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Macao: an important step on Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary journey

Sat, 17th Oct 2009
On the second floor of a spacious, western-style home in the centre of Macao is a glass cabinet with three pairs of embroidered shoes. (October 2009)

This is the Sun Yat-sen Memorial House and the shoes belong to his first wife, Lu Mu-zhen, who lived in the house for nearly 20 years until her death in September 1952. The larger shoes stand testimony to the revolution which Sun inspired in 1911 – he banned foot-binding and women could let their feet grow to their normal size.

Macao is an important part of the story of the man people call the father of modern China, who led a revolutionary movement from abroad that, after many failures and false starts, succeeded in overthrowing the Qing dynasty in October 1911.

Macao was the city where his father worked for many years, where Sun himself started his career as a western doctor and where his family lived for many years after the revolution. The city remembers him in the memorial house and other monuments as the most famous Chinese person who has ever lived there.

In 1849, Sun’s father, Sun Dacheng, came to Macao and worked as a cobbler for 16 years in a shoe shop before returning to his hometown, 37 kilometres away, to farm and to marry Madame Yang. Their son, Sun Yat-sen, was born on November 12, 1866.

Their hometown is Cuiheng village in what was then Xiangshan county. It was renamed Zhongshan county in 1925 in honour of Sun Yat-sen, who was also known as Sun Zhongshan. 

Going places 

In 1879, mother and son passed through Macao on their way to Hong Kong, where they took a British steamship for Hawaii; there Sun received his secondary education, in English. In 1885, he returned to his hometown to marry Lu Mu-zhen, the daughter of a Chinese merchant in Hawaii; it was a marriage arranged by the two families, which was the custom at that time. Then he went on to study medicine at Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese, of which he was one of the first two graduates in 1892.

He later moved to Macao, where he became the first Chinese to practise western medicine. He worked at Kiang Wu Hospital, set up in 1871 as the first non-profit hospital established by and for Chinese. 

As a student in Hong Kong, Sun began his revolutionary activities, holding meetings and writing tracts against the decay and corruption of the Qing government. One of them was published in a Macao newspaper in 1890.

Sun set up his own clinic and continued his revolutionary work at the same time. He made friends with a Portuguese printer named Francisco Hermenegildo Fernandes, who was sympathetic to his ideas. In July 1893, Fernandes founded Macao’s first weekly Chinese-language newspaper, which published news of Sun’s medical practice and revolutionary work.


The young doctor’s work drew the ire of the Qing government, which put pressure on the colonial government to drive him out. In 1894, it ordered the closure of his clinic and Sun was forced to move.

Sun spent the next 17 years in exile in Japan, Europe, the United States, Vietnam and Thailand, drumming up support among the overseas Chinese communities and students for his ideas.

Photos on the walls of the memorial house record his travels to Yokohama, Maui, Taipei, Calgary and London. There is a photo of Sir James Cantlie, a Scottish physician who had taught Sun in Hong Kong. In October 1896, when Sun was visiting London, he was kidnapped by Chinese diplomats and detained in the embassy.

Cantlie led a public campaign to free Sun from captivity. He succeeded, saving him from possible death and making him a hero and a household name in Britain.

End of an era 

In August 1905, in Japan, Sun and his associates founded the Tongmenhui, a revolutionary party, which elected him as ‘premier’ and published a newspaper. Over the next six years, his supporters in China carried out frequent uprisings.

All of them failed until a rebellion of a Qing army in Wuhan on 10 October 1911, which led to the overthrow of the dynasty. On 19 December representatives of 17 provinces elected Sun as provisional president of the Republic of China.

He held the post for only three months, before being forced to give up the position to Yuan Shi-kai, the most powerful warlord in China.

In May 1912, he made his first visit to Macao since he had been forced out, at the invitation of Chinese businessmen. This would also be his last visit to the city.

In 1921, he was elected president for a second time in Guangzhou by his party, but it controlled only a portion of the country. He died of liver cancer in Beijing on March 12, 1925, at the age of 59. He succeeded in his mission of overthrowing the Qing but not in establishing a modern, united China.

On March 29, 1925, 20,000 people in Macao – one fifth of the population – attended a memorial service for Sun at Kiang Wu Hospital. By then, several members of his family were living in Macao. 

In 1913, his wife Lu Muzhen had moved there with their son and two daughters and his brother Sun Mei, who went into business and organised a fishermen's association in a small western-style house. He died in Macau in 1915, aged 60.

Meanwhile, Sun fell in love with his secretary, Song Qing-ling, one of the three American-educated sisters who were to play a prominent role in the Chinese Republic. Lu begged him to take Song as a concubine, a common practice among wealthy Chinese at that time, when a man could have several wives. This would have left her as the single and official wife. Song was 26 years younger than Sun.

But, as Christians, Sun and Song insisted that he could only have one wife. So, in September 1915, Lu was forced to go to Japan and go through the humiliation of a formal divorce. Sun and Song married in Japan on October 25, 1915.

One official at the memorial house said Lu detested Song, calling her ‘gwaipoh’ (devil wife) and excluding her from the family records. She maintained contact with Sun after his second marriage.

After his death, Lu continued to live in Macao with her three children and grandchildren. In 1930, an explosion at a nearby army munitions warehouse destroyed the house. Deeply embarrassed, the government provided funds, which was supplemented by money from her son Sun Ke and Sun’s brother in Hawaii.

With this capital, the family built the spacious three-storey structure that visitors find today. It is entirely western, with wooden floors, large wooden furniture and big wardrobes. The large bathroom has a flush toilet, a large bath and green tiles. Visitors can see the furniture and surgical instruments Sun used.

Surrounded by one-storey homes, it was the largest building in the neighbourhood in its time. It was a boisterous family home, ringing to the sound of grandchildren and their classmates. Lu was a devout Baptist and devoted much of her time to the church and charity.

Sun Ke became a senior official in the Nationalist government and returned to Macao in 1947 to celebrate his mother’s 80th birthday. He later lived in France, the United States and Taiwan, where he died in 1973.

Lu died on September 7, 1952 at the age of 85.

In fond memory 

In 1958, the building was restored and named the Sun Yat-sen Memorial House and has since become one of the most popular places in Macao for visitors. In the courtyard is a full-length bronze statue of Sun cast by his Japanese friend Umeya Shokichi in 1934. It is one of four such statues; two are in Guangzhou and one in Nanjing.

The building is owned by a Singapore-registered fund held by the authorities in Taiwan. The photographs evoke the memories of Sun’s extraordinary life, half Chinese and half Western – his itinerary across Asia, Europe and the United States in search of support and funds.

They show the images of the new republic, with Sun and the other ministers, full of hope and optimism. But warlords, factionalism, greed and foreign intervention prevented the growth of the modern, constitutional state which Sun envisaged. He died a disappointed man, his dreams unfulfilled.

Macao remembers him in naming a garden, two roads and a memorial hall after him. It has cast three statues of him, one of them in the courtyard of Kiang Wu Hospital.

Eighty years after his death, Sun retains an enormous prestige among Chinese, at home and abroad. He is one of the few political leaders respected by both the Communist and Nationalist parties and a symbol of unity between them. Both refer to him as “Guofu”, Father of the Nation. 

His odysseys around the world, his command of English and an intense curiosity enabled him to learn many of the best values of the countries he visited and incorporate them into the Three Principles of the People – his ideology to guide China.

Sun often said that the Gettysburg Address of U.S President Abraham Lincoln extolling ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ was the inspiration for this ideology. The three principles are nationalism, the people’s power and the people’s livelihood.


By Mark O'Neill in Macao

(Issue N. 1, October 2009)