By Doug Meigs
The revolutionary path to modern China began in Western District on Hong Kong Island. That’s where Dr. Sun Yat-sen—also known as “the father of modern China”—studied and conspired to overthrow Manchurian overlords of the Qing Dynasty. A commemorative walking trail takes visitors along the historic route, which tracks near the fringe of last year’s Occupy Central’s encampment.
In 1883, at the age of 17, Sun first visited the then-British colony. When his ship passed Hong Kong Island, he marveled at the scale of harbour front development. He would hardly recognize the city today. Most colonial architecture has vanished under a wall of skyscrapers towering over expansive land reclamation; however, remnants of Sun’s time linger still.
His namesake heritage trail now meanders between futuristic monoliths and age-worn tong lau. The path skips up and down steep stairways and shady lanes. Fifteen inconspicuous heritage markers tell his story.
“The father of modern China”
Sun was born in a rural village of Chuiheng outside the city now called Zhongshan in Guangdong Province. After moving to Hawaii with his family, he gained his first exposure to Western society before returning to China. In Hong Kong, he pursued secondary and tertiary schooling before launching a medical practice in Macau.
He grew increasingly revolutionary with time. After he helped plan the failed Guangzhou uprising of 1895, Hong Kong’s colonial government barred Sun from the colony. He cut his queue and donned a Western style suit, thus beginning life on the run, fundraising and petitioning overseas Chinese communities. His exile would continue for 16 years.
Sun cemented his reputation—figurehead to China’s revolution—in 1896 when Qing agents in London abducted him. He escaped thanks to James Cantlie, a Scottish physician who had taught Sun in Hong Kong. Throughout his years abroad, Sun’s efforts retained a strong connection to Hong Kong’s Central and Western Districts, where his various anti-Qing organizations continued to operate.
He finally returned to Chinese soil after the successful 1911 Wuchang Uprising. The following year, Sun became the first president of the Republic of China; he abdicated a day later to the warlord Yuan Shikai. Sun died of liver cancer in 1925.
The new China soon descended into factionalism preceding Japanese occupation and World War II. After years of turmoil, and a bloody civil war between Kuomintang and Communist forces, Sun remains revered by modern-day Kuomintang and Communists alike on either side of the divisive Strait of Taiwan.
Developing the heritage trail
Sun’s namesake trail dates back to Hong Kong’s final years as a British colony.
“The Sun Yat-sen Historical Trail was set up in 1996 to commemorate the 130th birthday of Dr. Sun Yat-sen,” said Chan Shing-fung of the Central and Western District Council (formerly known as the Central and Western District Board), the government body responsible for the trail.
The trail consisted of 13 stations in Central and Sheung Wan, with the starting point at the former Diocesan Home and Orphanage. Then in 2001, the District Council upgraded the heritage signage along the route and installed two new memorial plaques at Pak Tsz Lane and the Bonham Road entrance of the University of Hong Kong.
In 2006, government again revamped the trail, renaming it to include the revolutionary leader’s doctoral honorific: the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Historical Trail. The revitalized trail opened the following year, corresponding to Sun’s 140th birthday and the opening of the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum.
In 2010, Sun’s granddaughter, Dr. Lily Sun Sui-fong, officiated at the opening ceremony of the first phase of the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park, unveiling his bronze statue. Sun is now forever gazing thoughtfully into a curtain of luxury hotels and pencil-like towers.
Back when Sun was banished from the then-colonial Hong Kong, long before land reclamation had created room for the park, the “father of modern China” would have moored his boat there to meet with contacts. Political co-conspirators, friends and family would have visited him on the boat in the harbor where the park is today.
Modern distractions en route
The heritage trail now begins at the University of Hong Kong. Anyone following the route’s official map would walk from gentrifying neighborhoods into a gauntlet of galleries and cafes spanning Western District. The urban hike then concludes in the upscale bar-laced heart of Central District.
It is not ordered chronologically, nor is the route always easy to follow. With numerous cutbacks and detours, those unfamiliar with Western Hong Kong Island could easily miss a heritage marker or three. The estimated time, according to a pamphlet printed by the Western District Council (and available at the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Museum) is 120 minutes. “Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Youth Journey,” a shorter route around Soho, is slated for 45 minutes.
The full long route could easily require extra hours, especially for camera-wielding explorers and those prone to shopping, food and drink. Some of Hong Kong’s hippest distractions, boutique shops and restaurants are situated along the heritage trail. Many local residents and businesses based along the trail don’t even know the history underfoot.
