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Road to Revolution

Sun, 17th Jul 2011
Hong Kong, Macao key role in life of Dr Sun Yat-sen. (July 2011)

Hong Kong and Macao played a key role in the life of Dr Sun Yat-sen, the father of China’s revolution in 1911 which brought an end to over 2,000 years of imperial rule and established Asia’s first democratic republic.

Hong Kong was where he received his secondary education and became a doctor, and served as one of his most important revolutionary bases.

Macao was the city where his father worked for many years, where he started his medical practice and where his family lived for a long time after the revolution. Their home is now the Sun Yat-sen Memorial House.

“The experience of living in Hong Kong and Macao was critical to Sun’s thinking,” said Ye Chun, a historian in Hong Kong. “A man from rural China saw two societies that were orderly and well managed. It made him ask why Chinese could not run their own affairs.”

In a speech in February 1923 to the students’ union of Hong Kong University, Sun said it was the corruption of China and the peace, order and good government of Hong Kong which had turned him into a revolutionary.

Both cities have named parks after him and Hong Kong has a museum in his honour – the Kom Tong Hall in the Mid-Levels – built in 1914.

During 2011 both cities are holding events to mark the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai revolution which overthrew the Qing dynasty and the founding of the Republic of China.

Some have called for Hong Kong’s airport to be re-named after Sun, as the father of modern China.

A village boy

In 1849, Sun’s father, Sun Dacheng, came to Macao and worked as a cobbler for 16 years in a shoe shop. Then he returned to his hometown, Cuiheng village, 37 kilometres to the north, to farm and to marry Madame Yang. Their son, Sun Yat-sen, was born on 12 November 1866. The village was in Xiangshan county, renamed Zhongshan in 1925, in honour of Sun Yat-sen, who was also known as Sun Zhongshan.

In 1879, mother and son passed through Macao on their way to Hong Kong where they took a British steamship for Hawaii. It was here here that he lived with his brother, 15 years his senior, who had arrived there as labourer and become a prosperous merchant.

In Hawaii, Sun learnt English from scratch and studied at secondary school. In 1885, he returned to his hometown to marry Lu Mu-zhen, the daughter of a Chinese merchant in Hawaii, a marriage arranged by the two families, as was the custom at the time.

Then he moved to Hong Kong to study at what is now the Diocesan Boys’ School, one of the most famous in the colony, and then Queen’s College. His outstanding exam results enabled him to study medicine at what became the medical school of Hong Kong University; he was one of the first two Chinese graduates, in 1892.

It was at a Congregational church in Mid-Levels that, despite the objections of his brother, he was baptised as a Christian. He worshipped at the church that stands on Caine Road and is still in use today.

From doctor to exile

Then he 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.

In Macao, Sun set up his own medical clinic and continued his revolutionary work. 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 provoked 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.

He spent his next 17 years in exile, in Japan, Europe, the United States, Vietnam and Thailand. He spread his ideas among the overseas Chinese communities and students, planned uprisings from home and raised money to finance them.

Hong Kong as revolutionary base

During this period, Hong Kong was his most important base on Chinese soil, with most of his activities in the Central and Western districts.

In 1894, he established the Xing Zhong Hui (Society to Revive China) at 13 Staunton Street in Central. The following year, his supporters launched their first uprising in the mainland, in Guangzhou, but it failed. It was the first of ten such failures, which cost the lives of hundreds of his supporters.

In 1899, Sun sent an associate to found the ‘China Daily’ newspaper in Hong Kong. It started publication in January 1900, the colony’s first revolutionary paper. The 1900 uprising in Huizhou, Guangdong, was organised on the third floor of the newspaper headquarters.

The editor of the paper was one of the main characters in the martial arts film, ‘Bodyguards and Assassins’, made in Hong Kong in 2009. It was about a one-day visit by Sun to the colony in 1905 to discuss plans for revolution with his associates. Most of the characters are fictional, but it is based on a real story – Sun succeeded in holding the meeting and leaving unscathed, despite the best efforts of Qing agents to assassinate him.

Sun was a Hong Kong permanent resident. But, after the failure of the 1900 uprising, the Qing government put him on its most-wanted list and he was expelled from the city.

