Land of the uprising Sun

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 30 Oct 2011

Penang earns recognition for playing a part in the modern history of China.

THE house at 120 Armenian Street could easily be mistaken for just another quaint, rather pretty 19th century dwelling in Penang's George Town heritage zone. It lacks the breathtaking grandeur of the Khoo Kongsi (clan house) or the pomp of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion. But what it lacks in physical splendour, it more than makes up for in historical importance.

This is where Sun Yat-sen launched fund-raising campaigns for the Second Guangzhou Uprising (also known as the Huanghuagang Uprising) and for the South-East Asian headquarters of the Tongmenghui, his underground resistance movement.

This historic venue is now known as the Sun Yat-sen Penang Base.

Sun's Penang connection is, however, not that well known despite the island hosting two pivotal moments in the Chinese revolution.

Sun planned a meeting with his supporters for the Huanghuagang Uprising at 404 Dato' Kramat Road, which was Sun's residence then. The event became known as the Penang Conference.

The following day, Sun started his fund-raising campaign at 120 Armenian Street.

Through a moving speech, he beseeched his close supporters to “help shoulder the responsibility of saving our country by donating your money while our comrades in our country are sacrificing their lives”.

Sun raised $8,000 (Straits dollars) immediately. Both events helped the uprising, which tragically failed. But historians believe it triggered the Wuchang Uprising and then the Xinhai Revolution.

Perhaps of equal significance are the four dark and desperate months between July and December 1910 that Sun spent in Penang.

“Sun arrived in Penang a despondent man. With the failure of the eighth uprising, he had lost resources and people. His family was bankrupt. His supporters on the island had been financially stretched by the revolution.

“Letters to supporters around the world asking for more funds were met with months of silence. Revolutionary fervour appeared to be waning,” explained Goh Mai Loon, representative of the Sun Yat-sen Penang Base.

“In letters, he recounted that these were among the most difficult times he had faced in his entire life. The whole world, he felt, had abandoned him.”

It was during this time that the people of Penang rallied around Sun and helped him re-group.

In Sun Yat-sen in Penang, Khoo Salma Nasution, the custodian of the base, writes, “When Sun's family was living in Penang, they could not even afford to pay their monthly house rent of $20. The Penang supporters discussed Sun's situation and undertook to provide his family with $120 or $130 each month for their living expenses.

“While in Penang, Sun received news of his mother's death. As the Sun family was broke at the time, the Penang supporters collected donations for the funeral expenses.”

Penang sacrificed too for the China of Sun's dreams. Of the 72 martyrs in the failed Huanghuagang Uprising, four men came from, or had connections to, Penang Luo Zhonghuo, Zhou Hua, Chen Wenbao and Li Yannan.

Others, like Goh Say Eng (Wu Shirong), the founding chairman of the Penang Tongmenghui, gave generously from personal fortunes. Having supported Sun from their first meeting in 1906, the tycoon gradually sold off his family properties to finance the revolution and died a pauper in 1941.

Another stalwart and founding vice-chairman of the Penang Tongmenghui, Ng Kim Kheng (Huang Jingqing), also gave away his fortune for the cause.

Untold stories

But time and circumstances seemed to conspire to keep these stories from being told. Not only was the world largely unaware, even most people in Penang and Malaysia remained ignorant of the history makers in their midst.

The illustrious history of the base only surfaced in 1992 when Khoo, a conservationist, started researching the area.

As it happened, the property belonged to her maternal grandfather, Ch'ng Teong Swee. Khoo convinced her mother, Ch'ng Cheng Ee, to buy the house from the family trust to preserve its history and later converted it into a museum.

It would take another two turning points at 120 Armenian Street to bring about the revitalisation of the history of Sun Yat-Sen in Penang.

On Feb 4, 2001, then prime minister of Malaysia Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad visited the base and launched the Sun Yat-sen in Penang exhibition.

“He (Dr Mahathir) told us we had to preserve and promote this history ... the first time a prime minister of this country recognised the importance of Sun's (time) in Penang. After that, people felt they could talk about their connections to the Chinese revolution,” Goh said.

The second key event was the April 2002 visit of President Hu Jintao (then vice-president of China).

Penang's role in the revolution was finally solidified last year during the International Centennial Celebrations of the Penang Conference, which saw the launch of the Sun Yat-sen Heritage Trail and the hosting of the 22nd Joint Conference of Sun Yat-sen and Soong Ching Ling museums, memorial sites and monuments, which received more than 400 delegates.

It was an event of many firsts: the first time the annual conference was hosted outside China; the first time it was elevated to one of national significance as it was launched by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, and the first time more than 29 direct descendants of the Sun and Soong families gathered at a conference.

Things culminated on April 28, 2011, when Premier Wen Jiabao met the descendants of the Tongmenghui members.

Lim Gaik Siang, honorary treasurer of the Penang Heritage Trust, who was instrumental in setting up the meeting, said the motions were put in place as far back as 2002 when Hu Zhengyue, then China's ambassador to Malaysia, was invited to the base.

“Various leaders came in the ensuing years and we educated them about the indirect connection between Penang and the Xinhai Revolution,” she said.

Lim led the nine-person delegation to Kuala Lumpur to meet Wen who said, “We should not forget the deeds of the Penang Tongmenghui members who supported the Huanghuagang Uprising.”

Yee Thiam Sun, a descendant of Tongmenghui member Lim Bo Ai, said of the meeting: “It came as a total surprise. I'm sure even our ancestors would never have dreamt of such a date for us.”

Yee's maternal grandfather went from riches to rags supporting the revolution and, later on, the reconstruction of China.

“My mother rarely spoke about her father's involvement with Sun. She lived through the revolution, the change of government in China and the communist insurgency in Malaysia. That made her apprehensive. Even when we were sitting around and talking, she would caution us to speak softly or avoid saying too much lest we were overheard,” Yee said.

More to learn

In the 19 years since the background of 120 Armenian Street was discovered, Khoo and fellow conservationists like Goh and Lim have given a voice to the Tongmenghui Penang members by telling their stories.

“Over the years, we have acquired a better understanding of Sun's role in Malaysia. His supporters contributed much to Penang society, setting up civil organisations, schools and a newspaper,” Khoo said.

And there are still many stories about Sun and the Penang revolutionary movement to be unearthed.

Khoo hopes that other conservationists like Lim will help broaden the research under the auspices of the Penang Heritage Trust and take the base and the Sun-Penang connection further.

“As the custodian of the house, I have to take care of this part of the history. But I feel that since I'm not Chinese educated, I've taken it as far as I can,” she said.

As for the base, with the recent completion of restoration works, she hopes it can finally be managed as a successful, self-sustaining private museum.

“I would like to see a museum designer conceptualise the (limited) space and present the history in a more interesting manner,” said Lim, who designed the 18-stop Sun Yat-sen Heritage Trail, detailing significant buildings related to Sun and his supporters. The trail is believed to have been possible escape routes when he became a wanted man in Malaya.

“Until recently, a lot of people didn't know about the part Penang played in Sun's life. Chinese history seldom mentions it and if it does, it is often just one line about him conducting a meeting in Malaya,” Lim said.

This, however, is no longer the case. Penang has definitely emerged from obscurity to global prominence in the history of modern China. - China Daily / Asia News Network

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