YORK took centre stage this week in China’s national celebrations marking the anniversary of its 1911 October revolution.

Chinese journalists, including some from Phoenix TV, crowded into the National Railway Museum to see a steam train that is being hailed as an enduring symbol of friendship between Britain and China.

The story of the KF Class steam locomotive, which was presented as a gift to the British people in 1981 by the Chinese government, takes in exile, revolution, a kidnapping - and an extraordinary friendship between the family of British railway engineer Kenneth Cantlie, who designed the train, and Chinese revolutionary leader Dr Sun Yat-sen.

It is a story that could have come straight from the pages of Sherlock Holmes, the NRM’s head curator Andrew McLean told an audience at the museum on Wednesday night, in an event broadcast live via social media in China.

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The KF Class train at the NRM

And, according to Chinese consul general Zheng Xiyuan, who travelled from Manchester for the event, it is a story that could see a boom in tourism in York as Chinese visitors and students flock to see the locomotive.

Mr Zheng said the huge black train was at the heart of China’s celebrations to mark the 110th anniversary of the Wuchang Uprising of October 10, 1911, which led to the establishment of the first Republic of China.

The first President of the Republic was Dr Sun. But without the Cantlie family, he would probably never have lived to see the revolution, Mr Zheng said.

In 1896 Dr Sun was living in exile in London, where he was snatched off the streets by secret agents working for the Qing dynasty – China’s last imperial dynasty.

He was bundled into the Chinese legation, and faced being returned to China to face trial as a political criminal.

“It is 100 per cent certain that he would have been executed,” Mr Zheng said.

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A young Dr Sun Yat-sen

But Dr Sun had a friend in London – Kenneth Cantlie’s father, the eminent physician and academic Sir James Cantlie, who had taught Dr Sun when he studied medicine.

With the help of an English cleaner at the legation, Dr Sun was able to smuggle a note out to Sir James, who instantly raised the alarm.

He went to the police, and to the British Foreign Office. “And he organised a press conference in front of the Chinese legation,” Mr Zheng said.

The resulting headlines catapulted Dr Sun to international fame. He was released – and, 15 years later, became President of China.

One of his top priorities was to develop China’s rail network. He died in 1929 before he could see the project through. But Sir James’ son Kenneth – who, because of the friendship between the two families, was Dr Sun’s godson - was invited to the funeral.

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Kenneth Cantlie, centre, with Chinese air force officers in 1931. Picture: NRM

By then a renowned railway engineer, he was asked to design a fleet of trains for China – and was also appointed as an adviser to China’s national railway.

Development of the railways, with Kenneth Cantlie’s help, was crucial to the modernisation and industrialisation of China, Mr Zheng said.

The Cantlie-designed trains continued in operation in China right up until the late 1970s.

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One of Cantlie's KF-class locomotives in operation in Nanjing, China. Picture: NRM

There are only two of them left now – the one at the NRM, and another, sister train in the China Railway Museum in Beijing.

So the York train is a part of China’s history and legacy, Mr Zheng said. “And it is a great way of promoting the tourism industry between York and China.”

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Chinese consul-general Zheng Xiyuan with the 'Chinese train' at the NRM on Wednesday. Picture: Jean Zhuang