Local heroes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 October, 2011, 12:00am


Many Hong Kong people who played key roles in the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and establishment of the Republic of China are little known despite the risks they took in planning uprisings before the successful 1911 revolution.

Yeung Kui-wan (1860-1901) and Tse Tsan-tai (1872-1938), also known as James See, were two who risked their lives in planning revolutions in Guangdong, along with Sun Yat-sen, the republic's first president.

The first revolutionary organisation, the Literary Society for the Promotion of Benevolence, or Furen Wenshe, was founded in Hong Kong in 1892 by Yeung, Tse and 30 others, mostly schoolmates at Central School, now Queen's College. It was ostensibly a study group that commented on social issues, with the slogan 'loving our motherland'.

In his book The Chinese Republic: Secret History of the Revolution, Tse said that 16 like-minded schoolmates met occasionally to plot the overthrow of the Qing dynasty.

The Manchu government was notoriously corrupt and regarded as having betrayed the nation after being forced to sign a number of unfair treaties with foreign powers.

However, in the late 1880s and early 1890s, very few Hongkongers dared to express revolutionary sympathies because of the large number of Qing spies in the city. That changed when the Qing navy suffered a crushing defeat in the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894-5.

Yau Lit (1865-1936), dubbed one of the 'four desperados', met Sun when he was studying mathematics in Guangzhou in 1886 and later introduced him to Yeung.

Sun, Yeung and Tse established the headquarters of the Revive China Society, or Xing Zhong Hui, in Hong Kong in 1895, a year after Sun founded the society in Hawaii. Yeung was elected founding chairman of the revolutionary organisation.

His nephew, Yeung Hing-on, said he took the post because Sun had few connections in Hong Kong and it was hard for him to raise money for the revolution in the city.

A photograph taken in Japan in 1898 shows Yeung Kui-wan among the veterans seated in the front row, while Sun stands at the back. Dr Joseph Ting Sun-pao, a former chief curator of the Hong Kong Museum of History, said their positions showed that Yeung was senior to Sun among the leaders of the society at the time, although that did not necessarily mean Yeung had outperformed Sun in the course of the revolution and the founding of the republic.

Yeung Hing-on said: 'The reform association led by Yeung and Tse started secretly scheming for a revolution as early as 1890. Instead of the Revive China Society, another group, the Literary Society for the Promotion of Benevolence, should actually be regarded as the first armed revolutionary organisation in our country in the late Qing dynasty.

'The underlying political association contributed, in a real sense, to a lot of the preparatory work for the first Guangzhou uprising on October 26, 1895. Without that, the Revive China Society could not have succeeded in organising such a massive campaign in just a few months.'

The Guangzhou uprising failed after the plans were leaked, leaving Yeung Kui-wan and Sun wanted by both the Qing dynasty and the Hong Kong government. With the help of Tse's strong overseas connections - he was born in Sydney, Australia - Yeung fled to South Africa and Sun to Japan.

Sun, Yeung, Tse and Yau also played key roles in a military uprising in Huizhou five years later.

However, many members of the Revive China Society were students or intellectuals - good at theory but lacking experience of direct action. And so members of triad secret societies also contributed to the uprisings, as did hundreds, if not thousands, of former Taiping rebels who settled in Sai Ying Pun on Hong Kong Island in the late 1800s following the defeat of their rebellion.

Yeung, Tse and Yau were members of the Hongmen, renamed the Chee Kung Tong, one of the most influential triads. Yau joined as a teenager in Shanghai.

Yau took part in the October 6 Huizhou uprising, which failed, and also introduced Sun to the Chee Kung Tong, which Sun joined to help in his fund-raising efforts in North America.

In January 1901, three months after the uprising, Yeung was shot dead at his home in Gage Street, Central, by an assassin sent from Guangzhou by the Manchu government.

Yeung was buried in the Hong Kong Cemetery in Happy Valley. There were no words on his tombstone, designed by Tse, because they feared it would be damaged by Qing agents.

A plaque beside the grave has just been erected identifying it.

Taiping veteran Hong Quan-fu (1835-1910), one of the nephews of the rebellion's leader, Hong Xiuquan (1814-1864), devoted himself to another uprising in Guangzhou in January 1903.

To avoid persecution by the Manchu government, Hong Quan-fu arrived in Hong Kong in the 1850s and lived disguised as an ordinary chef for decades.

Tse assigned Hong, an experienced military commander with strong connections to the scattered remnants of the Taiping armies and scores of triad members in Guangdong, to take charge of the secret military action, which was sponsored by Li Ki-tong, a Hong Kong-based millionaire who was an active member of the Revive China Society.

However, the uprising failed after spies infiltrated the group, leading to the arrest and execution of many followers in Guangdong.

Tse adopted a low profile and split with Sun and his followers in the wake of that failure, but he kept advocating a free and independent republic in China by writing and publishing articles. He also gave advice to Sun and Yuan Shikai (1859-1916) when they were presidents of the new Republic of China.

'The history of contemporary revolution should start with Yeung [Kui-wan],' the Chinese-American historian Tang Degang once said. 'When Yeung joined the revolutionaries, Sun had not yet made up his mind to overthrow the imperial regime.'

Echoing Tang's view, Yeung's grand-nephew, Dr Yeung Hing-on, said: 'Although the 1911 revolution itself is not directly related to either Yeung Kui-wan or Tse Tsan-tai, I dare say the success of the revolution would at least have been delayed for half a century if both Yeung and Tse had not played the role of vanguards and paved the way for later patriots.'