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How Sun Yat-sen shaped Penang in Malaysia and influenced the lives of its Chinese residents

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 20/12/2020 Thomas Bird
a man standing next to a glass display case: The Sun Yat-sen Museum at 120 Armenian Street, George Town, Penang. Photo: Thomas Bird The Sun Yat-sen Museum at 120 Armenian Street, George Town, Penang. Photo: Thomas Bird

It is the 15th day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar, the Hungry Ghost Festival, and fires blaze on the streets. Some onlookers pray. Many more stand by and watch plumes of black smoke billow above the vintage shopfronts and restaurants.

The pious residents of Penang's state capital, George Town, are burning "hell money" to appease the ancestors who emerge from the "lower realm" around this time of year. Deeper into this Unesco Heritage Site neighbourhood, at a temple on King Street dedicated to Bogong - the Elder Lord - an entire braised hog and extravagant fruit platter has been prepared.

"We are Hakka Chinese, from Huizhou," one man in the congregation says of his ancestry in the Pearl River Delta, some 2,500km away. This kind of sentiment is typical in Malaysia, where the huaqiao (overseas Chinese) maintain an identity sourced from a distant locale, one they may or may not have even visited. In many ways these scenes of veneration recall a China largely vanished back home, a phantom dragon haunting the Nanyang, as the Chinese have long dubbed coastal Southeast Asia.

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Penang is the only state in Malaysia with a Chinese ethnic majority, but it was not always that way. Arriving by ferry, the first sight is of the old colonial port known as Weld Quay: the Malayan Railway Building Clocktower just ahead of bank-lined Beach Street, which leads to the 18th century Fort Cornwallis. Penang was once Prince of Wales Island, acquired from the Sultan of Kedah by the British East India Company in 1786 and promptly established as a Southeast Asia entrepOt.

Chung Ling High School. Founded by Dr Sun's supporters in 1917 to © Provided by South China Morning Post Chung Ling High School. Founded by Dr Sun's supporters in 1917 to

But it is the Chinese who have shaped George Town in their own image, a warren of arcade-lined streets wiring together a dizzying array of clan association buildings with names such as Tan (Chen) or regions and dialect groups like Teochew (Chaozhou), while a plethora of elaborate temples accommodate the pantheon of Chinese gods, saints and folk heroes.

One image, though, neither ancient nor ethereal, is festooned across old George Town, a stoical face suspended beside shops and old houses, watching over Penangites like a benevolent uncle. It is a countenance more asso-ciated with revolution and republicanism than any Buddhist fables or Taoist immortals still revered in Malaysia; it is the face of Dr Sun Yat-sen.

The revolutionary who would become the first president of the Republic of China commands a tower-ing presence in the Chinese consciousness, both at home and throughout the diaspora. Sun's ancestral village, Cuiheng, in Guangdong province, is now a place of pilgrimage and in Taiwan his image is splashed on everything from postage stamps to banknotes. It is estimated that more place names memorialise Sun than any other modern historic figure, from Taipei to Hong Kong, Vancouver to Singapore.

Though his origins were humble, the young Sun - born Sun Wen in 1866 - had a front-row seat to the woes afflicting the ailing Qing empire. The Taiping rebellion, having originated in Guangdong, had laid waste to half the country in the years preceding his birth.

Opium addiction bedevilled the population while banditry and endemic corruption saw waves of migrants flee to Southeast Asia and the West. Many departed via Hong Kong, Britain's opium-war trophy and a potent symbol of the imperial power's capacity to "slice up China like a melon", should it so wish.

After schooling in Hawaii and later Hong Kong, Sun fell in with "the four bandits" - a group of marginalised Sino-Western-educated Chinese frustrated by the ultra-conservative Qing government and its resistance to modernity. By the time Japanese forces were humiliating China in the first Sino-Japanese war (1894-1895), Sun's patriotic ideals had been galvanised. Blame clearly resided with the "foreign" Manchu (descendants of the Jurchen tribes from beyond the Great Wall).

