1 May 2019

Cold Case - Kowloon-Canton Railway

Most historians, like all good noir-ish detectives or private eyes, have cold-case files piled up in a desk drawer somewhere. The research projects that never got properly started, or had to be abandoned for lack of evidence. Promising leads that tailed off or simply led to dead ends. They get shelved rather than binned in the hope that something will eventually turn up which will set the wheels in motion again. Flipping a blue flashing light on the roof. Spurring us into action as some new source material provides us with a fresh scent to set the tracker dogs onto; something which might enable us to pursue our enquiries to a successful conclusion.

Kowloon Railway Terminal before demolition, all that remains today is the clock tower.

I have one such cold case regarding the opening of the Kowloon-Canton Railway (KCR) in 1910. And, as with all good noir-ish detective stories, it begins with a location, a suspect, a probable motive, and a part confession. All the signs are there, but I still just need that one crucial bit of evidence to clinch it and make my case watertight. It all began with a passage in Paul Henry King’s memoir, In the Chinese Customs Service: A Personal Record of Forty-Seven Years: 

“The last Viceregal function I assisted at was on the 7th April, 1909, on the occasion of laying the foundation-stone of the Terminal Station of the Canton-Kowloon Railway at Tai-sha-tan, just outside the East Gate of Canton City. The Governor of Hong-Kong and the Colonial Secretary came up for the ceremony, which was very well staged and came off without a hitch as far as the Chinese were concerned. It struck some of us that the Hong-Kong Governor's speech seemed to insist rather too much (for good taste) on the benefit to China of railway connection with Hong- Kong. His whole attitude reminded me of Sir Robert Hart's anecdote about Wen Hsiang's remark — "That the British invariably gave good advice to China in an unpalatable form" — and almost produced the impression that he was taking advantage of the occasion to let the Viceroy know what he thought of the Canton Government. However, His Excellency Chang seemed not a penny the worse and beamed on the just and unjust alike, as only a man with a swivel eye can. I was close by their two Excellencies most of the time and enjoyed the situation not a little.” 

This passage came to mind when I was working in Hong Kong over ten years ago. I’d often walked past the old clock tower down by the Star Ferry terminus. It’s all that’s left of the original Kowloon terminal of the KCR line (which still operates today). But it was only when I had a spare day free, and was wondering what to do, that I decided to visit the Railway Museum at the old Tai Po Market Station. This station was taken out of service when the KCR was electrified in the early 1980s. It was decided to preserve the station building, which was built in 1913, due to its unique architectural style which is reminiscent of typical south China temple buildings. Now run by the Hong Kong Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) the museum is free to visit and consists of the main station building with its original ticket hall, plus a number of railway carriages and a couple of locomotives, all preserved from different eras. It was in one of the station side rooms in which there are display panels explaining the history behind the foundation and construction of the KCR where I came across the following photograph:

Banquet to celebrate laying the foundation stone of the Canton Terminal, 1909.

This image shows Chinese and British officials at a banquet in 1909, celebrating the laying of the foundation stone for the Chinese Section of the line at the Canton Terminus (Tai Sha Tan). Given Paul Henry King’s account of this event in his memoir it seems almost certain that he is present somewhere in this image (or in the close vicinity of it), but where exactly is another question altogether! – I’ve no idea if he’d be seated at the top table or if perhaps he’s one of the chaps seated at the two tables flanking the sides, perhaps with his back to the camera? All the versions of this photo which I’ve since found are far too grainy or faded to see sufficient detail. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to think he’s there and that this is a photograph he’d recognise intimately. But what really caught my eye that day were the following two photographs which the caption indicates were taken about a year or so later:

Lo Wu, 1st Ocober 1910.

The first shows the Acting Governor of Hong Kong, Sir Henry May, and his wife “inspecting the tracks”, and the second is a more general view of the guests attending the opening of Lo Wu station on 1st October 1910, where the Chinese and British sections of the KCR met. You’ve probably noticed that the same unnamed yet clearly eminent Gent appears front and centre of both images. In the second he appears to be standing with a woman whom we might suppose to be his wife, and to his left are three Chinese officials, who – to my mind’s eye – look like they might possibly be local Customs officials. This could also make sense if the unidentified Gent is Paul Henry King, then Commissioner of the Chinese Customs Service at Canton. In terms of dress and demeanour, the couple do look a lot like the photos I’ve seen of Paul Henry King and his wife, Veronica (also known as Madge, but whose real name was Alice Margaret). His moustache and his distinctive collar, neck tie and dress coat do seem similar to one of the fellows seated at the top table of the 1909 Canton photo – if you squint really, really hard! … Initially I couldn’t help feeling really excited – but I knew I’d have to check my facts before I properly congratulated myself on the 'sure certainty' of my remarkable find. It’s important never to let imagination impinge too far upon instinct and so over-determine an inclination towards an idea, no matter how probable or likely it might outwardly seem ... Nothing is ever certain until it is totally clarified beyond any doubt and backed up by genuine, demonstrable proof.

