Dr Sun Yat-sen’s numerous supporters in Malaya played a role in the revolution that changed the history of China.
Buried in Perak’s former tin mining towns are stories of sacrifice linked to Dr Sun Yat-sen’s struggle to form the Republic of China.
THE many former tin mining towns in the Kinta Valley hide a wealth of stories – of unsung heroes whose sacrifices helped Dr Sun Yat-sen change the history of China.
Perak may not have been Dr Sun’s base, like Singapore and Penang, but its thousands of tin mine and rubber estate workers were instrumental in raising funds for the revolutionary’s activities.
Dr Sun, who played a key role in inspiring the 1911 Revolution which brought an end to the Qing Dynasty, the last imperial dynasty of China, is best remembered as the founding father of Republican China. But not much is known about his activities in then Malaya.
Stories from small, old towns are normally carried down the generations by word of mouth. Much information may have been lost along the way, and even the descendants of Dr Sun’s supporters have little to tell.
So it is not surprising that few have heard stories like Dr Sun’s romantic link with his bodyguard’s sister, Chen Cuifen, while in Nanyang (South-East Asia).
Chen from Fujian met Dr Sun when she was 17. Extremely dedicated to Dr Sun and his cause, Chen was his constant companion in Nanyang. She washed, cooked for many of Dr Sun’s comrades, delivered important documents, and even smuggled dangerous explosives.
Chen and Dr Sun’s first wife, Lu Muzhen, treated each other like sisters. Although not officially married, she was known as Dr Sun’s Nanyang wife to his descendants.
On her death, she was allowed to be buried in the Sun’s family cemetery in Cuiheng village, Guangdong, China.
Chen adopted a daughter, Su Zhongying, from a rubber estate worker in Perak. Su later married Sun Qian, a grandson of Sun Mei who was Dr Sun’s elder brother.
Renowned historian Prof Yen Ching-hwang said in his doctoral thesis, Chinese Revolutionary Movement In Malaya 1900-1911, that Dr Sun’s first trip to Ipoh in 1906 ended abruptly when he was threatened by well-known tin miner Foo Choo Choon who was backing a different political camp in China. Dr Sun returned to Kuala Lumpur the following day.
According to the late Foong Choon Hon, a director of the Sun Yat-sen Nanyang Memorial Hall in Singapore, on one occasion, stones and cow dung were hurled at the car carrying Dr Sun in Menglembu near Ipoh.
Foong said Dr Sun had also stayed in a shop belonging to his supporter Lee Guan Swee in Old Town, Ipoh. He would only leave the shop at night using the back lane for fear of assassins.
Dr Sun’s bad experiences with rich merchants made him realise that his core support came from the middle and lower social groups of overseas Chinese communities. His supporters organised themselves into small groups and were active in propaganda activities in the Perak towns of Lahat, Papan and Tronoh.
One of Dr Sun’s most loyal supporters was entrepreneur Teh Lay Seng from Ipoh.
When Teh passed away in Nanjing, China, in 1940, the Chinese Republican Government posthumously decorated him with words of praise: Benevolence and Loyalty, Honour and Peace were inscribed on his tombstone at the Hokkien Cemetery in Tambun. His sundry shop Keat Seng Leong is still being run by his descendants in Jalan Bijeh Timah, Ipoh
Lee Guan Swee, also from Ipoh, was another prominent supporter. The English-educated Lee was one of Dr Sun’s most trusted aides in South-East Asia. He spared no effort in raising funds for the revolution. Other supporters from Ipoh included Ke Shuijin, Ou Shengang, Li Xiaozhang, Tang Boling, Liu Yexing, Huang Yiyi and Liang Shennan.
Dr Sun also had the backing of Lu Wenhui and Chen Zhian from Taiping, and Yang Chaodong from Kampar.
Together they formed the Tung Meng Hui (the revolutionary Union League) in towns in the Kinta Valley, clubs and drama troupes, to spread their propaganda. One such drama troupe in Ipoh was the Perak Chisin Seah which later became the Perak Chinese Amateur Dramatic Association.
Dr Sun’s supporters addressed the general public at street corners, along roadsides and parks, and attacked the Qing government and Qing reformists, besides preaching revolutionary doctrines.
Dr Sun’s political career was marked by a series of failed uprisings. Between 1907 and 1910, several revolts at the Sino- Vietnamese border and Guangdong in China failed because of insufficient financial support and military supplies.
The now-defunct Straits Echo in Penang condemned Dr Sun and the revolutionary movement, saying that Dr Sun was all money talk and did not have anything to show for the stream of gold that flowed his way.
Dr Sun’s supporters also met with resistance from merchants who were sympathetic to calls for political change in China, but who were aligned to reformist Kang You-wei. Many of the rich were supporters of the Qing government which offered honorary titles and positions to them.
On Nov 13, 1910, Dr Sun held the important “Penang Conference” at Armenian Street in Penang. He
Once upon a time in China: A photograph of Dr Sun Yat-sen taken in 1924 in Guangzhou. Dr Sun is recognised as the Founding Father of the Republic of China.
The words of Dr Sun Yat-sen are inscribed on a wall of the Sun Yat-sen Gallery in the Perak Cave Temple.
Family photos: A picture of Chen Cuifen and Dr Sun Yat-sen at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Museum in Guangzhou. (Pic right) Chen Cuifen’s adopted daughter Su Zhongying was from Perak.