Housed in their imperial citadel, distracted by court intrigue and antiquated ritual, the Aisin Gioro clan were oblivious to realities of the encroaching world. Though some, like fellow Cantonese Liang Qichao, propagated reform of China's ancient political system along the lines of a constitutional monarchy, Sun believed nothing short of a revolution would reinstate a Han ethnic majority and make China great again.

a close up of a street in front of a building: The exterior of Sun Yat-sen Museum. Photo: courtesy of Khoo Salma Nasution © Provided by South China Morning Post The exterior of Sun Yat-sen Museum. Photo: courtesy of Khoo Salma Nasution

Sun first visited Penang in 1905 as part of his "Nanyang Pivot", a strategy to build support among the seven million Chinese living in Southeast Asia, 95 per cent of the entire overseas Chinese population at the time. He was already a decade into his career as a globetrotting revolutionary and had quite the resume to show for it.

He was persona non grata in China and Hong Kong (and soon to be in Japan and elsewhere). He had been kidnapped in London by Qing agents and had masterminded several catastrophic uprisings in South China since his first revolutionary effort in Guangzhou in 1895. He was a founding member of the Xingzhonghui (Revive China Society) and, later, the Tongmenghui (Chinese Revolutionary Alliance), the predecessor of the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), which would go on to govern China by degrees until 1949, and remains an important political party in Taiwan.

Penang was an obvious place for Sun to court would-be sponsors. Although part of British Malaya, the straits settlement was heaving with Chinese immigrants of all stripes, from newly arrived plantation coolies to established clan families whose elaborate temples and association buildings still dot George Town.

The records of Sun's five or six fundraising drives to Penang were either lost or buried for much of the last century. It was only when a passionate local intellectual fell in love with a house on Armenian Street that the doctor's resurrection in Penang belatedly began.

Sun Yat-sen wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: Khoo Salma Nasution, author of Sun Yat Sen in Penang. Photo: Thomas Bird © Provided by South China Morning Post Khoo Salma Nasution, author of Sun Yat Sen in Penang. Photo: Thomas Bird

Khoo Salma Nasution runs Areca Books, a niche publisher and bookshop located on Acheen Street.

"I'm Peranakan, descended from the first Chinese to emigrate to Malaysia," she says. "They travelled without women and often married locals. They became much more integrated into society than more recent waves of immigrants. Some say we're the Chinese that have lost our own culture."

After returning from studying in the United States, Khoo worked for a time as a journalist, and "wrote a feature about the Khoo Kongsi, which is connected to my family", she says of the grand Chinese clan temple complex located in the heart of old George Town, founded by the prominent Khoo clan from southern Fujian.

"This required me to research my own family his-tory," she says. "It was then I learned that my maternal grandfather Ch'ng Teong Swee came here from China and bought a house somewhere on Armenian Street in 1926."

When Khoo discovered that the house had been inherited by more than 20 family members, she had to persuade her mother it would be worthwhile to buy the other owners out.

After (Mahathir Mohamad's visit) people started to talk about Sun Yat-sen in the local context. It was no longer considered sensitive
Khoo Salma Nasution

"I had become the honorary secretary of the Penang Heritage Trust in 1989 and I really wanted to restore a building," says Khoo. The complex payments had been finalised by 1993, when, with the help of friends, Khoo finally began to realise her dream of refurbishing a George Town heritage house.

"I lived in the house from 1993 to 99. While I worked on it, I wondered what had happened here in a historical context, who sat at the dinner table, what kind of lives were lived within these four walls. When a friend told me the house was connected to Sun Yat-sen, I was so excited. I tried to find some evidence but it was very difficult because I don't read Chinese. I asked people but many were reluctant to help."

Khoo alludes to the "Malayan Emergency periods" - the Communist insurgencies that did not entirely end until 1989, and which had been led largely by marginalised Malaysian-Chinese with tacit support from the People's Republic of China until 1974. This made politics a taboo topic in Chinese-dominated George Town, particularly any word of a revolutionary. Undaunted, Khoo followed her curiosity, acquiring Sun-related heirlooms and badgering Chinese-fluent friends such as Goh Mei Loon to translate historical records.

