Reform and immovable conservatism go hand in hand. Men of the most dissimilar ambitions compose the corps diplomatique, and are willing to join hands to propagate their main beliefs; and when one writes of progress—in railways, in the army, in gaols, in schools, in public works, in no matter what—one is ever confronted by that dogged immutability which characterizes the older school.
So that in writing of things Yuen-nanese in this great city it is imperative for me to state bare facts as they stand now, and make little comment.
The Tonkin-Yuen-nan Railway, linking the interior with the coast, is one of the world’s most interesting engineering romances. This artery of steel is probably the most expensive railway of its kind, from the constructional standpoint. In some districts seven thousand pounds per mile was the cost, and it is probable that six thousand pounds sterling per mile would not be a bad estimate of the total amount appropriated for the construction of the line from a loan of 200,000,000 francs asked for in 1898 by the Colonial Council in connection with the program for a network of railways in and about French Indo-China.
To Lao-kay there are no less than one hundred and seventy-five bridges.
The completion of this line realizes in part the ambition of a celebrated Frenchman, who—once a printer, ’tis said, in Paris—dropped into the political flower-bed, and blossomed forth in due course as Governor-General of Indo-China. When Paul Doumer, for it was he, went east in 1897, he felt it his mission to put France, politically and commercially, on as good a footing as any of her rivals, notably Great Britain. It did not take him long to see that the best missionaries in his cause would be the railways. At the time of writing (June, 1910) I cannot but think that profit on this railway will be a long time coming, and there are some in the capital who doubt whether the commercial possibilities of Yuen-nan justified this huge expenditure on railway construction. Whilst authorities differ, I personally believe that the ultimate financial success of the venture is assured. There are markets crying out to be quickly fed with foreign goods, and it is my opinion that the French will be the suppliers of those goods. British enterprise is so weak that we cannot capture the greater portion of the growing foreign trade, and must feel thankful if we can but retain what trade we have, and supply those exports with which the French have no possibility of competing.
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The foreigner in Yuen-nan-fu can never rest unless he is used to the sounds of the bugle and the hustling spirit of the men of war.