With the title, Killing Bugs for Business and Beauty, Mark Kuhlberg sets the stage for a book with more good guys and villains than the latest big-screen super hero movie. However, unlike larger-than-life comic book evil-doers, the culprits with humanity’s downfall on their to-do lists in Kuhlberg’s third book are tiny forest-destroying insects, particularly caterpillars. Though forest-devouring insects have been a staple in mother nature’s pest arsenal since the dawn of time, they went largely un-noticed until they started to cost companies who rely on forest products money through the destruction of valuable standing timber. It is at this realization where Kuhlberg’s story begins.
Detailing a campaign waged by several large companies in 1920s Quebec and Nova Scotia to eliminate forest pests employing whatever means necessary, the book provides interesting reading for forest history enthusiasts, as well as aviation buffs. Following the successful use of the airplane during the First World War in an observation then subsequent combat role, aircraft were seen as the answer in what was billed as a new war - on insects. Recounting the trials and tribulations of modifying aircraft to carpet bomb forests with a sinister-sounding composition of lead-arsenate, gives a glimpse into the desperation felt in what seemed to be a losing battle against the tiny pests.
Moving west into Ontario, the narrative shifts to killing bugs for purely aesthetic reasons. Centred around what is known as “cottage country” in Ontario’s Muskoka region, we see that forest-destroying insects have opened a second front against rich, affluent urbanites who seek the natural beauty of the areas forests and lakes as solitude against increasing urban filth in the 1930s. Then, as now, wealthy people wish to alter nature to suit their needs regardless of the long- term impact on the environment. It must be noted that the majority of the population was concerned with putting food on the table during the Depression era, so individuals who could occupy their time stressing over caterpillars were not those affected by the worst financial disaster of the modern era. Again, the airplane was seen as the answer for dealing with defoliating insects, and again, the technical aspects of mapping and spraying vast swaths of forests are discussed in excellent detail. It doesn’t go unnoticed that lobby groups composed of wealthy people felt it was their right to side-step environmental regulations to achieve their aims in this era, as is still the case.
The book concludes chronologically in British Columbia where the story has elements of bug execution for both business concerns as well as the ‘beauty’ elements seen in the Muskoka portion of the story. Interestingly, Vancouver’s Stanley Park plays centre stage as destructive insects saw no reason to spare public green-spaces. Marathon of History 30 It takes a significant amount of time for the forest industry to realize that altering forest harvesting practices was the only reliable, long-term solution to controlling insect outbreaks. As the author discussed in an April 2022 interview, insects are part of a natural forest ecosystem and sometimes, regardless of what human intervention occurs, can not be controlled without effecting the natural balance of things. Knee-jerk reactions and quick fixes rarely work in any scenario, and combatting forest pests is no different. Entomologists around the turn-of-the-century warned of the potential dangers of forest insects. These warnings went unheaded, resulting in a mad scramble to do away with forest-destroying insects, and the whole tale is nicely wrapped up in Killing Bugs for Business and Beauty.
Two points stand out when reading Red Roulette: Author Desmond Shum is an impressive self made billionaire, and China is a country of hard-working people with a bad government. Arriving at these conclusions is the culmination of 288 pages of autobiographical material taking the reader through the evolution of the Chinese political, business and social world. Starting with the fallout from the Communist revolution, but focusing on the early 2000s when the author was most active amongst the Beijing business elite, Shum paints a picture of a country with so much potential yet seems to be senselessly sliding backwards into a cesspool of corruption. Though Shum has understandable reasons for turning this book into an attack on his enemies, the Chinese government, and to a lesser degree, his ex-wife, he maintains a facts-only approach which rewards the reader with a rare glimpse into one of the world’s most powerful yet mysterious countries.
Shum’s story begins in expected autobiography fashion with information surrounding his life as a child in China during the 1970s. Though the book structure is typical, the story is far from it. Shum describes with empathetic pain the hardships that the communist party put on ‘un-desirable’ Chinese people, primarily his father’s parents, during and after the Chinese revolution in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It is clear that the Communist party’s ‘with us or against us’ attitude was the order of the day when they consolidated power after 1949, and these same attitudes proved to be what Shum and his associates would battle in varying degrees throughout the book right into the modern reign of Xi Jinping.
