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LIFE

Podcasts offer lessons in Chinese history - and American slang

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 9:48am

American businessman Laszlo Montgomery's passion for China goes beyond perfecting his command of the language, both simplified and traditional. He is eager to narrate China's 5,000-year history and culture to a worldwide audience.

When Laszlo, 54, launched his educational show on ChinaHistoryPodcast.com in 2010, the idea was to explain the country to his fellow Americans and "spread goodwill between China and the United States".

I'm coaxing you to believe this stuff is interesting ... Hey, isn't China cool?
Laszlo montgomery

Now, three years and 122 episodes later, his listeners span 60 countries across the globe.

Adopting an informal and engaging style, Laszlo began telling the story of China in 2,000BC through the Four Great Inventions; the Silk Road; Emperor Qin Shihuang, who built the Great Wall; China's first empress, Wu Zetian; all the way to the rise of modern China in the turbulent times of the Opium War and Cultural Revolution. In addition to the historical narrative, he would do a special report on any topic he fancied - the Kaifeng Jews, oracle bones or Hong Kong triads.

"That's the thing with my listeners. They're anxious to learn about China, but would rather not have to read a book or listen to a lecture to know more," Laszlo says.

It's a one-man operation to research, write and produce the podcasts. Laszlo would plough through dense volumes by China historian John Fairbank and writers such as Edgar Snow and simplify the material, making it interesting and accessible to his listeners while presenting the facts.

"Chinese history is so important in the world. What happened in the past 100 years is still reverberating around China.

"While Western societies advanced, China's progress halted, embattled internally and externally. And for China to bounce back and emerge as a world power, it's a country that cannot be ignored," Laszlo says.

Growing up in a close-knit Jewish community in Chicago, Laszlo was swept up in the China mania generated when Deng Xiaoping's historical visit to the US opened the Middle Kingdom to the world. Newspapers then were buzzing about how everything would one day be made in China.

Laszlo studied Putonghua in university, hoping it would lead him to a job during the boom in US-China relations, which blossomed in 1980 when he made his first trip to the country, visiting Guangzhou, Qingdao, Jinan and Beijing.

Laszlo became a link between mainland manufacturers and the outside world after he moved to Hong Kong in 1989, working jobs as sales and project manager for companies exporting Chinese-made consumer goods to the US.

Laszlo identifies with Sir Robert Hart, an Irishman who headed the customs office of the Qing government. "Hart always resolved disputes between China and foreign powers. He's a great historical bridge between the East and West," the businessman says.

Neither a historian nor professor, Laszlo regards himself as a salesman pitching Chinese history to his audience as reflected in his colloquial delivery. His affection for China is plain for all to hear.

"I'm coaxing you to believe this stuff is interesting and definitely worth knowing. Hey, isn't China cool?" he says.

Although Laszlo has some technical difficulty tracking his website traffic, he gets a steady stream of appreciative e-mails from listeners, who range from students and workers to professionals and historians.

Many Chinese overseas are grateful to him for reacquainting them with their ancestral roots.

But remarkably, his fastest-growing audience in the past year has been on the mainland. Chinese viewers welcomed the show as a great resource for learning English and picking up American slang.