Technology and Empire
A Colonial Narrative of the Construction of the Tonkin–Yunnan Railway
Author: Jennifer Robertson
The Tonkin–Yunnan railway constituted a significant piece of transport infrastructure of the French colonial empire in Asia. The 848-kilometer railroad was a technical achievement that took ten years to complete (1900–1910) at the cost of thousands of lives. Albert Marie, a young French engineer, worked on the construction of the Chinese section of the railway over a three-year period, from August 1904 to May 1907. Through the letters he sent to his family and the photographs he took during his assignment, vignettes of everyday life in the expatriate community and the local population, as well as of the daunting work on the construction sites in a hostile physical environment, are narrated in a very candid manner. The hardworking, ambitious, and (at times) bewildered engineer, like many of his contemporary fellow countrymen, was hopeful about French rule in parts of mainland Southeast Asia and southwestern China in the early twentieth century. Technology, in particular, was believed to be the instrument of civilization and modernity that would drive France's imperial expansion in the region and elsewhere; in 1907, Albert Marie left Yunnan to work on another daunting colonial railroad project, the Constantinople–Baghdad line.