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.


Ramesh said...

I know what exactly you mean - China does that to visitors. It can captivate and enthrall and hold you in its spell for a lifetime.

Seems to be a lonely book - especially since there is a business angle to it, which was part of my experience living in China. Have to go and get the book ; another in a long line of book recommendations from you which will be spot on.

Best wishes Mark and Qian for a wonderful New Year

Unknown said...

Lovely review - this one goes straight to the top of the list. Thank you.

jon said...

Very interesting, thanks.

Rob Walters said...

Great review. I certainly want to read Mr China now - if only to find out what happened after the heart attack.

I've written a book on China. It's called Shaken by China, though I did not know of the Napoleonic quote before. It's fiction but based firmly on my experience of teaching in Shaanxi.

Would you be interested in reviewing it at all? I can send you a review copy (it's an eBook). You can see more details at

Mark said...

@Rob - Yeah, I'd be interested in checking out your book. Email me at markschinablog at gmail dot com and we can work out the details.