Early Chinese Radio in Peking
RADIO STATIONS IN PEKING, 1932 TO 1939
Melvin Bok was born in China in 1912 and lived in Peking.
Melvin developed an interest in radio from an early age. When he was only thirteen, he left school for a year to join a company run by an American in Peking named Warren E. Stimson. Stimson was an agent for the Kellogg Switchboard & Supply Company and also imported Crossly radios. Another role Stimson undertook was as a news agent listening to broadcasts in Morse code from the US using long-wave, there being no short-wave technology at the time. After the year was up, Melvin, who had by then learned Morse code, returned to school and started to make various ‘radio gadgets’, as he puts it, in his free time.
On completing his schooling in 1932, Melvin joined the AIU insurance group in Peking. Melvin admits that he was less than enthusiastic about working as an insurance agent but he at least developed some useful contacts. He continued to expand his knowledge of radios and, soon after joining the company, built his first short-wave transceiver and became an avid radio ‘ham’.
Due to the absence of any local stations, residents with radios in Peking were not able to receive any transmissions except at night, when they could usually tune-in to broadcasts from the Shanghai and Tientsin concessions. Despite these limitations, radios were in demand amongst Peking’s expatriate community and were good business for the importers.
At the time Melvin joined AIU, the company’s operations in Peking were headed by an American who had close links with a general insurer in the Legation Quarter. This insurer had a client who held a number of agencies including one for Philco Radios. One day his employer, aware of his interest in radio, asked Melvin if he might be able to repair a radiogram player belonging to the Philco importer which had been damaged in transit. Melvin was able to repair this equipment. It transpired that the importer had several other unserviceable radios and gramophones which Melvin was asked to restore to working order. Cannibalising some of the more seriously damaged units for parts he was able to return a large number to sellable condition. Unsurprisingly, Melvin soon left AIU and joined the importer.
Given the absence of a local radio station and based on the successful construction of his own transceiver, Melvin suggested to his new employer that they build a radio station to transmit in Peking’s Legation Quarter. The first station was not powerful and rated at 15 watts. Melvin cannot remember the frequency but recollects that the call-sign was XOMO (however he cautions this may have been the call-sign for his later station). XOMO initially broadcast music from gramophone records that were also imported. The station constantly explored ways to expand on the programming and was soon broadcasting band performances live. Favourites were the ballroom dances in the Peking Hotel and the rousing brass of the US Marine Band in the American Legation.
XOMO raised funds from advertising, voluntary monthly contributions from listeners and, indirectly, through the sale of equipment and records. The station was very successful and Melvin’s employer readily agreed to his request to build a more powerful transmitter. This was rated at 250 watts and Melvin had to depend on Shanghai suppliers to source many of the parts. He also had to use a generator to produce the 2,000 volts AC required to drive the equipment, the Legation Quarter then being on direct current power which was not suitable.
The more powerful transmitter obviously reached additional listeners and it was not long before the Chinese government expressed an interest in acquiring the station. After protracted negotiations, XOMO was eventually sold to the Chinese government and, at the same time, Melvin left employment to set up his own business outside of the Legation Quarter in Shui Fu Yuan Road. He maintained close contact with his former employer and sold gramophone records and Philco equipment consigned to him on a commission basis. Later he was to sell RCA radio equipment and Phonograph records as agent for a Tientsin-based importer.
As part of the XOMO sale agreement, the Chinese government gave Melvin permission to broadcast in Peking ‘proper’ using his original 15 watt transmitter (he later upgraded this to 250 watts). Now that he was broadcasting primarily to Chinese listeners, he introduced programmes in Chinese and a friend by the name of Mr Ting helped him with these. The main advertisers were the selling agents for the Chinese National Lottery which became very popular and had been introduced by the Nationalist government to fund the construction of aircraft, with particular emphasis on fighter ‘planes. (The Lottery was to cause many a grumble further south at Shanghai’s racecourse, the betting receipts of which were heavily affected by the consequential diversion of funds!) Another advertiser was the department store, Gillard & Co., a British-owned business in Peking.
In July 1937 the Japanese, having occupied Manchuria and other parts of northern China since 1931, launched their full invasion of the country and quickly overran Peking and Tientsin. The Japanese allowed Melvin to continue his broadcasts although he was soon required to submit programme details for prior vetting. However the Japanese eventually requisitioned his station, albeit with monetary compensation, and later used it to jam or interfere with other broadcasters.
Soon after his radio station had been taken over, an Italian based in the Legation Quarter engaged Melvin to construct a transmitter. This was rated at only 80 watts as it was easier to source material for lower powered equipment. Melvin does not remember whether the Italian had much success with his radio station or whether it was ultimately jammed by the Japanese -perhaps due to his nationality it was not.
In 1939 Melvin sold his remaining business interests in Peking and moved to Tianjin where, with a number of friends, he established a business trading in various commodities. He was to have no further involvement with radio stations.
This short account is based on a series of interviews undertaken throughout 2007 with Mr Melvin Bok by Nicholas J. Kitto.
In the words of Nicholas ‘Melvin had an intriguing life story to tell and, having missed the opportunity some years ago to document my grandfather’s twenty-five years in China, I did not want to let another such case slip away unrecorded’.
In Memory of Melvin Bok 1912-2011 © 2008 Nicholas J Kitto
The Beijing Legation Quarter is documented here on Wikipedia. Kellogg Switchboard & Supply Company became part of ITT in 1952. AIU was known as American International Underwriters and was originally established by Cornelius Vander Starr in Shanghai in 1919. It later became known as AIG [America International Group] in the USA and more recently rebranded back to its original name AIU.
For a review of Chinese Radio in 1937 see here, for a backgrounder on radio in Shanghai in 1941 see here and for American Forces Radio in China-Burma-India in the 1943-1949 period see here.