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“The foreign communities are almost as different as the natives. Beijing is home to the China hands, young and old, overseas students, China career diplomats, foreigners who come to China to discover the country, to do something useful, creative even. The Shanghai expats come for jobs and money. They come to see if Shanghai can do something for them, make their dreams come true, make their fortune. Everyone in Shanghai is on the make, local and foreign.”

Such is author Mark Kitto’s comparison of two cities where he did much of the above, coming to discover the country, and then settling in Shanghai for a job and maybe even some money. His second book, That’s China, is his account of his bare-knuckle fight to build a publishing empire in China, and the backstabbing and betrayal that led to its failure.

Originally a metals trader based in Beijing, during a stint in Guangzhou Kitto became interested in the local expatriate magazine scene. Teaming up with Kathleen Lau, who was publishing Clueless in Guangzhou in the late 1990s in that southern city, the two decided to take on Shanghai with a new magazine aimed at readers of English. It was originally titled Ish, which was actually an acronym for “In Shanghai.”

“The lead story for our next – double – issue was about the inaugural Shanghai Arts Festival. We had already decided to use the words ‘that’s entertainment,’ thinking of the famous Jam song, on the cover. How about we use the word ‘that’s’ again in December? It would be the end of the year. We could say ‘that’s All Folks!’, after Disney. We could use ‘that’s’ for all sorts until, when we felt the moment was right, we morphed it into ‘that’s Shanghai.’ It was a catchy and appropriate name. One day we could use it for other cities. Renaming Clueless in Guangzhou was an obvious place to start,” Kitto writes, describing the genesis of his, and this, publication’s earliest moniker.

This is one of many instances when Kitto was forced to make changes due to regulatory or personal pressure. The reason that Beijing today has two separate magazines: the Beijinger and That’s Beijing, is explained fully in the book, and it’s not a simple or pleasant story.

“My China publishing career did not end that horrible September day. It lasted a few months more,” Kitto writes mournfully. His ultimate “retreat,” as he called it, led him to the Zhejiang province mountain of Moganshan, which was the subject of his first book, China Cuckoo.

Kitto may have been finished publishing, but he wasn’t finished writing. Aside from Cuckoo, he created a mini-genre of China commentary when he wrote “You’ll Never Be Chinese,” for the UK’s Prospect Magazine, the first of what became a series of such farewell letters by long-term expatriates.

“Death and taxes. You know how the saying goes. I’d like to add a third certainty: you’ll never become Chinese, no matter how hard you try, or want to, or think you ought to. I wanted to be Chinese, once. I don’t mean I wanted to wear a silk jacket and cotton slippers, or a Mao suit and cap and dye my hair black and proclaim blowing your nose in a handkerchief is disgusting. I wanted China to be the place where I made a career and lived my life. For the past 16 years it has been precisely that. But now I will be leaving,” he wrote in the article. When he ultimately did depart from China more than a year later, with his wife and two children in tow, The New York Times deemed his story, the one now told in That’s China, to be worthy of an article.

“Mao Zedong famously said, or is reputed to have said, in Tiananmen Square, when he announced the founding of the People’s Republic of China on the first of October, 1949: ‘The people of China have stood up.’ One day soon perhaps they’ll walk too, along a path they’ll choose for themselves. I hope so,” Kitto writes at the end of this latest book.

That’s China reads like an artisanal balsamic vinegar:: although a sour bite permeates it (bitterness, to be more accurate), the book is an overall lively and interesting read, and the latest in a line of cautionary tales by and for foreigners who want to do business in China, a lineage that extends all the way back to James Mann’s Beijing Jeep. If this were the last installment in that sad series, it would be a fitting finale, but it most certainly will not be. That’s China is available from amazon.com in electronic and paperback editions.

More stories by this author here.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @greatwriteshark
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Photo: notesfromxian

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