Last week when exploring the city of Tengchong (腾冲) in western Yunnan, we found ourselves strolling past the city's grain and oil market when a building beyond the gate caught our eye.
After asking around, we discovered that the comparatively large building, with thick sturdy walls made of volcanic rock and a denser stone used in doorways and windowsills, was the old British consulate in Tengyueh (腾越), as Tengchong was then known.
Ninety years ago, the thriving cross-border trade between British-controlled Burma - as Myanmar was known then - and Republican China was centered around Tengyueh. In 1921, construction work began on the British consulate in Tengyueh, with completion arriving 10 years later in 1931.
Trade was the primary stated reason for the British consular mission in Tengyueh, but there were other factors at play as well.
In the early 20th Century, the British Empire included Burma to Yunnan's west, while colonial rival France was well established in Indochina, to Yunnan's south. A French-built railway from Haiphong to Kunming was completed in 1910 and had essentially brought southeast Yunnan into the French sphere of influence.
The British were eager to keep an eye on France's actions in Yunnan, and on developments in Yunnan in general. Booming Burma-China trade offered the perfect justification for a consulate in Tengyueh.
A showdown between the British and French in Yunnan never took place. Instead, Japan entered the mix, invading Tengyueh in May 1942 from Burma, which it occupied after temporarily expelling the British from the country.
The British consular mission had evacuated Tengyueh well ahead of the Japanese invasion. It was never to return.
In 1944 the Chinese army, with some American support, fought the Japanese to take back control of Tengyueh. Given its size and solid stone walls, the former British consulate made an ideal location for Japanese troops to resist the Chinese-American offensive. But it would not prove enough - China retook the city.
Since then, the British consulate has fallen into a state of increasing disrepair. In 2003 it was named a protected building by the Yunnan provincial government, but little has been done to protect or maintain it until recent weeks.
In November of this year, restoration work began on the building, which will keep its original stone walls, ceramic roof tiles and some wooden framework. Completion of the restoration is expected to be completed by April 2012, according to workers on the site.
Below is a look at this historic building as it is, and once was:
The consulate building is visible from Jihong Jie (霁虹街) in downtown Tengchong today. The sign says "Tengchong Grain and Oil Market".
This photo from Spring City Evening News shows how the consulate looked in late 2010. Scottish botanist Peter Hutchison, who visited the building in 1997, described it as "a strange structure with a Chinese roof topping a very classical building of solid masonry that would not have been out of place in Georgian Edinburgh".
This photo, from a blog post about Swedish missionaries who had been working around Tengyueh in the 1940s, shows the consulate building after the first round of fighting by Japanese and Chinese troops in the city in 1942, which resulted in its capture by the Japanese.
This is one of the consulate's two fireplaces. It is not hard to imagine British consular officials and their guests having drinks around a fire, discussing France's designs on Yunnan, or perhaps devising plans to head to Kunming to avoid the Japanese army, which must have seemed unstoppable at the time.
We asked a stoneworker who was working on the restoration of the consulate about the pockmarked walls of the consulate's façade. He told us that the holes were bullet holes made by Japanese firing upon the building. Upon further research, it seems more likely that the holes were actually made by Chinese bullets being fired at Japanese soldiers who had taken refuge within the building.
Given the size of the patch on this corner of the consulate building, as well as several other holes that were considerably larger than the other bullet holes, it would appear that the Chinese troops had heavier weaponry as well.
All too aware that Yunnan was the only buffer between Japanese forces in Burma and the Nationalist/Guomindang provisional government in Chungking (Chongqing), Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek sent as much manpower and firepower as he could muster to take the battle to the Japanese in Tengyueh.
A small team of laborers is being used to restore this protected building built by the British government 80 years ago. Ironically, most of the oldest Chinese buildings elsewhere in downtown Tengchong are being demolished to make way for real estate developments.© Copyright 2005-2019 GoKunming.com all rights reserved. This material may not be republished, rewritten or redistributed without permission.