Mogan Shan: A mountain of endless bamboo, expatriate history and disgruntled British writers

Travel, Travel | by J. Zach Hollo
Posted: May 21st, 2012 | Updated: May 21st, 2012 | Comments
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"At last the road traversed a final spur of the mountainside and we entered the village of Moganshan. It took my breath away," wrote Mark Kitto in his memoir China Cuckoo (published as Mogan Shan. "Tucked into a bowl on the side of the mountain was a European village.... This was the real thing, solid and three-dimensional, as if transported stone by stone from the Alps or Provence or even North Wales where I grew up."

Kitto is somewhat of a banished entrepreneur. After spending time in the southern city of Guangzhou, in 1998 he matched 10,000 USD with Katheen Lau to launch a public listings magazine in Shanghai. It would be roughly modeled after Bangkok’s Metro and London's Time Out, and would come to be called Shanghai office and a meager five-member permanent staff, their only problem was their nonexistent publishing license—a must have in China's media industry, which Kitto describes in China Cuckoo as the "most tightly controlled and loosely regulated industry there is." During our interview Kitto elaborated, saying "In China the media cannot obey their own rules. This is simply because only the government has the right to publish." More on Mark Kitto and Mogan Shan after the jump....

Kitto and Lau hoped to prove their magazine's innocence by publishing an issue or two under the radar. Once the government realized the non-threatening nature of the publication, Kitto and Lau could deal with the consequences more effectively. After three months the magazine had almost broken even, and Kitto was just going to be able to change his peasant-workaholic lifestyle when the government called foul. Kitto was arrested, interrogated for four hours and told that his publishing career was over. But his examiners also gave him a phone number. When him and Lau called, it was a member of the Shanghai News Bureau, who had a monetary interest in making the magazine legal.

And so went Kitto's career. He eventually bought out Lau, and the publication ascended the ranks of the CCP's media industry. Every time a government entity tried to end the magazine, a bigger fish in the Chinese bureaucracy would salvage it, albeit with a higher price-tag. Finally Kitto was in bed with the State Council Information Office, the highest authority in Chinese media. After years of stressful interactions with the CCP, Kitto grew anxious. By then, he was married to a Chinese woman named Joanna from Guangzhou. He wanted security. The State Council Information Office soothingly reassured him, "Don't worry Mark, now you are in business with us you will always have a job."

Kitto didn't believe them, and also desired a higher stake in the company he created (the administration fees had grown extortionately). By 2004, That's Shanghai had become the first successful expat magazine in China and had expanded to Beijing and Guangzhou, with a circulation of over 40,000 magazines a month. It was even routinely studied by the staff of Shanghai Daily, China's English newspaper launched by the government in 1999. Kitto then did something that today he openly concedes as a mistake. He tried to transfer business partners to a publishing company in Hong Kong, which also offered high government support on the mainland. He called in management from Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai to Mogan Shan, where he convinced his co-workers to follow his leap of faith. Just when Kitto thought his government struggles would come to an end, and his ownership in the company increased, Kitto was locked out of his office by several government officials. Two senior executives who had attended the Mogan Shan summit had alerted the government of Kitto's plan to take his business elsewhere. Soon papers accused him being a number of things: terrorist, pornographer, Muslim-separatist sympathizer and above all, threat to the financial benefit of China. Kitto lost everything.

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Well, not quite. Only his job, fortune and suave. Kitto and his wife happened to have a lease on two houses in Mogan Shan. It was time to join the ancient Chinese tradition of retreat from public life. Instead of poetry, the typical literature produced on Chinese mountains, Kitto wrote his memoir, China Cuckoo, which plots the history of Mogan Shan as well as his personal story. In the book Kitto details the history of Mogan Shan's expatriate vacation homes, which sprouted up from missionaries who began flocking to China in 1898, after post Opium War treaties forced China to submit to foreigners the right to own land further into the mainland than the international port cities. The Mexican dollar was the currency of Mogan Shan, and in no time at all Americans and Brits set up the Mogan Shan Summer Resort Association. Most of Kitto's research was done at the archives of the Shanghai Library, although he also got a helping hand from several Mogan Shan local officials who gave him documents such as property deeds and the exchange contracts of early foreigners to settle in Mogan Shan.

Kitto discusses Mogan Shan's domestic history as well. Shanghai opium hustlers of the infamous Green Gang were another entity to set up shop on the mountain getaway. Chiang Kai-shek was documented to have visited the mountain three times, once to meet with Mao Zedong's right hand man, Zhou Enlai, to discuss strategy and possible cooperation against the Japanese during World War II and once as a stop on his honeymoon with Soong Mei-ling. Today, tourists can walk in the house where both these events took place, labeled "White Cloud Castle." It is also reported that Mao Zedong slept a night in the village, although no eye-witnesses can confirm this, because the village's inhabitants were packed into house no. 62, where they had to wait until the Chairman left a day later. The house that Mao Zedong took a nap in is now a museum for tourists to enjoy, aptly titled "The Mao Museum" (Máo Zédōng Xiàtà Chù, 毛泽东下榻处). Also drawing travelers is the Qingliang Pavilion (Qīngliáng Tíng, 清凉亭), which rises above the sea of bamboo to grant breath-taking views of the mountain. Another scenic spot is Sword Pond (Jiàn Chí, 剑池), featuring Sword Pond Falls (Jiàn Chí Pùbù, 剑池瀑布), which can be reached by descending a long stone staircase.

Kitto and his wife also opened Moganshan Lodge, a hotel on the mountain with an interior reminiscent of a European cabin. China Cuckoo took him two years to write, and he is now chipping away at a novel. To describe his daily writing routine, he said "I get up, make a simple breakfast, take the dog for a shit, then sit down at my desk and start writing. My one bad habit is I like to first read a few articles in the Daily Telegraph. I tell myself it's to get my brain going, but it's really just laziness."

I have to hand it to Kitto. For a man who's had major disagreements with the CCP and was somewhat coerced to retreat into mountain hermitage, he's quite happy. He loves Mogan Shan for its nurturing community and healthy outdoor atmosphere. It is a place where, he says, "I get to live in the heart of China but not in the thick of it."

Mogan Shan is about 200 km (125 mi) west of Shanghai and 60 km (38 mi) north of Hangzhou. From Shanghai, take a train or bus to Hangzhou and then take a bus or taxi to Mogan Shan. For more, see our guide to Mogan Shan.

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