Making Tracks Through China

The mustard-coloured Kunming North railway station, in the capital of Yunnan province, integrates with the surrounding high-rises like foie gras at a vegetarian dinner party. Although its wooden window shutters and clock tower hint of French inception, this incarnation dates back only to 2015.

Explaining the French facade, the station houses the Yunnan Railway Museum, which com­memorates the French-engineered, 855km-long (530-mile-long) Kunming-Haiphong Railway.

Les Chemins de Fer de L’Indo-Chine et du Yunnan was controversial from the start, as placards in the museum document with textbook Marxist aggrievement. The French “war of aggression against China in 1883” provoked the “stupid Qing government” to sign an “unequal treaty” and give up Chinese suzerainty of Vietnam. After the first Sino-Japanese war ended, in 1895, the French “blackmailed” the “weak and incom­petent” Manchu rulers into consenting to the construction of a railway from Vietnam into China “under threat of war”. Ouch!

Adding to this “national humiliation”, the railway claimed the lives of thousands of Chinese and Vietnamese coolies, tasked with working in three climate zones and mountainous terrain.

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