RYAN BYRNE WRITES – In recent years, the rhetoric between China and the United States has grown more intense. A trade war, endless diplomatic wrangling over the South China Sea and conflicts with Taiwan have helped make China a point of political interest for more and more Americans. As the attention on China heats up, many have lamented that press coverage of China in the West (especially in the United States) is often inconsistent. Some argue that Americans lack an understanding of Chinese history.
As host of the China History Podcast, Laszlo Montgomery is trying to change that: “I was watching a lot of C-Span and I would just remark […] senators, congressmen […] don’t know anything about China. They would just say the most uninformed things.”
For Montgomery, a 63-year-old graduate of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, this was the impetus of his now 12-year-old podcast.
“It was just meant to be, not a deep dive, just a sort of a comic book version of Chinese history for people that you know didn’t have PhDs or college degrees,” Montgomery said. “It’s just so hard to get your hands around it. So, I tried to make it as simple and easy as possible.”
Though he sat for this interview in front of a massive bookshelf filled with works about China, has spoken at universities, been written up in major newspapers and magazines, and had his work highlighted by think tanks, Montgomery isn’t a history professor. “You know I’m not looking to bore anybody by just being another academic spewing out Chinese history,” he said in an interview with AMI.
In fact, Montgomery has been a businessman for years. After working for a cargo airline in Los Angeles, he moved across the Pacific in the late 1980s. “I found a job with a manufacturer in Hong Kong, who had factories in China,” he said. “For thirty-five years I worked in manufacturing, sales and marketing basically as the Westerner inside the Chinese company who would deal with developing markets in the United States, Europe and Australia.”
Yet the passion for China started long before his career took him overseas: “It just grabbed hold of me from such a young age […] it just was something that just wowed me from my earliest times.”
Since 2010, he has continued to explore that passion for China in the form of his podcast. While he said that, although in later episodes he has gone more in-depth with Chinese history, he tries to maintain his original ethos: “It’s just a great history, it’s a great culture, and there’s something in it for everybody.”
Indeed, his podcast has covered a wide range of topics, from the Taiping Rebellion to the Nanjing Massacre to lesser-known topics such as an episode dedicated to Olive Yang or the Chinese Labour Corps. Montgomery said that, in sharing his passion for China with others, he has tried to maintain neutrality. For example, he said that in covering the history of Xinjiang (a region in China with a sizable Uyghur population where the Chinese government has been accused of oppressing the ethnic minority), “I never would throw in these little snarky asides and offer my little opinions or comments.”
Asked why he thinks learning Chinese history is important today, the podcast host said that “it would be important for us Americans to learn as much as we could about China, so that it can temper our opinions and allow us to give more informed statements about where we stand […] I’m not saying ‘love them’; learn about them, and that’s really what the China History Podcast is all about.”
Montgomery, who just retired from his work in manufacturing a year ago, said that producing the podcast has been an “endless cycle” of weeks reading books, academic articles and online resources before developing and recording. In spite of the extensive time and effort he puts into making every episode, he says it’s his work with the podcast that “gives me the greatest amount of pleasure […] It’s just opened doors all over the world. It’s just the greatest thing in the world to me. I just so enjoy this community that I’ve created.”
With hundreds of hours of content produced already, the China enthusiast isn’t looking to slow down anytime soon. “I’ll probably do this till the day I die,” he said.
Ryan Byrne is a contributor to Asia Media International.