In Northern Burma there is a railway bridge, the Gokteik Viaduct. It was completed in 1900 by a Pennsylvania steel company under contract to the British government, which had recently conquered northern Burma following the British-Burma War of 1884-1885.
The British Empire was focused on their version of free trade and they wanted to project British notions of mercantilism to all corners of the world, including southern China. So they decided to build a railway from their new colony in Burma with its port on the Indian Ocean, to Kunming in southern China. So the British engineers got to work.
A major engineering problem was spanning the canyon at Gokteik, but the engineers said never mind—that could be done with the latest technology, the same steel process which had permitted them to build the Eiffel Tower in Paris just a few years earlier. And they were right—the Gokteik Defile was bridged in record time! After just nine months in 1899-1901, trains were pushing northward and onto Lashio, the capital of Shan State. The British dreamed of great fortunes to be made once the railway was completed to Kunming.
But Lashio is where it stopped then, and why 120 years later the railway still does not reach Kunming, or even China. It seems that the engineering was easy; the problem was with the political difficulty of creating a railway through areas that the British could not really control politically.
The magnificent Gokteik Viaduct is a bridge to nowhere. It never reached far—the only one who seems to have made a fortune seems to have been future US President Herbert Hoover, whose mining company exported lead from an old Chinese mine in northern Burma before World War I. The mine was one of the world’s richest lead mines. The mine became a basis for his financial fortune.
The Gokteik Viaduct was also a strategic objective in World War II as the Allies and Japan fought a brutal war in British Burma, because both wanted to use it as a route to southern China. But after the war, the railway reverted to simple local use.
There is sporadic interest in extending the bridge to Kunming, especially in recent years as the Chinese government implements its “Belt and Road Initiative.” Indeed the Chinese constructed its own modern railway to the Burmese/Myanmar border in2021, just a few short kilometers from the railhead at Lashio. It still remains to be seen whether the Chinese will be able to complete the dream of connecting southern China to the Indian Ocean coast via a rail link.
This is all a way of saying you can read more about this in our article recently published in Social Sciences last month. The article “The Gokteik Viaduct: A Tale of Gentlemanly Capitalists, Unseen People, and a Bridge to Nowhere” was written by an engineer, David Wohlers, and myself based on historical research done by Dave, with a bit of sociology thrown in!
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.