China Books

Foreign journalists in China, from the Opium Wars to Mao

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Paul French, author of Carl Crow, a Tough Old China Hand and North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula has written a book about foreign journalists who reported from China from the 1820s to 1949.

Below is an introduction and excerpt from the book. You can also see a Danwei video interview with French here.

Through the looking glass

by Paul French

By looking back at the men and women who have reported and written on China since the late 1820s, it might just be possible to gain some perspective on the media’s current obsession with the China story.

For a start, such a glance at those who wrote, edited and launched newspapers in China, as well as those correspondents who visited briefly to report back, might constructively give us pause for thought about the accepted wisdom that today the West is obsessed with China as never before.

Arguably, more column inches were devoted to China in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century than since. In an article entitled “Work of the Foreign Newspaper Correspondent in China” written anonymously for The China Weekly Review in 1928 and simply signed “By One of Them”, the author opened by writing: “During the past two years more space in the world’s press has probably been given to China than during the previous decade”. The anonymous author was referring to the start of Chiang Kai-shek’s Northern Expedition from Guangzhou to unite the country under Nationalist rule and rid it of warlords in 1926. This did indeed seem to be the case.

In 1928 the Sunday edition of the New York Times was “… running seven and sometimes eight columns of material on China” from their correspondent Hallett Abend and sending urgent telegrams instructing him to send yet more China news.

Even then, this heavy volume was not necessarily anything new. Starting around the time of the Boxers and the Siege of the Legations in 1900, the world’s public began to want significantly more information about China, and so the world’s great newspapers started sending and hiring full-time correspondents backed up by an army of stringers. Their numbers grew and then spurted in the 1920s, as “One of Them” notes.

China was among the biggest and most prestigious foreign postings since the First World War as the fragile country appeared besieged on all sides, internally as well as externally.

It is certainly true that the foreign press corps from 1900 until 1937 was significantly larger than it has been at any time since. There were more magazines and non-academic journals devoted to understanding China then than now. From long- running publications such as J. B. Powell’s China Weekly Review to short-lived upstarts such as Edgar Snow’s Democracy, their number fluctuated but compared to today’s handful of serious publications they were legion.

And, of course, foreigners established, edited and filled numerous newspapers published in China from Guangzhou to Shanghai and on to Tianjin and Beijing. Those are now all gone and there are no equivalents of the North-China Daily News or the Peking Times and Tientsin Times today, except in Hong Kong.

Chapter 8, The Dirty Thirties — Left Wing, Right Wing, Imperialists and Spies: Radio Shanghai

by Paul French

Newspapers, journals and periodicals were all well-established media forms by the 1930s but the decade was a time of technological change when both the radio and the newsreels became forms of mass communication to stand alongside, complement and often rival the newspapers. China’s first wireless station — the Osborn Radio Station, known alternatively as XRO and the Radio Corporation of China — had opened in 1923 in Shanghai. It transmitted from studios on the roof of the Dollar Building on the Bund with an initial 65-minute programme of classical and light music as well as some news. The station estimated that there were 500 wireless sets in the International Settlement though, to boost the audience, XRO’s signal was transmitted to Tianjin and other major areas where foreigners lived. The station was owned and established by an American journalist called E. G. Osborn and a wealthy overseas Chinese. Sun Yat-sen declared himself a fan of the new media but there simply weren’t enough listeners. Despite moving the studios to the more prestigious roof garden of the Wing On Department Store on Nanking Road and trying to organise live concerts, the station failed after a few months due to a combination of precious few listeners, government distrust and censorship.

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Irene Corbally Kuhn

Shanghai’s second radio station — the Carol Broadcasting Station launched in 1924 from studios on Nanking Road — fared better. The station was supported by the Carol Corporation, the Shen Bao newspaper, the Shanghai Evening News, the Paris Restaurant and the Kobe Electrical Equipment Company. Others followed. In 1928 the China Press backed a new station, KRC, that also introduced lady broadcasters to Shanghai’s airwaves as Irene Corbally Kuhn moved over to the wireless. Her first broadcast on 14 December 1928 was from the studios housed in a back room at the China Press offices: “… with my legs melting under me like butter on a hot stove, I had stepped up before a ‘mike’ and sent my voice into the air, the first woman ever to broadcast in the Orient, and probably the first feminine announcer in the business”.

These early foreign attempts at radio stations, and others set up by American, British, French, Italian and Japanese entrepreneurs, were not great successes but they did encourage more people to buy wireless sets and they also led Chinese entrepreneurs, as well as the government, to start stations aimed at the Chinese population that had large audiences and were both popular and commercially successful.

By the early 1930s Shanghai had a proliferating number of stations. Thirty started broadcasting in 1930–31 alone, including the Millionton Radio Station jointly run by Reuters and Millington Ltd., and by 1935 there were over 60 inoperation across the city. Most were Chinese-run and light music-oriented but others were foreign-owned and ranged from music to political commentary. There was also the Christian Broadcasting Station run by Dr. Frank and Aimée Millican, an energetic husband and wife team of Presbyterian missionaries who also ran Shanghai’s Christian Literature Society and regularly prayed that Shanghai’s leading gangster Big Eared Du would see the error of his ways and embrace Christ.

