by Maura Elizabeth Cunningham
Toxic air pollution, avian flu, dead pigs floating down the river, rat meat sold as lamb in local restaurants, bottled water that might not be safe to drink… Life in Shanghai is starting to feel like it brings a daily revelation of threats to our environment and health. Even the hardiest city-dweller might want to escape the chaos from time to time, and so when a friend offered me the opportunity to join a weekend trip he had organized to the mountaintop retreat of Moganshan, one of my favorite places in China, I jumped at the chance.
Moganshan, a four-hour bus ride from Shanghai, has served as an escape from the city for more than a century. In the late 1890s, foreign missionaries and businessmen were also seeking refuge from environmental and public health dangers: in summers, a dense cloud of swampy heat and humidity descends on Shanghai, making heat stroke a constant danger in those pre-air conditioning days. Epidemics of measles, malaria, and cholera raced through the population, hitting children particularly hard. Shanghai’s foreign residents wanted a summertime retreat where their families could avoid the city’s worst season, and they found one on the cool, breezy top of Moganshan (or Mount Mogan; “shan” means “mountain”).
Moganshan, with its large missionary community, was more sedate and middle-class than the better-known hill station at Kuling, another summer outpost for foreigners in China. Moganshan’s visitors built over 300 modest stone villas — plain boxes with few architectural flourishes aside from a veranda or balcony — about 150 of which are still standing today. In the 1920s and ‘30s, several Chinese notables joined the foreigners on Moganshan: Shanghai gangsters Du Yuesheng (“Big-Eared Du”) and Zhang Xiaolin both owned vacation homes on the mountain, and Chiang Kai-shek made several trips to Moganshan, including one with his wife Soong Mei-ling on their honeymoon. After the foreign community left China following the Communist victory in 1949, the government took over many of Moganshan’s villas and turned the mountain into a sanatorium for cadres in need of a rest. Other villas were leased for a token amount of rent to Chinese families that had once worked for the foreign visitors, with up to four households moving into a single residence. And some of the houses were simply left to rot, their sturdy stone shells now a ghostly presence among the thick bamboo forests of the mountain.
My group spent the weekend exploring the villas of Moganshan, guided at first by Mark Kitto, an Englishman who fell in love with the largely abandoned resort town in 1999 and managed to rent and restore two houses there several years later. Kitto, as he explains in his memoir of life on the mountain, China Cuckoo: How I Lost a Fortune and Found a Life in China,* faced innumerable challenges in his quest to move to Moganshan; several government and military departments share oversight of the community, and all of them are happiest when they can preserve the status quo. This explains, in part, why so many of the beautiful old villas have fallen into disrepair: renovating them to their early-twentieth-century glory would require coordination and money from the various departments involved, and it’s easier to leave things as they are. Kitto and his Guangzhou-born wife, Joanna, have tried to spark tourism to Moganshan, operating a coffee shop and gathering spot called The Lodge, as well as three guesthouses in restored villas, but they’re soon preparing for a move to England.
Despite the impending departure of the Kittos, Moganshan, which received a write-up in the New York Times last year, is stirring to life after decades of stagnation. As our group hiked through bamboo groves and climbed the endless flights of stone steps that turn the mountain into an excellent StairMaster substitute, we seemed to be followed everywhere we went by the sounds of hammers banging and circular saws whirring. Construction crews hauled refuse out of the old villas, while new bathroom fixtures sat in overgrown gardens waiting to be installed. The smell of fresh paint wafted through the air whenever we approached a house under renovation, and workmen stopped what they were doing to watch us snapping photos of their efforts. A small stone church looks like a country chapel straight out of Downton Abbey, after its restoration by the local Christian community several years ago. And down the road from Moganshan town, in the nearby village of Wulingcun, construction is underway on a large new hotel, projected to open at the end of this year. At the base of the mountain, the naked Stables resort and Le Passage Mohkan Shan offer super-luxury accommodations; at the peak (where my group stayed), facilities are more basic, with a half-dozen tiny restaurants — all offering, I realized, the same menu — and another dozen or so low- and mid-range hotels. If the local government would restore the old public swimming pool (now closed, after a failed experiment with turning it into a fishing pond), the resort would have just about everything a weekend visitor could ask for.
I’d be perfectly content for the mountain to remain a semi-secret, a respite from the ultra-crowded conditions found nearly everywhere else in eastern China, but I know that Moganshan is too wonderful a summertime retreat to stay under the radar for much longer. It offers lovely scenery, smooth trails, and — perhaps best of all — as we hiked past streams, a small lake, and that abandoned swimming pool, I didn’t see a single floating dead pig. Really, that’s all I wanted.
* At The Lodge, I bought a second edition of the British version of Kitto’s book, which was published in the United States as Chasing China: How I Went to China in Search of a Fortune and Found a Life. The American version has not, as far as I can tell, been updated with Kitto’s new epilogue, which explains his decision to leave China — also covered in a famous-among-expats Prospect Magazine article titled “You’ll Never Be Chinese.”
Read the rest of LARB’s China Blog here.