SCMP Friday, March 9, 2001

What lies beneath?


It is 6pm on January 10, 1901. A 40-year-old English tutor is waiting to give a lesson at his home on Gage Street, Central.
Suddenly a gang bursts through his front door. Armed with pistols, they open fire. The first shot hits the teacher in the head, the second and third bury themselves in his chest. The killers then disappear into the dark streets. The man left lying in a pool of blood is taken to hospital, where he dies the next day.
So ended the life of Yang Qu-yun - a man described as being as important, if not more so, than legendary leader Dr Sun Yat-sen in the movement that led to the 1911 revolution against the Qing dynasty.
It is a surprise then to discover that a man with such a reputation should lie in the Happy Valley's Hong Kong Cemetery unnamed and unremembered. His final resting place marked by a slender statue and a number, 6348, carved into the stone. However, one man is fighting to resurrect the reputation of this Hong Kong-raised patriot whose dream was to rescue millions of Chinese people suffering under a corrupt regime.
"I was very sad when I first heard about Yang's story," says Ng Huen-yan, chairman of the 100-year Commemoration of Yang Qu-yun Committee. "He was the first Hong Kong person involved in the 1911 revolution to be assassinated."
In 1996, Ng, who had been working as a writer, magazine editor and tutor at the University of Hong Kong, happened upon information about Yang while researching another project. "I was doing a Hong Kong literature study scheme organised by the Urban Council, and realised that there was a society called Foo Yan Man Sar (Society for Kindness and Culture), headed by Yang," Ng says. This sparked an interest and Ng set about investigating Yang's story.
Yang was born in Humen, Guangdong, in 1861. Not long after his birth, his mother took him to Hong Kong to be with his father.
Yang grew up to become a trainee mechanic at the Hong Kong Navy shipyard. He also studied English at night.
Slowly Yang, angry over the weakness of the 268-year-old Qing dynasty (which was regularly invaded by foreign powers), began to create a vision of a revived China. Central to his dream was an end to the Manchuria-based dynastic rule and the building of a republic.
In 1890, with 15 other men, he founded the Foo Yan Man Sar, to "renovate the society, study the science". Among the group was Yang's long-time supporter Tse Tsan-tai, a young Chinese man who had recently returned from Australia and who went on to set up The South China Morning Post in 1903.
With Yang, the eldest, as chairman, Foo Yan Man Sar soon set about its real business: to act as a political forum for the promotion of anti-Qing ideas.
In the autumn of 1892, with his infamy growing in Hong Kong, Yang came across a man five years his junior who was to be vital to his dreams of revolution. His name was Dr Sun Yat-sen and he was to become known as the father of the Chinese revolution.
The two men became great friends and in 1895 they formed the Revive China Society (Xing Zhong Hui), with Yang as chairman. Foo Yan Man Sar merged into the new group and members took an oath to "expel the Manchus, restore Chinese rule and establish a federal republic".
It wasn't long before the society was planning action and, on March 16, 1895, it raised 3,000 men to capture Guangdong and to set up a revolutionary base. Yang was expected to become the provisional president. But the plot was discovered and the society lost munitions and 48 lives.
Following the Guangdong plot, Yang began to slip from the limelight. In 1899 Sun's supporters requested that he become chairman of the Revive China Society or they would leave. Not wanting the revolutionary force to be weakened, Yang moved aside for the younger man.
Under their new leader, members of the society decided to stage another uprising at Waizhou, north of Hong Kong, in 1900. They attempted to blow up the governor-general's office, but the plan was discovered and foiled.
Unfortunately for Yang, staff at the governor-general's office decided the plot must have been his idea and a death warrant was issued, leading to his murder in 1901.
"Since Yang lost his life a good while before the 1911 revolution took place, his achievement has been underrated," says Professor Chow Kai-wing, Hong Kong Baptist University's head of history.
In fact, Chow asserts, during the early stages of what was to become the revolution in 1911, Yang enjoyed a higher status than Sun.
"From the pictures taken, Yang always sat in the middle, while Sun was always on the second row. This symbolised the ranking of the two," he says. With this in mind, as well as Yang's position as the first chairman of the first revolutionary body - the Revive China Society - Chow believes Yang's name should be remembered.
"In the late 19th century, cultural organisations were very rare in Hong Kong. Foo Yan Man Sar, which was led by Yang, promoted Hong Kong culture," says Chow. It published the first book about Hong Kong history, Hong Kong Chap Kee - The Record Of Hong Kong). Chow adds that Yang was the first to raise the idea of replacing the dynasty with a federal republic, before Sun. "Some historians even argue that Sun was influenced by Yang", he says.
"However, we should not argue about whether Yang or Sun was more important, He [Sun] is still a key figure in the history of China."
A key figure, yes, and one with an impressive mausoleum in Nanjing as well as a formidable place in China's history. But what of Yang? To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Yang's assassination this year, Ng has organised a series of activities to pay tribute to the Hong Kong-raised revolutionary.
"This year is also the 90th anniversary of the 1911 revolution. We have had seminars on the mystery of Yang's death and the analysis of the revolution," Ng says.
Historians and a Yang Qu-yun study group from Xie Men, China, attended the seminars, while tours of the historical spots where Yang spent his life leading up to his death have also proved popular.
Ng hopes that through such activities, more Hong Kong people will become aware of the revolutionary hero lying unnoticed in one of their cemeteries.
"The historical facts are already there, but covered by layers of dust," says Ng. "We just want to clear it."