In the late '90s, Mark Kitto helped found the That's series of magazines, arguably China's most well-known English-language magazines distributed in Beijing, Shanghai, and the Pearl River Delta cities. Within several years, the business was turning a profit in the millions. But without full publishing licenses, the magazines were vulnerable to legal sleights of hand. Indeed, in 2004, the magazines and their production teams were in effect confiscated by a business partner. Having lost his fortune-making machine, Kitto returned to Britain, realized he had firmly planted roots in China, and retreated with his wife, a local, to Moganshan. The mountain village, about two hours west of Shanghai, is home to the young Kitto family and the lodge for travelers that they run. Kitto has recently published the autobiographical China Cuckoo: How I lost a fortune and found a life
When and with whom did you start That's?
Kathleen Lau and I started That's magazines in 1998, except they weren't called That's. The precursor for that's Shanghai was called Ish, 'In Shanghai.' And the parent of Ish was Clueless in Guangzhou, started in 1997 by Kathleen.
Was your goal to make a media empire in China?
Clueless in Guangzhou was for fun, to see what would happen. That's magazines were our bid for a media empire. Not just in China, Asia too.
Who put up the initial $20,000 investment to start the magazines?
Me and Kathleen, half and half.
What was the key to turning a profit in a notoriously difficult industry?
Integrity (and should I be charging a consultancy fee for this interview?).
In the early days, what was life like working on the magazines?
I used to get up before I went to bed and lick [my] laptop clean with my tongue, but you try telling them that nowadays; they won't believe you, and so on (with apologies to Monty Python).
What sorts of hours did you put in?
16 a day on average.
Was it difficult finding good contributors to create informed, English-language content in those days
Not so long as you briefed them well and edited them afterwards.
You've written a book called China Cuckoo in which you tell the story of the That's experience.
The story is about Moganshan, where I live, with a chapter (about That's magazines) explaining why I moved here permanently.
What is it about China that keeps you here, and in such a remote location?
The villagers are beautiful people, Moganshan is beautiful, my wife is Chinese, my wife is beautiful ... .
Who do you expect will read the book?
People who want a pick-me-up in this recession, because the basic story is about someone (me) losing everything and getting on with life, and the fact that losing everything worked out OK in the end. People who want to read about China but not another business or travel book about the country. People who have been to Moganshan. My mum. And a few people who are still dancing on the grave of my mini media empire.
Will it be available in languages other than English?
I hope so very much, and my agent is negotiating a Chinese-language deal at the moment.
What does the China Cuckoo story offer to its readers that other Westerners-in-China literature doesn't?
It is a simple story of moving to, and living on, a Chinese mountain called Moganshan. Has anyone else written that story yet? I think not. I do hope China Cuckoo is not referred to as "another China book." It is a Mark Kitto book.