Hong Kong to London by train in the 1920s | Gwulo: Old Hong Kong

Hong Kong to London by train in the 1920s

Jan Morris, in her book "Hong Kong", writes: "In the 1920s it [Hong Kong] became the only British overseas possession from which you could book a through train ticket to London. You left from the Kowloon waterfront station on the Guangzhou train, perhaps the streamlined railcar Canton Belle, decorated all in green and silver and equipped with cocktail bar; you travelled via Beijing and the Tans-Siberian railway to Moscow, Berlin, Paris and Calais; and from Dover the Pullman coaches of the Golden Arrow took you on to Victoria Station, London." (Jan Morris, Hong Kong, Penguin Books, 1997, pp. 154-55).

I'd be interested to know what the cost of 1st Class train ticket through to London was in the 1920s by comparison with a 1st Class ticket by sea via Montreal and the difference in the speed of the journey. I sense that members of my family liked to travel by train for at least a part of their journey between Hong Kong and London, in that they often seem to have eluded the ships passenger lists in the 1920s and beyond. 


Hi Jill,

I don't think that train route would have been popular in the 1920s, as a section of the railway line between Guangzhou and Beijing wasn't complete yet. Wikipedia says that "Work on the final section between Zhuzhou and Shaoguan began in 1929 but was not completed until 1936.", see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beijing%E2%80%93Guangzhou_railway#History.

Also the Canton Belle didn't enter service until 1937 (https://gwulo.com/atom/18780), so maybe Jan Morris meant the 1930s? But then China and Japan were at war and the route was broken again.

Does Morris's book give any more details of people that traveled the way she describes? I can't think of any memoirs I've read that mention traveling by train between Hong Kong and London.

Regards, David

And the disruption caused by the Russian Civil War in the early 1920s. The TSR was used to transport troops during that period. I wonder what it was like later in the decade though. 

David, there certainly seems to be some disconnect in Jan Morrris's claim as the paragraph continues: "The line was, grandiloquently declared Sir Henry May, Governor at the time of its opening, 'the first tentacle, the first artery through which the red blood of trade would flow to and from the centre of British interests." Perhaps this was only an aspiration, as Sir Henry left Hong Kong before 1920. It's surprising that this quite specific fact about through travel to London made it into the final edition of the book, uncorrected. The named cast of the readers of the typescript includes HJ Lethbridge, while Griselda Kerr - presumably the Penguin editor - is thanked for assiduously updating "every  fact, figure and speculation". There is also a considerable reading list given at the end of the book.

I can't think of anyone better qualified than you, David, to beard Morris in her Welsh fastness and ask her about her Hong Kong experience. It would make for a great interview for Gwulo!

I tried to find Henry May's speech in the local newspapers, but without success. I did find a 1936 article about the soon-to-be-completed line between Canton & Hankow. It's clear that in 1936, train travel between Hong Kong and Europe was still considered as just a possibility for the future, not something that would happen straight away:

Passenger traffic between all points in the North, the upper Yangtze valley, and Canton and Hongkong will be stimulated considerably by the completion of the line, as previously a round-about route via Shanghai had to be taken. The line is sufficiently beautiful to attract tourists, provided suitable accommodation is provided at stop-overs. The carrying of higher class passenger traffic must depend to a great extent on speed, so that the 40 hours overall timing between Canton and Hankow at present contemplated cannot be regarded with satisfaction. This timing will no doubt be reduced progressively in the course of a few years to less than 24 hours, so that when the line from Hankow to Peiping is rehabilitated, it may be possible to travel by rail from Hong-Kong to Peiping in 2 1/2 days. Then again the through route to Calais via Siberia, Moscow, Warsaw and Berlin is not beyond the realms of possibility, as the first 150 miles step towards changing to standard the 5' 0” gauge of the North Manchuria and the Russian systems which extend from Hsinking to Minsk has already been taken.
Page 17, The Hong Kong Telegraph, 1936-02-05

David, thank you for spending time trying to verify what would have been a significant achievement in railway construction, if true. It’s a shame that there are so many holes in Jan Morris’s claim. Backed up by the – albeit unsourced - quote from Sir Henry May, it sounds so credible. His words don’t sound invented, but would have to have been from an aspirational pre-1918 speech. Perhaps searching with “tentacle” might come up with something. I have almost given up on newspaper searches unless I have an exact date. We shall have to consign Morris’s statement to the category of colourful journalism. For all that it has an index, a few footnotes and a star studded cast of typescript readers, her Hong Kong isn’t an academic study.

