In 1911, Sun Yat-sen was a man on a mission.
A mission that brought the Chinese revolutionary leader on an undercover trip to Alberta – to raise thousands of dollars to overthrow China’s Manchu dynasty.
It’s a little-known chapter of Alberta and China’s linked history. Now a new exhibit of photographs on loan from China’s Sun Yat-sen Foundation and the Memorial Museum of Generalissimo Sun Yat-sen’s Mansion in Guangzhou, hopes to remind western Canadians of that sometimes forgotten past.
George Dong is an Edmonton journalist and novelist, and one of the organizers behind the show, Sun Yat-sen and Canada.
“This picture exhibition will teach Edmonton of the links between China and Edmonton, and the role Edmonton played in China’s modern history,” says Dong. “In Edmonton, I don’t think people are aware of this, even in the Chinese community.”
Today, Sun is known as the father of modern China, revered in both Taiwan and the People’s Republic for his part in bringing down the Manchu regime and putting China on the path to its future.
The son of peasants from the southern coast province of Guangdong, Sun grew up in Hawaii, where he learned fluent English, then completed his medical training in Hong Kong, then a British colony. Educated, thoughtful, and quietly charismatic, he had made himself into the leader of the republican, nationalist movement, which sought to overthrow China’s Manchu emperors, and to free China from western economic domination.
Living in exile, he was constantly raising money to fund the revolution of his dreams. He’d visited Canada, briefly, twice before. But his 1911 trip was different, as he travelled from Vancouver to Montreal, reaching out to expatriate Chinese-Canadians, whether they were living in big cities, or tiny Prairie towns.
“He was a wanted man,” says Brian Evans, a professor emeritus of Chinese and Chinese-Canadian history at the University of Alberta.
“If the authorities had caught him in Canada, they would have arrested him and sent him back to be dealt with by the Chinese government. He was persona non grata with the British, because he was interfering with their economic interests in China, by fomenting revolution.”
Sun, says Evans, travelled with false papers, sometimes passing himself off as Japanese. But for members of the Chinese diaspora on the Canadian Prairies, Sun’s visit was huge news. They flocked to see him, at stops in Lethbridge, Calgary, and Winnipeg. He didn’t make it to Edmonton, but Dong and Evans say many people from Edmonton went to Calgary, which had the larger Chinese community, to see him.
But Evans says it’s hard to trace Sun’s precise steps now, because his visits were never publicized beforehand.
For Chinese here, cut off from friends and family at home, Sun’s crusade didn’t just offer the promise of a better life in China – he promised, too, that if he were in charge, China would advocate with the Canadian government for fairer laws and juster treatment for Chinese living in Canada.
“Some people mortgaged their businesses to give him money,” says Evans. Chinese community groups mortgaged their buildings. In all, Sun raised about $35,000 on the Prairies – a sum worth almost $1 million in today’s dollars.
In the midst of his trip, though, an impromptu revolution broke out, spontaneously, in China. Even after Sun left North America to rush back to China to become provisional leader of the post-revolutionary government, his aura remained powerful here. When Sun was ousted by the more militaristic warlord, Yuan Shikai, young Chinese men in Edmonton put together their own militia to go to his aid, training and drilling under the direction of one of Edmonton’s most colourful rogues, Morris Cohen – later known as Two-Gun Cohen.
(Cohen himself later claimed in his highly fictive memoir, Two-Gun Cohen, that he too had travelled to Calgary to meet Sun in 1911, and that he worked as his bodyguard for the duration of his North American tour. On the other hand, the historical records show that Cohen was actually in prison for the length of Sun’s visit to Canada. Dong, who recently published a novel in Chinese inspired by Cohen and his adventures, is inclined to believe Cohen’s own version of events. But Evans, the historian, says the idea that Sun, who needed to keep a low profile, would have travelled with as showy a character as Cohen would be preposterous, even if Cohen hadn’t been locked up.)
Evans says the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty and Sun’s influence, had a tremendous impact on the expatriate Chinese community in Canada. It gave them a new sense of pride, he says – and it allowed them the liberty to follow Sun’s lead, and cut off their hated queue pigtails, a mark of subservience to their Manchu overlords. Ironically, then, Sun’s revolution at home gave Chinese living in Canada the freedom to become more integrated into the Canadian community, to remove the badge of difference that set them apart.
When the First World War began in the autumn of 1914, Edmonton’s trained Chinese militia applied for permission to join the fighting. But at that point, China was still a neutral country, and the Canadian and British governments were suspicious of the loyalties of the would-be Chinese soldiers. The Edmonton troop was denied the chance to fight for Canada; but, says Evans, they still paraded proudly in Edmonton.
But the connection didn’t end there. When the war ended, Cohen did leave Edmonton for China, to work for Sun. He wasn’t the only one. Dong says two other Edmontonians, Ma Xiang and Huang Huilong, also went to serve Sun and his wife, the equally important revolutionary figure, Song Qingling.
Sun died of cancer in 1925. But some of his loyal Edmonton followers stayed, including Two-Gun Cohen, who dedicated himself to Song Qingling’s protection, and helped her escape from Hong Kong, just as it fell to the Japanese.
Even though Sun himself never did visit Edmonton, George Dong felt it was important that the exhibition, which will tour to Calgary and Vancouver later this autumn, have its premiere here. He wants people to remember the stories of Ma Xiang, Huang Huilong and Morris Two-Gun Cohen, and to remember the days when Edmonton’s Chinese community was so committed to freedom and democracy in China.
Since the exhibit is free to the public, and since it’s being held in Edmonton City Hall, a very public space, he hopes many Edmontonians will come to see the pictures, and come, in that way, to better understand the small, but important, role that Edmonton and Edmontonians played in this chapter of Chinese history.
Sun Yat-sen had three great dreams for his country, three founding principles for his revolution. He wanted China to be an independent nation, not under anyone’s colonial, political or economic domination. He wanted to improve the standard of living for the Chinese people. And he wanted China to be a republic, a democracy. More than 100 years later, China has achieved two out of three of those dreams – and surely, beyond Sun’s wildest dreams. Today, it is one of the world’s most powerful economies, a major player on the international stage. Whether any of Sun’s political successors ever made China into the democracy Sun envisioned is a somewhat different question. Perhaps it would be fair to say that the deep evolutionary events Sun and his Canadian supporters helped to set in motion are indeed still evolving – as China grows and changes, slowly but surely, in ways that no one, a century ago, could possibly have imagined.
The Sun Yat-Sen and Canada exhibit opens opens Sunday, Sept. 14, at 11 a.m.
It closes September 21.
Sun Yat-sen and Canada 孙中山与加拿大
presented by Sun Yat‐sen Foundation, the Memorial Museum of Generalissimo Sun Yat‐sen’s Mansion and the Chinese Communities in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver
EDMONTON 埃德蒙顿 :
Edmonton City Hall 市政府大会堂 （Exhibition Venue Sponsor）
1 Sir Winston Churchill Square, Edmonton, Alberta
September 14—21, 2014 二零一四年九月十四至二十一
Mon—Fri 9am—5pm 星期一至五,上午十时至下午五时
Sat., Sun 11am—5pm 星期六及日, 上午十一时至下午五时
Opening Ceremony: Sept. 14, 1pm 开幕礼:九月十四, 下午一时
September 14, 2014 11:00 am
September 21, 2014 5:00 pm