Monday, July 30, 2007


A Tycoon Who Ate the ‘New China’ for Breakfast

As Beijing bureau chief for The Times of London, Oliver August soon discovered something very newsworthy: that “the ‘New China’ known to readers had even more clichés than people.” So Mr. August set out to find an unusual angle. During his seven-year stint in China (he has since moved to the Middle East), he became intrigued by the roller-coaster ride of a farmer-turned-billionaire gangster, a man variously regarded as Robin Hood, the Chinese Gatsby or an enemy of the state. “Inside the Red Mansion” is a chronicle of Mr. August’s steady if desultory pursuit.

Lai Changxing is the outlaw. He wound up fleeing China for Vancouver, where he would prompt what Mr. August calls the longest hearing in Canadian legal history. And he based his building, sales, prostitution and smuggling empire in the boom town of Xiamen, on China’s southern coast. Though illiterate, Mr. Lai named his principal pleasure palace the Red Mansion after one of China’s epic works of fiction.

“For him to appropriate ‘Dream of a Red Mansion’ was like changing the name of Colosimo’s Café in Chicago — where Al Capone began his career — to Great Expectations, after Charles Dickens,” Mr. August explains. Although the huge novel is sometimes known as “Dream of the Red Chamber,” it suited both Mr. Lai’s and Mr. August’s purposes to make its title sound as grandiose as possible. After all, Mr. August would make Mr. Lai and his lair the focus of a seven-year investigation.

As investigative journalists go, Mr. August sounds more fun-loving than dogged. He proudly describes having roller skated his way through the Great Hall of the People in Beijing and being thrilled to have a security officer complain about him. (“This is too unserious.”) And he undertook the search for Mr. Lai in a similar spirit of mischief.

While writing newspaper articles on the kinds of feature-story topics that run through the book (e.g., how Xiamen Airlines conducted an onboard auction for airline merchandise and seats on future flights), he returned periodically to his roundabout hunt for Mr. Lai. “Inside the Red Mansion” winds up a colorfully digressive book capitalizing on the thought that understanding the new China is essential to understanding a criminal who could so successfully exploit it.

Early in the book Mr. August encounters a men’s room attendant eager to parlay that work into something, anything, that qualifies as a bigger business opportunity. Somebody else suggests combining a plastic surgery practice with a tailor shop to adjust patients’ clothes. This seems to have been the enterprising spirit of Mr. Lai’s gaudy rise to the top.

Although Mr. Lai is present through most of the book strictly as a reason to make others suddenly turn silent while being grilled by Mr. August, the economic atmosphere that proved so fertile for him is well evoked. From handing out a slew of bogus business cards as signs of status to playing golf by moonlight with multiple female caddies, Xiamen’s rogue would-be entrepreneurs are nothing if not creative. The idea of night golf not only enhances the golf course’s income but is said to protect farmers-turned-tycoons from the damaging sun.

In the circles that Mr. August wound up infiltrating, “Rich like Lai” was a toast, not a condemnation. The book describes how Mr. Lai’s great success as a self-made man, one who must have borrowed the Red Mansion conceit from a television miniseries since he could not read, has been imitated by many others.

At the anecdotal level Mr. August illustrates how China’s sense of history has experienced a post-Mao re-emergence, how grandiose imperial décor is again in vogue, how thoroughly food imagery infiltrates every kind of Chinese conversation, and how certain old ideas (concubinage) have a glamour that their modern equivalents (prostitution) lack. The tycoon who survived the economic downturn of his city, Beihai, to become the world’s biggest, most vulgar producer of foie gras is a typical figure to attract Mr. August’s eye.

“Inside the Red Mansion” fares so well with peripheral stories that it must forestall the inevitable: an actual run-in with Mr. Lai. While in China Mr. August never gets closer than glimpsing Mr. Lai’s disappointing hometown and the grim pleasure palace of the title. Later he fares better in a Canadian courtroom during Mr. Lai’s trial. (Mr. Lai ran afoul of Chinese authorities after attracting too much attention and wound up accused of smuggling and tax fraud on a grand scale. His flight to Canada created a diplomatic crisis and also made him a focus of public scrutiny.)

So Mr. August has a wonderful anecdote about seeing Mr. Lai walk into court, size up the lawyers, decide he was underdressed for the occasion and simply walk out to change his clothes. He returned in a partial tuxedo. And “by the end of the hearing he was treating the security officers in the courtroom as part of his entourage rather than as captors.” When it comes actually to interviewing Mr. Lai face to face, Mr. August’s questions do not live up to the occasion. (“How did you get to know so many officials? It can’t have been easy.”)

In the process of telling Mr. Lai’s story, Mr. August also conveys his own. He came to China from New York with a certain naïveté about how freely he could move through the country. He began to notice signs of surveillance around him. “The temple park was a wonderful place for an afternoon outing, and all the more enjoyable if you could watch grown men crouch in the bushes,” he observes.

And a year before “Inside the Red Mansion” was due to be published, a handler from the Chinese Foreign Ministry told Mr. August that he had enjoyed the book. You needn’t be a spy to agree.

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