Not sure of the exact speech by Sir Henry May but one can refer to the article on Page 2 of the HK Daily Press on 3 October 1910.

Thanks Moddsey, having Sir Henry May's speech be about the early days of the KCR makes a lot more sense.

I agree that the speech by Sir Henry May on Saturday, 1st October 1910 referred to in the HKDP article found by moddsey sounds a very likely match for the one cited by Jan Morris. The article looks forward to what it calls “the great arterial line which is to connect Canton with Hankow and [to] contemplating the prospect of some day being able to travel from Hankow and Peking thence across Siberia to Calais.” Following completion of the Chinese section of the railway line, it anticipates a direct connection with Canton being possible well within the year.

The “Overland Route”, as David has pointed out, was never possible by rail from southern China or Hong Kong until 1936 when the missing Hunan Province section of the Canton-Hankow (Guangzhou-Wuhan) Railway was finally completed. This new connection did not, however, speed up international travel because by mid-1937 Japanese invaders were already blockading Canton and launching bombing raids on railway bridges and buildings while banditry still posed a serious safety issue.

The new means of travel between China and Europe was being advertised soon after completion of the Russian-built Chinese Eastern Railway in 1903. This railway, cutting across Chinese territory, connected with the main Trans-Siberian Railway (Trans-Sib.R) which had been built in stages from Moscow to the Russian border with China at Manchouli (Manzhouli), construction of the first ‘West-Siberian’ section having commenced in 1892.


Chinese Eastern Railway Advertisement  1909
Chinese Eastern Railway Advertisement 1909 , by Chinarail - P. A. Crush Chinese Railway Collection


In the early 20th Century the overland rail route to Europe for most well-heeled travelers commenced either from Peking (Beijing), Tientsin, (Tianjin), Shanghai, Tsingtao (Qingdao) or Dairen (Dalian).  Shanghai resident, Carl Crow writing in his revised (1921) edition of the “Handbook for China – Including Hong Kong” tells us that “in normal times” the quickest route from London to Shanghai was by way of the Trans-Sib.R in about 14 days. Passengers from Hong Kong and the southern provinces first had to make their way by sea to the one of rail starting points in the north. Passengers with bottomless pockets could enjoy the added luxury of riding in super luxury private saloon carriages operated by the Internationale Des Wagons-Lits company attached to the Russian Trans-Sib.R trains.


Russian locomotive heading the Trans-Siberian Express
Russian locomotive heading the Trans-Siberian Express, by Chinarail - P.A. Crush Chinese Railway Collection

Russian 4-6-0 locomotive no. Г3656 pictured at Harbin station heading up the Trans-Siberian train. This locomotive was built by Kharkov in 1901-1902 and was originally no. Г656 of the Chinese Eastern Railway. in 1935 it was renumbered and transferred to Manchoukuo National Railways to work in the Northern Railway.


Observation-Coach- Chinese Eastern Railway
Observation-Coach- Chinese Eastern Railway , by Chinarail

An Observation Carriage operated by Internationale Wagons-Lits Company on the Chinese Eastern Railway and Trans-Siberian  Railway


Russian Locomotive Heading The Chinese Eastern Railway Express, by Chinarail  (P..A. Crush Chinese  Railway Collection -Album P27) 


Chinese Eastern Railway Carriage
Chinese Eastern Railway Carriage, by Chinarail

 The above two photos belonged to a British railway engineering working for the Peking-Mukden Railway in China. These two pictures were taken when he and his wife were proceeding on leave to Europe via the Trans Siberian Railway They are on the platform , probably at Changchun station about to board their 1st Class carriage. 


Overland Rail Route to Europe - Map-Showing Options
Overland Rail Route to Europe - Map-Showing Options, by Chinarail.


