Dr. Sun Yat Sen's Base

The house that changed a nation.
Sun Yat Sen's Penang base at 120 Armenian Street

A brief history
At a cursory glance, the indigo-blue terraced house on 120 Armenian Street looks rather unassuming, blending in effortlessly with the other houses on the same street. One wouldn't have guessed that it was here that the epoch-making "Canton Uprising" of the 1911 Chinese Revolution was strategised. Their struggle sowed the seed of discord which signaled
the end of the imperial rule in China and gave birth to the republic of China, with Dr. Sun Yat Sen (1866-1925) as the President.

Besides being the base for Dr. Sun Yat Sen's
revolutionary movement, 120 Armenian Street was also where Malaysia's oldest Chinese newspaper, Kwong Wah Jit Poh, was founded, in 1910.

This landmark event wasn't happenstance by the way - it was actually planned by Dr. Sun and his cohorts to use a newspaper as a clarion call for the T'ung Meng Hui party, and to disseminate an ideology called the Three People's Principle - Nationalism, Socialism and Democracy.

Dr. Sun House

The Hall

The calligraphy for the newspaper's masthead (picture left) was written by Dr. Sun himself.

Illustrious members of the party included Choong Thiam Poe who started the Hu Yew Seah in 1914 to promote the Chinese language and literature, Tan Sin Cheng who founded Chung Ling School in 1917 and the Fukien Girls' School (now called Peng Hua) in 1919.

120 today
The exact date of the house's construction cannot be established, however the land was subdivided in 1875, which means the house would have been built shortly afterward. It was first owned by Cheah Joo Seng of the local Penang Cheah Kongsi. Ownership of the house then changed hands several times over the course of its longish history. Lim Boon Yeow owned 120 from 1900 to 1913.

Ch'ng Teong Swee bought it in 1926, and eventually used it as a godown for his company Ch'ng Eng Joo. It first served as a family house, when the company premises was at Beach Street. Then the Beach Street premises were bombed, the Ch'ng Eng Joo moved here until a few years after the Japanese

Occupation, when the company obtained another place in Chulia Street, so Ch'ng Eng Joo moved out, but when storage space was needed they used 120.

Today, it is the home of one of Penang's foremost historian, conservationist, writer, documenter and photographer Khoo Salma Nasution (also known as Khoo Su Nin). Khoo also happens to be Ch'ng's grand-daughter. She used it as a base for her publication company Areca Books and also Lestari Heritage Network.

Restoration work was carried out in 1993 under the personal supervision of Khoo and today, the front hall of 120 Armenian serves as an exhibition space and museum, while the back area is reserved for the office, and the floor above strictly for accommodation.

The architecture

This late 19th century building is a common feature in old parts of Penang. Known as residential shophouses, the architecture almost always features a front hall for guests, an inner hall that is partitioned from the front,
kitchen and toilet in the rear and bedrooms upstairs. The building is typically long with a narrow frontage with two air-wells for ventilation.

The front air-well or courtyard of 120 is really the most significant part of the house. It was most probably here where the historic meetings were held. Today the same interior is kept neat and airy, the décor comprising a round marble table set with carved wooden legs and mother-of-pearl inlay complete with drum stools; a black mother-of-pearl inlay reclining chair, Victorian-styled showcases, traditional red and black Chinese baskets, large water urns with dragon motifs and original signboards of Wing Sun Company. Most of the furniture is original.

Strategically placed potted plants add a touch of green, improving the ambiance of the living space. The back courtyard has a kitchen, water tank and bathroom which served as a cooking and washing areas.

The floor tiles are of a geometrical design popular with the Peranakan, in peach, brown and green shades.

The walls have always used the same paint - indigo-blue lime wash. The advantage that lime wash has over modern synthetic paints is its 'breatheability'. This feature allows moisture to
escape into the air and act as a natural air coolant. Rightly so, lime wash is the only approved
covering for restoration of old building such as this.

The front part of the house is partitioned with an intricately carved arabesque-like gilded wooden screen panel featuring figurines and floral motifs. This partition actually divides the living room, which is usually used by the head of the household for entertaining his guests, and the courtyard which is reserved for the women family members and their friends.

The kitchen still retains a traditional Nyonya stove in all its glory, 'powered' by wood fire and still in working condition! This area also showcases cooking implements from a time long ago - pewter steamboat, wooden noodle press, traditional grinding stones for making rice flour, copper water boiler, two charcoal
burners, clay curry pots and enamel tiffin carriers.

The cupboards, or meat-safes, are built into the wall for cooling purposes. The roof in the kitchen is high and the back air-well helps to disperse the hot air and smoke that rises from the stove.

The Location
Armenian Street is located in the heritage enclave of
George Town bounded by Carnavon Street, Chulia Street and Acheen Street.

According to Streets of George Town, Penang, a map of the early 1800s showed that Armenian Street was formerly called Malay Lane, due to the Malay kampong settlement there. The name Armenian Street, in tribute to the Armenian merchants
who played a key role in Penang's economy. The neighbourhood was assumed by the Straits Chinese in the mid 1800s.

Incidentally, the location of No 120 was ideal for the base of Dr. Sun's political party because it provided an escape route should a raid occur. If the front of the house was stormed, the occupants could escape via the back door into the Indian Muslim village of Kampung Kaka and Kampung Kolam!

Apparently, the Malay community in the Acheen Street area was aware of the anti-Manchu revolutionaries who were operating in their neighbourhood. In fact, the revolutionaries were referred to as "orang Sun Yat Sen yang potong thau chang", or in English "the followers of Dr. Sun Yat Sen who cut off their pigtails in defiance against Manchu oppressors.

120 Armenian Street was one of two important venues in Penang where Dr. Sun Yat Sen planned the Canton Uprising. The other was at his office in Dato' Kramat Road, but that building has since been demolished.

Exhibition Hall and Museum
As mentioned earlier, 120 is today privately owned, but it still opens its doors to visitors and history buffs. The modest exhibition dedicated to Dr. Sun Yat Sen's features several interesting posters that capture pivotal happenings.

Within the halls lies a rich legacy that is both revolutionary as well as ostentatious. After all, it was here where Dr. Sun Yat Sen's changed the face of China, and it was also here where a key figure of a Penang Straits Chinese made his home.

Many famous personalities have stepped past the threshold of 120. They include the then Prime Minster of Malaysia Dr. Mahathir (picture top) who dropped by during the Chinese New Year Open House 2001 to launch the "Sun Yat Sen in Penang' exhibition.

In April 2002 Hu-Jintao, the fourth and current President of the People's Republic of China and General Secretary of the Communist Party of China visited the Sun Yat Sen's Base in Penang (he was than the Vice President).

Wu Bangguo, present chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, a position regarded as the third-highest in the Chinese government, came calling in May 2005.

Suffice it to say that No. 120 continues to be a popular tourist destination for many. It is also included in the Heritage Trail of the Streets of George Town.

Getting There:
For more information on Sun Yat Sen's base, contact:

Lestari Heritage Network
No. 120 Armenian Street, 10200 Penang, Malaysia
Tel: 604-262 0123

Written and photographed by Adrian Cheah
Article courtesy of www.tourismpenang.gov.com.my © All rights reserved