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.
Kellogg Switchboard & Supply Company issued these original stock shares
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.
XGOA was the most powerful station in China. This original
postcard was sent to a New Zealand listener in 1937 © Eric Shackle
Collection, Radio Heritage Foundation
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
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.
The original Peking Hotel was owned by a French company which
later sold its interests to Japan. It's now known as The Raffles
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.
The RCA importer in Shanghai used this poster to promote radio
receivers to European listeners © www.Chinarhyming.com
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.
Japanese forces entering The Forbidden City on August 13 1937
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.
This feature is made possible thanks to
Hong Kong based Freelance Photographer