Friday, November 25, 2005

Imperialism and the Kowloon-Canton Railway

The Kowloon Canton Railway, at least the British section of it, was completed in 1910 to great acclaim. The terminus building (now pulled down) was constructed in 1916, and its clock tower (which still stands today) was built in 1922.

So what, you might ask. Indeed, on the face of it, it was just another infrastructure project, another example of public works to facilitate economic development. But that was not just the whole story, certainly not with a railroad. The rail was meant to connect Hong Kong to the rest of China, and to enable the traders of Hong Kong to maximize the economic potential of the Chinese mainland.

Postcolonial revisionism, you might say. So might I, except for a few facts. It was a high profile project where the signatories from the British side to build a railway from Hong Kong to Canton were not the Governor, or even any representative of the Government, but rather a Mr. Ross, then the taipan of the Princely Hong of Jardine Matheson. Also alongside him was a representative of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, who was financing the project. Britain's greatest financial house in Asia and its mightiest industrial concern were teaming up to make this railway a reality.

Jardines in particular was keen to get this right. Why? Because they had actually been responsible for building the first rail line in China, in Woosung. Unfortunately, the Chinese authorities were so vehemently anti-Western at that time that after it had been completed, the Chinese authorities actually had the entire railway destroyed, piece by piece. That particular taipan's successor, Mr. Ross, was determined to get it right. They did, and after some delays the railway was opened to China just as the tottering Manchu empire finally collapsed.

just to add some credence to my assertions, allow me to quote from a contemporary source witnessing the launch of the railway in 1910, a South China Morning Post reporter:
Today must be regarded as a memorable one in the life of the Colony, for this day the Kowloon-Canton Railway opens to traffic. For years, and still, regarded as the centre of the pulsing trade of the Far East, Hong Kong is now reaching on towards that vast, slowly-developing [not anymore! - Ed.] wealth of China, and the Kowloon-Canton Railway is the first tentacle, the first artery through which the red blood of trade will flow to and from this centre of British interests... it opens to the interior of China the greatest emporium of the East.
Believe me now?

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