IN November 1910, the Chinese revolutionary Dr Sun Yat Sen was in many ways a disappointed and desperate man – a persona non grata, banned from Japan and in exile from China for 15 years.
He had relied much on raising funds successfully in the United States, but factional infighting within the Tongmengui caused him to turn to the overseas Chinese in Malaya (Nanyang).
He came to Singapore in July, but found that his support there was weak. He decided to move to Penang on July 19, where his key supporters, Wu Shirong (Goh Say Eng) and Huang Jingqing (Ng Kim Kheng) enthusiastically welcomed him.
In the five months in Penang, before he was expelled from the Straits Settlement by the British colonial government in December 1910, Dr Sun gathered his key supporters together, including his brother Sun Mei, Huang Xin, Hu Hanming and Wang Jingwei, to raise funds for his revolutionary work, change the Tongmenhui constitution and also founded the oldest Chinese newspaper overseas, the Kwong Wah Yit Poh.
He needed at least 100,000 Straits dollars, and in the end he raised nearly one-third from Canada, one-quarter from British Malaya and Singapore and the rest from Dutch East Indies, Siam and Indochina. Only one-eighth of the funding came from the United States.
On Sunday, Nov 12, 1910, his birthday, he convened the famous Penang Conference to plan the Second Guangzhou Uprising. Before that, he was almost in despair.
"I have written so many letters and have gotten no support. I have failed in all eight uprisings. There appears to be little hope for the Revolution. But the people of Penang provided me with protection and collected money for the ninth and successful uprising."
Most people do not realise that Qing Dynasty reformers found support and help from overseas Chinese in British Malaya. For example, after the failure of the Hundred Days' Reform Movement in 1898, Kang Youwei escaped and stayed in Penang from Aug 9, 1900 to Dec 7, 1901.
He left behind a four-character epigraph carved in stone at Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang, which stated "don't forget the motherland" dated June 29, 1903.
There were two reasons why there was such overseas support for reforms in China. First, the overseas Chinese who found their fame and fortune in Malaya and South-East Asia (Nanyang) were mostly refugees who escaped poverty and corruption in China.They welcomed change in China.
Second, the British government was interested in helping reform in China to further its trade interests. Dr Sun came to Penang probably five times – the first in 1906, shortly after he founded the Singapore branch of the Tongmenhui.
By 1910, the revolutionary cause was on a knife's edge. Dr Sun had out run of friends, barred from nearly all countries in the region, pursued by the Qing government and his family was forced to leave Hong Kong by the British administration.
In Burma, the Tungmenghui had been declared illegal. When he arrived in Singapore, his wealthy supporters were tired of pressure from the growing influence of the Manchu government overseas and some doubted his ability to overthrow the Manchu regime.
Because Dr Sun's ideas appealed mostly to the petty traders and the working class, the conservative Chinese lobbied the British to outlaw the Tungmenghui.
Finally in 1910, pressure was so intense in Singapore that Dr Sun decided to move the Tungmenghui Nanyang headquarters to Penang. Thus, it was Penang that offered the Tungmenghui and the Sun family both sanctuary and respite during the darkest period of the Revolution.
The Sun family had the opportunity to re-unite when Sun Mei, Dr Sun's older brother, arrived bringing Dr Sun's second wife, Chen Bijun and his daughters.
Although Penang was not as rich as Singapore, her Chinese community comprised both the wealthy elite who were co-opted into the Manchu bureaucracy (such as Chang Bishi), or those who supported reformists such as a parliamentary monarchy like Kang Youwei.
But Dr Sun's oratory and revolutionary zeal was able to gain his most ardent supporters in Wu Shirong (Goh Say Eng), son of a wealthy Straits-Chinese businessman, and founding chairman of the Penang Tungmenghui.
Described as a "pillar of the revolutionary movement in Malaya", Wu also founded the Penang Philomatic Union, a reading club that was the front for the Tungmenghui. Wu even sold his wife's heritage house to finance Dr Sun's cause.
In July 1910, Dr Sun had founded the Zhonghua Geming Dang (Chinese Revolutionary Party), to supercede the banned Tongmenghui.
Despite opposition from the conservative businessmen, Dr Sun's Penang supporters raised 11,000 Strait dollars and many volunteered for the "Last Battle."
In April 1911, the Guangzhou Huang Hua uprising failed when 72 martyrs were executed. Out of the 72, nearly a quarter came from Nanyang, including four from Penang. But in August, the sacrifice inspired the WuChang rebellion on Oct 10, which led to the fall of the Manchu dynasty. On Dec 29, 1911, Dr Sun was elected Republican China's first president.
The 100th anniversary of the historic Penang Conference will be celebrated by the Penang Heritage Trust with the 22nd Joint Conference of Sun Yat Sen and Soong Ching Ling Memorials.
An exhibition celebrating Dr Sun and Soong Ching Ling will also be organised at 57, Macalister Road, next to the Penang Philomatic Union. This exhibition brings to Penang a collection of Dr Sun's letters and other documents related to Penang's contribution to the making of modern China. Perhaps, most significant of all, the Sun family will be having a reunion in Penang.
Visitors to Penang will be able to see the schools and newspaper that Dr Sun helped founded and the buildings where the historic revolutionary plans were hatched.
Penang is where I now live, because it has its history immersed in China, India, the Middle East and trade in the old Malacca empire.
Today, Penang has been awarded the Unesco World Heritage site and is also a growing reputation as the best hidden gourmet secrets in Asia, hosted in historic buildings. I welcome you to visit on this historic occasion.
● Tan Sri Andrew Sheng is adjunct professor at Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, and Tsinghua University, Beijing. He has served in key positions at Bank Negara, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority and the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission, and is currently a member of Malaysia's National Economic Advisory Council. He is the author of the book From Asian to Global Financial Crisis.