LINES OF THOUGHT ACROSS SOUTHEAST ASIA
I In the late 19th century, colonial powers Britain and France held grand ambitions to exert control over the Southeast Asia region. The construction of highly ambitious railway lines to access Chinese markets was deemed the answer, and the “Race to Yunnan” was on
By Christian Gilberti
In the late 19th century, the rapidly-expanding global empires of Great Britain and France were locked in a race to exert their influence over the markets of China. With the opening of the Suez Canal in Egypt in 1869, travel times between Europe and Asia were cut in half, and China represented a massive new market for European manufactured wares. Except there was a problem.
The fastest way to carry goods in and out of the “Middle Kingdom” was via the four-thousand mile-long Yangtze River, and the Chinese imperial government extracted tolls called likin all along its length. The universally-acknowledged solution was to build a railroad, but railway construction required large up-front investments, and that kind of capital was hard to come by without official backing.
Enter the British and French governments, which would end up spending vast fortunes building impressive railways in the hopes of one day accessing the markets of Southwestern China. The destination was Yunnan – a massive, ethnically diverse province with its capital at Kunming – an area all but inaccessible from the Chinese coast.
In their offices in the British colony of Burma (today’s Myanmar) and the French colony of Indochina (today’s Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), civil servants and merchant bankers dreamed of beating each other to the prize. The “Race to Yunnan” was on.
Cartographers and armchair explorers in London had long noted the proximity of British India’s Northeastern frontier to China, but it would take a class of particularly zealous colonial explorers on the ground to make trade between the two Asian giants a reality.