When in Penang, we discover early pieces of the story of the modern Chinese republic
Whoever would associate George Town, the capital of the Malaysian State of Penang, with the founding of the first Republic of China? The heritage movement in Penang is making sure visitors know all about what Sun Yat Sen – the first President of the Republic and a forgotten figure today – and his fellow revolutionaries in Penang contributed to this connection. The Penang Heritage Trust’s Sun Yat Sen Trail and the Sun Yat Sen Museum housed in a beautifully restored shophouse ensures just that.
The Trail and the Museum have come to life since George Town (and Melaka) was given World Heritage Site status by UNESCO in 2008. That status has seen an enormous amount of restoration of built heritage, revival of cultural heritage, and renewal of environmental heritage in George Town through the efforts of George Town World Heritage Site Inc., a quasi-governmental institution; Penang Heritage Trust, an NGO; and Think City Berhard, the heritage-focussed division of the Malaysian Government investment agency Khazanah Nasional Berhad. Together they’ve brought new life to a wide range of built heritage, from places of worship to shophouses, from historic buildings to rickety clan jetties, all of them built before 1945 in a city 225 years old.
Keeping an eye on the heritage work is Khoo Salma Nasution, head of the Penang Heritage Trust and, fittingly, a member of a family that once owned for several years 120 Armenian Street, where the Sun Yat Sen Museum now is and where once the revolutionaries had their Nanyang headquarters. Nanyang, meaning ‘Southern Seas’, refers to the Chinese who settled throughout Southeast Asia from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The headquarters moved from Singapore to George Town after Sun Yat Sen’s frequent visits to Penang.
Sun Yat Sen, the republican who took on the role of revolutionary, travelled around the world in the early 20th century with a heavy price on his head to garner support for overthrowing China’s Manchu Qing Dynasty. He was 29 in 1895 when he first led an uprising against the Qing Dynasty. When that failed, he fled China and became a “globetrotter with a cause”. He first visited Penang in 1906 and formed a branch of the Zhongguo Tongmenghui (the Chinese Revolutionary Alliance) with Wu Shirong as its founder chairman. He came back the next year and addressed the local Chinese, emphasising that ‘The Overthrow of the Manchus is the Prerequisite for Saving China’. In 1908, Wu Shirong formed the Penang Philomatic Union, a reading club that was a front for the revolutionaries. The PPU moved into 120 Armenian Street, which became the informal headquarters of the local revolutionaries.
Sun Yat Sen returned to Penang in July 1910, this time for four months, during which he drew up plans for a second uprising. He transferred the Nanyang revolutionary headquarters from Singapore to Penang, in fact, to 120 Armenian Street. And it was there that in November 1910 he drew up plans to make the Second Uprising possible. Called the ‘Canton March 29 Uprising’, that too failed.
But in October 1911, the Wuchang or Double Tenth Uprising triggered what became the successful Xinhai Revolution. Sun Yat Sen, who had been banished from Penang by the British the previous year, immediately left for China in December 1911, and on January 1, 1912, the Republic of China was inaugurated with Sun Yat Sen as its Provisional President.
Apart from being Sun Yat Sen’s Nanyang headquarters, 120 Armenian Street was where plans for the uprisings were drawn up, fund-raising coordinated in the whole of Southeast Asia, and the revolutionaries’ newspaper Kwong Wah Yit Poh, which spread awareness of the cause, was published.
Given the role it played, there would have been no better place to tell the Sun Yat Sen story, and this is where the Sun Yat Sen Museum has been established. Besides the museum, the Heritage Trail takes in the house of Wu Shirong who shepherded the revolutionaries in Penang, his wife’s family house that was sold to finance the revolution, the house where Sun Yat Sen stayed during those four months in Penang, the homes of the PPS/U before it moved to Armenian Street, and the Chinese Town Hall and the Chinese Merchants’ Club where Sun Yat Sen addressed several Chinese gatherings. But the museum, in the beautifully restored shophouse, is the showpiece, with the table around which all the planning was done particularly drawing the visitor’s attention.
Quite a contrast to heritage restored is buildings left as they are to illustrate a different kind of heritage. Once, jutting out of Weld Quay, Penang’s waterfront, were 13 clan jetties, rickety wooden jetties alongside even more rickety wooden houses, each belonging to Chinese fishermen of a particular clan. Some of them had a second jetty marking the other side of a clan’s landing basin and a third jetty in the middle of the basin if there were so many boats to be anchored alongside.
Today there are only five of the clan jetties physically surviving and functioning. And Penang Heritage has ensured that they remain unchanged. The only changes are ramshackle restaurants serving outstanding seafood on a little-used side of the landing basin and cameramen having a field day photographing bridal couples and cat-walking models on unused jetties.
We watched one such shoot for two hours of an evening and it was still going on when we left with the thought that the Penang heritage movement is not only vibrant but also imaginative.
(This is the first of a two-part feature)