Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Imperialist Vestige in Yunnan—the French Railway

                                                           by Jim Goodman
    In the last decades of the 19th century the tottering Qing Dynasty regime in China found itself under increasing pressure from Western encroachment.  This was the heyday of imperialism and by a series of military actions and the imposition of the Unequal Treaties, as the Chinese were to call them, Western nations had established themselves with impunity in Macao, Hong Kong, the Shandong Peninsula and portions of Shanghai.  In the late 1880s the country faced threats on a new front—the southwestern province of Yunnan. 
    The most aggressive imperialist powers had just seized the territories of China’s southern neighbors.  The British had grabbed northern Burma and the French had occupied northern Laos and northern Vietnam.  That put the Western powers right next to the ill-defined borders of Yunnan.  The Qing Court first rushed to make boundary agreements with the two powers.  That may have stopped the imperialist appetite for territory, but not their economic ambitions.  The British and French both viewed Yunnan as the gateway to China’s riches and soon began devising ways to penetrate the markets across the border.
French Consulate in Mengzi
    They began by pressing the Qing government to establish trade relations and in 1887 succeeded in securing permission to open consulates in Yunnan.  The British opened theirs in Tengchong in the southwest, the French chose Mengzi, halfway to Kunming from their border.  It was a small but prosperous city, close to tin mines, lying in a broad plain of 1500 meters altitude.  The city’s central attraction was South Lake, featuring many Ming and Qing Dynasty temples and pavilions, to where scholars would retreat in order to prepare for the state’s examinations.
    The French built a consulate near the lake and a small customs house beside the water.  Their presence was rather small in the beginning.  And the city was hard to get to when coming from Vietnam.  In 1895 an expedition led by the Prince D’Orléans stopped in Mengzi on its way through Yunnan to the sources of the Irrawadddy in Upper Burma.  They had to take a boat from Hekou to Manhao up the Red River, then hike over 80 km up to Mengzi.  And this was just a small group of explorers, not a big trading expedition.  Clearly, communication lines into Yunnan had to improve dramatically for commerce to succeed.   A railroad seemed to be the answer.
French customs house, Mengzi
    The French plan was for a line from the port of Haiphong through Hanoi all the way to Kunming.  The French completed the line to Lào Cai in 1906, spanned the Nanxi River with a bridge to Hekou on the Chinese side and commenced constructing the track to Kunming.  This section of the line proved to be far more difficult to build than the relatively flat route along the Red River in Vietnam.  The 464 km-long route rises from Hekou, at 78 meters above sea level, to Kunming, at 1900 meters.  It required 107 viaducts and 155 tunnels.
    The route ran alongside the west bank of the Nanxi River, crossing it at the end of the county’s boundaries and running on the east bank through Pingbian County.  Workers had to cut through thick jungle in the mostly uninhabited, malaria-infested lowlands of Hekou County, then blast tunnels through the mountains of Pingbian County and further on and haul heavy steel beams, made in France, to the sites requiring bridges or viaducts. Between kilometers 104 and 127 in Pingbian County the track gradient rises from 500 to 1100 meters and the line passes through 59 tunnels.
Renzi Bridge, the "bridge over the crossbowmen"
     railway work in Pingbian County
    Altogether it was quite an engineering feat, particularly the two famous spectacular bridges—the curved bridge on pyramidal piers at kilometer 83, called “le pont en dentelles”  (bridge in lace) and “le pont sur arbalètriers” (the bridge on the crossbowmen) at kilometer 111, between the tunnels of two sheer cliffs 100 meters above the river.  Besides the railway line, workers also had to construct buildings for the 34 stations from Hekou to Kunming.
railway work in Mengzi County
    Financially, the Hekou-Kunming line cost France 167 million francs, but the human costs were even more staggering.  Of the 60,000 “coolies” hired or impressed through corvée labor to work on the project at least 12,000 died, mostly in the Nanxi River Valley, while around 80 French and Italian contractors also died.  Malaria was the biggest killer.  Other causes included landslides, accidents and various diseases.  French overseers became notorious for their brutality towards the workers and their haughty attitude towards the native population, treating them like the subjects of a conquered country.
    In 1910 workers laid the last railroad tracks to Kunming, then called Yunnanfu, and train service all the way to Haiphong opened at the end of the year.  For all the violence, misery, deaths and extra taxes associated with its construction, though, it was not an outstanding commercial success.  Trade between Yunnan and Vietnam largely consisted of opium and tin sent down to Vietnam and cotton textiles and tobacco sent up to Yunnan.  Anticipating an expansion of trade, hoping the railroad link to China’s interior would draw business away from Shanghai and go through Haiphong instead, the French built a bigger consulate and customs post near Green Lake in Kunming.
French Consulate in Kunming
    In 1915 the French constructed a branch line from near Mengzi to the tin mines near Gejiu.  Eventually this line was extended west all the way to Shiping.  Until the end of the last century this line was a kind of market train.  It made stops at every big village on the route and people brought farm products and animals on board to sell, got off several stops down the line and later boarded the return trip home.
    The volume of goods traveling by train remained modest though, until the Sino-Japanese War broke out and the Chinese government moved to Chongqing.  Now the French railway was a main supply route to the Chinese and suffered heavy Japanese bombing.   When the war concluded international service had halted and in 1951 the new government in Beijing closed down the French Consulate in Kunming and expelled its officials.