One of Sun’s strongest supporters in Hong Kong was James See, one of the co-founders of the ‘South China Morning Post’ (SCMP).

Born the son of a grocer in Sydney in May 1872, See moved with his family to Hong Kong in 1888 and also attended Queen’s College. After working for nearly ten years in the government, he set up a Hong Kong branch of Sun’s revolutionary party in 1895.

He was one of China’s first political cartoonists. A cartoon entitled ‘Situation in the Far East’, which was printed in Japan in 1899, showed China infested by animals and other forces that represented foreign powers – Britain a dog, France a frog, Japan a sun-ray, Germany a sausage, and Russia a bear. It was widely reprinted in China and overseas.

In 1902, with two British partners, he set up the SCMP and worked there as an editor. On 1 January 1910, Qing agents murdered See’s associate as he was teaching on the second floor of a school in Central. See buried him in an unmarked grave in Happy Valley cemetery.

Sun’s mother is also buried in Hong Kong, after her death in June 1910, in a cemetery behind a factory owned by his elder brother.

SYS walk and museum

In 1996, the districts of Central and Western established a Sun Yat-sen walk to 15 sites associated with him, starting at Hong Kong University and ending at a fruit shop in D’Aguilar Street in Central, which was used as a revolutionary base.

The Dr Sun Yat-sen Museum opened in Kom Tong Hall in Castle Road, Central, in December 2006. The three-storey structure was built in 1914 for the Ho’s – the first Chinese family allowed to live in the Mid-Levels – and was used as a headquarters of the Mormon church between 1960 and 2004.

The original owner was Ho Kom Tong, who was, like Sun, born in 1866, and graduated from the same secondary school, now Queen’s College. Sun knew Ho and other members of his family, including Sir Robert Ho Tung and his son Ho Sai Kim. The latter was chairman of the students’ union at Hong Kong University in February 1923, to whom Sun gave his speech.

The building is one of the best-preserved examples of Edwardian classical architecture of the early 20th century in Hong Kong, with its stained-glass windows, veranda wall tiles and staircase railings intact. It strongly retains the atmosphere of the period that Sun lived in.

It has an exhibition and lecture hall, a reading room, video rooms and interactive study rooms. It includes many items from Sun’s history, including his exam sheet at the Hong Kong College of Medicine, an announcement of the election results of his provisional presidency and the imperial edict of the abdication of Emperor Xuantong on 12 February 1912.

In the city, Sun also has two parks named after him. One is in the Sai Ying Poon district facing Victoria harbour. The other is in Tuen Mun, in the New Territories, next to a building called Hong Lou (Red Building), a house used by revolutionaries in the period between 1901 and 1911.

On 1 January each year, supporters of the Kuomintang hold a celebration in the Tuen Mun park, to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China.

Hong Lou belonged to Li Ki-tong, a man of wealth and status who donated much of his fortune to Sun’s revolutionary cause. He allowed revolutionaries to use the house to store and test firearms, for uprisings in Guangzhou, and to hide from the authorities.

Li ran a grocery store in the Central Market where he sold the produce from a farm he owned; it was popular among Europeans, and all the profits went to support the revolutionary cause. He also donated money to the revolutionary newspaper, the ‘China Daily’.

Li’s family did not support the revolution. He once even suggested to his comrades that they kidnap him and secure a ransom from his family to provide money for the cause.

Return to Macao

In May 1912, Sun returned to Macao, at the invitation of Chinese businessmen. It was his first visit since his expulsion. It would also be his last visit to the city. He died of liver cancer in Beijing on 12 March 1925, aged 59.

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

In 1913, his wife, Lu Muzhen, moved there with their son and two daughters and his brother Sun Mei, who went into business and organised a fishermen’s association. He died in Macao in 1915, aged 60.

After Sun’s 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 money to build a new three-storey structure which visitors can see today as the Sun Yat-sen Memorial House. It is entirely Western, with wooden floors, large wooden furniture and big wardrobes.

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

Macao also has a park named in Sun’s honour, one of 43 Sun Yat-sen parks in the world, covering an area of 17.3 acres, making it the largest park in the Macao.

By Staff Reporter in Macao

(Issue N. 8, July 2011)