Tramway Imperialism

Trams were one of the "inestimable blessings of civilization" that Western imperialists brought to colonial Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the colonies, protectorates, leased territories and spheres of influence (period euphemisms), trams were symbols of the technological progress of the West and its economic and political clout. The trams, carbarns powerhouses, rails and overhead wires were highly visible evidence of the capital investments and civic improvements promoted by colonial governments and private entrepreneurs. Their earnest attempt to convert the bustling treaty ports, expanding international settlements, and ancient imperial capitals into reasonable facsimiles of European and American cities was a none-too-subtle reminder that from the Dardanelles to the Sea of Japan and from Indonesia to Manchuria, the West intended to stay.

Since the bottom line of all imperialistic policy was economic profit and the promotion of business, the introduction of privately-funded tram systems was more of an investment opportunity for overseas capitalists than an amenity for the native residents, most of whom couldn't afford to ride the trams. However, in spite of an elaborate economic superstructure, eager bank consortiums, and the power of dollar diplomacy, the extent and success of the tram companies varied.

Three tram companies (British, French, Chinese) thrived in the metropolis of Shanghai, the largest city in Asia and the most spectacular colonial city in the world with its famous International Settlement. At the other extreme, proposed tram systems for Canton, Benares and other cities were never built or completed. The autocratic despots of the Manchu and Ottoman empires delayed the adoption of western technology as long as possible. Tram concessions for the sprawling cities in these semi-colonies were granted only after the military revolutions that overthrew the ancient ruling dynasties made the promotion of technological change possible.

The native populations that normally were apathetic or indifferent to the introduction of western improvements could occasionally prove to be an unexpected impediment. In Peking, the political clout of the rickshaw men's union effectively blocked the introduction of a city tram system for decades. In Seoul, a severe drought and famine was blamed on the introduction of trams in the imperial capital, and when a child was run over shortly after the inauguration of the system, angry mobs pulled down the overhead wires and burned the trams in an ensuing riot. The chaos of the War Lord period in China, which began in 1916, effectively postponed the introduction of trams in many cities until it was too late and the tramway building era was at an end.

In Japan, however, modernization and the adoption of Western technology became national policy via an imperial edict after the Meiji Restoration. Imported foreign specialists helped launch Japan's unprecedented economic and industrial growth. Unsurprisingly, the first electric tram line in Asia was built for an industrial exhibition in Tokyo's Ueno Park in 1890, years before many European or American cities saw an electric tram. Eventually electric tram lines and interurban railways covered the island kingdom from Hokkaido to Kyushu. Japan also imitated the West by invading neighboring countries and establishing imperial colonies and protectorates in Okinawa, Taiwan, Korea, Manchuria and Eastern Siberia. Tram systems were were installed in the major cities of all their colonies.

At the start of World War One in 1914, trams provided public transit in virtually every capital city and major port in Asia, although a number of tram systems in the most reactionary empires were never electrified. Public transit in Baghdad and Teheran went directly from horse-drawn trams to buses and petrol trams served Karachi until the 1970s. By contrast, in Japan the tram systems were not only electrified, but were continually modernized and upgraded over the years, until some were eventually converted into rapid transit and light rail systems.


The Trams Arrive

Experiments with an electrically-powered tram were conducted at the docks in Singapore in 1891 and the following year on the suburban steam-tramway line to Johore. In 1893, Bangkok became the first city in Asia with a permanent electric tram system. As the 19th century drew to a close, electric trams made their first appearances in: India - Madras, 1894; Ceylon - Colombo, 1898; Java - Djakarta, 1899; China - Peking, 1899; Korea - Seoul, 1899.

