Column: Reminiscing with a Radio
by Adrian Petersen
Radio to the Rescue – Lost in China!
These days we are quite familiar with the multitudinous forms of electronic communication that are available for the purpose of passing on information in emergency situations. Hand held walkie-talkies can be used for directing rescue efforts during devastating floods, the telephone can summon help with the dialing of official emergency numbers, the new "Amber Alert" system across busy highways in the United States alerts motorists to keep a look out for wanted cars with a kidnapped passenger, and even the internet can be used for passing on official information quickly. Then too, police cars can notify headquarters with wanted information faxed by radio, and TV networks have alerted the public with important emergency information. All of these modern communication procedures might be described as "Lassie to the Rescue", electronically.
However, as we are aware, it has not always been this way. Back more than half a century ago, there was just the telephone and wireless and these were the only forms of electronic communication that could be utilized for quick emergency contact.
It was back during the tumultuous events in Asia in the era immediately prior to the Pacific War. A famous Chinese dramatic soprano, Louise Kwan, was married to a professor at the Nanking University in China. He was granted the opportunity of postgraduate study at the Cornell University in the American state of New York and in order to make the journey, Louise Kwan left her infant son in the temporary care of her own parents. However, while the university couple were in the United States, the Nanking University, along with many other enterprises in the coastal areas, packed up and trekked inland ahead of the coming Japanese invasion While still in the United States, Louise made many attempts to re-find her parents and her infant son, but without success.
Finally, Louise and her husband decided that it was time to return to their homeland and they began their homeward-bound journey by traveling across the continental United States. Arrangements had been made by the Reverend Stanley Hunter of the St John's Presbyterian Church in Berkley California for Louise to stop off in San Francisco and make a live broadcast from the new shortwave station KGEI. This was the only shortwave station in the United States at the time that was heard with a reliable signal in China. During this era, it was on the air for the early morning broadcast with 20 kW on 9530 kHz in the 31 metre band.
This new shortwave station in California was established by the General Electric Company, which had previously placed stations WGEA & WGEO on the air in Schenectady, New York state The original plans for their California-based station, as released in 1937, called for two shortwave transmitters at 20 kW each, though the station was launched two years later with just one unit. The first test broadcast from this new station, under the experimental callsign W6XBE, went on the air on February 18, 1939 on 15330 kHz. This initial broadcast, on the opening day of the "Golden Gate International Exposition", was heard in several areas of the United States and also in Australia. Initially, this station verified by letter, though at least one listener-prepared card verfying the first test broadcast was signed and posted in San Francisco.
Thus it was that Louise Kwan stood before the open microphone in the Treasure Island studios of station KGEI in the early morning of June 21, 1939, and she sang songs in the Chinese language that she had sung on previous occasions, and in much better times, to her infant son. She then made an urgent appeal for anybody in China who knew the whereabouts of her parents and her son to pass the information along. Three days later, she and her husband boarded an ocean-going steamer for the long, and perhaps treacherous, journey across the Pacific to mainland China.
At the time when Louise Kwan made her emotional broadcast, the General Electric station was still operating under the original experimental callsign, W6XBE, though a few weeks later, on September 1, the call was officially regularized to the more familiar KGEI. The studios in which Louise made her broadcast were located in the "Palace of Electricity" on man-made Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay during the 1939 "Golden Gate International Exposition". The antenna was strung across two poles located at the harbor entrance to Treasure Island. During the Pacific War, station KGEI was taken over by the Office of War Information as the first west coast station for the Voice of America.
After some time of heart-wrenching searching in China, Louise finally located her missing son, though she also discovered that her parents had died during the arduous trek inland. The information about the re-union of mother and son was passed on to station KGEI, in California via the Presbyterian church pastor and listeners throughout the world heard the "rest of the story", as radio-man Paul Harvey would say, about the re-union of the famous Chinese soprano, Louise Kwan, and her missing son.
Adrian Petersen is a noted radio historian and broadcaster for many years with Indianapolis based Adventist World Radio, a global shortwave, AM, FM and satellite radio network. Originally from South Australia, Adrian has worked in radio across Asia and the Pacific and is well known worldwide for his long running Wavescan radio series. He has published an extensive number of radio heritage articles using his large database of historical information, and personally maintains the AWR heritage collection, one of the world's largest privately held memorabilia collections.
Views expressed in this column are those of the author and may not necessarily represent those of the Radio Heritage Foundation. Send us your column comments and feedback.