When Café Deadend opened along the trail in 2013, a barista said she wasn’t aware that the site once housed the Tong Meng Hui (the Revolutionary Alliance, and the third stop on the full heritage trail). Likewise, staff at Kisses Cupcakes said they knew there was a heritage sign in the alleyway beside their front door (marking the meeting place for the “Four Desperados,” a group that included Sun). But they didn’t know what the sign was about. No customers had ever asked about the history, they said.
Only four of the sites affiliated with the heritage trail enjoy conservation protection because of monument status or heritage grading from the government’s Antiquities and Monuments Office.
“As time goes by, the original sites have been redeveloped and most of the existing buildings that now stand at the original sites are not of historical value,” said Chan. “For example, Station No. 11 is the original sites of To Tsai Church. Sun frequently attended this church; however, at the site now stands a modern commercial building.”
The trail: then and now
- START: The University of Hong Kong
Hidden on the slopes of HKU’s campus, a seated statue of Sun Yat-Sen overlooks a lotus pond. The scenic area is popular for graduation photos and occasional cartoon-outfitted cosplayers. A nearby banner prominently displays Sun’s quote, “I feel as though I have returned home,” a comment from a 1923 speech in Lok Yew Hall of the Main Building. The Main Building is the oldest structure on HKU’s campus. The Antiquities and Monuments Office lists the building as a declared monument. HKU was founded in 1911 and absorbed the Hong Kong College of Medicine, where Sun studied in 1887-1892
- Diocesan Home and Orphanage (Eastern Street)
The Diocesan Home and Orphanage was a boarding school where Sun first studied in Hong Kong in 1883, after receiving elementary education in English while living in Hawaii. The building’s current site houses the Bonham Road Government Primary School. The Diocesan Home and Orphanage is now the Diocesan Boys’ School, located in Mong Kok.
- Reception Centre of Tong Meng Hui (Po Hing Fong)
Sun founded the Tong Meng Hui (the Revolutionary Alliance) in 1905 while in Tokyo, and the establishment of a Hong Kong branch followed that same year. The organization was instrumental in planning the unsuccessful Huanggang Uprising of 1907, launched from Chaozhou. Where the reception centre once stood on Po Hing Fong, a new café and artisan bakery has just opened. Other Tong Meng Hui reception centres were located on Caine Road, Morrison Hill Road, Lan Kwai Fong and Queen’s Road. The centres provided asylum to revolutionaries.
- Preaching Hall of American Congregational Mission (2 Bridges Street)
Sun received Christian baptism in 1883 at the American Congregational Mission Preaching Hall. He lived on the building’s second floor while studying at the Government Central School. Built where the former church once stood is the Bridges Street Market, a grade-3 historic building. It was the first of the government-built municipal markets built after the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. The Bauhaus-style structure will be adapted into a public news museum that archives the history of Hong Kong’s newspapers. Nearby, a mosaic mural pays colourful tribute to Sun.
- Government Central School (44 Gough Street)
Sun attended the Government Central School from 1884 to 1886. It was the first Hong Kong government-run secondary school to provide Western education. While the school’s original site at 44 Gough Street is now completely redeveloped, the path that Sun would have taken down Shing Wong Street provides a classical Hong Kong atmosphere. The exact address of 44 Gough Street now houses the Ginko House, an Italian/French-style vegetarian social enterprise that employs senior citizens selling expensive cuisine.
- Yang Yao Ji, meeting place for the “Four Desperados” (8 Gough Street)
The old shop Yang Yao Ji was a popular meeting point for Sun and three friends who often gathered to discuss anti-Qing revolutionary activities. The so-called “Four Desperados” included Sun, Yang Heling (also from Sun’s village in Guangdong), Yau Lit (a classmate of Yang), and Chen Shaobai (one of Sun’s classmates at medical school). Nowadays, the address houses Kisses Cupcakes and the boutique store Visionaire. Gough Street is better known today for shopping (with the home furnishing store Homeless) and eating (there’s a Japanese ramen shop and a famous beef brisket joint across from 8 Gough Street).
- Yang Quyun assassination site (52 Gage Street)
Yang Quyun founded the Furen Literary Society. He later became president of the Revive China Society in Hong Kong, an organization that Sun had established first in Hawaii during 1894, after the Qing government suffered a series of embarrassing defeats to Japan. Yang was also a leading figure in the failed Guangzhou Uprising. He went on to establish Revive China Societies in Singapore, Vietnam and South Africa. He then joined the unsuccessful Huizhou Uprising in 1900. Afterwards, he returned to Hong Kong and opened a tutorial school, where he was assassinated in 1901.
