Why interviewing Moon Chin is like interviewing a jazz riff…


As my understanding of CNAC improved, so did my ability to extract maximum value from my Moon Chin interviews, but even though I was getting more and more out of them, I still had another critical lesson to learn – one that took me more than a year to understand. But first, a little background…

As I’ve described earlier in this blog, for most of its history, CNAC was a partnership between the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek and Pan American Airways. Indeed, CNAC is certainly the most successful Sino-American partnership of all time. (Here’s a post that summarizes company history). Most of the time, the partnership functioned well. But not always.

When the Japanese invaded China in the summer of 1937, the Nationalist Chinese wanted to use the airline in support of their military efforts. Military-support assignments from the Chinese Aviation Commission (which controlled the Chinese Air Force) went to the airline’s “Managing Director”, who at the time was recently-installed Colonel Lam Whi-shing. The airline’s best airplanes in 1937 were its four Douglas DC-2s, but CNAC hadn’t “checked-out” any of its Chinese personnel as DC-2s pilot captains – all DC-2 flights had to be captained by the airline’s American personnel. So when Col Lam started assigning DC-2 flights to military support missions, he was essentially press-ganging CNAC’s American pilots into Chinese military service at a time when the provisions of U.S. neutrality legislation expressly forbade Americans from aiding or abetting either side in an armed conflict. The penalties for violating the legislation were severe, steep fines and loss of American citizenship.

The United States “legislated neutrality” policy in the 1930s was a series of very poorly considered and conceived laws designed to guarantee the U.S. wouldn’t become involved in any foreign wars that Congress passed in response to the then-common domestic sentiment that the United States had gotten unwisely embroiled in the Great European War of 1914-1918. (Legislated neutrality as America’s worst foreign policy blunder of all time will probably serve as grist for a future post.)

In August 1937, a colossal battle erupted between the Japanese and Chinese in Shanghai. The U.S. State Department ordered CNAC’s American pilots not to fly in support of the Chinese military, and the Chinese didn’t want anything BUT military support missions. Caught between the two sides, Pan Am was forced to abandon its position and its $1.5 million dollar investment. The partnership collapsed, and the recriminations were bitter: the Americans thought they’d be robbed; the Chinese thought they’d been deserted.

My main character in China’s Wings, William Langhorne Bond, who I haven’t yet properly introduced, spent the last five months of 1937 fighting to get Pan Am reinstated into CNAC His travails to that end are one of my favorite aspects of the whole story. He was eventually successful, and many of his contemporary and post-war writings reflect his belief that, at the time, Col Lam and Chinese Air Force incompetence was running CNAC into the ground, destroying the airline Bond had worked so hard to build.

Moon Chin flew for the airline through the entire period, and I figured he’d be an excellent source through which to confirm Bond’s written opinions, but when I asked him about it, his answers were so non-committal as to be practically incoherent, totally out of character with his usual precision. It was like he hadn’t heard the question. I asked Moon again and again, then and during subsequent interviews, trying to come at the issue from various angles, but always received similar non-answers.

Something was wrong, I could feel it, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. And it was important, too, because events between August and December, 1937 are among the most critical in the entire CNAC saga, yet I couldn’t get clear answers from my only eyewitness.

It took me more than a year to figure out what was going wrong.

Predictably, I was the problem.

My epiphany came in the dungeons of the Hoover Institute Archive, perusing financial statements in the Arthur N. Young collection. Despite all Bond’s rhetoric, I was stunned to discover the airline had made a substantial profit during the “shambles” Col Lam had supposedly presided over during his 6-month tenure as managing director.

That plethora of black ink forced me to rethink my assumptions. Maybe Col Lam’s administration wasn’t so incompetent after all?

That thought, coupled to my growing appreciation of Chinese sensibilities, made me realize that all of the questions I’d been asking Moon Chin about the period had been leading questions. I’d been asking him questions thinking I already knew the answers.

Armed with those epiphanies, I couldn’t wait to get back to Moon Chin and rephrase my questions about Colonel Lam’s administration. Moon Chin smiled quietly when I explained my new perspective. “Yes,” he said, “things were going fine.”