From Hong Kong or Canton, a steamship to Shanghai was the most popular option where passengers could take onward rail connections on the Shanghai-Nanking Railway (SNR) to Nanking (Nanjing) where they would cross the Yangtze to Pukow (Pukou) by ferry. They would next board a connecting Express train to Tientsin (Tianjin) on the Tientsin-Pukow Railway (TPR). The next leg would be from Tientsin (or Peking) on the Peking-Mukden Railway (PMR) to Mukden (Shenyang) where they could link up with the South Manchuria Railway (SMR) to Changchun which was the southern-branch terminus of the CER following the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.

If passengers from Hong Kong and south China could brave the rough northern seas they could sail beyond Shanghai to Tsingtau (Qingdao) or Dairen (Dalian) from where they could board express trains operated by the Shantung (Shandong) Railway or SMR respectively for  onward travel to Changchun and then the CER to Harbin, followed by the Trans-Sib.R. to Moscow.There was intense competition between the railway and shipping companies operating the different options with the Peking-Mukden Railway claiming to offer the fastest service to London in 12½ days. Simultaneously the SMR Company was advertising the “Shortest, Quickest and Cheapest Route London and Shanghai (and Hong Kong) “in as little as 13½ days.


Imperial Railways of North China Advertisement - 1909
Imperial Railways of North China Advertisement - 1909, by Chinarail

This advertisement published in the November, 1909 edition of "The Far Eastern Review"  highlights the railway's connection with the Trans-Siberian Railway to Europe. Passengers are invited to contact Thomas Cook & Son, the Internationale Wagons-Lits Company or the railway company directly for information . 


South Manchuria Railway Advertisement  - 1909
South Manchuria Railway Advertisement - 1909, by Chinarail

This advertisement published in the November, 1909 edition of "The Far Eastern Review"  highlights the South Manchuria Railways' Railway's connection with the Trans-Siberian Railway to Europe. Passengers are advised that this is the "shortest and quickest route"  to Euope by way of Dairen. (Dalian) 


Peking-Mukden Railway - Timetable for Connections to Europe
Peking-Mukden Railway - Timetable for Connections to Europe , by Chinarail

This timetable, extracted from a Peking-Mukden Railway "Handbook " published in 1911, shows railway connecting times for  travel between Peking and London in 12 1/2 days. 


Quotations for all-inclusive through rail fares were complicated because the travel agent would have to check the prevailing fares on each rail segment and then calculate the total fares taking into account prevailing currency exchange rates between Chinese dollars, Mexican dollars, Japanese Yen, Russian Roubles as well as the European currency of the destination country. And then on top of this you still needed to pay for the steamer service between Hong Kong and Shanghai or the other options for connecting with the rail heads. If you are nimble with an abacus you might be able to add up the sums involved yourself by using this table prepared for The Far Eastern Review in April 1909. However, if all this train changing, along with keeping an eye of your heavy trunk and suitcases, was just a little too much for you and you had 34 days to spare, then you could get a 1st Class steamer ticket between London and Hong Kong or Shanghai in the range of £104 - £150 and as low as £78 if you were prepared to slum it in 2nd. Class (1919 prices, according to Carl Crow’s guide).  


Rail Fares & Travel Times China - Europe in 1909
Rail Fares & Travel Times China - Europe in 1909, by Chinarail

This extract from the April 1909 edition of The Far Eastern Review gives examples of the available fares and travel times for the overland rail route between  China and Europe. 

However, by the 1920’’s times were far from “normal”.  During the Russian revolution in 1917 through-services on the Trans-Sib.R had come to grinding halt. Although the new Soviet Russian government had by 1924 reached some temporary accommodation with the Chinese government over the ownership and management of the CER, both the latter and the Tr-Sib.R still struggled to get their luxury passenger through services up and running again. By the 1920’s the passenger coaches and track had deteriorated due to poor maintenance and military misuse and vandalization of the rolling stock. The railways had also been carrying “a lower class of passenger” in the intervening years. By this the writer meant Chinese “coolies”, who were emigrating in hundreds of thousands yearly from the south to settle the northern lands and provide cheap labour for the various foreign interests jostling with each other for domination and exploitation of Manchuria’s rich resources.    