- Furen Literary Society (Pak Tsz Lane)
The steps leading to Pak Tse Lane Park are supposedly “almost unchanged” according to the Western District Council. Graffiti and paste-up street art now mark the entrance where members of the Furen Society would have once walked to revolutionary meetings. The park offers a pleasant sitting area hidden behind old buildings. There is a statue of a man cutting another’s long Qing-era queue hairdo. Sun was close acquaintances with the core members of the Furen Literary Society, including founder Yang Quyun, who was eventually murdered by assassins sent by Guangzhou officials.
- The Queen’s College (Aberdeen Street and Hollywood Road)
The school (previously known as Government Central School) was relocated to Aberdeen Street and Hollywood Road in 1889 after Sun had finished his secondary school studies there. He was present at the foundation laying ceremony. In 1950, the school moved to its present site in Causeway Bay. The location later housed the Police Married Quarters, a grade-3 historic building that has been renovated into the “PMQ,” a facility that fosters and promotes local creative industries, fledgling designers and arts entrepreneurs.
- Alice Memorial Hospital and College of Medicine for Chinese (77-81 Hollywood Road)
Sun studied at the College of Medicine for Chinese, which was connected to the Alice Memorial Hospital. Fancy bars and restaurants begin appearing with greater frequency at this point in the heritage trail. Although the area is almost unrecognizable compared with Sun’s time, real estate developers have schemes to again redevelop swathes of the older buildings of Soho.
- To Tsai Church (75 Hollywood Road)
The church was adjacent to the Alice Memorial Hospital. Sun frequented the church while studying medicine in Hong Kong. A reverend at the church, Wang Yuchu, became an ardent supporter of Sun’s revolutionary cause. Both the reverend and Sun would undoubtedly be surprised to see the drunken debauchery that now spills down from Elgin Street into waiting taxis here every night.
- Hong Kong Headquarters of Xing Zhong Hui (13 Staunton Street)
The Revive China Society (Xing Zhong Hui) first came to Hong Kong at this site in 1894, hidden under the guise of a commercial company. The site is now a residential building squeezed between bars. Here Sun and fellow revolutionaries planned the failed Guangzhou uprising. Nearby, a bar pays homage to the successful 1911 Revolution with its name, “1911”.
- Xing Yan Lou Western Restaurant (2 Lyndhurst Terrace)
Xing Yan Lou was one of Hong Kong’s most popular Western-style restaurants during the late 1800s. Sun and his co-conspirators frequently met here while plotting the Guangzhou uprising. Now the junction of Pottinger Street and Lyndhurst Terrace is home to La Piola, an Italian bar. The only plotting going on here nowadays is where to take the party next.
- The China Daily Office (24 Stanley Street)
Sun also began a China Daily. It’s not the same China Daily today funded by the People’s Republic of China; although Sun first published his China Daily newspaper in 1900 with similar propaganda intentions. He wanted to promote his revolutionary cause in print. The office at 24 Stanley Street was also a meeting point for anti-Qing revolutionary conspirators. Luk Yu Teahouse is now situated at the address, where waiters will conspire to sell you seriously overpriced dim sum amidst the teahouse’s spectacular old-style décor and furnishings. Various Hong Kong films have shot scenes in the teahouse, and an assassin murdered a local real estate tycoon who was having breakfast there in 2002.
- FINISH: He Ji Zhan Fruit Stall (20 D’Aguilar Street)
The fruit stall on the fourth floor of this site was another important base for Sun’s Hong Kong-based revolutionary activities. The fruit stall is now long gone, transformed by the throbbing heart of Lan Kwai Fong’s bar district.
Sun Yat Sen Museum (7 Castle Road)
Located a short walk from the top of the Soho Escalator, the Sun Yat-sen Museum features four floors of exhibitions. There is a reading room, a video area and fun interactive exhibits for kids. The museum occupies Kom Tong Hall, a government-declared monument that was originally the residence of local businessman Ho Kom-tong.
Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park
The memorial park features a paved loop abutting a harbour front promenade and a grassy lawn surrounding Sun’s statue. In pleasant weather, the lawn is filled with parents and their toddlers, domestic helpers relaxing, and picnicking families. The Sun Yat-sen Memorial Park Sports Centre is located beside the open park area. At the entrance to the park, the route of the Sun Yat-sen trail is embedded in pavement. Like many of the heritage markers obscured by busy life on Hong Kong Island, it is a nuance easily overlooked.