"In 2001, we heard (prime minister) Mahathir Mohamad was coming to Penang to attend Chinese New Year open-house celebrations," says Khoo. "Goh pushed me to do a Sun Yat-sen exhibition. We put together an exhibition in the house very quickly. Somehow Goh got Mahathir to make a detour to 120 Armenian Street. He was photographed in the house and it was reported in the newspapers. After that people started to talk about Sun Yat-sen in the local context. It was no longer considered sensitive."

a large building: The entrance to the Xiangshan Clan Association Building in George Town. Photo: Thomas Bird © Provided by South China Morning Post The entrance to the Xiangshan Clan Association Building in George Town. Photo: Thomas Bird

Khoo has since converted the house into the Sun Yat-sen Museum and opened it to the public. The interior is imbued with a rich woody smell. There is a small, open-air courtyard - a classical feng shui aesthetic - in the centre of the house, where the principal furnishing is an ornate wooden screen. It is fronted by a family altar, which, in the Confucian style, bares portraits and statues of the house patriarch, in this case Sun Yat-sen.

Some pictures of the VIPs who have visited, including former Chinese president Hu Jintao, are also on display as well as images of Sun's prominent Penang followers such as Goh Say Eng, who, according to Khoo's book Sun Yat Sen in Penang (2008), was "the founding chairman of the Penang Tongmenghui", and who spent his fortune "on the Chinese revolution (...) He died a pauper in 1941".

But were it not for the wall plaques chronicling Sun's time and legacy in Penang one might imagine this as the home of a typical family. It is easy to forget that, as Khoo puts it, "a revolution was cooked up in this house".

Khoo refers to the "Penang conference", a meeting of the Tongmenhui that Sun chaired on November 14, 1910. The scene was recreated in Road to Dawn (2007), a film adaptation of Sun's time in Penang starring Taiwanese actor Winston Chao Wen-hsuan that was shot on location and borrowed from Khoo's and other local historians' research.

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Before the conference Sun had been using Singapore as his Nanyang base but in 1910 his support in the Lion City was waning due to a string of failed uprisings in China. As biographer Tjio Kayloe writes: "On July 19, he boarded the German steamer Roon bound for Penang. He had intended to stay a week or two but several days of meetings with Goh Say Eng was all it took for Sun to decide on Penang as the new location of the Nanyang Regional Office."

By 1910, Sun's cause had renewed urgency. The powerful Empress Dowager Cixi had died in 1908 and the infant Puyi now sat on the Dragon Throne, leaving the regime vulnerable. Sun was plotting another Guangzhou uprising, and it was in this small house on Armenian Street that he gave a rabble-rousing speech, concluding: "You can help shoulder the responsibility of saving our country by donating your money, while our comrades in our country are sacrificing their lives (...)

"If heaven does not bless the Han and the forthcoming uprising fails, I will not trouble you again by asking for another round of donation. Even if I survive, I will be too embarrassed to face you again. It will depend on all of you to continue shouldering together the burden of the unfinished revolution."

Attendees were clearly convinced by Sun's impassioned oration. He raised a remarkable US$8,000 that day. This sponsorship later earned "The Mother of the Revolution" epithet for Sun's Nanyang followers.

Yet the revolution to come would be as convoluted as Sun's life. The second Guangzhou uprising, launched in April 1911, like those before it, failed, a familiar pattern that appears to have demonstrated to critics such as the then-editor of The Straits Echo that Sun was a fraud. "For with Dr. Sun Yat-sen it seems money, money, money all the time, and never anything to show for that stream of gold that has flowed his way (...)"

Irrepressible, Sun set off to raise funds once again, and was courting cash in Colorado, in the US, when the Wuchang uprising in October 1911 triggered the final unravelling of the beleaguered Qing dynasty. On his return to China, on Christmas Day, Sun's 16 years of unwavering commitment to the revolutionary cause won him special reverence among his peers.

a group of people walking in front of a crowd: The Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, at the foot of Purple Mountain, in Nanjing. Photo: Thomas Bird © Provided by South China Morning Post The Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum, at the foot of Purple Mountain, in Nanjing. Photo: Thomas Bird

The revolutionary alliance leaders who had assembled in Nanjing duly elected him provisional president of the republic on January 1, 1912. But after just six weeks at the top he was forced to concede the presidency to Yuan Shikai, a corrupt but powerful northern general with monarchist ambitions. A chaotic era of factionalism ensued, one that Sun would not live to see the end of. He died in Beijing in 1925 aged 58.

