During the late 1880s, a new craze swept foreign colonies in southeast Asia. Switchback railways – an embryonic form of rollercoaster – had appeared in the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Java and Hong Kong, and were raking in huge profits (well, except for Hong Kong’s, which somehow managed to go bankrupt within a year).
In 1890 a French consortium, led by a Mr. Villeroy and with Mesny on the board of directors, approached the Shanghai Municipal Council asking for land to build a switchback in the city. The Council had no objections, and on 7 April the North China Herald reported that construction of Feilong Dao (Flying Dragon Island) fun park was under way on the corner of Miller Road, in Hongkew district:
“The Shanghai Switchback is to be nearly 500 feet long, the greatest elevation being 20 feet, and is to be the longest line yet built. Each car on being started rapidly descends […] and after traversing 100 feet or so commences to run upwards until it reaches the summit of another hill slightly lower than the starting point. It traverses three hills and then rushes up a steep incline and returns in the same manner by the other line. […] The rapidity of the car gradually increases, the maximum speed being from 90 to 100 miles per hour, and the journey occupying about 14 seconds. The grounds are to be laid out and a comfortable buffet and refreshment room will be provided. At night the electric light will be used.”
The Feilong Dao fun park, and its star attraction, was a roaring success. 0n 19 July, the Chinese newspaper Shenbao covered the switchback on its front-page, the article written by editor-in-chief He Guisheng. He was impressed that the switchback worked under its own power (the term used here for switchback, 自行车 – literally “self-propelled vehicle” – has since been adopted for “bicycle”, a machine which first appeared in China around the same time):
“The switchback ride follows the track without using coal, steam, electricity, or horsepower. The track undulates up and down like a dragon; while sitting in the carriage, running along the tracks, you suddenly plunge from high to low, suddenly rise from low to high; plunging feels like a drop of water in the Yellow River falling a thousand miles; rising feels like a ship being swept forward by the tide. The carriages resemble dragon boats, but without the head or tail. Each has five rows of seats, two people to a row, seating ten people altogether”.
Shenbao also printed adverts for the amusement park daily for the next three weeks, with a simple line drawing of the switchback, plus banners for “Foreign Bar! Chinese Teahouse!”, plugging the refreshments.
At the end of August, the pictorial journal Dianshizhai Huabao published a finer illustration, showing the park crowded in amongst new residential buildings: “Feilong Dao introduces the switchback. It runs by taking advantage of the force of gravity. After a sudden fall, the carriage continues onwards under its own power. There’s no added input from man, horse, fire, or steam; it just uses natural force in a surprising way.”
As elsewhere, the switchback raked in huge profits. In September, the Hong Kong Telegraph reported that, “The first meeting of the shareholders of the Shanghai Switchback Company was held on the 5th inst., in the Hotel des Colonies, General Mesny presiding, when a first dividend of 10 per cent. on eleven days’ working was declared and $500 carried to the Reserve Fund after paying all expenses.” The Shenbao added, “There is no more profitable business in Shanghai.”
Unfortunately, trouble was brewing. In late July, the Council began to get complaints from local residents about late-night noise:
“Dear Sir – I beg to call to your attention the disturbance and the noise caused by the people who are attracted by the Switchback Railway, which is situated nearly opposite my house. On Saturday and also last night it was kept going till about midnight, and I shall feel obliged if the Council will take some steps to abate the noise nuiscance. ALFRED CLIFTON”
“Dear Sir – I beg to call your attention to a positive nuisance and injury to health in this neighbourhood in the shape of the Switchback Railway, going on till midnight. The howling and yelling that goes on till that hour is simply intolerable to dwellers in this neighbourhood and especially to sick people. In this house we have at present a lady, who is dying, and also other invalids, and it is impossible to get to rest till after midnight. I beg respectfully to urge that the proprietors of the Switchback Railway be requested to close their place at 10 p.m.This I think is a very reasonable request.
JOHN W. STEVENSON, China Inland Mission, Woosung Rd, Hongkew”
The Council wrote to Mesny, as Chairman of the Shanghai Switchback:
“Sir – I am directed to inform you that several complaints have been made to the Council by residents in the neighbourhood of the Switchback railway of the howling and yelling that goes on tillmidnight by those who ride it, or who are in the enclosure. As this has become a serious public nuisance and more particularly to invalids of whome there are now several living in the immediate vicinity of the Switchback, I am desired to inform you that unless the nuisance is abated, and the railway cease to run at 11pm, punctually, the Council, however reluctant they may be to interfere with public amusement, will be compelled to withdraw the license granted for the Switchback. The police have been instructed to take such steps as may be necessary to prevent visitors to the Switchback from annoying the residents by their shouting and yelling and to see that no cars are allowed to run after 11pm.”
Mesny replied the next day promising to follow the Council’s advice, but before the ink was dry on his apology another raft of irate letters had arrived. From this point onwards it’s not clear what happened, but it seems that the park was closed down while a new committee was elected. The license for the Feilong Dao fun park was renewed the following year, and the switchback reopened that August. From a mention in the Chinese Miscellany, Mesny still considered the switchback “his” at the time, but doesn’t seem to have been involved any later than the end of 1891.
At the end of the 19th century, the Feilong Dao site was taken over for other purposes by the Shanghai Municipal Council.
With thanks to Robert Bickers.