And from there, we had a series of very fruitful conversations about the airline between August and December, 1937, ones that would help color my entire narrative.

Looking back, what I think happened was that although Moon Chin didn’t agree with me, Moon was Chinese, and his rambling, off-topic answers to my Col Lam questions probably reflected on one hand, his unwillingness to contradict the opinions of William Bond or to denigrate Colonel Lam, both of whom were his honored and much-respected superiors, and on the other hand, his very Chinese courtesy – he didn’t want to make me lose face by telling me I was wrong. I’m sure Moon could tell I was puzzled, and in retrospect, he was probably providing me a subtle opportunity to correct my error without losing face, but I was too dense – and too western – to spot the opportunity.

And ever since then, I’ve always said that interviewing Moon Chin is like interviewing a jazz riff – there’s always truth in the music, you just have to learn how to hear it.

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13 Responses to Why interviewing Moon Chin is like interviewing a jazz riff…

  1. Kathryn Townsend says:

    You know, I thought of this post this week as I was cramming kids for a mock trial competition. I’d never heard you compare Moon Chin to a jazz riff before this – probably wasn’t paying attention – but I think it’s a universally true comparison.

    There’s always truth, you just have to learn to hear it. It’s the difference between listening topically and listening relationally. And listening relationally is really hard to do. Especially when you already think you’re right, or that you know the answer…

  2. Gregory says:

    You’re right about that, Kate. This experience with Moon Chin was a big eye opener for me. It’s very hard for us to surmount our prejudices. In regards to this story, my revelation allowed me to think my way through several other of the airline’s conundrums with much more of an open mind, which have led to several other “ah-ha” realizations. What made you think of this during the mock trial preps?

    • Kathryn Townsend says:

      Mock Trial this year was a disaster, because of negligence on the part of one of the adults involved in the team. A situation arose where I was operating under one set of assumptions, and another parent was operating under a different set of assumptions, and I had no idea that those assumptions existed and ended up pissing her off royally. If I’d been listening relationally at the beginning I wouldn’t have stepped in to try to fix things. Instead, I was listening topically, and it ended up being really quite horrible.

      • Gregory says:

        Oh no! Sorry you had to endure the fiasco. If it’s any solace, it took me 18 months to figure this out with Moon Chin, and I’d imagine you didn’t have near that much time. Life and learn, right?

  3. John Gong says:

    My grandfather was a CNAC pilot and flew with Moon, great article!

    • Gregory says:

      Thanks for checking in, John! Does your grandfather have a page over at cnac.org? If not, you should get in touch with Tom Moore and create one. If yes, would you tell me his name so I can link from your comment thread to his page? Cheers, GC

      • John Gong says:

        Yes, I know Tom and my grandfather does have a page…Arthur Chin. I just returned home from visiting with Uncle Moon this afternoon. I hope to make the reunion in September at his home.

        • Gregory says:

          Well John, as Arthur Chin’s grandson, you certainly come from good stock!

          I hope Moon was doing well. I’m very much looking forward to seeing him next month. Hope to see you at the party.

  4. Jamie Dodson says:

    William Langhorne Bond was an interesting individual as was Harold Bixby. I chose to chronicle another Golden Age pioneer, William Steven Grooch (also of CNAC) and his involvement linking the west coast to China across the Pacific. I spoke with Gene Banning’s widow about Grooch in 2005 and again last year at the 75th China Clipper Celebration. Captain Banning knew all three men.
    “Bondy”, Bixby and Grooch, seemed larger than life. They took unbelievable chances for questionable rewards and achieved great things at tremendous sacrifice. In our tumultuous and headlong passage to the 21st century I wonder how much of that enterprising spirit remains in American – or for that matter the world.

    Cheers!
    Jamie Dodson
    Author of the award winning Nick Grant Adventures series,
    Flying Boat & Spies, China Clipper, and coming soon – Mission: Shanghai

    • Gregory says:

      Like you, I find the whole period utterly fascinating, especially the people who lived it. They did incredible things as a matter of routine.

      In which one of your books does Grooch feature? I’d like to see what you have to say about him.

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