The Sun Yat Sen Memorial Hall: Travesty or inspiration?

~by: Ng Yi-Sheng~

For some bizarre reason, I recently found myself on the media list for a preview tour of the Wan Qing Yuan, better known as the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. For those of you in the dark, this is a Singaporean museum that’s dedicated to the life and work of Dr Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925), also known as the “Guo Fu”, the Father of Modern China.

This year happens to mark the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, which broke out on 10 October 1911; the final triumph of Dr Sun’s movement to bring about the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the end of 2,500 years of imperial rule.  The National Heritage Board’s chosen to celebrate this by giving the museum a complete makeover.

So, gone are the hokey waxwork statues of Sun and his collaborators. Gone are the explanatory panels written in bad English. Instead, we’ve got a state-of-the art display that combines multimedia with priceless Sun memorabilia on loan from galleries in Hong Kong. We’ve a glorious exhibition that explains how Singapore was the Southeast Asian headquarters for the Tongmenghui, Sun’s revolutionary movement, and how our people played a pivotal part in transforming China from a medieval backwater into a modern world power.

The Museum as travesty

Now, I’m a history buff and I generally love our museums. But to tell the truth, this one drives me nuts. I can’t help but see the Hall as a monument to 21st century Sinocentrism.

From a government standpoint, the place exists for two reasons only: first, to milk the tourist dollars of PRC and Taiwanese visitors, and second, to train young Singaporeans to be culturally sophisticated enough to trade with the PRC and Taiwan in the future. Note also that signage is exclusively in English and Mandarin, never mind that we have two other national languages. Note also that the opening’s being accompanied by a massive month-long festival of traditional Chinese arts: kungfu, opera, paper-cutting, riddles and Chinese chess – none of which have anything to do with Sun’s revolutionary legacy.

It troubles me. Why are we constantly using history to misidentify ourselves as an intrinsically Chinese country? We talk about Admiral Zheng He and the Peranakans and the Tang treasures of the Belitung shipwreck as if they were concrete proof that the Chinese have always held sway in this part of the world. The truth is, Singapore has thus far been Indian, Malay/Indonesian and European-ruled territory: in the 11th century we were part of the Chola Empire, in the 14th century Majapahit Empire, in the 17th and 18th centuries the Johor-Riau Sultanate and in the 19th and 20th century the British Empire. We have never, ever been politically ruled by China.

The Chinese immigrants who helped Dr Sun were mostly doing so because they still saw themselves as Chinese subjects. China was their true home, while Singapore was merely a place of transit. Is this really something we want to celebrate as a nation?

Sun Yat Sen as travesty

Yet the truth is, the more I find out about Sun Yat Sen, the more I like him. Remember, he was a revolutionary. The champions of Chinese culture in Singapore would not approve of his like today.

To begin with, he was thoroughly anti-traditional. At the age of 13, he went to school in Hawaii (shades of Obama), and it was there that he learned English, converted to Christianity, and became convinced of the superiority of Western technology and education. He lobbied the Qing government to embark on a program of Western-based modernization.  He poured scorn on the prevalent system of education by memorising the great Chinese classics. He even vandalized a statue of a god in his village temple – an act so heinous that he had to flee to Hong Kong.

As a revolutionary, he organised the gangsters of Guangzhou into his own militia, plotting an armed resistance from a headquarters hidden inside a Christian bookshops. (Today, I’m pretty sure this kind of counter-government work would count as terrorism.) When he was discovered, he had to climb over the city walls and flee for Japan, thus beginning his journey throughout the Chinese diaspora, gathering monetary and ideological support for his revolution in Chinatowns from Brooklyn to Batu Pahat.

Don’t forget that he never quite mastered Mandarin – his speeches tended to be in Cantonese, Hakka and English. In short, he was a non-Mandarin speaking, religious icon-smashing, West-worshipping international terrorist. Could there be a single figure our government would like us to emulate less?

The Tongmenghui as inspiration

But of course, I’m being facetious. The simple truth is, there’s something far more important that makes me love Sun Yat Sen, and it’s something the governments of Singapore and the PRC are keeping relatively quiet about. The fact is, he didn’t just want to topple the Qing Dynasty and modernize China. He also wanted to set up a democracy.

Across Singapore and the Malay Peninsula, people of all economic backgrounds signed up for this idea. The Tongmenghui included wealthy businessmen and small-time merchants and coolie labourers alike. They had to carry out their operations in secret to avoid the spies of the Qing, who lurked in our island. They recognised each other only with a special handshake: instead of clasping hands with five fingers, they used four.

The rich tycoons Sun befriended – Teo Eng Hock, Tan Chor Nam, Lim Nee Soon, Lim Boon Keng, Tan Kah Kee and Lee Kong Chian – they weren’t just buying guns and planning strategies. They were funding mass education: founding affordable schools for both boys and girls as per Sun’s egalitarian philosophy; setting up Reading Clubs where the poorest people could learn to read and be introduced to political ideas – pretty much the World Wide Web of the era.

Just imagine what it must have been like to be a coolie, scraping on the sweat of your labour to pay off your starving family’s gambling debts, only to have your mind transformed by this promise of a new future, not just for your country, but for the world. (Remember, Singapore was a colony, and there were no East Asian democracies at the turn of the 20th century. The revolution changed everything: suddenly, the world’s largest country was democratic.)

Some Tongmenghui members even made the ultimate sacrifice: they traveled to China and participated in Sun’s ten failed rebellions, only to be killed in battle or executed for their bravery. They are rightly remembered as heroes.

In the end, I guess I’ve a love-hate relationship with the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, as I do with much else in Singapore. I’m highly suspicious of its agenda, but I know the true legacy of the man it’s dedicated to, and that legacy is freedom.

Fittingly, the centennial of the Xinhai Revolution has also been a year of crumbling dictatorships: Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Cote d’Ivoire. And yet there are

dictatorships still at our doorstep, in the PRC and Myanmar. It would honour Sun’s memory – and the memory of the Singaporean members of the Tongmenghui – if we supported the movements in each country for democracy.

Thus, in spite of my conflicted feelings, I may take my niece to the museum after all. We’ll examine the photographs, participate in the calligraphy workshops, maybe even buy a commemorative notebook or teabag. But when I walk through the doors, this is what I’m going to tell her:

“This is a museum that honours people who dared to fight back against tyrants. They wanted to change the world, and they succeeded.”

“We must too.”

If you’d like to visit the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, it’s at 12 Tai Gin Road, Singapore 327874. Its website is http://wanqingyuan.com.sg .