JIANGMEN, China — It has been decades since a train has passed through the old Beijie train station in southern China. On a recent winter morning, the only sign of activity came from a group of architecture students busy with their sketchpads.
The station is a two-story building of brick and concrete with stained-glass windows. A ticket counter with metal bars still stands in the main hallway. On the wall behind the counter is a copy of a train schedule from the pre-Communist era: one dollar for a first-class ticket from this station to the town of San He; 70 cents for a second-class ticket.
The station is the most prominent survivor of the Xinning Railway, an ambitious attempt by a Chinese businessman who lived overseas in the early 20th century to help modernize his home county, Taishan, better known as Toishan, a rice-growing region in Guangdong province that was the point of origin for many Chinese emigrants.
The project was the precursor of today’s vaunted high-speed rails, but it was a private railway, one of China’s first, and built solely through the efforts of one man clinging to a vision of strengthening China.
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That man, Chen Yixi, returned to Taishan after spending 40 years in the United States amassing a fortune, mostly as a labor contractor in Seattle for railroad projects. The money he raised for the Xinning Railway came primarily from Chinese-Americans.
“I find it’s amazing that peasants from Taishan went to the U.S. and Canada to make a living and built railways,” said Liu Jin, 46, a professor at Wuyi University in Jiangmen and a director of the Overseas Chinese Research Center, as he sat in his office showing foreign visitors digital scans of the railway’s stock certificates. “That’s how they learned the technology and earned money, and then they came home and used that technology and money to contribute to the modernization of their home region.”
Scholars like Liu have documented the rise and fall of the Xinning Railway to better understand the modernizing forces in China then and the role of overseas Chinese.
In the Taishan region, Chen and his project — his China dream — are memorialized. A statue of him stands in a pedestrian mall in Taishan City, the county seat. At Doushan, the southern terminus of the railway, there is another statue and also a black locomotive in the main plaza. One afternoon, a family posed for photos there.
“I don’t really know him that much,” said Wing Chan, 31, a mechanic from San Francisco who was visiting relatives. “He took out all his income to build the train.”
In Chen’s home village, a 10-minute drive from Doushan, a sign by the European-style town houses he once owned praises his work. The Museum of Overseas Chinese in Jiangmen has a large exhibition on the railroad.
“It was arguably Chen Yixi who came closest to attaining the heroic stature attributed to huaqiao,” or overseas Chinese, in magazines known as qiaokan, wrote Madeline Y. Hsu, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, in “Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home,” a book on transnationalism and the southern Chinese that has a chapter on Chen.
“This wealthy Seattle merchant, labor contractor, and railroad engineer conceived and partially fulfilled a plan to rescue Taishan from its agricultural stagnation and transform it into a thriving commercial metropole,” she wrote.
Through family connections, Chen first moved to the U.S. around 1862, as a teenager. He learned English and took engineering classes, and eventually he founded a company supplying labor for railroad projects. He became a pillar of the business community in Seattle.
In 1895, foreign powers seized control of China’s railroads through a treaty that resulted from China’s defeat in a war with Japan. It was a significant move in what many Chinese feared was a carving up of China by other nations. Some overseas Chinese returned home to try to help build up China, and one route they adopted was to start private railways.
Chen took a stab at such a project. He was not the first; a previous attempt by another overseas Chinese businessman to build a private railway had failed.
Chen’s goal was to build a railway first from Taishan City north to Jiangmen, where passengers could take boats to and from Hong Kong. Eventually the railway would extend south to the coast of the Taishan region and be linked to a vast transportation network between Southeast Asia and Europe.
Chen and another Taishanese man embarked on a campaign overseas that raised $2.7 million for the project’s first stage, Hsu wrote. Two-thirds came from Chinese-Americans.
Construction began around 1906. Officials raised objections, as did villagers. That forced the path of the railway to take many twists. A big geographic hurdle was the Niuwan River. Chen had to buy a boat from Hong Kong that could ferry train cars across the water.
The first stretch was completed in 1909. It ran from Doushan in the south to Gongyi, on the northern border of Taishan. The second section, from Gongyi to Jiangmen, was completed two years later. In 1917, Chen added a trunk line connecting Taishan City to Baisha. The lines together ran about 85 miles.
The railroad company suffered financial problems, from high operating costs to constant extortion by officials. And there was not much of a market for the transportation of manufactured goods across Taishan because it was not an industrialized area.
Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Republic of China, saw potential in Chen’s plans and permitted him to build a port at Tonggu, which would be one terminus in the transportation network. But with corruption rampant, none of it came to pass. Chen died in 1928, his dreams unfulfilled.
“In any normal society, this railway would have become a lucrative business center,” Liu said. “But Chen’s dream was crushed by the chaos of China.”
After the Japanese conquered Guangzhou in October 1938, Chinese officials ordered the railroad dismantled so the Japanese would not be able to use it. One elderly local woman remembered being paid several sacks of rice to help take it apart.
The glory survives in memories, which are gradually disappearing. Chen Huajia, 84, recalled riding the railroad as a boy with his father, who took the train from San He to Taishan City to get supplies for his restaurant. He also remembered other uses for the railroad.
“When the Japanese started bombing from airplanes, there was one time when the explosions were close and we ran and hid beneath the railroad bridge near Taishan City,” he said. “That was frightening because the explosions were very loud. We could hear the bombs as well as the machine-gun fire.”