Sunday, October 12, 2008

Sun Ning Railway Company

The Sun Ning Railway Company 新寧鐵路 was a standard gauge railway in the Pearl River Delta in Guangdong Province founded in 1906 by Chin Gee Hee 陳宜禧 and Yu Shek 余灼 . It was South China's first railway and one of only three railways in pre-1949 China built solely with private Chinese capital.


In order to fund the railway, Chin raised $2.75 million, mainly from overseas Chinese; some sources say that further investment came from James J. Hill, but others say that at a time when railway development in China was dominated by European nations, he "vowed not to sell shares to foreigners, to borrow money from them, or to use their engineers."

While raising funds and building the railway, Chin encountered numerous obstacles: a magistrate tried to usurp credit for organizing the company; there were many difficulties over obtaining a right of way due to clan feuds and superstitions ; and gentry-officials repeatedly attempted extortion. Chin bought an official title to become legally one of the gentry himself, which somewhat eased the process. Still, the construction was confronted by over a hundred riots staged by local landlord forces, resulting in thirty-nine othewise unnecessary turns, which made construction more expensive and affected speed and safety. Altogether, construction costs totalled about 9.7 million yuan or 4.8 million.

Unfulfilled 1924 plans by Chin would have extended the railway in one direction 40 miles from Doushan to the Tonggu Commercial Port and in the other to Foshan, through which would have reached Guangzhou and the domestic mainland. Chin also wanted to continue west through Yangjiang and the west of Guangdong and to the Leizhou peninsula, forming a traffic network throughout the southwest of Guangdong. Several similar proposals met similar fates: the well-connected Yuehan Railway Company had a near-monopoly on railway construction in Guangdong, some of the gentry wished to create their own railways, and while the Sun Ning finally obtained the required formal positions, by the time it got those permissions it was in financial trouble. Furthermore, the Qing government prevented them from borrowing from abroad, despite the fact that the government itself was taking foreign loans at the time. Consequently, the railway never connected to any major port or any other key city of the Chinese economy.

From 1927 to 1929, the government overtly took over the railroad, but it proved to be beyond their ability to operate it, and they returned it to civilian control. The railroad was destroyed in the Second Sino-Japanese War, dismantled in December 1938 to deny its use by the Japanese military, who nonetheless occupied Taishan. 23,782 rails were shipped to Guangxi in 1942 to build the Qianguei Railway; all other assets, which were worth over three million yuan, were carried off by the Japanese.

Lucie Cheng and Liu Yuzun write that, while the railway did not play major economic or strategic role in the history of Chinese transportation, "its entire life reflects the interlocking but conflicting pressures of Western imperialism, capitalism and feudalism which characterized early twentieth century China… Moreover reflects the role of emigrant capital and nationalism on the development of enterprises in the emigrant motherland," reflecting especially the investment by overseas Chinese in a geographic area which had been the homeland for so many of them.

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