Lo Wu, 1st October 1910.

So firstly, I went back to Paul King’s memoir. Naturally, I didn’t have a copy of the book with me at the time of my visit to Hong Kong. I could only very vaguely remember the passage in its broadest outline. And so later on, re-reading it closely, I encountered a problem. The passage quoted above was preceded by the following sentence: “But my sands at Canton were now running out, as I had been granted two years' leave of absence as soon as my successor could take over the port.” And the concluding lines of the passage (and of that chapter) only reinforced the fact: “I handed over charge of the Canton Customs to my old friend and colleague, J. F. Oisen (now Danish Minister in Peking), on the 8th May, 1909, and left for Hong-Kong on the 11th May. I had paid a farewell visit to the Viceroy on the 10th, and he did me the great honour of coming in person to see me off. All our friends—native and foreign—did the same, and overwhelmed us with kindness and regrets.”

Lo Wu, 1st October 1910.

The pages of the subsequent chapter only bore this point out further. The Kings were “back home” in the UK when the event at Lo Wu had taken place. They didn’t return to China until March 1911. But I couldn’t help staring at the figure in the two photos. The more I looked the more I wanted to doubt the published memoir with its black and white dates regulating the text to a clear timetable of events. I suspect Paul King may well have kept a diary which he’d most likely referred to religiously whilst writing his memoir, like a metronome keeping the chapters neatly and orderly to time. But I kept coming back to those images of Lo Wu. The chap in the photos looked so similar to Paul King to my mind’s eye that it niggled me – I wanted to be sure. If this fellow wasn’t Paul King, who was he?

The inaugural train at Lo Wu, 1st October 1910.
The only other way I could think of to be completely certain was to go back to the original source and see if anyone I knew in the LCSD might have access to the original photograph, and to ask them what records there might be connected to it which might name the individuals it pictures. A friend of mine who works at the Hong Kong Heritage Museum very kindly said she’d look into it for me and see what she could find. A few weeks later I received an email from her. She’d spoken to a couple of colleagues, but all they could find amounted to much the same information as that which was used in the captions given on the wall at the Railway Museum. There were no names known other than that of the Acting Governor and his wife. Hence all my lines of enquiry and all my leads in this process of investigation didn’t just reach the end of the line, but rather firmly hit the buffers and could go no further. Whoever this couple is remains a mystery to me. – Unless something else turns up, in due course, which manages to get me back on the tracks and under full steam again. Until then, all I can do is stare at these black and white figures in these grainy old photographs and wonder who these people are. 

Lo Wu, 1st October 1910.

Meanwhile, despite the clear evidence of Paul King’s own memoir, there’s still a part of me that doubts the seemingly incontrovertible evidence of his own writing. Hence, whenever I look at these photographs, I still can’t help vacillating between my ardent wish for it to be the Kings (simply based on the similarities of their looks, their dress and their demeanour – but then, how many eminent Edwardians all look exactly like this? – Answer: Lots of them!), and my equally strong scepticism, which wonders if either the photos or the memoir might perhaps have been incorrectly dated? – The fact-checking historian in me still obsessively requires that I see the names (theirs or someone else’s) pencilled on the back of the photograph, or typed up on a guest list published in some forgotten contemporary local newspaper, or someone else’s memoir which says they were or weren’t there in the same company as Paul and Veronica (or, more likely, their doppelgangers) at this event on that particular day in October 1910 … 

Canton Railway Terminal, 1st October 1910.

But then, these are exactly the kind of sources which might very well suddenly appear as if out of nowhere; stumbled upon in some obscure publication, hidden in some library somewhere; chanced upon by accident whilst looking out for something else entirely. The key documents that will answer the riddle as to who this man really is and why he was there – was he the man who replaced Paul King in his post at Canton? Quite possibly. – If I look at all the facts, my prime suspects are much more likely to be J. F. Oisen, or the unnamed Colonial Secretary. – But the niggle is that need to know. And that’s the joy and the frustration of doing this kind of research. It goes in fits and starts sometimes. Answering one question may well simply end up posing another in its place. Hence, tugging at threads which get knotted for a time, but then someday suddenly and unexpectedly start to unravel again. Like all good detective yarns, cold cases are never truly closed cases, just stories which haven’t been concluded – yet. – Best to keep ‘em peeled, eh! You never know what might turn up …

The modern Kowloon-Canton Train passing through Sha Tin Station, 2008.