Tjio Kayloe's 2017 biography of Sun is titled The Unfinished Revolution. Though Sun was noble, incorruptible and doggedly persistent, the China he imagined failed to materialise. Yet this did not stop a cult of Sun being spun posthumously by his Kuomintang underlings. As one critical Malaysian-Chinese put it, "they deified him".

Canonised as "guofu, father of the nation", a title he still holds on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, Sun was given a burial fit for an emperor in an elaborate mausoleum on Nanjing's Purple Mountain, near the final resting place of the Hongwu emperor, the founder of the Ming dynasty.

In George Town alone Sun's legacy is commemorated with two museums, Khoo's house and the Sun Yat-sen Centre (opened by the Penang Philomathic Union), as well as an extensive heritage trail marking 18 buildings scattered about the old town with trilingual explanatory signs.

Current president of the Penang Heritage Trust, Lim Gaik Siang, who developed and expanded the heritage trail begun by Khoo and Goh, explains why Sun's legacy looms so large in Penang.

a young girl standing in front of a window: Lim Gaik Siang, president of the Penang Heritage Trust. Photo: Thomas Bird © Provided by South China Morning Post Lim Gaik Siang, president of the Penang Heritage Trust. Photo: Thomas Bird

"You have to understand Sun was really significant in developing Chinese schools here," says Lim. "He advocated modern education as a way to liberate and empower people. Before him only rich men received an education, usually a classical one." She goes on to detail the eight schools that were founded by Sun's lieutenants, many evolving from the reading clubs Sun directly established into some of the finest educational institutions in Malaysia today.

With reference to George Town's back alleys, close-knit houses and clan association temples, Lim says, "I think Sun integrated himself to the shape of the city. He was able to harness existing networks and infiltrate secret societies. If some British officers came to break up their activity, they could just disappear into the darkness."

Next door to the Taoist temple in George Town's King Street, where Hungry Ghost festivities are under way, stands the Xiangshan Clan Association Building, its entrance guarded by axe-wielding door gods. Tham Sau Hoong, president of the association, is upstairs, where some retired locals are drinking tea, reading the newspaper or chatting in Cantonese.

"I've been president here for more than 30 years," says Tham, before joking, "Nobody else wants the job."

During those 30 years, Tham has been involved in everything from the production of Road to Dawn to the centennial celebrations of the 1911 revolution to showing around visiting prominent Chinese officials. "Whenever anyone comes to Penang they first visit this clan association," he says. The popularity of the clan building is, of course, due to its connection to Sun, although Tham confesses, "I can find no record he ever came here."

a man sitting in front of a building: Tham Sau Hoong, president of the Zhongshan Clan Association in George Town. Photo: Thomas Bird © Provided by South China Morning Post Tham Sau Hoong, president of the Zhongshan Clan Association in George Town. Photo: Thomas Bird

This is curious, as clan associations were typically the first port of call for Chinese people when arriving in Penang, although given that much documentation was lost during the Japanese occupation or suppressed during the Malayan Emergency, it is possible he paid a visit.

Like Lim, Tham received a Chinese education, a direct legacy of Sun's advocacy and one that clearly helps sustain ties to China. "Sun Yat-sen preached that education will change the lives of the poor people, his followers remembered this and they all set up schools. That connects you with a culture of 5,000 years. You know there have been many great civilisations like the Mongol Empire or the Roman Empire. The Mongols ruled us and the Manchu ruled us but they couldn't change us. It's a culture, a language, a lifestyle."

Downstairs, the main hall is like a wormhole connecting Republican-era China with contemporary George Town. Sun's image bares down from all angles. But it is a rhetorical question written on a placard that seems to best capture why Sun remains an icon: "Who was it that didn't give up even after failing ten times?"

"That's it," says Tham. "Sun Yat-sen was like Gandhi, like Washington. The Chinese people suffered a lot, from opium wars and Manchurian rule. When he spoke there were no more clans, surnames and languages. It was the Zhonghua minzu (the Chinese people). That's why people gave him all their money and were prepared to die for him." He pauses for a moment. "Now the Chinese are well-to-do, and they realise, this is the guy who set the direction, who laid the tracks."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (, the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.


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