Tracing the Yunnan-Vietnam Railway

Looking back down the tracks at French Indochina’s legacy in southeast Yunnan – Thomas Bird

The Map of the Current Situation dating back to 1898 hangs in the halls of Yunnan Railway Museum. It depicts the Qing Empire encroached upon by a bulldog with a lion’s body, an eagle swooping across from The Philippines, a grizzly bear stopping through Manchuria and a frog sliming its way up from Southeast Asia. These invasive species represent Britain, the USA, Russia and France respectively, while Japan looks on from the side lines, a jealous rising sun holding a leash around Taiwan’s neck.

With a population numbed by opium and ruled by aloof Manchu royals hauled up in their Beijing citadel, turn-of-the-century China made easy-pickings for hungry colonial powers who began to slice old Cathay up like a birthday cake.

Most of the competing powers constructed railways, which served to open up the economy in a realm with few good roads. But beyond its practical functions, the railway also acted as a territorial marker, an agent of empire, provoking historians to coin the term “railway imperialism”. Russian tracks laid a cross through Manchuria, expressing the Tsar’s clandestine plans to dominate in the Northeast. Germany built a large section of the north-to-south Jinpu Railway through its sphere of interest in Shandong with Great Britain building the rest. In fact, Britain was perhaps busiest of all, constructing the KCR line in cooperation with Chinese engineers through the Pearl River Delta as well as the Imperial Chinese Railway from Beijing to Mukden (Shenyang).


Father of the Chinese Railway

Remembering Zhan Tianyou, China’s pioneer railway engineer – Thomas Bird

This February, the state-owned China Railway Corporation inaugurated the Year of the Pig by announcing railway spending in the region of 800 billion yuan in 2019. While the UK and USA watch their antiquated railway lines crumble, the Communist Party of China views railway development as a core project both at home – sewing the vast territory of the People’s Republic together – and abroad, providing transport infrastructure in places as diverse as Laos and Kenya as part of President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Critics see China’s plans as semi-colonial, with tracks in Tibet and Xinjiang part of a broader placation program, while one-sided contracts in the BRI endebt poorer countries to China. China’s grand railway schemes also trouble economists, who see railways being built simply to stimulate economic growth while China Railway Corporation has, itself, a multi-billion yuan debt.


Mining the Zeitgeist

Thomas Bird excavates the Lianzhou photography festival

I follow the map on my phone as it leads me into the backstreets of Songzhuang Art Colony, the world’s largest art village, located on the eastern fringe of the Beijing municipality. Just when I think I’ve been lured into a labyrinthine trap, the unmistakable bald head of Shanxi-native Luo Dawei (罗大卫) emerges from a doorway and beckons me in from the cold.

“Sorry about the mess, we’re just moving in,” he says as I watch computers and office furniture being delivered, unpacked in a tempest of cardboard and dust.


Snap Judgment

Li Zhengde’s photography reveals an edgier side to China – by Thomas Bird

China’s second tallest skyscraper, the Ping An Finance Centre, was completed in the center of Shenzhen in 2017. The 115-storey superstructure is a testament to the city’s remarkable, four-decade ascent since its origins as a fishing village. Hong Kong has nothing as tall. Walking around mainland China’s third wealthiest city, Shenzhen feels rather well-to-do. Residential blocks have replaced the labyrinthine urban villages formed when high-rise buildings were hurriedly built in what had been countryside. A vast metro system has supplanted the old fleet of mini buses, while cars, not motorbikes, dominate the city’s six lane boulevards. The seedy border town once renowned for knockoff designer wares and sweatshop factories has given way to homogeneity and affluence.