In the mid-1920’s the joint Chinese and Soviet management of the CER had almost got their act together to restart the through train services to Europe but the breakdown of peace and security in China by warlord antics and civil war meant that express train travel throughout China became as scary as a ghost train ride in Disneyland. If you were not kidnapped by bandits or roughed up by soldiers commandeering the trains, you would more often than not be eaten alive by bed bugs in the filthy carriages.

In 1937 the SMR’s Dairen route became the safest and most-favoured option for connecting with the Trans-Sib.R. Manchuria’s politics had all changed with the Japanese establishment of the puppet state of Manchoukuo. In 1935 the Soviet Union transferred all its shares in the Chinese Eastern Railway and the surrounding railway zone to Manchoukuo without even consulting China. So, at this stage all the former CER lines were re-designated as the North Manchuria Railway section of Manchoukou State Railways, although its management was overseen by SMR. The former southern branch line of the CER had its 5ft. width track between Changchun and Harbin lifted and replaced with ‘standard gauge’ ( 4ft 8½in.) in an amazing feat of engineering on 31st August 1935, when the entire 240 kms of track was swapped for the new narrower gauge and the railway up and running again within only  three hours. This permitted the running of the SMR’s rolling stock all the way through to Harbin.  By this time Changchun had been renamed as Manchoukuo’s capital “Hsinking”.   


South  Manchuria  Railway- Change of  Russian Track Gauge  in 1936
South Manchuria Railway- Change of Russian Track Gauge in 1936, by Chinarail ( P.A. Crush Chinese railway Collection) 

Top photo shows the takeover celebrations of the former Russian controlled Chinese Eastern Railway by the Japananese puppet state of Manchoukuo.

Lower picture: shows rail workers of the South Manchuria Railway changing the Russian 5ft.- gauge track to ‘standard gauge’  between Hsinking ( Changchun) and Harbin on 31 st August 1935.

In 1935 passengers from Hong Kong and South China could take a steamer to Dairen’s new enhanced port and having disembarked could board the SMR’s new streamlined high speed “Asia”  Express train which with a top speed of 140km per hour covered the 701 km from Dairen to Hsinking in 8½ hours. This train later ran all the way to Harbin to connect with the Trans-Sib R. It was in theory also still possible to take the steamships to the other rail heads closer to Hong Kong ( Shanghai, Tsingtao or even Chinwangtao (秦皇島) connecting with the Peking-Mukden Railway whose name by then had mutated into the “Pei-Ning Railway”  (Peiping- Liaoning 北平-遼寧) on account of Peking having been renamed by the Nationalists as “Peiping” and the renaming in 1929 of Fengtian  (奉天) Province as “Liaoning”  


The South Manchuria railway's "Asia" Express Train
The South Manchuria railway's "Asia" Express Train, by Chinarail  ( P. A. Crush Chinese Railway Collection - Postcards

A colour-tinted postcard showing the South Manchuria Railway’s streamlined Asia Express at Mukden (a.k.a. 奉天Fengtian) station. This train, running between Dairen and Hsinking (Changchun), was introduced on 1st November 1934. The train ran daily over the approx. 701 km  (435 miles) in 8½ hours averaging 51 m.p.h. inclusive of stops. The train included air-conditioned coaches, a 1st Class observation car, as well as the streamlined locomotive.


South Manchuria Railway - Avertisement - Overland Route -
South Manchuria Railway - Avertisement - Overland Route -, by Chinarail - P. A. Crush Chinese Railway Collection

 A 1936 advertisement in the December,1936 edition of "The Far Eastern Review" promoting the South Manchuria Railway’s rail link with Europe via the  “Asia” Express and the Trans-Siberian Railway. The journey time between Dairen and Berlin was 11 days.

An article here from 1936 of the first person to travel from London by rail to Hongkong. The journey took 22 days.

Thanks for spotting that ‘moddsey’.  There is also a second short report about the opening of the line on page 7 of the same newspaper.

For the convenience of readers and to  complement this Forum Topic  on the “Overland Route”, I have scanned the two newspaper articles and added  them here.

