China’s Most Extraordinary Expatriates
China’s new open-door policy and spectacular growth over the past three decades has prompted droves of westerners to make the leap to the Middle Kingdom. The total number of expatriates presently living in China reached over half a million in 2010. Expatriates can be seen in nearly every provincial city in China, Shanghai and Beijing of course hosting most of them.
Life in China for expatriates today is not as difficult as in years past. The living standard in China’s largest cities like Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai is as enjoyable as that of the western cities like New York, London and Paris.
Some expats find Chinese culture confusing, most consider it fascinating. The stable development of society and economy and rich job opportunities are all positive factors that attract more and more expatriates to come live, work and travel in China.
Expatriates in China are mainly employed in the information technology, education and finance sectors. In larger cities, there are also many expatriates who earn a living by opening their own western style restaurants and bars. Then there are those who have become celebrities in their own rights, either from capitalizing on their western face for television, by blogging about current events, or publishing memoirs of their adventures.
Following is a sampling of China’s most extraordinary expats living there today, and how they found their respective fortunes and/or fame and/or infamy.
David Marriott sparked a cyberspace man-hunt several years ago after he set up a blog where he posted entries boasting of his many and varied carnal encounters with the women of Shanghai. Using the alias “ChinaBounder,” Marriott sparked outrage among the men of Shanghai with his graphic descriptions of his success with Chinese women. In his blog, Chinabounder described in juicy details how he seduced multiple Chinese girls most of whom were his former students. The online campaign drew over 17,000 visitors and Marriot was threatened with murder and castration by conservative Chinese claiming he had blackened their country’s good name. However, although he was thought to be an English teacher in his thirties, his cover was never completely blown. Now he has decided to reveal his identity in a publicity attempt for his new book, Fault Lines on the Face of China: 50 Reasons Why China May Never Be Great.
2) Dashan is the Chinese stage name adopted by Canadian Mark Henry Rowswell, who works as a freelance performer in People’s Republic of China. Relatively unknown in the West, Dashan is perhaps the most famous Western personality in China’s media industry. He occupies a unique position as a foreign national who has become a bona fide domestic celebrity. Dashan can speak English and Mandarin fluently. He also spoke Cantonese in a Ford Commercial targeted at North American Chinese consumers.
3) Richard Burger is author of the popular blog The Peking Duck, which has been publishing since 2002. The Peking Duck’s posts on hot-button issues generate energetic comment threads from all sides of the political spectrum, and the site used to be a target of nationalist Chinese blogger trolls who criticized Burger for his views on China, which were often critical of the government. Burger recently became an editor at the newly launched English edition of the Global Times, a Chinese newspaper that has a reputation for leftist, nationalist content.
Peter Hessler is best known for his two books on China: River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, a Kiriyama Prize-winning book about his experiences in two years as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching English in China, and Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China’s Past and Present, a collection of journalistic stories he wrote while living in Beijing. While his stories are ostensibly about ordinary people’s lives in China and are not motivated by politics, they nevertheless touch upon political issues or the lives of people who encountered problems during the Cultural Revolution.
Dominic Johnson-Hill is a former backpacker from the UK who now runs Plastered T-shirts, the startup he founded in 2005 which does about 0,000 a year in sales. When Dominic first arrived in China, he had little to his name – but the guy knew how to hustle. A passionate love for China got him plenty of media attention. And he made the most of each press opportunity, such as appearing on a popular Chinese TV show wearing a t-shirt that featured his shop’s phone number. Plastered’s iconic fashion brand, which is known for visualizing creative twists on everyday elements of Beijing life, has since earned the easy going British businessmen celebrity status amongst local Beijingers.
6) Mark Kitto, author of Chasing China (aka “China Cuckoo”), made the great leap from the intense commercial chaos of Shanghai and a groundbreaking career as an English language magazine publisher, to running a coffee shop in a beautiful, but isolated mountain village. Five years ago, Mark Kitto was described as a ‘mini media mogul’ in China but that came to a brutal end after greedy Chinese investors (with the help of China’s fluid legal system) stole his entire media conglomerate away from him. Now Kitto leads a vastly different life on a mountain in a tiny Chinese village called Moganshan with his Chinese born wife and two young children.
Hong Kong-based Norwegian Cecilie Gamst Berg is the author Blonde Lotus, a female expat memoir published in English and Norwegian in 2006. She has written for newspapers and magazines in Hong Kong, Norway and Beijing and currently keeps two blogs. She presently works for RTHK (Radio Television Hong Kong) making weekly radio programs about Cantonese and, for the last two years, has been engaged in film making, putting her Cantonese course on YouTube as well as making documentaries about people’s daily lives in Hong Kong.
Graham Earnshaw is a CEO and the publisher of China Economic Review and Earnshaw Books. He has a varied background, including a career as a journalist during which he served as Beijing bureau chief for both Reuters and the London Daily Telegraph, and Reuters editor for Asia. He has written a number of books, including a China travel guide, the translation of a Chinese kung fu novel, published in 2004 by Oxford University Press, tales of Old Shanghai, published in 2008, and The Great Walk of China, published in 2010. He plays and writes music and has commercially issued two CDs of his own songs. He has lived mostly in Shanghai since 1995 and believes that the future of the world is being created in two places — the Internet and China.
Chris Taylor, author of the Lonely Planet guides to China, Tibet, Japan and Cambodia in the 1990s, and the first features editor at the Taipei Times, looks back on this era in his debut novel, Harvest Season, a racy, chemical-fueled parable of party travelers who push things too far in tourism’s latest frontier – China. When he falls for the newcomer’s fire-dancing Chinese girlfriend, he becomes entangled in a conflict that pits the drug-addled Westerners against increasingly hostile locals. A dark exploration of the disrupting effects of change, globalization and travel, Harvest Season also provides a glimpse of a China most of us never imagined existed.
