Tjong Yong Hian building the Chao Shan Railway
Tjong Yong Hian built the first privately-owned commercial railway in China. His leadership brought a new level of confidence and set an example of modern private enterprises in old China.
In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution is marked by extensive railway networks in Europe, North America, and Japan. The establishment of railways also sped up the industrial revolution and changed the society. George Stephenson in England had its first steam locomotive ran in 1829 connecting Liverpool and Manchester. The Qing empire in China was lagged far behind, and Empress Dowager Cixi wanted to modernise China by bringing railroads and trains.
However, fengshui and superstitious impeded the construction of railways. Untouchables ancestral tombs scattered throughout the landscape. Having iron tracks and locomotives passing through the sacred ancestor lands could arouse public insurgency. Additionally, the Qing empire was almost broke dealing with many natural disasters and foreign wars.
Railways and trains also marked the peak of European imperialism. Foreign powers already started to build railroads on their concession lands in China facilitating the transport of goods out of China. The Qing empire felt they need to establish their own railways. The Imperial Chinese Railway Administration was established. A line of Beijing to Hankow was proposed in 1896, managed by reformist Sheng Xuanhuai. Sheng sought wealthy overseas Chinese for funding.
Zhang Bishi (known locally as Thio Tiaw Siat), a wealthy entrepreneur in Indonesia and Malaysia, was summoned to Beijing. While Zhang agreed to raise capital in Nanyang (South East Asia), he advised Sheng that a railway line in the South of China, where most overseas Chinese came from, would be more attractive.
Zhang Yunan (Tjong Yong Hian), a businessman from Medan and a junior close partner of Zhang Bishi, came to play. Zhang and his brother had the lease of opium, game, and spirits in the East Coast of Sumatra. He had a firm Chong Lee and the owner of a sago plantation and factory, and a rubber estate in Kedah. Zhang has a strong patriotic feeling for his motherland. He was the Vice Council of China in Penang in 1895 and contributed to building schools and various relief funds in China. Zhang also witnessed how railways built by the Dutch in Deli had modernised and facilitated economic growth.
The story goes that Zhang was searching for an area in Guangdong to set up a factory to manufacture soaps and candles and seen transport issues between Swatow port and inland regions. Swatow was a British Treaty port since 1858. Swatow was a port where the British imported opium to China and a place where people being tricked and sold as coolies in the straits and Deli. A line between Swatow and Chaochow had already been proposed since 1888. British company Jardines surveyed a route, and another firm Bradleys applied to build the line was not replied. The Qing government awarded the line to Zhang.
Zhang Yunan and his brother Hongnan (Tjong A Fie), who controlled many estates and trades in East of Sumatra, partnered with a wealthy Penang businessman, Hsieh Jungkuang (known as Cheah Choon Seng) to drew a capital of one million taels. They also invited other wealthy merchants. A Hong Kong millionaire named Wu (Ng Li Hing) invested 500,000 taels, Lin Lisheng, a Taiwan leading merchant, provided 300,000 taels, and Zhang (Cheong Chong Hong) from Siam contributed 200,000 taels. The total fund raised was 2,000,000 taels.
“The Chao-Chow & Swatow Railway Co. Ltd.” known as Chao Shan railway, was registered at the Chamber of Commerce in Beijing. The Grand Council supported the proposal, and Empress Cixi handed the decree on 12 December 1903. An imperial order was passed to the governor of Guangdong to clear the way for the railroad construction.
The railway company was established with 10,000 shares and a capital investment of 2,000,000 taels. In April 1904, the shareholders appointed Zhang Yunan as managing director-general. Lin as the manager director and the rest were members of the director board.
Lin suggested the Japanese company Mitsui Bussan Kaisha to build the railway with Kennosuke Sato as the chief engineer. It was argued that they did not want European firms to be involved. But there was a negative sentiment, as Japan had just defeated the Qing empire in 1895. Later, it was found out that Lin was a Japanese agent.
Zhang Yunan had lots of experiences dealing with the Sultans, Dutch officials, and Chinese merchants and coolies in Deli. A Dutch military officer, PB van staden ten brink, described the Zhang brothers as as champion chess players on the calculator. The innate level-headed and clear mind, aided by an excellent memory and unparalleled dexterity, stamp them as first-class sharp men, who make money in Deli a pleasant, animating sport.