    The line eventually re-opened on the Chinese side, though only as far as Hekou.  The Vietnam side suffered extensive bombing during the war with the United States and in the border war with China in 1979 the bridge over the Nanxi was destroyed.  A decade later relations between the two sides were normalized and people could buy a ticket from Hanoi to Kunming again.  The bridge had been rebuilt, and until the end of the century was the only crossing point between Lào Cai and Hekou, but ticket-holders had to disembark at Lào Cai, walk over the bridge and hop the train to Kunming at the Hekou station.
railway bridge connecting Hekou with Lào Cai
    The train was still primarily a cargo train, but as in pre-war days it had several passenger compartments.  Tourists began taking the ride in the 90s as both Yunnan and Vietnam opened their doors to foreigners.  The line was narrow-gauge, one meter wide, which meant compartments that were rather cramped compared with those of more modern trains on wide-gauge tracks.   Hot meals were available on the journey and the train had sleepers for the ride from Kunming to Hekou, which departed in the evening and arrived next morning. 
    The best way to see the scenery, though, was to board the morning train at Hekou, leaving at 7:30 a.m. and arriving in Kunming early evening.  For the first couple of hours the train moves through dense jungle on the west bank of the Nanxi River.  At the southwest tip of Pingbian County it begins a slow ascent into the hills, hugging slopes high above the river, riding over the “bridge in lace’ and passing through many tunnels.  Eight of these lie between Baihe and Wankang and from there, for the next hour, too many to count.
the "bridge on lace"
entering a tunnel
   The scenery on this stretch, roughly five hours from the starting point at Hekou, is the best on the route—Miao villages on the gentler, lower slopes, their terraced fields sprawling below them, backed by steep, craggy limestone peaks.  With all the tunnel passages, though, the traveler gets only quick glimpses of these landscapes before entering darkness again.   North of Wankang the tunnels become more frequent, especially after the track suddenly veers northeast along the Sicha River for a spell, crosses it over the “bridge on the crossbowmen” and turns southeast along that river until just before its confluence with the Nanxi.  Then it turns northwest in the direction of Mengzi. 
    A quick glimpse of this bridge is all a passenger could get.  To get a full and dramatic view of it one has to proceed there by road from Heping further north, or by the longer route from Wankang, and then take a back country road that turns off the main road to the Sicha River.  The view is amazing, the bridge spanning the gap between two tall cliffs, the left one slanting 70 degrees, the right one nearly perpendicular to the river way down below.  About bridges and viaducts the French knew what they were doing.  Sometimes they picked the wrong places to lay the track on the slopes, leading to landslides in the rainy season that halted traffic for various lengths of time.  But no bridge or viaduct ever suffered damage.
French clock at a station near Mengzi
    After turning northwest again, the line continues through rugged hills with their lower slopes covered in terraces, though the peaks are less jagged.   By the time the train enters Mengzi County the hills become rounder, bereft of farms or villages, and gradually smaller and so freckled with big boulders that scarcely any grass can grow on them.  The track gradually descends to the Mengzi plain, though it does not actually pass through the city itself, the nearest station being several kilometers away. 
    Mengzi became the Honghe Prefecture capital several years ago and has a whole new section of fancy apartment blocks, wide avenues and government buildings.  The old city is still a rather sleepy place, its main attractions being beautiful South Lake and the surviving French buildings, including the prison they built in the early 20th century.  The city hosts market day on Sundays, when the streets are filled with ethnic minority women in colorful, handmade clothing.  Many are Miao, related to those who live along the tracks in Pingbian County.  An even larger portion are Yi and various sub-groups of Yi will dominate the ethnic minority populations in the vicinity of the railway line from Mengzi to Kunming.
South Lake, Mengzi
    After Mengzi the scenery is pleasant, though less rugged, consisting of rolling hills and open pastures.  The line passes through Kaiyuan and then veers almost due north along the Nanpan River until it reaches Yiliang, just west of the Stone Forest and famous for its roast duck.  From here the line turns west to its final terminus in Kunming. 
    The train ride was a pleasant traveling experience.  Besides the scenery, foreigners could observe activities at the numerous stations, see Miao women in their distinctive clothing, and chat with Chinese villagers making short journeys of one or two stops.  The only problem was landslides, which could cause long delays.  By 2003 such incidents happened so frequently the government closed the line for passenger services.  After renovation of the tracks the line reopened, but only for cargo.  And if landslides still happened and delayed the delivery of cargo, that was less of a problem than stranded passengers.
    Nowadays a railway museum in Kunming occupies the site of the former northern station.  Yunnan has other railway lines now and the stories of these are part of the museum’s display, too.  But such lines were all Chinese government-sponsored and part of the propaganda of the nation’s progress.  The attitude towards the French railway is different.  It may grudgingly acknowledge the technological achievement, but more apt to focus on the horrific human cost of the project, something that never bothered the French in their manic attempt to “open up” the interior of China and get rich. 
    They didn’t accomplish that.  The railway line never generated enough commerce to justify the expenditure.  Even today, though the line is still open for cargo, most goods moving between Kunming and Hekou go by truck on new super-highways.  So even the cargo service is probably on its way out.  The last cars will go into the museum, along with other paraphernalia from the 34 stations, and farmers will rip up the track to use as fences for their fields and pastures.
French postcard of the train at the station in Kunming (Yunnanfu)
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