Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mr. China

The introduction page to the book, Mr. China: A Memoir by Tim Clissold, is one of the most captivating pages of text I've ever read:

My jaw dropped when I got to the end of that paragraph. I felt like Clissold had written this page just for me (with the Edgar Snow reference and all).

I can relate to the fantasizing of becoming "Mr. China" so deeply. China over the past few years has taken over my life. I lived there for a few years and even now living in the US read about it constantly. If I'm not keeping up with my China-watcher stream on Twitter, then I'm probably reading a book or a blog about China. Expanding my knowledge of China is my most time-intensive hobby. Whether I consciously pursue it or whether it's something going on beneath the surface, becoming a "China hand" is something that I'm really quite obsessed about.

After reading this ridiculously awesome introduction to Mr. China, I was so pumped to devour the book.

Mr. China is a memoir from a foreigner who participated in the first wave of foreign investment in China from after the country embraced Deng Xiaoping's liberalization policies in the early 1990s. Tim Clissold is an Englishman who was introduced to China for the first time through visiting Hong Kong as a young man.

China infiltrated Clissold's person almost immediately after arriving in the country. He quit his job in England to return to Beijing to study after a brief exposure to China. After a couple years of Chinese language study and getting to know the culture, he was re-hired by the firm he quit in England in the first place, Arthur Andersen, as a China specialist in 1992.

It's only a few pages in and is not an integral part of the book as a whole, but reading about Clissold's first experiences in China is another highlight of the book for me. He fell in love with China quickly like a lot of foreigners, including myself, do.

The following passage from pages 12-13 really struck me:

Just like with the introduction paragraph highlighted at the beginning of this post, I was completely taken with this passage. Reading Clissold's thoughts on "willful infatuation" really made me think about the nature of my obsession with China.

Mr. China, a business book, stopped me in my tracks twice by the time I had reached page 13. You really can't ask much more from a book than that, can you? Tim Clissold is a freakishly good writer.

There is a lot of good stuff in Mr. China after page 13 as well. There are a plethora of funny, maddening, and insightful business stories. China in the 1990s was in many ways more of a wild west-like frontier than the country is today.

Reading about corrupt factory owners, two-faced investment partners, and capricious government officials is often times comical. The stresses of working on multi-million deals with the uncertainty that underlines China's legal and business culture are intense.

There are several nail-biting scenes where Clissold and his partners appear to have been taken to the cleaners. I nearly got light-headed and butterflies in my stomach as I read of cleaned out multi-million dollar bank accounts and maniacal factory owners. The actual toll taken on Clissold is seen very prominently when, in his 30s, he has to leave China due to a stress-induced heart attack.

Everybody in the world today hears about "the Chinese economic miracle" and the robust year-after-year growth in China. Few have seen the inner workings of those processes as intimately as Clissold has, though. Getting to see such wheeling and dealing from almost twenty years ago is special.

Mr. China is a very good book. It took me on a much harder and more turbulent ride than I was expecting. It's ostensibly a book on business in China. It's much more than that, though. Few books cut to the heart of China's culture like Clissold's does. Clissold, a financier by trade, is a dazzling writer. Any starry-eyed dreamer thinking of becoming Mr. China needs to pick up Mr. China.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


The cause of the dearth of posts here recently is that Qian and I just bought and moved into our first house. Anyone who's gone down that road before knows that the preparation and execution of finding the right house, moving out of the old apartment, and getting into the new place is all-consuming. Between my job and all of that house stuff, blogging has fallen by the wayside.

Although I've been busy with life, I'm still engaged with China and still have things to write. I'm hoping things will settle down soon and I'll get some posts up soon.

In the mean time, I have a couple Chinese movies upon which I want to comment quickly.

First, Raise the Red Lantern大红灯笼高高挂》directed by Zhang Yimou is incredible. I found it to be just as good as the other Zhang movie I saw recently, To Live. It's the story of a concubine in the early twentieth century. The story is laid out very delicately and is executed with great passion. The cinematography and setting of the movie are still etched into my mind a couple weeks after watching it. I highly recommend it.

And then second, In the Heat of the Sun阳光灿烂的日子》is one of the most bizarre movies I've ever seen. Qian and I watched since it was one of the only movies she hadn't seen from the list that was recommended in the comments section of this blog a few weeks ago. It's about a group of rebellious youths during the Cultural Revolution. It is very avant-garde. I appreciated watching this more than my wife did (she hated it), but I'd have a hard time recommending this one.