A Foreign Exaggertion

After leaving home you might be enticed to distort your history just a bit. you aren’t alone. not even in the past tense. you better get cooking if you aim to fool more than just yourself.


The sheer number of con artists in China is enough to give anyone headaches. Is it an expat thing or simply a part of life? Are there more of them here than there used to be? It’s hard to say.

The prospect of spinning the truth in China was put to me almost the moment I arrived. I’d been on the Hong Kong to Dongguan bus for barely an hour when my old mate—now new boss—Rowland blurted it out:

“What lies are you going to tell about yourself out here?” he said, as if it was a normal question.

“What?” I asked, confused.

“No-one knows who you are out here. You can say anything.”

“Right, erm, well, I was just thinking of going with the truth.”

“But you can say anything you want.”

“I hadn’t really considered that, Rowland.”

“Ok, it is up you. But just to let you know I have told everyone at the office you have a PhD. Also, if anyone mentions my Army career, just play along, yeah?”

And so ended my first ever conversation in China. In the following days, I had to awkwardly explain to new colleagues that my PhD had fallen through (again, it never existed) and that our boss, Rowland, had maybe done a tour in Afghanistan, but I couldn’t remember the exact details (he hadn’t).

Rowland often bent the truth wickedly out of shape, so I didn’t think much of it at the time. Still, my time in China has suggested he isn’t an outlier. It’s not just outright lies that seem commonplace here, but the relentless self-aggrandizement and chronic exaggeration. Recently, a Beijing-based screenwriter told me he had signed a six figure deal to write a screenplay for a Hollywood studio; this was made stranger by his request to borrow 300 RMB just days later.

“Ok, it is up you. But just to let you know I have told everyone at the office you have a PhD. Also, if anyone mentions my Army career, just play along, yeah?”

Last month, an entrepreneur who had opened up a small shop selling steamed buns with foreign fillings told me, “I have seed investment of one million dollars on the way. We are set to open hundreds of stores all over China,” just like a latter-day Richard Branson.

The guy’s intention was genuine and perhaps someone really is even going to invest a million bucks in his steam bun dream, but this bullishness, this incorrigible desire to talk everything up is one of the worst expat traits.

Modern expats, especially in bigger cities, constantly talk of seed funding, rounds of investment, pop-ups, incubators and the launch of new apps that are going to do everything I’ve ever dreamed of, including fellate me in the morning. It is only a matter of time before an expat refers to his new English training center as a startup.

Many people move abroad to seek their fortune and at the first chance of making a quick buck, they are on the hype train. It’s easy to think of the expat liar as a modern creature—men desperately flinging the dice, too far away for anyone to care—but a quick dip into the archives shows that these modern truth dodgers ain’t got nothing on their expat ancestors.

Of all China expat bullshit artists, Sir Edmund Backhouse was the granddaddy of them all. In 1895, after incurring massive debts, he quit Oxford University. A few years later, he flew off to China where he remained until his death in 1944. He spent most of his time haunting gay brothels, but in his spare time, he was weaving webs of monstrous lies. Particularly that he was intimate with the inner circle of the Qing imperial court.

Most of his tales involved trying to earn some easy cash, such as the time he convinced a large shipping company that he was working on behalf of the Chinese government and they wanted to buy six battleships for the Chinese navy. The ship builders had even started drawing up blueprints for the ships before Backhouse disappeared after realizing he had been found out.

Backhouse reportedly even convinced an American mint that they could be the sole printers of Chinese money for ten years and print a huge order of 650 million banknotes. It was all false, of course, but by then, Backhouse had spun a tale that involved him pocketing over £5,000 in commission.

Perhaps his most fabulous fabrication was that he was a close confidante of the Empress Dowager Cixi and to whom he had provided sexual services on upward of 200 occasions. Surely, all this makes Backhouse looks like a lunatic—albeit an entertaining one—and his lies are only made more worrying by the fact that during his lifetime, he was an influential voice in forming Western views on late imperial China!

Nevertheless, looking at Backhouse’s febrile imagination perhaps makes it a little easier to forgive the expat fantasists out here: be it the guy who is just about to sell his China script to Hollywood for a million bucks or the chap that plans to rival McDonalds with his steam buns.