Li. It was about money, one thousand dollars, a huge sum in those days. The case was straightforward. Li thought he was owed a thousand dollars and Felgate did not agree. His excuse for withholding payment was shoddy workmanship.
The dispute was taken to the Mokanshan Summer Resort Association Judicial Committee, by Li interestingly enough, not Felgate. The case dragged on for some time. At last in 1911, having already reduced the claim to four hundred dollars, the Judicial Committee finally got both parties to agree to two hundred. Felgate paid one half of it and openly boasted that he was never going to pay the other. Felgate’s wife had left him in the intervening years, taking their two sons to America.
In the winter of 1911, apart from a missionary’s wife and her two children who had stayed on after Christmas, Felgate was the only foreigner on the mountain. He displayed increasing signs of paranoia that Li was out to get him. The carpenter had already threatened to burn his house down but Felgate had three by now and he moved between them, sleeping in different rooms, with loaded guns beside his bed, every door and window locked and three guard dogs downstairs. The front door of his main house was fitted with a special mechanism that required the removal of a small a pin before it could be opened. He also made an impromptu will on a piece of notepaper. He cut out his wife and sons, who he must have felt had betrayed and abandoned him, and left his entire estate to his sister in England.
Felgate’s behaviour shows every sign of a man who knew he had it coming.
On the night of January 11, 1912, it came. A gang of six robbers broke into his house, somehow without upsetting the guard dogs nor waking the servants in their shack a few metres away. The burglars were looking for money and valuables, perhaps the guns they had been told Felgate kept. No one can know for sure how or why exactly, but during the robbery Felgate was bashed on the head, bundled up in a blanket and thrown out of the house into the freezing night. By the time he was found in the early hours of January 12 he was dead, either from blood loss, shock or exposure. Maybe the murder had been accidental. Perhaps the robbers had only wanted to shut him up. Chinese criminals – down the ages and into the modern day － prefer scare tactics and focus on collecting the loot. They did not find much because they could not break into Felgate’s strong box.
Straight after the murder the local magistrate in the nearest town openly expressed his terror that the British would send a gunboat up the canal to seek revenge. The memory of the ‘Great Powers’ retribution after the Boxer Rebellion – the infamous sacking of the Summer Palace – would have been fresh in his mind. A quick public execution of a couple of culprits was the obvious preventative measure. The other four were never apprehended.
The foreign residents of Moganshan were obviously upset by Chinese bandits murdering of one of their number. The Daily News ran a series of outraged reports over the following weeks, as you would expect. An obituary of Felgate however, was prominent by its absence.
By the 1930s Felgate was a distant memory and the foreigners on Moganshan had become accustomed to Chinese bandits. The ‘better class of Chinese’ had by now followed them up the hill and built their own villas. Among them were the two biggest gangsters in Shanghai.
Du Yue Sheng, also known as Big Eared Du, and his confederate Zhang Xiao Lin between them ran Shanghai’s illegal opium trade. Their gang was called the Green Gang. It operated openly as the “Three Prosperities Corporation” and effectively held the key to governing Shanghai outside the upright and up tight International Settlement. They were patronized and even funded indirectly by the French and Chiang Kai Shek had a mutually beneficial understanding with them.
The pair ended up with villas in Moganshan more by accident than design. The honorary boss of the Green Gang, ‘Pockmarked’ Huang, whose day job was police chief of the French Concession, upset the warlord of Zhejiang Province. One of Huang’s bodyguards had got into a fist fight with the warlord’s nephew and the nephew had come off worse. So the warlord, no doubt at the request of his nephew, had Pockmarked Huang kidnapped.
The warlord was touched by the gesture but he had aspirations. He sought official recognition for his political abilities. In other words he was trying to go “legit”. He told Zhang that the generous offer was “too much”. Nonetheless he released Pockmarked Huang. And Zhang Xiao Lin was left with a villa on Moganshan.
He liked it so much he got one for Big Eared Du, right below his.
Zhang Xiao Lin was in the mould of Al Pacino in Scarface. But for the difference in country and years, he could have been the inspiration for Tony Montana. He was a thug who clawed and fought his way to the top and then went over it. He also did drugs in a big way. When he was eventually shot dead by one of his own bodyguards he was off his head and incoherently paranoid. While he was alive and enjoying life in Moganshan he kept tigers and peacocks, built a tennis court and a swimming pool and used to be met at the bottom of the mountain by a police reception committee who would let off fireworks in his honour. Village myth says he fed one mistress to his Moganshan pet tiger and locked up another in a grotto for playing around with one of his bodyguards while he was away on business in Shanghai.
Big Ears on the other hand was constantly striving to throw off his gangster persona. He longed to be a member of the political and cultural elite. He also tried to put his ill gotten gains into respectable business. He set up one bank (his first major client was the French Consul General) was appointed director of another and went into the flour trade and shipping business. When he came to stay in Moganshan he donned a scholar’s gown and once mused out loud to his favorite mistress that he wished he could write poetry. Being a Beijing opera star, she obliged him by running off some lines. But he had a fearsome reputation in private. On his first visit to Moganshan he naively brought every one of his mistresses with him. They bickered so much that he boxed their ears to shut them up. They were lucky. One day in Shanghai, so another story goes, the brother of a crony of Chiang Kai Shek’s complained to Du Yue Sheng that a dancer he had enjoyed a fling with and whom he had got pregnant was getting out of hand, demanding money. Du told him not to worry, he’d set up her up in the water lily business. Then he had his men drown her in a Shanghai river. He did have a sense of irony.
Unlike Zhang, Du died peacefully in exile in Hong Kong in 1951.
Both Du and Zhang’s villas are still standing and open to overnight guests. Zhang’s, the ‘Immense Sea’, is run by the provincial government as a state guesthouse. Du’s has been taken over and restored by a Hangzhou Chinese-foreign joint venture hotel. True to the character of their original owners, the brasher types frequent the Immense Sea and eat behind closed doors and shuttered windows while the hotel chain which runs Du’s villa aspires to be a classy boutique hotel, yet sadly fails. Zhang’s tennis court is a tree nursery, his waterless swimming pool is full of leaves and the animal cages have rusted away, leaving red brown stumps of metal in their concrete floors.
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The Eurasian Face : Blacksmith Books, a publishing house in Hong Kong, is behind The Eurasian Face, a collection of photographs by Kirsteen Zimmern. Below is an excerpt from the series:
Big in China: An adapted excerpt from Big In China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising A Family, Playing The Blues and Becoming A Star in China, just published this month. Author Alan Paul tells the story of arriving in Beijing as a trailing spouse, starting a blues band, raising kids and trying to make sense of China.
Pallavi Aiyar's Chinese Whiskers: Pallavi Aiyar's first novel, Chinese Whiskers, a modern fable set in contemporary Beijing, will be published in January 2011. Aiyar currently lives in Brussels where she writes about Europe for the Business Standard. Below she gives permissions for an excerpt.
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