Travel photographer Tom Carter journeyed for 2 years and 56,000 kilometers across the 33 provinces of China, the first foreigner in the history of China to have ever done so. During his travels, Tom racked up an impressive number of arrests and near-fatalities that have since become the stuff of expat legend, turning him into a popular headliner at speaking events and literary festivals. His book, CHINA: Portrait of a People, has been hailed as the most comprehensive photography book on modern China ever published by a single author.
Rachel DeWoskin spent her twenties in China as a consultant, writer, and the unlikely star of a nighttime soap opera called “Foreign Babes in Beijing.” Her memoir of those years, Foreign Babes in Beijing, has been published in six countries and is being developed as a television series by HBO. Her novel Repeat After Me, about a young American ESL teacher, a troubled Chinese radical, and their unexpected New York romance, won a Foreward Magazine Book of the Year award. Her third book, the novel Big Girl Small, is forthcoming from FSG in 2011.
Edwin Maher is a New Zealand-born TV journalist who now works for CCTV International in Beijing, China. In 2003, China Central Television sought to expand its CCTV International to be more professional and accessible to Western audiences. CCTV senior executive Jiang Heping approached Maher, already working in China with CCTV as a voice coach, to become one of the first western anchors for the revamped network. In January 2010, it was announced that Mayer’s life story would be adapted into a feature film, starring David Duchovny.
Robert Kong Hai is an American who has amassed the largest twitter (Weird China) following of anyone in China. Robert is active as a coordinator and financial sponsor of TEDx and other educational events in the Middle Kingdom. He puts his MBA to good use as a trainer in Qingdao where his blonde-haired, blue-eyed, Chinese speaking offspring draw crowds like rockstars. His tweets are a veritable Twikipedia of statistics on China. While he doesn’t play in many China expat social sandboxes, that makes him controversial by Old Hand standards, he is listened to by thousands and the most mentioned and re-tweeted on the network. With 266,000 followers he might just be a factor in public opinion about China.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, the Editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, and the author, most recently, of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know (published in April by Oxford University Press). A co-founder and regular contributor to The China Beat: Blogging How the East is Read, and a co-editor of China in 2008: A Year of Great Significance, he has contributed commentaries and reviews to various newspapers and to magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and the Nation.
In 1993, Dominic Stevenson left a comfortable life in Japan, to travel to China. His journey took him from the poppy fields of the Afghan–Pakistan border to the ancient trade routes of the Silk Road, before he was arrested for drug smuggling while boarding a boat from Shanghai to Japan. After eight months on remand in a Chinese police lock-up, Stevenson was sentenced to two and a half years in one of the biggest prisons in the world, the Shanghai Municipal Prison. His new book, Monkey House Blues: A Shanghai Prison Memoir, reflects on his life in Japan, India, Thailand and China, during which time he took on a varied array of jobs, including English teacher, karaoke-bar host, factory worker and drug dealer.
Alan Paul is the author of Big in China, a memoir about raising three American children in Beijing and the unlikely success of his Chinese blues band, Woodie Alan. Paul wrote “The Expat Life” column for the Wall Street Journal Online from 2005- 2009. The National Society of Newspaper Columnists named him 2008 Online Columnist of the Year. He also reported from Beijing for NBC, Sports Illustrated, the Wall Street Journal, and other media outlets.
China may seem an unlikely destination for Alfredo Martinez, a 6-foot-2-inch, 300-pound Brooklyn native who spent 21 months in a United States federal prison for forging drawings by Jean-Michel Basquiat. In August 2007, while living in China, the Beijing police burst into Martinez’s hotel room, which was filled with drawings of guns and bombs, and demanded to know if he was a terrorist. Shortly after, the secret Communist police arrested Martinez, locking him up indefinitely in a Beijing prison without trial or legal council. After almost dying from physical abuse and squalid living conditions, Martinez was hospitalized and deported back to America.
In 1989, Australian chef Michelle Garnaut opened M at the Fringe in the historic Dairy Farm building and changed dining culture in Hong Kong at least five years before her competition caught on. A decade later, she opened M on the Bund in Shanghai, turning a stately and taciturn Bund building into an elegant wining and dining destination, where she also launched the city’s first Literary Festival, followed by the opening of the hugely-popular Glamour Bar.
In 1995, UK-born Royal Marine Chris Thrall came to Hong Kong to make his fortune. Once here, his business went bankrupt, and a series of unsuccessful jobs led him to work in Wan Chai as a doorman for one of the biggest triad groups, the 14K. Dwelling in the criminal underworld drove him to drugs; he became addicted to crystal methamphetamine, and suffered from clinical psychosis. Now, 15 years on, he is ready to tell his story, in his new book, Eating Smoke
In 2004, Darren Russell, 35, went to China to teach English. His mother says his contract promised many things that didn’t materialize, including a work visa. when Darren threatened to blow the whistle on the school’s poor working conditions, his passport was confiscated and he was forcibly removed from the school campus. Three days later, Darren dead body was found in a ditch. The Chinese police claim he was hit by a vehicle but refused to release Darren’s body to his mother in America unless she agreed with their “official” version of the case. An autopsy conducted later in the U.S. revealed that, in fact, Darren’s head had been beaten in. Darren’s unfortunate case is a prime example China’s lack of enforceable laws from the top-down.