The early history of Hong Kong’s railway: The Kowloon-Canton Railway. 1931 article

IDJ has sent the following newspaper article.

I have retyped the original article to aid legibility and searches on the website.

Thanks to SCT for proofreading the retyped article.

Railway Warfare In China Sunday Herald From IDJ

A railway journal at any time is most interesting. To the young people it is an object lesson not learned in the classroom. To the more mature persons, it affords much food for thought and reflection. As the wheels roll along the line, unfolding nature in all its rugged beauty, one’s thought naturally goes back to the universe undefiled by civilisation. We envy the primitive men.

The panorama suddenly changes. So do our thoughts. In the dank and smoky atmosphere of a tunnel, one cannot but cry out with secret joy to see what the handiwork of men has conquered. Such is the vacillation of the human mind.

However crude technology must have been in its beginnings, being at first limited to the preparation of food, the construction of secure dwellings, and the manufacture of arms and clothing, it has now risen to a high degree of development in the course of centuries.

While the first inhabitants of the earth were contented with a rude preparation of the products of nature, using the power of their hands only, we now call to our aid the elementary forces of nature, and have subject to our rule the most sagacious discoveries in mathematics, physics and chemistry – all distinguished results of human ingenuity – united for the purpose of saving power, time and human labour.

These technological developments are equally shared by Great Britain. Wherever the Union Jack flies, we see the handiwork and the pioneering spirit of the Britons who left the comfort and safety of their homes to live in foreign lands surrounded by pestilence and danger, and for no other honour than to do their part in the colossal task of Empire building.


As a monument to British enterprise in China, the Kowloon-Canton Railway stands out foremost. It may be truly said this is the greatest artery of the Colony. It provides the link by which China and Great Britain are brought together, and the products of one region are speedily and safely transferred to another, the interchange of ideas as well as the exchange of productions of nature and industry being thus promoted.

Sir Henry Blake And The Viceroy Of Guandong Undated Wikimedia Commons

Sir Henry Blake and the Viceroy of Guandong. Undated Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.

How the Kowloon-Canton Railway came into existence is worthy of recording. The final stimulus was given by Sir Henry Blake in the early part of the nineties in his farewell address to the Colony. He exhorted the Hong Kong Government and the people to take action by saying:-

“We have not built up our Empire by being laggards in the race for development necessary for the expansion of the trade of the world and ‘letting I dare not wait upon I would’ has never conquered a position nor retained it for either men or nations….’

Thirty years ago there were hardly more than five miles of railway in operation throughout the vast domain of China. The people were not hostile to this means of communication, but funds were sadly lacking. Added to this was the reluctance to borrow foreign capital, and evidently, a spirit of enterprise was sadly lacking in those far off days.

When the frontier of Hong Kong at Kowloon was pushed back to the present boundary in 1895, the idea of a railway connection with Canton began to gain notice. Prior to that there had been discussions of the project and the Hon. Mr Wei Yuk, C.M.G. had closely identified himself as one who desired a railway between Hong Kong and Canton. But, as in everything, Great Britain was not prepared to take the initiative until her interests were threatened.

Time passed and nothing was done. Meanwhile Belgian private interests were at work in China; mapping and planning out railway projects in different provinces. America was also roused to action. And when the grand trunk railway from Canton to Hankow began to take form, Great Britain’s eyes began to open from their lethargic slumber. A company, known as the British and Chinese Corporation was formed, and in half hearted manner this Corporation obtained in 1898 a concession from the Chinese Government to build a line between Canton and Kowloon.

It would appear that the matter was again allowed to remain stagnant and, although with the concession in hand, nothing further was done. Even the commencement of operations on the Canton-Hankow line did not stir the Corporation into action.

The Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Henry Blake, was due to leave the Colony, and in his farewell address he made his patriotic appeal to the Government and the people as recorded above. For a time it appeared that even this appeal had failed to stir Great Britain into action.


Sir Gershom Stewart 1921 Courtesy UK National Portrait Gallery

Sir Gershom Stewart 1921 Courtesy: The National Portrait Gallery, UK.

The Government of Hong Kong then came under the administration of Mr. Francis Henry May C.M.G. (later Sir Henry May, K.C.M.G). It was then that the Hon. Mr. Gershom Stewart first publicly suggested the idea that the Colonial Government should seek to get the concession granted to the Corporation transferred to itself, or to a Company specially formed to construct the line, over which the Colonial Government could exercise some control in exchange for the Colony’s guarantee of certain interest on the cost of construction. But, to his chagrin, the Hon. Mr. Stewart  was told that a suggestion practically on the lines he mentioned had been made to the Home Government and that the matter was having the attention of the Secretary of State.

The next chapter in the history of the Kowloon-Canton Railway was brought into existence as a direct result of outside influence. Reports became current at this time that Belgian interests had acquired from an American syndicate a controlling influence in the great trunk project from Hankow to Canton, and as the Belgians were said to be the agents of Russia, the news therefore created much uneasiness.

A deputation from the China Association consisting of R.C. Wilcox (Chairman), D.R. Law, H.E. Tomkins, E.S. Whealler, A.G. Wood, G.W.F. Playfair, and the Hon. Mr. Gershom Stewart waited upon Sir Henry May, and impressed upon him the fact that if a transfer of the interest from an American syndicate to a Belgian interest was allowed, it would also be possible to retransfer the railway to any foreign government avowedly hostile to British interests.

At this time it would seem that the world’s attention was concentrated upon China where the Powers were marking out spheres of influence and planning the peaceful conquest of these spheres by railways rather than armies.


After the extended area in Kowloon had been under British administration for fully eleven years, the Legislative Council passed a Bill on October 15, 1905, authorising the borrowing of two million pounds sterling for defraying the cost of construction of the Hong Kong section of the Kowloon Canton Railway, and “for other railway purposes.” This Bill was unique in that it passed its first, second and third readings all in one sitting. The urgency of the situation may be thus noted.

This Bill was passed after the Hong Kong Government has successfully secured the transfer of the concession from the British and Chinese Corporation, and the cost of building the British section of the line was estimated at £400,000.

The community was sorely puzzled as the what the Government meant by “for other railway purposes.” It was then revealed that the Chinese Government was bitterly hostile towards the transfer of the interest in the Hankow-Canton line held by the America China Development Company to the Belgians.

The Chinese wanted to regain this concession and after numerous negotiations, the America China Development Company expressed its willingness to surrender the concession to China on payment of G.$6,700,000.

The Hong Kong Government decided to lend this money to the Viceroy of Wuchang (Hankow) on security of the opium revenues from the provinces of Kwantung, Hupeh, and Hunan. Great Britain was said at the time to have achieved a magnificent business deal.

(To Be Continued.)

The Opening Of The Kowloon Canton Railway 1910 Pinterest

The opening of the Kowloon Canton Railway, 1910 Courtesy: Pinterest

Source: The Sunday Herald 6th December 1931

This article was first posted on 16th December 2022.

Related Indhhk articles:

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  2. The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) Part 2 – Construction
  3. The Kowloon-Canton Railway (British Section) Part 3 – the construction of Kowloon Station
  4. The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) Part 4 – The Early Years (1910 to 1940)
  5. The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) Part 5 – The Post War Years (1945 to 1978)
  6. Kowloon – Canton Railway (British Section) Part 6 – Modernisation
  7. The Kowloon Canton Railway (British Section) 1910-1940 – major accidents/incidents
  8. Beacon Hill Tunnel, KCR, longest tunnel in China 1910

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