China café

The local media have turned me into the most popular person in this part of China, and made my dog as famous as Lassie. Plus, how to civilise a road, Chinese-style
September 27, 2008
No, I'm not going to eat my dog

Someone told me that I was on the radio. I was baffled. I have been on the radio before: many years ago the World Service had me contribute to a panel of experts discussing business in China. But I was never invited back—the result, perhaps, of a certain cynicism on my part.

Then I realised what had happened. The local media has been engaging in one of its regular quasi-plagiaristic orgies. It started with a small item in the town paper. The story was about how a foreigner (me) set up a coffee shop in Moganshan. That's news round here, along with "Foreigner says 'China good'" and "Foreigner crosses street." The article was accompanied with a picture of me and my labrador, Charlie, since she's photogenic (see below, right). The fact that I own a dog which I haven't eaten yet suits the "wacky foreigner" stereotype. (I get asked why I haven't eaten her every winter.)

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The nearest city paper republished the story with an extra couple of lines. Then the provincial paper picked up on that article and sent one of their editors to Moganshan. From the previous coverage, the editor knew that I like Chinese literature. He wanted a photograph of me reading a Chinese book to a child. Reluctant to do this, I tried to distract him by mentioning the taboo subject of self-exiled Gao Xingjian, the Chinese-born writer who won the Nobel prize for literature in 2000. But the editor had never heard of him.

Once the provincial paper had run its slightly expanded story, with more cheesy photographs of Charlie, I had a call from a television station in the neighbouring province. They wanted to make a short film about me. Why not, I thought. My dog Charlie is now as famous as Lassie.

I gather that the audio from the television interview was broadcast on the radio. All this coverage is both good and bad for business. People from all over the province have been visiting the coffee shop. But they walk in and say, "We want to speak to Mark. We are his friends." Then they demand my undivided attention for the next couple of hours.

"I don't think we've met," I say.

"Yes we have. We heard about you in the paper/on TV/on the radio. We even know your dog's name, so we're friends."

Signs of civilisation

There's a long road around the back of the mountain for tour coaches and private cars who cannot—or dare not—take the steeper and shorter front road. This road is sporting a brand new sign—blue, three metres square and mounted on silver pillars. Four enormous characters declare: "Wenming Gonglu," or "civilised public highway." Across the bottom, in smaller characters, are the date and name of the presiding authority, Zhejiang provincial traffic bureau.

I've seen plaques that tell me I'm entering a "civilised work unit," buying from a "first-level producer," or staying in a "six-star" hotel. I've stopped pondering how a hotel without minibars can receive any stars at all, and I've had many civilised work unit meetings which ended with the host throwing up after a boozy banquet. But how do you civilise a road? I wondered as I freewheeled past on my bike.

What about hosting a tea party on it? Someone has actually set up a small open-air tea house on the quiet lane behind our house, with the tables in the middle of the road. It's one way to catch business. But a tea party on the road up the mountain would be obliterated by the tour coaches that careen up and down it, air horns blaring as they take bends on the wrong side of the road. It's risky in a Volvo, let alone a bamboo chair.

Then I suddenly realised the reason for the "civilised public highway." It is aspirational, or even an exhortation. It's the Chinese way of saying "Please drive carefully." I snapped out of my bemusement just in time to avoid the bus.

Summer camp in Moganshan

Year-round Moganshan has five permanent young residents, two of them ours. But in the hot summer months, the number of children increases at least tenfold.

Every household seems to take on the sons and daughters of relatives from the nearest town during the school holidays. It suits everyone. The grandparents and great-uncles and aunts thrive on the responsibility. And for the kids, it's like summer camp. Moganshan is a perfect adventure playground, thanks to the old villas and the trails through the bamboo. In its foreign-run heyday it was called a "paradise for children." It still is. At weekends, foreign families turn up from Shanghai. Outside the coffee shop, children rollerblade, bicycle, kick balls around and generally ruin the peace and quiet their parents came here for.

Our eldest child, Isabel, is six years old and due to start primary school soon. Some local parents with children of similar ages tried to persuade us to make up a group and employ teachers to "prepare" the children over the holiday. In other words, to get them cramming before their education had even started. We politely refused. What better preparation for school could there be than playing with children of all nationalities and ages, wandering along bamboo trails to visit the neighbours and going on nature walks with a famous dog?