MOGANSHAN, China – The first to build and occupy European-style stone villas atop this bamboo-cloaked mountain were the foreign missionaries. Then came Big-Ear Du and other Shanghai gangsters looking for a getaway (or maybe hideaway). Later still, the big guns rolled in: Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong.
“I think Moganshan is a miniature of the first half of China’s 20th-century history,” said Wu Chengtao, a forestry official who lives at the base of the mountain here in southeast China. “It’s a great window through which you can look at the history.”
These days, the clock is turning back on Moganshan. Foreigners are returning to the retreat, 701 metres above the East China plain, where they can escape the summer heat of nearby Shanghai and Hangzhou. They spend nights in the old villas and frolic by day in verdant hillsides that were once the setting for tennis tournaments, swimming pool parties and rounds of gin and tonics at sunset. That life of leisure ended in 1949, when the Chinese Communists won the civil war.
More than 100 villas survive, about one-fifth of them owned by a unit of the People’s Liberation Army based in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province.
A Welshman, Mark Kitto, was the first foreigner in a half-century to move back into a villa here. In 2003 he negotiated a 10-year lease with the military, and three years later moved in with his wife and children. Kitto, a former magazine publisher from Shanghai, renovated the villa with his wife, Joanna, a native of Guangzhou, and wrote about his move in a memoir, “China Cuckoo” (“Chasing China” in the United States).
Today, he is at the centre of the revival of interest in the mountain among foreigners.
“This was the real thing, solid and three-dimensional, as if transported stone by stone from the Alps or Provence or even north Wales, where I grew up,” Kitto wrote in his book of the first time he saw the village, in 1999.
One morning, Kitto, 44, dressed in a tweed vest and breeches, led visitors through a lush bamboo forest, as farmers hacked away at tree trunks, cows grazed and women picked tea leaves at plantations near the ridge-line.
“Nothing changes on top of the mountain,” Kitto said.
But that is not quite true, thanks to Kitto. He and his wife opened a restaurant, Moganshan Lodge, when they moved here, and Joanna Kitto has helped renovate three villas to rent to guests. The village has a few other hotels. About 300,000 people, the vast majority of them Chinese, visit the mountain each year – a relatively low figure given its proximity to Shanghai and Hangzhou.
Kitto said there could be more visitors, but the mountain remains under the control of the provincial, rather than county, government, which has stymied renovation and rental of the villas. “If the local government had control of Moganshan, this would be the Chamonix of China,” he said, referring to a popular mountain resort in France.
Provincial officials were about to hand control to the county government, Kitto said, when someone asked . Xi Jinping, China’s vice president and presumptive successor to President Hu Jintao, what he thought of the place, which he had visited years ago. “Moganshan is good,” was the simple reply, which officials interpreted as a signal to preserve provincial control, Kitto said.
Most foreigners hear about the mountain by word of mouth. A few years ago, 14 people spent a “murder mystery” weekend at one of the renovated villas, said a participant, Jamie Wrightson, who shared a two-year lease on a farmhouse here. One weekend in May, a group of 16 men, mostly Americans, came in for a bachelor party that left a room in House Number 2 as fetid as the village pigsties.
Missionaries first came to Moganshan in the late 19th century, looking for an alternative to Lushan, a popular retreat in Jiangxi province, Kitto wrote in his book. By the spring of 1898, there was a rush for property on the mountain. Treaties forced on China during the Opium Wars gave missionary societies the right to own property outside the trading enclaves governed by foreigners in certain port cities.
According to Kitto’s research, the first foreigner to buy land on Moganshan was the Rev. F.W. Farnham of Shanghai, who bought 30 hectares on a tea plantation for 50 Mexican dollars, the currency used at the time.
Soon, the residents set up the Moganshan Summer Resort Association. All but one of the inaugural members was a reverend. They enjoyed hiking, swimming, playing tennis, having afternoon tea, dancing to music played on gramophones. Americans dominated, followed by the British.
In 1924, 13 years after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, the Republic of China reclaimed the mountain. Well-off Chinese began coming here. In 1929, there were 242 villas on the mountain, only 78 of them owned by foreigners, according to a paper by a graduate student at Zhejiang University.
Among the Chinese who built villas were Du Yuesheng, known as Big-Ear Du, and his right-hand man, Zhang Xiaolin. They ran the infamous Green Gang in Shanghai, which, among other activities, sold opium. Both of their villas still stand. Zhang kept tigers and peacocks, and was met by a police welcoming committee that set off fireworks in his honour, Kitto said.
“Village myth says he fed one mistress to his Moganshan pet tiger and locked up another in a grotto for playing around with one of his bodyguards while he was away on business in Shanghai,” Kitto wrote.
Chiang Kai-shek came three times to the mountain: to spend a few days here on his honeymoon with Soong Mei-ling; to secretly meet with Zhou Enlai, the Communist leader, to discuss cooperating in the war against the Japanese; and to try to work out a new gold standard.
Ownership of Moganshan once again changed hands in 1949.
Fives years later, Mao visited and had “a nap at noon,” said Wu, the forestry official. One elderly woman told Kitto that officials locked up all the villagers in House Number 62 for the entire day, until Mao left. “No one saw Mao,” she said, “and he saw no one either.”