Even without significant knowledge of Chinese culture, it appears that Shum’s childhood was rather unspectacular, if not a bit tragic. He describes daily beatings administered by his father as a nonchalant occurrence, however credits his parent’s tough love with helping make him who he is today. Following the families move to Hong Kong in 1978, the reader begins to get a sense that Shum’s family story is truly one of rags to riches. He recalls landing in Hong Kong with only ten Hong Kong dollars in his pocket (roughly equivalent to two American dollars at the time). As his parents struggle to make ends meet, initially relying on family and friends for subsistence, Shum descries an eventual awakening of sorts. Educated in the top schools on the tiny island, the author eventually moves to the United States where he earned a degree in finance and accounting at the University of Wisconsin.
A detailed description of his upbringing occupies roughly the first third of the book, providing the necessary background to the story as it progresses rapidly following his return from the United States in 1991. Shum wraps up the formative journey when he details the meeting of his future wife, Whitney. Whitney is introduced as a strong, capable, intelligent and intuitive business woman in a country dominated by male executives. It appears Whitney carries a chip on her shoulder fuelled by an intense desire to make something of herself, which in China means wealth and status. Impressively, this drive is tempered by a fierce determination to remain un-corrupted in a world where shady deals are the only means to success. Shum is careful to highlight both his and Whitney’s desire to remain ‘clean’ while playing the game of Chinese political chess.
Following the introduction of Whitney, the story begins to gain momentum towards the climax of the story, which is Whitney’s disappearance. Shum and Whitney climb the ladder of Chinese wealth as they made several calculated investments that yielded notable returns during China’s economic boom of the early 2000s. A major part of the story is the guidance and mentorship the pair receive from Whitney’s long time friend, and wife of Premier Wen Jiabao, Auntie Zhang. Zhang is a constant companion to the two and her importance is evident as she factors into almost every move that Shum and Whitney make, occasionally fronting capital for investments. The balance of the middle portion of the book details the delicate political dance around Chinese bureaucratic red tape required to complete the Beijing airport cargo facility, Shum and Whitney’s first major construction project. The book follows a chronological pattern describing several more successful ventures placing the duo amongst Beijing’s financial elite, and begins to open up more about Shum and Whitney’s philanthropic side, detailing several charitable initiatives embarked upon. Though wealth and success have been achieved by the final hundred pages of the book, the tone of the writing certainly alludes to growing tension between the author and his wife. In October 2013, Shum and Whitney separate, with a divorce finalized in December 2015. Shortly before the divorce was finalized, Shum had moved to the United Kingdom with his son in a decision he and Whitney thought was best for his upbringing. The split remained amicable and the couple communicated openly about raising their son, until Whitney disappeared.
Throughout the book, Shum details how the Chinese government fears the growing power of private capital. Through the 2000s, private investment fuelled China’s meteoric economic rise, however recently the government, fearing loss of control, has begun to flex muscle both financially and physically to re-assert state-run business. We are led to realize that Whitney, as a successful business person with high-level connections, was deemed a serious threat ultimately leading to her unknown disappearance and rather disturbing conclusion to the story. (A side note on Whitney’s disappearance; in an October 13, 2021 Time Magazine article, Shum reveals that he has made contact with Whitney who reached out begging him not to publish the book. There isn’t much detail about the conversation revealed beyond Whitney saying she has been treated ‘leniently’).
This book raises many questions to the reader about governmental control of business and economic systems in general. As much as China is villainized by the western world, this book raises subtle questions about how much different is it in reality. Beyond planned kidnappings and murder; the systems of bribery, friends in high places rewarding their cronies and ‘money trumps all’ attitude accurately describes the North American business/government relationship. In a political system such as that in Ontario where politicians rely on donations to fund election campaigns, it is glaringly obvious that parties in power are doing the bidding of whichever corporations come to the table with the most money. How else can schedule 6 of Bill 229, passed in 2020, which allows for the unimpeded destruction of wetlands for the purpose of development, be explained?
All said, Red Roulette is an interesting and informative read. For someone who is admittedly not an author, Shum’s prose and storytelling ability is solid. This book should not be approached as mud-slinging anti-China propaganda, as it is far from that. It raises difficult questions for citizens of any country, and reveals the pain and frustration of a man who has gained and lost so much through a system he has no control over.