PENANG, Malaysia (Reuters) - The fate of China’s last imperial dynasty was sealed in an unlikely place — an indigo-blue shophouse jammed into a bustling commercial street on the Malaysian island of Penang.
Here, early in the last century, Chinese revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, shattered by the strain of leading nine failed rebellions against the country’s crumbling Qing dynasty, broke down and begged discouraged supporters to aid him one last time.
“I will not trouble you again,” historian Khoo Salma Nasution quoted the distraught 44-year-old as telling the Chinese migrant merchants who had funded his efforts.
“The rest was history,” she added. “The money raised from his supporters funded two rebellions in 1911, which overthrew the Manchu dynasty and made him China’s first provisional president.”
Sun, the father of the revolution that toppled China’s last emperor in 1911, died in 1925, and is a hero in China despite being the former leader of the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, defeated by the Communists in 1949.
The 1910 meeting with his backers in Malaysia, known to history as the “Penang Conference”, was held in utter secrecy in Sun’s headquarters on Armenian Street, crowded round with secret society dens and temples built by migrant Chinese traders.
Sun, a Western-educated physician exiled by the Qing government, plotted the Canton uprising from his base in the bustling then-British-controlled port of Penang on the west coast of colonial Malaya.
Few traces of the dynamic leader remain, apart from an exhibition of photographs that commemorates his brief stay on the island, where Sun had sought refuge from the Manchu-dominated Chinese government.
Yet the house, with its narrow passages, small courtyards, winding staircases and hidden rooms, bears powerful testimony to the secrecy that surrounded Sun’s revolutionary activities.
“This was his life. It was always in the shadows,” said Khoo, whose family has owned the house since it was bought in the 1930s by her grandfather, an arms dealer who wanted a place to store his stock.
Now, almost a century later, Khoo’s shophouse serves a different purpose as the home of the Lestari Heritage Network, which runs a program of heritage conservation projects around Asia, as well as a publishing firm, to document its activities.
The network, run by Khoo, has helped fund efforts to restore heritage buildings in former mercantile and colonial centers in India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Thailand.
Agencies such as the Japan Foundation and the New York-based Institute for Cultural Enterprise have helped provide the funds.
“Sun Yat-sen used the shophouse as a base for his revolutionary activities,” said Khoo. “We are coming full circle with the shophouse as a center for heritage conservation.
She added, “My family thought I was crazy to spend so much money and effort to restore the shophouse. But they now realize this shophouse could have been lost forever if nothing was done.”
She declined to say how much she had invested in the project.
Her efforts have paid off.
China officially recognized the site when President Hu Jin Tao visited the shophouse in 2002 and presented a commemorative plaque to Khoo. At the time, Hu was China’s vice-president.
But other sites in Penang associated with Sun have slowly begun to disappear. Sun’s house, located in a different part of Georgetown, has long since been demolished.
Sun held secret gatherings in Penang to spread his ideas about overthrowing the Qing dynasty and canvassing for funds.
He was able to tap into the sentiments of the vibrant Chinese migrant community, which was bitterly upset over news that their home country had been ravaged by famine and torn apart by civil war and clashing warlords.
“These buildings can piece together Sun’s Malaysia story but they face an uncertain future,” said Khoo, lamenting that agencies of the state and federal government had shown little interest in conservation efforts in Georgetown.
“People here are slow to realize that Penang has such links to international history. It is a shame.”
But one proof of Sun’s presence in Penang still lives on, in the form of a Chinese newspaper launched in the shophouse for distribution among his supporters.
Today, the paper, which features Sun’s calligraphy in its masthead, is Malaysia’s longest-running Chinese daily with a circulation of up to 72,000 in 2005.
“Sun Yat-sen knew how to move the hearts and pockets of the overseas Chinese with his speeches,” Khoo said. “The newspaper brought it to another level. Now, that’s all we in Malaysia have of him.”