He’s a character in the eyeline of those who matter in China, and guardedly followed by those at the office of HERE! Dongguan. Many may not know Mark Kitto by name, but if they’ve lived along the Eastern expanse of China from Beijing to Guangzhou and speak English, they will quickly come to know the brand he created, and later had stolen. Since the heights of his career as a “mini media mogul,” a title bestowed by the Financial Times for creating that’s magazines, and after the fine Persian rug of his potential fortune was pulled from under his feet, he has redeveloped a Chinese haven on the mountain called Moganshan a few hours outside the hustle of Shanghai.
In his novel, Kitto describes the history of Moganshan, a place originally frontiered by the missionaries and opium slingers of old Shanghai, with an aroused and honest approach that only a China hand (though I’d doubt that he’d cop to the moniker) can relate. He expresses the history of China as a whole as it was experienced by the “old outsiders” from years past while remaining in the limited scope of one alien outpost.
The book does recognize, but does not apologize for the history of foreign influence. They had taken parts of China for their own, and now descendants of Europeans and foreign states are returning to the scene to gain from an upturning economy. To this end Kitto is both lighthearted and respectful, but there is no confusion that he is a jaded man.
It’s easy to see that his troubles in China are motivating factors, blaming the influence of China’s purchasing power for scuttling his first book—a business book detailing the seemingly petty and underhanded theft of his burgeoning empire—but this follow up to the unpublished book is not as overly venomous as one might think. Kitto is honest about his fall. He understands China and accepts it for what it is.
I had crossed a line and there was no going back. My fundamental error—apart from choosing the wrong industry in the first place—had been to believe I could beat the system, a system that would happily have accommodated me on its own terms.
However, it appears that he is also uniquely equipped to evaluate its faults.
Kitto’s book is an inward look at the motives and pragmatic ideals of those that come to learn, accept and grow with China. The frustrations, it seems, must become manageable obstructions in the life of an expat entrepreneur.
We can easily forget where we are and that we are foreigners in a land that has a history of being overtly xenophobic toward outsiders.
The life of this media mogul turned mountain host is not for everyone. Not even the quiet, peaceful life to which he has retreated. Many claim to want it but few can actually see themselves living it every day, separated from the hustle and excitement of a Chinese city. Vacation spots all over Asia have these folks. The ones that cause wonder, “What is your back story? What are you running from?”
Surely Kitto has answered these questions personally, and so the book sometimes becomes overly conversational in style as he relates his stories of working with Chinese, and sometimes against, to build his new home on the hill. At some points it reads as an extended, narrated tourist guide to Moganshan, but remains culturally relevant.
“I am straying into territory which, while potentially rich in narrative material, will not endear me to my host country if I bang on about it,” Kitto writes. This is how he approaches controversy. I wonder if he had written the book today—Kitto has recently made plans to leave China—if it would be more incendiary.
Kitto’s serpentine descriptions run through respectful, hateful and patronizing dealings with China’s people. And though I am sure he has made lasting relationships with many, those in the book, besides his wife, seem to stop at friendly, capturing the curious circumstances that allows men and women to simultaneously assume it is the other caged on display.
It is fair to say that this light read with fun anecdotes is a fresh point of view of expat life in China, while not overreaching. Because of this it can be taken as an adaptable guide to life for all walks of China life.
Mark Kitto has lived in China for 16 years. He has studied the language and the culture. He has started a family and more than one business. For seven years he built the well known that’s magazines, until they were annexed in 2004. He now lives with wife and children in the mountains of Zhejiang Province.