Wuhan Fer­ries, Past and Present

Special Focus - - Contents - Luc Pauwels [Bel­gium]

Cross­ing a river by ferry has al­ways been a mag­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence for me, with its horns blar­ing loudly, peo­ple scat­tered on the lower and up­per decks, un­ex­pected gusts of wind, and plumes of smoke spew­ing from the chim­ney. I must have been six or seven years old the first time I took a ferry from my home­town, Os­tend in Bel­gium, to Dover, a city along the south-coast of the UK. In fact, my fa­ther was a cap­tain for the ferry com­pany; he would take me up to the bridge from which I would have the best views of the im­mense sea and the white cliffs of Dover.

Later on, while trav­el­ing around the world, I would dis­cover more ferry cross­ings, rang­ing from the crowded Hong Kong ferry be­tween Kowloon and Hong Kong Is­land, to the Chao Praya River ferry tak­ing vis­i­tors and lo­cals to his­tor­i­cal tem­ples around Bangkok, or even to the small bam­boo- and- rope rafts car­ry­ing peo­ple, their large lug­gage, and mo­tor­cy­cles across the swollen rivers of West-African jun­gles.

So, nat­u­rally, when I moved to Wuhan in June 2006, one of the first things I did was cross the mighty Yangtze River by ferry. I made my way to the Jiang­han Road Ferry Pier, pass­ing the his­tor­i­cal Jiang­han Cus­toms House. Here, I pur­chased a sin­gle jour­ney ticket for just 1.5 yuan. I then got on­board and po­si­tioned my­self on the lower deck, with the bi­cy­cles and mo­tor­cy­cles.

“How long does it take to cross?” I asked one of the mo­tor­cy­clists in bro­ken Chi­nese.

“About a quar­ter of an hour,” he re­sponded.

The up­per deck had only a few pas­sen­gers, most of them ei­ther watch­ing the heavy and of­ten hec­tic boat traf­fic on the river or star­ing at the Great Yangtze River Bridge.

It was in 1896 that the HouJi

( 厚记 ) ferry com­pany es­tab­lished

by Mr. Feng Qi­jun ( 冯启均 ) kick­started the fer­ry­ing in­dus­try in Wuhan; it be­gan with just two wooden steam- pow­ered ferry boats. De­spite the high cost of es­tab­lish­ing a ferry com­pany ( an ini­tial in­vest­ment of 13,000 taels), the ser­vice soon proved to be prof­itable, and four years later two more boats were added to the fleet.

More ferry com­pa­nies soon en­tered the mar­ket in Wuhan, re­sult­ing in seven Chi­ne­se­owned and two for­eign- owned com­pa­nies in oper­a­tion by 1906, all cov­er­ing sep­a­rate sec­tions along the Yangtze and Han Rivers. The Chi­nese ferry com­pa­nies cov­ered the cross­ings be­tween Hankou Port and the Hanyang in­dus­trial area at the con­flu­ence of the two rivers as well as across the Yangtze River to Wuchang, the ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­ter of Wuhan.

The for­eign ferry com­pa­nies had to run their busi­nesses from the Yue­han Pier in Hankou, lo­cated at the end of Yiyuan Road in the Ger­man con­ces­sion area. The Yue­han Pier was mainly used for fer­ry­ing for­eign rail­way tech­ni­cians who were liv­ing in the Hankou con­ces­sion ar­eas while work­ing in Wuchang on the Yue­han rail­way that would link Wuhan, in the cen­ter of Main­land China, to Guangzhou in the south.

1906 was a mon­u­men­tal year for Wuhan, with Hankou be­com­ing the fi­nal sta­tion on the Jing­han rail­way, the first rail­way link con­structed on Chi­nese ter­ri­tory. In the same year, con­struc­tion was be­ing started on the Yue­han rail­way, with Wuchang as its start­ing point. In be­tween there was the Yangtze River ferry ser­vice, ship­ping lo­cals, trav­el­ers, traders, and rail­way tech­ni­cians across the Yangtze and Han rivers. For Wuhan ferry com­pa­nies, it was a golden time.

It has been twelve years since my first voy­age on the Wuhan ferry, and with Wuhan heav­ily in­vest­ing in pre­serv­ing its heritage, I am now ea­ger to learn more about the 122 year history of the modern ferry ser­vice in Wuhan. I reached out to a well­con­nected friend in hope of be­ing in­tro­duced to some­one who could tell me more about the history of Wuhan’s fer­ries from an ev­ery­man’s per­spec­tive. My friend then in­tro­duced me to Mr. Yuan Houx­i­ang ( 袁厚翔 ), a re­tired bus driver and Wuhan trans­port history buff.