Radio first became a popular medium and then an extremely important one as the political situation worsened. Following the bombing of Shanghai in 1937, with newspapers being censored, banned or having their distribution interfered with, the radio became a way of keeping up with world events and also finding out about the local situation. The best-known station was XHMA owned by U.S. Harkson, the wealthy head of the Henningsen Produce Company of Shanghai that ruled the ice cream and candy bar business in the city and sold the concept of the Eskimo Pie to the Chinese. At first Harkson used the station to build his ice cream and confectionery empire but it soon became a proper business in its own right due to advertising revenues. Harkson was also keen for the station to be relevant to all of Shanghai’s various communities and the station broadcast a wide series of programming for the Shanghailander community, including shows in Yiddish, from its studios on Race Course Road. When war broke out in 1937, Harkson handed the station over to anyone who needed to communicate with relatives, colleagues or nationals inland, and missionaries, diplomats and business people all used it as a lifeline to the outside world.

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Carroll Alcott

The station’s star was Carroll Alcott, originally from South Dakota and a former journalist on the Sioux City Tribune and the Denver Post. He then worked his way around Asia for 15 years as the New York Herald Tribune’s Philippines correspondent and a reporter for the Manila Bulletin and finally moved to Shanghai in 1928. He freelanced, breaking some good stories, notably about the opium business, German gunrunners and Japanese aggression in China; and he had once famously dined with a warlord in Yantai while the blood of his recently executed enemies dripped from the floor above into his noodles and shredded beef. Alfred Meyer, the managing editor of the Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury had snapped him up to cover the Shanghai crime beat, a job Alcott revelled in, noting that a typical day involved “… as many as three murder trials, a gang shooting, half a dozen armed robberies, a jewel theft, and a couple of kidnappings”. In 1933, and by now one of the most widely read journalists on the China coast, he moved over to the China Press as its cable editor. In 1938 Jack Horton, who ran the RCA-Victor factory in China, suggested to Alcott he might like to replace XHMA’s former announcer Acheson Lucey, who had also been a print journalist on the Post and Mercury before trying his hand at radio. It hadn’t really worked out with Lucey who was heading back to America, so a vacancy had occurred. XHMA’s manager Mike Healey thought Alcott would fit right in and all agreed that it was time for Americans to respond to Japanese propaganda broadcasts on the radio. As soon as Alcott arrived at XHMA, the old China press corps network kicked in and corps members were regular guests on his radio shows. His reach was substantial through XHMA as both Shanghailanders and Chinese listened while cafes, shops, bars, hotels and casinos all kept the radio on all day for news of the deteriorating situation. The station’s signal reached across China and as far as Japan, causing no end of annoyance to the Japanese authorities.

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XHMA listeners card

Alcott was modestly popular at first when he started broadcasting in July 1938 but as the situation worsened he became a must-listen-to radio journalist and one of the greatest enemies of the Japanese in Shanghai. He also attracted a rather large and loyal following among women listeners, receiving 500 letters a month from fans, due to his charm, though he was actually quite fat and not particularly attractive — a “great face for radio”, as they say. His shows were funded entirely by advertising from brands like Jell-O, Ovaltine and Maxwell House Coffee, despite Japanese threats to punish those companies for sponsoring his broadcasts, which they regularly tried to jam. He managed to annoy particularly the sinister Mr. Suzuki, who had vowed to run him out of town, with an advert declaring: “This broadcast is brought to you courtesy of the Bakerite Company, Shanghai’s leading bakers and makers of better bread. The jam tonight is courtesy of Mr. Suzuki and the Japanese Army”. He was also well regarded by listeners for ignoring the official Japanese press releases but obviously, for the same reason, was disliked by the Japanese military command. For the four years Alcott stayed on the air at XHMA he was extremely popular but he also lived in fear of assassination the entire time. Indeed, it didn’t start well. As Alcott was a well-known Shanghai print journalist, his debut on XHMA was advertised widely around town but he was also well known for being anti-Japanese and a supporter of the Nationalist government. Three days before he was scheduled to debut on air, a bomb was hurled at the studio and though it didn’t do much damage, it sent a message that Alcott’s appointment was controversial with somebody.

There are currently 4 Comments for Foreign journalists in China, from the Opium Wars to Mao .

Comments on Foreign journalists in China, from the Opium Wars to Mao

I wonder in the Kumbaya future of 2070 what they will say about Danwei???

I am so interested in those stories the write show us in the book.I can't wait reading it through.I wanna buy this book!!!!!! Is it available in amazon.cn?

Yes, here. Doesn't seem to be on Dangdang.com, though.

There's also a good feature about radio in Shanghai in 1941 at www.radioheritage.net. It lists all the stations known to be on the air, has more details about XMHA and Alcott's broadcasts and some illustrations. If any readers have more information about these stations or the earlier ones mentioned in this book review, or photos or audio recordings etc they can share with our non-profit project, the Radio Heritage Foundation would like to hear from you.

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