His diplomatic skills proved to be useful in dealing with the local gentry, foreign forces, and local residents. First, Zhang needs to get the support of the local aristocrats. He courted an influential member of the gentry named Hsiao Chih Shan and awarded him a position at the Railway Company’s managerial board. Zhang has demonstrated his nationalism. In 1902, Zhang donated 80,000 taels to fund a high school in Guangdong. Zhang reasoned to Hsiao that the railway is to resist the foreign imperialists and convinced him that the railway would benefit local merchants and people.
To deal with the foreign powers, Zhang held a dinner party for foreign consuls and consul generals in Swatow on 20 May 1904. Zhang, who was used to deal with the Dutch in Deli, parleyed with the foreign consuls about the railway and assured them it wouldn’t undercut their influences and economy.
Finally, the project started. Preliminary surveys were completed in August 1904, and the construction was about to commence. However, a conflict between the locals and the Japanese construction team arose. The construction workers moved one hundred or more graves in a county. The offended locals, who already had a deep hatred for the Japanese, made the matter worse. The row incited a rumour that the Japanese were trying to control the railway through the overseas Chinese merchants.
This conflict further caused two Japanese workmen being murdered in the An Village. The Japanese government was upset and demanded a punishment to the murderers and a compensation to the victims’ families. If not fulfilled, the Japanese threatened a national crisis.
The Qing ministry was afraid of Japanese aggression and ordered the Chaozhou Railway Company to pay an indemnity of 210,000 taels. Zhang could only offer 10,000 taels as compensation to the two workmen following the company’s contractual liability agreement. As Japan was preoccupied with the Russo-Japanese war, the compensation was duly accepted. However, the locals’ dislike of the Japanese continued throughout the project. Even some gentry members demanded that Zhang be expelled and cancelled the rights to the railroad. Zhang carefully resolved these issues.
After two years of construction, finally, the Chaozhou-Swatow railway was completed. It extended 24 miles (39 km) of standard gauge. The total costs exceeded 3,000,000 taels.
It was officially opened in November 1906. A band from the German cruiser Jaguar played in the train’s first journey. The opening ceremony guests included Chinese officials, Consuls of the various foreign powers, the commissioner, and railway staff.
The railroad started from the west gate of Chaozhou city and terminated at Hsialing of Swatow, crossing the following stations: Feng Chi, Fou Yang, Kuan Chow, Tsai Tang, E- Bue, Ampow. The train ran three times a day.
It is the first railway line that was entirely financed and managed by overseas Chinese merchants. All existing railways in China were built by Europeans. This success means a lot. It shows that the Chinese can finance and build its own railway and bring economic development.
Zhang Yunan’s reputation soared. In March 1907, the Board of Agriculture, Industry, and Commerce rewarded him South China’s railroad offensive. He was received by Empress Cixi and awarded the Vice-president of the First Honour of the Third Order in Beijing. His name was listed in Cantonese as “His Excellency Cheong Yuk Nam”, in the Twentieth Century Impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other Treaty Ports of China (1908).
When he visited his village Songkou in Meixian, a forerunner announced with gongs of his arrival, and villagers had to kneel by the roadside as he passed in a red-topped sedan-chair carried by eight uniformed men. He was proud to bring glory to the village of his ancestors.
In 1911, Zhang Yunan passed away and the manager position was passed to his son, Zhang Puching. In 1935, Queeny Zhang (Zhang Fuying), the daughter of Zhang Hongnan (Tjong A Fie) took over the position. In June 1939, the railway was forced to cease operation as Japanese was invading China. The Kuomintang government ordered the tracks to be dismantled to stop the Japanese movement.
While the railway no longer exists, the story shows Zhang Yunan’s leadership that brought a new level of confidence and national pride when Chinese were looked down and seen as antiquated. It set an example of modern private enterprises in old China. The Fukien Railway Co. followed suit in 1905, with a railway line from Amoy.
Queeny Chang. 1981. Memories of a Nonya. Marshall Cavendish International Asia Pte Ltd.
Michael R. Godley. The Mandarin-Capitalists from Nanyang: Overseas Chinese Enterprise in the Modernisation of China 1893–1911. Cambridge University Press, 1981.
Yen Ching-Hwang. Chang Yu-Nan and the Chaochow Railway (1904–1908): A Case Study of Overseas Chinese Involvement in China’s Modern Enterprise.
Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 18, №1 (1984), pp. 119–135.
Arnold Wright (Ed.). Twentieth century impressions of Hongkong, Shanghai, and other treaty ports of China: Their history, people, commerce, industries, and resources. Vol. 1. Lloyds Greater Britain Publishing Company, 1908.