We met in a Hankou cafe in­side the his­tor­i­cal for­mer Bri­tish Con­ces­sion area, which had since been con­verted into a modern book­shop. We be­gan talk­ing about the history of Wuhan’s ferry ser­vices, and I was amazed at the depth of his knowl­edge on the sub­ject. “By the end of the 1920’ s the lo­cal govern­ment had es­tab­lished one large trans­porta­tion com­pany for ferry and bus trans­porta­tion,” Mr. Yuan be­gan, “ab­sorb­ing all pre­vi­ously ex­ist­ing ferry com­pa­nies and set­ting out the first bus lines through­out the main ar­ter­ies of the city.” He later added that two ferry lines were be­ing re­served for fer­ry­ing


govern­ment of­fi­cials and army staff across the Yangtze and Han rivers.

“And then from March 1937 on, trains and train pas­sen­gers bound for Beijing and Guangzhou were be­ing fer­ried across the Yangtze River, us­ing the Xu­jia Pier— just to make con­tin­u­ous rail­way trans­porta­tion be­tween the south­ern and northern China pos­si­ble,” he con­tin­ued. “And train wag­ons were be­ing shipped across the Yangtze River sep­a­rately from the train pas­sen­gers about ev­ery hour.”

I lis­tened with great in­ter­est to all the in­for­ma­tion Mr. Yuan was pas­sion­ately shar­ing with me. I asked him if there were any in­ter­est­ing in­ci­dents in Wuhan’s ferry-cross­ing history.

“Once, in 1938,” he told me, “a train wagon that had not been at­tached well to the ferry, fell off and into the wa­ters of the Yangtze River…”

“Ouch!” I ex­claimed. “How did they re­solve that in 1938?” Mr. Yuan then ex­plained that some bril­liant minds had uti­lized some an­cient Chi­nese wis­dom to lift heavy ob­jects out of the wa­ter us­ing two or more boats, chains, and lots of rocks.

In 2006, I paid 1.5 yuan for a sin­gle ride on the Yangtze River ferry, so I asked Mr. Yuan how much pas­sen­gers had to pay to cross the Yangtze River in the early years. He sur­prised me by re­spond­ing with an old lo­cal chil­dren’s poem from the late Qing-dy­nasty pe­riod: 张打铁,李打铁,打把剪子送姐姐

Black­smith Z hang, Black smith Li, make a pair of scis­sors for the sis­terofme 姐姐留我歇,我不歇,我要回去打夜铁

“Stay for the night ”, my sis­ter said, but I’ m go­ing back to work all­night 茶也香,酒也香,十个鸡蛋打过江

I had good tea, and drinks as well, and paid for the ferry with teneggs


Aloud‘ Bang’ from this side of the river, and‘ pang’ echo­ing from theother­side

( In the early years, ferry de­par­tures were an­nounced by canon fire in Wuchang, a gun­shot in Hanyang, and a bell ring in Hankou)

Wuhan had the largest ferry sys­tem of all lo­ca­tions along the Yangtze River, an­nu­ally fer­ry­ing mil­lions of pas­sen­gers, whether for goods and ve­hi­cle trans­porta­tion or just as part of some lo­cals’ daily com­mute to work or school.

An­other im­por­tant year for Wuhan was 1957, with the com­ple­tion of the Great Yangtze River Bridge, a dou­ble- decker road and rail bridge. I asked Mr. Yuan if the ar­rival of the bridge had af­fected the daily pas­sen­gers’ traf­fic on the fer­ries. “Not at all,” he replied. “Only bus Line 10 was run­ning across the bridge, and re­mem­ber that be­gin­ning in the late 1950’ s, China was ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a dra­matic ex­plo­sion in its pop­u­la­tion.”

An aver­age of 3 mil­lion pas­sen­gers an­nu­ally crossed the river by ferry be­tween 1948 and 1997, when the sec­ond bridge across the Yangtze River was com­pleted. After that, pas­sen­ger num­bers then dwin­dled down to an aver­age of 400,000 an­nu­ally. “It was dra­matic, slash­ing ferry trips and lay­ing off staff. The ferry com­pany then had to launch a bus line (Line 608) to guar­an­tee work for most of the abun­dant ferry staff.”

We talked on for al­most an hour, about the mul­ti­tude of cruise ser­vices the ferry com­pany had added over the last few years, but also about the chal­lenges of in­tro­duc­ing green tech­nolo­gies to the Wuhan ferry fleet. When we parted ways, I was ea­ger to cross the river again as soon as I could.

So, the next day, I took an­other trip on the Yangtze River ferry. It was 11:05 in the morn­ing when I ar­rived at the Zhonghua Road Pier in Wuchang. Ev­ery­thing was wellor­ga­nized, with a smooth flow of pedes­tri­ans and mo­tor­cy­clists. I po­si­tioned my­self this time among the tourists on the up­per deck. I then closed my eyes and imag­ined my fa­ther hold­ing my hand and lead­ing me onto the bridge. The wind blew softly through my hair, the horns be­gan blar­ing, and the ferry started off, slowly, al­most cau­tiously. No words were spo­ken. It was a jour­ney of the heart.

Ferry lines of Wuhan in 1993

This was called the “Cao Chong Cheng Xiang” method, as Cao Chong (196-208) once weighed an ele­phant us­ing this method 沉船救援示意图

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