The early 20th century brought the high tide of imperialism and foreign investment in Asia. From 1900-1914 trams from the carbuilders of Europe arrived by steamer in: French Indochina - Hanoi, 1901; Hong Kong - 1904; Burma - Mandalay, 1904; The Philippines - Manila, 1904; Singapore - 1905; Malaya - Penang, 1906. In the Middle East the introduction of electricity was delayed until the death of Abdul Hamid (aka The Red Sultan). Electric trams first appeared in Damascus in 1907, Beirut in 1908, and Constantinople in 1913. During this same period electric transit development in Japan exceeded all countries outside of Western Europe and the United States. A world survey published in 1933 lists hundreds of tram and interurban companies in the Japanese Empire.

Western colonialism in Asia peaked about 1910. Then in rapid succession the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty in China, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, political unrest in India, and the First World War presaged the passing of the colonial empires. In the prosperity and brief colonial afterglow of the 1920s, electric tram systems were installed in those major cities still lacking modern transit: Pyongyang, Surabaja, Saigon - 1923; Peking - 1925; Mukden - 1926; Harbin - 1927; Izmir - 1928; Aleppo 1929. The worldwide depression that began in the West in 1930 ended this second period of economic expansion and investment.


The World of the Tram in Asia

The trams in Asia closely resembled or were identical to those in Europe and the U.S., since that is where the majority of the cars were built. A few companies (Baghdad, Bombay, Hong Kong, Osaka, Tripoli) even used double-deck trams in the traditional British style. Although the electric technology and infrastructure were universal, the locales and indigenous populations served by the trams provided unique and one-of-a-kind backgrounds. Engineers surveyed routes and construction crews laid rails and strung overhead wires through rice paddies, deserts, swamps, jungles, and coconut and bamboo groves. Tram lines were also built in the more traditional settings of the modern boulevards of the European districts of colonial cities and the narrow lanes of the congested native quarters.

The trams competed for street space with sacred cows, elephants, camels and water-buffalo (depending on the climate) in addition to fleets of rickshaws, carts, bicycles, automobiles and the masses of humanity that jammed the streets day and night. The destination signs on the trams might be in English or French, but the locales served included bazaars, temples, pagodas, royal palaces, ghats, imperial tombs and ancient walled cities.

The racial and class attitudes of imperialism produced such unique features as first and second class seating (cushions in the former, wooden slats in the latter), harem sections for women, coolie cars, special cars for alms-gatherers, and rules and regulations prohibiting "passengers without clothes" or "with loathsome diseases" from boarding the trams.

To add to this pageant, elaborately decorated trams and tram floats appeared on the streets to celebrate: royal birthdays, imperial accessions, dynastic anniversaries and visits of the King-Emperor to the Durbar in India. And, in an age of resplendent and unapologetic imperialism, brightly illuminated fleets of trams appeared on city streets to celebrate the annexation of neighboring countries and the muscle-flexing official visits of Western naval fleets to the treaty ports..


The End of Tramway Imperialism

In addition to the devastating economic collapse of the 1930s, the life-spans of some tram systems in Asia were shortened by the tropical climate, indigenous insect life, and difficult operating situations that wreaked havoc on the trams and their infrastructure. Teakwood and extra-sturdy materials were used to discourage the termites and large woodboring ants that permeate Southeast Asia, but little could be done to protect the transit systems from the destructive local climate and weather. The first tram line in Madras was destroyed in the 1895 monsoon; the line from Naha to Shuri on Okinawa was swept away by the typhoons that hit the island in 1933. Singapore became the first city in Asia to replace its tram system, which was worn out after 20 years of operation in equatorial heat and humidity.

World War II hastened the final collapse of the colonial empires and some of the tram systems were war casualties. The military occupation and devastation of Rangoon, Corregidor and Manila included the destruction of their tram systems. Hong Kong's fleet of double-deck streetcars was locked up in the carbarns until the war ended in 1945. In the early postwar period the remaining tram systems became victims of the unprecedented urban expansion and economic development that overtook Asia. As in the West, the opinion was that bus systems would be able to compete more successfully with the growing traffic congestion and automobile commuters. The few remaining foreign-owned tram companies were colonial anachronisms and succumbed to financial woes amid the nationalistic and political fervor that swept away the last of the colonial possessions.