Gas streetlamps sputtered…

All through my research process I’ve been amazed at what a good lens  CNAC proved to be for seeing the larger story of China’s struggle to unify and modernize. Here’s another one of China’s Wings outtakes that illustrates how. I’ll have to tell it in two or three parts.

Sputtering gas streetlamps glowed in the cold autumn gloom gathered in the urban canyons of the International Settlement. Chairman of the Board K.C. Huang had convened an informal meeting of the CNAC. board for the evening of October 16, 1934,[i] and as the hour approached, a succession of rickshaws and automobile taxis deposited gray or blue suited, fedora-wearing businessmen in front of the Robert Dollar Building on Canton Road, around the corner from the largest bank building in the Orient, the neoclassical domed headquarters of the Hong Kong Shanghi Bank, one of the centerpiece buildings of the Shanghai Bund. The Dollar Building made no effort to rival its famous neighbor. Constructed from reinforced concrete, it was neither grand nor ostentatious, and like much International Settlement architecture, it looked like it had been rooted in Shanghai’s mud for centuries. It was all of thirteen years old. Besides the Shanghai offices of the Dollar Steamship Line and the China National Aviation Corporation, the 1934 tenant roster included the American Chamber of Commerce and the US Navy’s Asiatic purchasing office.[ii] Nothing truly outrageous could occur within such stolid walls, a message the airline very much wished communicate.

The men trod quickly across the sidewalk and were swallowed by the building’s simple portals. Cheap nautical reliefs etched in white marble decorated the entry foyer above a patterned marble floor. A scene on the right-hand wall showed the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty.[iii] None of the arriving businessmen bothered to admire it. To the left, they climbed a flight of simple stairs. All of CNAC’s top-echelon leadership assembled in the airline’s conference room that evening: Harold Bixby, William Bond, K.C. Huang, Dai Enkai, the Managing Director, Business Manager P.Y. Wong, Operations Manager Ernie Allison, and three others. The prime topic of discussion was the pressure the Kuomintang government was bringing to bear on CNAC to open an airline south from Chunkging to Kweiyang, capital of Kweichow Province, and from there west to Kunming, provincial capital of Yunnan. The Executive Yuan (China’s ruling junta) had appropriated $250,000 (mex., common shorthand for Chinese dollars) to pay for the line’s development, and Chiang Kai-shek and Wang Ching-wei, Chairman of the Executive Yuan were putting pressure on the Ministry of Communications start the line[iv]. That pressure had passed from the Minister of Communications to board chairman K.C. Huang and thence to Bond and Bixby. Unfortunately, the line made no commercial sense. Kweichow was the poorest province in China, so destitute that a proverb described it as having “no three li without a mountain, no three days without rain, and no man with three silver dollars.” Most of its inhabitants suffered lives of perpetual debt peonage, lived in mud-plastered huts, and worked naked in the fields, cultivating opium poppies. Nearly the entire population was illiterate, most were hopelessly addicted to the narcotic, and half of them were dead by age thirty. [v] It was hardly the demographic to support an airline.

Next, I’ll tell why Chiang Kai-shek’s Central Government was so adamant about starting such an obviously unprofitable airline…

[i] Chairman of the Board K.C. Huang convened an informal board meeting at 5:30 p.m. on October 16, 1934: Bixby to Stokley Morgan, October 17, 1934, the San Diego Aviation Museum.

[ii] The American Chamber of Commerce: All About Shanghai and Environs: A Standard Guidebook, The University Press, Shanghai, 1934-1935 edition, text online at, accessed January 20, 2006; The U.S. Navy’s Purchasing Office: Tolley Kemp, Yangtze Patrol, pp. 242.

[iii] Details of the Robert Dollar Building: author’s visit to Shanghai, April, 2005. It’s still there, at 51 Guangdong Road. I think it safe to assume that Communist China hasn’t been responsible for the entry decorations.

[iv] “Marshall Chiang Kai-shek and Wang Ching-wei, Chairman of the Executive Yuan, are putting pressure on the Ministry of Communications to have this line started”: Bixby to Stokley Morgan, October 17, 1934, the San Diego Aviation Museum. (Wang Ching-wei became China’s Quisling – he later headed Japan’s “puppet regime” in China.)

[v] Kweichow, the poorest province in China; Kweichow opium: Bixby, Harold M., Topside Rickshaw, Ch. VIII, 4-22, Ch. X, pp. 15; provincial details, perpetual debt peonage; “no three Li without a mountain, no three days without rain, and no man with three silver dollars”: Harrison Salisbury, The Long March, pp. 106-107.


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