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Book Review: 'The Forbidden Game'

Former fellow Shanghairen Dan Washburn explores golf, corruption, land grabs and China's ever-widening wealth gap.
2014-07-22 15:21:46
The recent vogue in books on China has been around long enough that you start to recognize certain sub genres. The ones that you see the most of here are of the "how to succeed at business in China without even trying." Then there is the "China is going to eat our lunch" books that tell of everybody's impending doom in the face of this economic juggernaut. Less available in Shanghai, for obvious reasons, are the books that deal with the tumultuous events of China's recent history. But sports journalist and founding former editor of Shanghaiist Dan Washburn, has written The Forbidden Game, a book about golf.

Then again, when you get down to it, it's not really about golf. Rather, Washburn uses the game as a lens through which to view China's rise as an economic power and all that it entails, from the unprecedented generation of wealth (and its accompanying poverty) to corrupt land grabs to environmental consequences.

To do this Washburn weaves together the stories of three men from three different walks of life who have experienced the game in three very different ways.

There is Martin Moore, a golf course builder from the US. A Florida native, he got his start in Asia in the '90s when he was hired to build a golf course in Thailand. Before long, he was building a course in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan, and from there he went on to manage some of the most ambitious golf course construction projects in the history of the game.

His story follows a trajectory similar to that of most executives who came to China in the '90s. He learned how to navigate the Byzantine business dealings, how to forge relationships with government officials (like accompanying them to watch a drug offender's execution by firing squad), and dealing with wealthy, eccentric clients, one of whom was known to punish employees when they were late to meetings by making them stand in the corner as if they were children. Nevertheless, in spite of all of the headaches and ulcers it likely induced, golf in China has no doubt been good to Moore.

He even learns an invaluable lesson: How to build golf courses in China even though it's technically illegal. In 2004, Beijing issued a moratorium on the construction of all further golf courses. From there we learn all of the legal legerdemain and laughable loopholes that golf course developers and local authorities employ to skirt around Beijing's decrees. To date, according to Washburn, only about 12 of the several hundred golf courses here are even legally sanctioned. The rest "don't exist."

For Zhou Xunshu, life has always been a steep climb, from his days in a remote mountain village in Guizhou Province to his attempts at playing professional golf. His is a story of the proverbial "self-made man." He stumbled into the game (though Zhou might tell you that it was fate) after dropping out of the police academy and getting a job as a security guard at a Guangzhou golf course. The game immediately intrigued him. He recounts to Washburn how, unable to afford clubs, he would scavenge around the course for lost balls and discarded golf club shafts upon which he would fashion heads molded from concrete. He developed his swing by secretly chipping golf balls behind his dormitory, promising the maintenance department to personally repair any windows he broke in return for their silence.

Through grit and determination Zhou honed his craft and eventually got good enough to join a professional tour in China. But we soon learn that being a professional golfer in China isn't quite the plum position we might assume it to be. Washburn follows him from tournament to tournament as he stays in fleabag hotels, hitching taxi rides (sometimes even walking) to the course to play. All the while, any prize money that he earns seems to get eaten up by his travel expenses. He can barely make ends meet, a problem only exacerbated by his aging parents back home and his wife in Chongqing, who's expecting a baby. And if he can't find sponsorship soon, he may have to give up and accept a job selling golf carts.

Then there is Wang Libo, a lychee farmer from the southern island of Hainan, whose home village of Meiqiu ends up on the chopping block for an ambitious golf course construction complex, one that, coincidentally, Martin Moore oversaw.

When local officials signed away much of his centuries-old village to a golf course developer, some were ready to take a quick payout. Others wanted to negotiate for more money. Others, still, wanted to dig in their heels and fight. It engendered a spell of nasty infighting and rekindled old, bitter feuds. Wang watched his community fall apart.

But there is always that old saw about the Chinese character for "crisis" containing the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." Wang sees the land grab as inevitable, and shortly after construction begins finds way to make money by opening up a shop near the employee dorms selling necessities to the countless migrants brought in to work.

Washburn has found three people whose stories are without a doubt compelling. He teases out from his interviews and observations some deeply human stories about sacrifice, determination and adaptability. They speak to the better aspects of our nature. But for all of this talk of golf as opportunity, Washburn conversely acknowledges its social costs too.

One of Wang Libo's neighbors in Meiqiu, for instance, resists the development. The squeaky wheel, of course, gets the grease. His grove of lychee trees is among the first to be bulldozed and, adding insult to injury, only weeks before harvest. The sad irony is that once the trees were leveled, construction crews didn't touch the land for months. We also see a confrontation between members of the Meiqiu community and local chengguan, those public security officers with a reputation for knocking heads, that results in a nasty beating.

Indeed, Washburn gives us a clear sense of the social consequences of golf in China — the land grabs, the corruption and the perpetual victimization of the poor. Still, perhaps this could have been better illustrated if Washburn wove in a more detailed story about someone who didn't quite end up on his feet after his village was razed to the ground. As it stands, the victims that are included seem more like peripheral characters.

Also lacking is a robust discussion of the environmental consequences of these golf courses. Pesticide run-off or the opportunity cost of using arable land for the leisurely pursuits of the wealthy would seem to be at front and center of this issue. They get a cursory glance at best. To be fair, though, I imagine that environmental impact figures aren't terribly easy to come by when it comes to golf courses in China. After all, most of these golf courses don't even technically exist.

But in spite of this. It's a compelling read, well-researched and full of anecdotes that are times entertaining and at times heart breaking. Well worth picking up.

Author Dan Washburn