I was amused by this line : “although only recently completed ….…passengers did not feel any shaking  as might have been expected on a new route” .   It reminds me of my first ride on the newly-opened MTR Airport Express line .wink( ...the press had earlier carried reports suggesting  a violent shuddering was encounted when crossing the Tsing Ma bridge) 


First Through Train from Hankow (Wuhan) to Canton - September 1936
First Through Train from Wuhan to Canton - September 1936, by Chinarail ( Extract from the HK Daily Press 15 Sep 1936)

Than you for this wonderful exposé of the options for rail travel between Hong Kong and London as they became available in the early 20th century, whether you had "bottomless pockets" or were prepared to slum it. It's interesting to read about the problems experienced by Professor Forster in 1936 during his pioneer trip and especially the strict controls on money coming in and going out of Russia and Poland. Professor Forster doesn't mention the change of gauge between Russia and Poland that causes a slight delay while the train is jacked up to unbolt the Russian wheels, put on European wheels and lower the train again - or vice versa. I think the difference in gauge still exists today.

Thanks Jill. I don’t think that Professor Forster’s train would have been held up at borders for wheel changes in 1936. The Warsaw to Brest railway on the through-route to Moscow was originally build to Russian 5ft gauge, although this has now changed and through trains do go through the process of “bogie change” at the Russian border. (see :  http://www.sinfin.net/railways/world/poland.html  )

The modern through trains from China (Beijing) to Moscow go though his process on both of the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian routes . There are YouTube videos of this process. This video (about 2 mins long) is a well-filmed clip showing the bogie-change on the Trans-Mongolian Express at the Mongolian/China border.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DE_DQql97jQ 

There is a very interesting article describing of the curent three possible options for travelling by rail from East Asia to Russia. Two from Beijing and the third from the Vladivostok in the Russian Maritime Zone. This latter route means you never leave Russian territory for the entire journey  See


I shouldn't have ventured an opinion on a subject I know nothing about! My husband and I experienced "bogie change" when we travelled from the then Leningrad to Warsaw in 1981. It didn't occur to me that this wouldn't have been necessary at other points on Russian border crossings. As regards the routes that my family may have taken when travelling between Hong Kong and England, my grandmother's surviving passport photo has a Shanghai studio stamp. Her sister lived in Shanghai and I think the family must have often broken their journeys there, whatever their means of travel. There is a photo of my distant relatives boarding what they called the "Siberian train". I had thought it related to the early 1920s, when they spent about 18 months travelling around but there is no actual record of when or where it was taken. Thank you for all the interesting links!

I have enjoyed this exchange re travel from China to Europe by train. A few years ago I did a train trip from Hong Kong to Beijing to St Petersburg (via the Trans Mongolian & Trans Siberian Railways) and then onto Helsinki and finally Turku in western Finland before flying on to Stockholm and Amsterdam. About 5 weeks of train travel, a truly amazing trip that was inspired by childhood tales (I am 63) from my grandfather or maybe via my father about his father's trip from Glasgow to Shanghai by train. Family tradition has it that he then worked on the refrigerated freight boats going up the Yangste and lived in Shanghai, he was a triple certificated tradesman from the Clydeside (marine fitting, bolier-making and refrigeration mechanics). He finally moved to Hong Kong and ended as the chief Engineering Superintendent of the Hong Kong Dairy Farm & Ice Cold Storage before retiring to Sydney in the mid 1960s. He was in Stanley Internment camp during the war while my father (William Edward Macfarlane) ended up in a POW camp/train factory in Nagoya until repatriation to Australia in 1945. Both he and my father are long gone, so I am hazy on dates. The earliest I can find reference to my grandfather, William Macfarlane, in Hong Kong are through the Jurors lists in 1914. My recollections of family stories was that he left Shanghai after the first Nationalist Revolution, but I have no idea how long he was based in Shanghai. I know he married in 1913 (so I am assuming he went back on leave), and had come out to Shanghai by train before then. I'd love to know when? My father was born in Glasgow as my grandmother, Janet Macfarlane nee Cameron, according to the family stories I remember, refused to give birth in a Hong Kong hospital and returned to Scotland where my father was born in July 1919 (my grandfather on his birth certificate is listed as "Chief Engineer Cold Storage Works Hong Kong" but I am not sure if he went back for the birth or remained working in Hong Kong?). But I digress......


That was an epic train journey!

I've made a new page for your grandfather at https://gwulo.com/node/50210 under your account, in case any more information appears.

An alternative option of travelling to London by sea, air and rail as viewed in an article here