“Goddamn it, I promised the wife I wouldn’t do this any more.”

Eu Gardens, Hong Kong, 1938

Here’s another favorite outtake from my book China’s Wings:

Few people in the Hong Kong Colony had larger disposable incomes than CNAC’s Caucasian pilots, and few had more “face” in both Western and Chinese communities. They were admired by all strata of Hong Kong society, although perhaps not so much liked by the upper crust British as tolerated with a grudging nod to their courage and competence and in recognition of the valuable service they provided. Most of the Caucasian pilots lived Kowloon-side in the “Eu Gardens” at 158 Argyle Street, modern apartments reminiscent of those found in Southern California and built to the maximum residential height allowed in Kowloon – thirty-two feet.

Sylvia Wylie and Chuck Sharp in 1938

In lieu of gibbons, Chuck Sharp satisfied his pet-owning urge by acquiring a pair of dachshunds. He had a serious girlfriend, Sylvia Wylie. He bought a sail boat, and he and his pals spent off-duty days skimming the aquamarine waters of Hong Kong and exploring the bays and inlets of the surrounding islands. They ate elaborate lunches packed by their serving staffs and swam with their wives and girlfriends at an isolated beach seven miles from Kowloon where the pilots rented a weekend bungalow. Robert Pottschmidt was an avid amateur photographer who captured images of shirtless men leaning against the rail and propping their feet on the hatchways of Sharp’s sailboat and smiling at happy looking women in bathing costumes and holding drinks. Off-duty, the men sailed, shot birds, indulged hobbies, and played baseball and tennis, but their talk always drifted back to airplanes. Their wives played bridge and mah-jongg, gave each other fancy tiffins, teas, and garden parties and poured over the latest fashion news from New York. They shopped in the Colony’s smartest shops and wore sundresses and fancy hats to high tea in the sumptuous lobby of the Peninsula Hotel. The men wore tropical whites in hot weather and shirt sleeves and open collars for sport, but more often than not, they buttoned their shirts and wore gray or pinstriped suits, waistcoats, pocket watches, and silk ties, which they seldom loosened, even at informal parties held among themselves. In the years between the Battle of Shanghai and Pearl Harbor, Hong Kong was a wonderful place for westerners with money.

Chungking in 1938

Diversions weren’t so lively when the pilots overnighted in Chungking. None of Shanghai’s frenzied glamour had migrated upriver to the wartime capital. It was phenomenally dull. Whenever they could, the Caucasian pilots stayed in the Standard Oil Company compound on the South Bank, across from the city, but Socony’s rooms often filled with other itinerant visitors, which relegated the CNAC overflow to a grimy, rat-infested three-story hotel called the Shu Teh Gunza. Forced into residence, the men enlivened the dark, dull, interminable Shu Teh Gunza evenings with games of poker, craps, and bridge. Gambling didn’t always suffice. The men obtained variety by poking their head out of the establishment’s door and yelling for Joe, the Number One houseboy. Invariably, they ordered him to summon girls.

Happily, the Shu The Gunza was located adjacent to a whorehouse, and it was a chicken or the egg conundrum as to who had arrived first, the pilots or the prostitutes. Houseboy Joe never needed more than a few minutes to appear with five or ten peasant girls in tow. Joe ordered the girls to disrobe. Coarse vestments fell to the floor and the players looked up from their cards and watched the naked girls march a few circuits of the room. The girls were worn and unattractive, and after a few minutes of parade the pilots usually informed Houseboy Joe that none were acceptable. The pilots passed the hat for tattered bills and old coins, and each girl received one Chinese dollar, then worth about one American nickel at open market exchange rates. Houseboy Joe rushed off to summon a replacement phalanx. Pilot Hugh Woods never detected repetition, but he suspected that most were simply local  women herded together by the promise of an effortless dollar. It being China, however, more extensive services were available, and the boys could buy them for pocket change. Mortal terror of the unkillable venereal diseases reputed to inhabit Chinese prostitutes kept Woody from motivating himself to action, but some of his comrades were much less discriminating.

“Goddamnit,” lamented one of Woody’s married peers as he pushed up from the card table one glum, lonely Chungking evening and gestured a girl toward an upstairs bedroom, “I promised the wife I wouldn’t do this anymore.”

[i] CNAC’s valuable service: Arthur N. Young to H.H. Kung, March 1, 1940, the Young Papers.

[ii] Eu Gardens: Gellhorn, Martha, “Flight into Peril,” Collier’s, May 31, 1941.

[iii] Life in Hong Kong; CNAC fashion observations: Photos of the Hong Kong years provided to the author by Shirley Wilke Mosley, daughter of CNAC chief mechanic Oscar C. Wilke, Nancy Allison Wright, daughter of Ernest Allison; photos in the Bond Papers and in Wings for an Embattled China; Hahn, Emily, China to Me, pp. 113-116; Woods, Hugh, “Pre-War Life in Shanghai and Hong Kong,” Wings Over Asia: Memories of CNAC, Volume IV, pp. 4-9, 27-33, 40-46; Gellhorn, Martha, “Flight into Peril,” Collier’s, May 31, 1941; Angle, Chrystal, Reflections of Chrystal, pp. 173-178.

[iv] Diversions at the Shu Teh Gunza hotel: Woods, Hugh, “Playtime in Chungking,” Wings Over Asia: Memories of CNAC, Volume IV, pp. 25-26.


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