Penang’s link to international history

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 16 Jul 2006

THE Penang branch of the Tungminghui, Dr Sun Yat Sen’s political party, was first established in 1907. This was followed by the Penang Philomatic Union, a booklover’s club and propaganda centre, which also served as a cover for the revolutionary activities.  

When the British authorities put a lid on the party’s activities in Singapore, its South-East Asian headquarters was transferred to Penang. Dr Sun’s steadfast Penang supporters, such as Goh Say Eng and Ooi Kim Kheng, were willing to back him through thick and thin. 

In 1910, an emergency general meeting of the South-East Asian Tungminghui was convened at the headquarters in 120 Armenian Street. Eight thousand Straits Dollars was raised in one night.  

Goh sold his wife’s house, a grand four-storey building better known today as Shih Chung School on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah (Northam Road), to assist in the fundraising.  

When the Guangzhou Uprising became well known, people looked back at the planning stage which took place in Penang and called it the ‘The Penang Conference’.  

In Penang, after nine failed uprisings, Dr Sun called upon his South-East Asian followers to support him one last time. 

The Guangzhou Uprising, which took place in the spring of 1911, was a spark that burst into a fire. Athough that uprising was quickly quelled, the fire of revolution under Dr Sun’s ideological leadership had spread further afield and burned on in the imaginations of the Chinese in and outside of China.  

The revolution had been set in motion and the Manchu government collapsed with the Wuchang Uprising in October that year. Dr Sun, who had fled to Hawai’i after the failed Guangzhou Uprising, returned to China to be appointed the provisional president.  

In fact Dr Sun had several bases in Penang. The Penang Philomatic Society had its original premises at 94 Datuk Keramat Road. When Dr Sun spent six months in Penang in 1910, with his wife, his second wife, his two daughters, and a dozen of his closest co-revolutionaries, he stayed at a double-storey Jawi Peranakan bungalow at 400 Datuk Keramat Road while his office was a double-storey terrace house two doors away at No 404.  

By this time, the Tungminghui branch office had moved to 120 Armenian Street, and was upgraded into the South-East Asian headquarters. It was here that the Kwong Wah Jit Poh, one of the world’s oldest Chinese newspapers today, was started.  

What do all these houses have in common? They were all found in areas where the local community included Malays, Jawi Peranakan and Indian Muslims. One possible reason is that Dr Sun’s revolutionaries felt they could conduct their activities safely if their meeting places were located in non-Chinese neighbourhoods.  

While Dr Sun’s revolutionaries were Chinese, those who opposed him were also Chinese – the royalists and reformists who would prefer to reform, rather than overthrow, the Manchu government. 

It was the Chinese conservatives who instigated the British authorities to suppress the T’ung Meng Hui in Singapore. They were to do so again in Penang, causing Dr Sun to be banished from the British colony in December 1910.  

It is possible to observe, even today, certain things about 120 Armenian Street. It looks and feels like a Straits Chinese house, and it was, and still is, located almost equi-distant from the Acheen Street Mosque and the Kapitan Keling Mosque.  

Before a back lane was introduced in the 1920s, the back door of this house led directly to Kampong Kolam and Kampong Kaka. If enemies were to barge into the Tungminghui headquarters from the front, Dr Sun’s supporters could easily slip out the back door and lose their pursuers in the maze of alleyways criss-crossing the Indian Muslim settlements. 

What has survived of the various sites associated with Dr Sun Yat Sen? His house at 400 Datuk Keramat Road and his office at No 404 have long been demolished. The original Philomatic Union premises at 94 of the same road is sadly dilapidated and its future is uncertain.  

On the other hand, 120 Armenian Street has been preserved and restored; it represents Penang’s link to international history. The pictorial exhibition on Dr Sun Yat Sen in Penang which hangs there now was officiated by Tun Dr Mahathir, accompanied by Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi, (then Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister respectively) in February 2001. 

The historic house was officially recognized by Hu Jintao, President of China (then Vice-President), when he visited Penang in April 2002. This was the first and only time a Malaysian site associated with Dr Sun was officially recognised by the Chinese government. 

Indeed, the potential of promoting the Dr Sun Yat Sen story in Penang has hardly been realised. The Penang Philomatic Society, originally formed by Dr Sun’s Penang supporters, is working to establish a Dr Sun Yat Sen Museum at their double-storey heritage house in Macalister Road.  

The dozen or so sites associated with Dr Sun and his followers in Penang could easily be linked together in a heritage trail, presented through attractive maps and signage, as has been done in Hong Kong. 

Yet other aspects of Dr Sun’s stay in Penang and Malaya might prove fascinating to tourists and lovers of history. Dr Sun’s second wife, Chen Cui Fen, helped to raise the two daughters by his first wife, and was her constant companion.  

Chen spent a great deal of time in Penang, and even after the revolution she returned to send the Sun daughters to Convent Light Street. Chen’s role in the revolution will be dramatized in an upcoming film on Dr Sun Yat Sen in Penang, which will begin shooting this year.  

Related Stories:Sun Yat-sen, 100 years after visit The leader of the Chinese revolution 

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