China Cuckoo: How I Lost a Fortune and Found a Life in China by Mark Kitto; Constable & Robinson, £8.99
One of the last things the world needs is another expatriate China book. How many words can foreign businessmen churn out about the country, its fickle officials, and the myriad gray areas surrounding its laws? That was the first thought on picking up Mark Kitto’s China Cuckoo: How I Lost a Fortune and Found a Life in China.
Kitto may be familiar to those who have lived in China for some time. He launched the popular That’s magazines, an invaluable English-language source for bar and restaurant listings in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
The titles live on to this day but Kitto is no longer at the helm. The story of how he lost control of them a few years ago was a popular topic in expatriate gossip circles. There was talk of disputes with business partners and government-sanctioned closures. For those not directly involved, it was hard to tell what exactly happened.
In China Cuckoo, Kitto explains how he made and then lost the magazines in a takeover by a government-run publishing house. If it was the extent of the story, China Cuckoo would likely be just another expat China book. But it is not.
China Cuckoo is also the story of Moganshan, a small mountainside village about 100 kilometers west of Shanghai. It was here that Kitto built a weekend home during his publishing days and relocated after losing his business. What results is a surprisingly easy-to-read account of a foreigner trying to fit into a Chinese community.
There is something of an irritating contradiction, though. Kitto’s dismissal of expatriates who don’t spend enough time getting to know their hosts is at odds with his penchant for making money out of this particular group. He does it with the magazines, he does it with his weekend home (in which he tries to recreate an old English home down to the fireplace) and in the coffee shop he opens in his post-magazine period.
On the other hand, he appears to be fairly good at doing whatever he sets out to do, including making his own bacon for the coffee shop and buying the fireplace.
The phrase “mini media mogul,” which the Financial Times once used to describe him, pops up a little too often, but that is a minor annoyance amidst the engaging insights into the Chinese in general and past and present life in Moganshan in particular. His writing on the latter is backed by plenty of research and some interesting parallels between the town’s history as a resort for foreigners – which came to a sudden end in 1948 – and its current and growing appeal.
If Kitto comes off as a little abrasive at times, well, it’s his book and they were his magazines and it is his house. Unlike many other expatriate authors, he does come around to noting that he is a guest in the country and that not everything is for the taking. At least not for those without a thick skin and a willingness to navigate a fickle and opaque bureaucracy.
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