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When Simon MacKinnon arrived in Shanghai in 1985 to teach English at the city’s Foreign Trade Institute, China had only just started to wriggle free of its failed 30-year experiment with a planned economy.
“It was a time of two currencies, there was no western fast food, Coca-Cola wasn’t readily available and the first small private businesses, the getihu, were opening hole-in-the-wall restaurants and selling off barrows on the streets,” says MacKinnon.
The 53-year-old Briton had first travelled extensively through China in 1983 but he also attributes his move to Shanghai to more atavistic impulses. “It was something in my Scottish DNA,” he says. “Many MacKinnons come from the Hebrides and have been going to sea for generations. There were MacKinnons around Asia from Kolkata to Yokohama and I had grown up reading about Shanghai, with its jazz, art deco and cinema, as one of the great cities in Asia.”
MacKinnon recalls Shanghai when he arrived was little changed since the foreign exodus in 1949. When in 1987 Steven Spielberg came to film his adaptation of Empire of the Sun, JG Ballard’s novel of a young boy growing up in 1940s Shanghai, it was said the set crew needed only to change the street signs back to English.
With so few foreigners living in Shanghai at the time, there were opportunities for anyone willing to play a westerner in the film. “All the foreign teachers were invited to be extras. I was lost in a crowd scene but my colleague from Colorado did a wonderful turn as a turban-clad Sikh policeman,” says MacKinnon.
Besides teaching English and studying Mandarin, he began to work for UK companies trying to establish toeholds in the nascent Chinese market. “There were so many things going on, and I had so much to learn,” says MacKinnon, whose early bridge-building efforts contributed later to his election as chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.
Within a year of arriving, MacKinnon had met and married Mary, a Shanghai native. Mary helped him navigate Chinese culture – and the convolutions of buying a Flying Pigeon, or FeiGe, bicycle.
“At the time, to buy a bicycle still required a Chinese ration coupon. With FeiGe known as one of the best-built bicycles, these coupons were very difficult to get hold of,” says MacKinnon. “Mary managed to get a coupon for me after she discovered one of her students had a relative working in the FeiGe factory.”
On weekends, MacKinnon and his wife often crossed the Huangpu river to explore Pudong. “We would take the ferry across from Puxi. There were no bridges then and very quickly you were in the countryside,” he says. Today the same district is home to about 5m people, Shanghai’s financial centre and a skyline as imposing as that of Manhattan.
In 1987 the couple moved to London where MacKinnon started work for P&O. Within a few years they were back in Asia, and by 1995 had settled permanently in Shanghai, where MacKinnon headed the company’s Shanghai operations.
A memorable project was a water treatment plant, the first “Build, Operate and Transfer” water project in China. “With no Chinese regulations covering this form of contract it was an extraordinary process to get to a deal, with many a difficult item solved over a long dinner and numerous mao-tai liquor toasts. It was a masterclass in the skills of Chinese negotiators,” he says.
After working as president of Corning Greater China, a speciality glass and ceramics manufacturer, for eight years, MacKinnon is now building two companies heavily involved in one of China’s biggest challenges, healthcare reform. Sinophi Healthcare is buying hospitals and building connections between Chinese hospitals and NHS hospitals in the UK. The Your.MD app uses patented big data technologies and NHS content to deliver personalised health advice on mobile devices.
For his healthcare work, there has been no shortage of wisdom available to MacKinnon. “My wife comes from a large family with many doctors, so I’ve grown up here surrounded by experts,” he says. Seeing where there was need in Shanghai’s hospitals and orphanages prompted him to work with charities focused on child welfare and education.
In the late 1990s MacKinnon offered his business skills to help an English couple, Rob and Liz Glover, set up Care for Children, a UK-China foster care charity that helps place Chinese orphans in Chinese homes. “Care for Children starts from the view that all children are entitled to grow up with the love of a family,” says MacKinnon. “With the support of the ministry of civil affairs, it has helped more than a quarter of a million Chinese children leave orphanages to start new lives in Chinese families.”
While modest about his charitable endeavours and his work helping to build links between Shanghai and the UK, MacKinnon’s efforts have not gone unnoticed in either country. Made an OBE by the Queen, he is also one of only 35 foreign citizens since 1949 to have been granted honorary citizenship of Shanghai.
MacKinnon says that being a Mandarin speaker has been a considerable help to him, but he also notes that some foreigners are able to grasp the nuances of China without much knowledge of the language. “It helps to be humble, open, curious and willing to laugh at yourself. And you have to like food. Food is central to social interaction in China,” he says.
MacKinnon has travelled widely in his adopted country but Shanghai is his passion. The city’s lure begins in his immediate neighbourhood in the former French Concession whose tranquil streets, lined with plane trees and evocative of a provincial French city, were also home to many of China’s most important 20th-century figures. “On weekends I can walk past the Shanghai houses of Song Qingling, Chiang Kai-shek, Zhou Enlai, and Mei Lanfang, the famous Beijing opera singer,” he says.
MacKinnon professes little desire to return to the UK, and the only regret he registers is not having had time to learn enough characters to read Chinese literature. “I have been very fortunate to be a tiny bridge between the UK and China,” he says, “but even more so to have had a ringside seat in Shanghai over the last three decades watching the Chinese transform their country.”
MacKinnon’s verdict . . .
● Variety of old neighbourhood, high-rise and suburban living choices
● Good infrastructure and a subway system now longer than London’s
● Great range of dining options
● Residential property prices in the city centre are expensive
● Shanghai dialect is difficult to learn
● Stinky tofu, the local favourite snack, is definitely an acquired taste
What you can buy for . . .
$1m A two-bedroom apartment in a modern building in the Gubei area
$3.4m A three-bedroom high-rise apartment unit in Xuhui Binjiang
$9m A five-bedroom home with a garden in the French Concession