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Uniquely HK

History Matters

Kom Tong Hall and Sun Yat Sen

In Hong Kong Dr Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China, is remembered in a museum at Kom Tong Hall. Richard Garrett explores how this came about

 

Kom Tong Hall on Castle Road was built from 1914-17 by Ho Kom-tong. Ho Kom-tong (1866-1950) was brother of Sir Robert Ho-tung and Ho Fook, and like them was incredibly rich. He was an entrepreneur, philanthropist and leader of the Chinese community. He built the mansion for his first wife. As well as this house, he had another even bigger one on nearby Conduit Road where his 12 concubines lived. He also had a mistress, who had a daughter whose son was Bruce Lee.  As well as houses, Ho developed a private cemetery on Mount Davis, where he designed the layout of the graves to ensure the best fung shui protection for his descendants.

Ho, however, decided to enjoy life and spend most of his fortune before he died. He gave generously to charities, supported several households and families, and kept racehorses.  He was one of the main proponents for the creation of the Helena May Institute; another historic building on Garden Road. He lived through the Japanese occupation and the house was saved from depredation as the family were able to produce a silver tobacco box bearing the Japanese Imperial crest. It had been given to one of Ho’s sons, Tse Ka-po, by the Japanese Crown Prince Asaakira Kuni in the 1920s. After Ho died in 1950 the family stayed on but in 1959 the house was sold, first to a Mr Cheng and then to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon). They converted many of the rooms into offices and installed a bath-like structure for full-immersion baptisms. The church finally outgrew the premises and plans were put forward to redevelop the site. In 2004 they applied for a demolition order but, being the last pre-war mansion in Mid-Levels, on Castle Road just above Caine Road, the proposal caused a huge public outcry. This resulted in the building being saved. In 2004 it was acquired by the government, which had to consider its future use. It was decided that the building be converted into a museum commemorating Dr Sun Yat-sen and this was opened in 2006.

The conversion work was carried out by the Architectural Services Department with conservation advice from the Antiquities and Monuments Office. It turned out that many of the original features had survived and these have been restored. Although now surrounded by high-rise buildings, the building is fortunately still in good condition with lovely stained-glass windows and beautiful woodwork. The window on the staircase includes the date of construction; 1914.

The decision to create a museum to commemorate Dr Sun Yat-sen is not surprising as he had connections with the city. At the end of the nineteenth century, discontent with the Imperial Ch'ing rule was growing. Groups of revolutionaries started to plan for the overthrow of the old imperial system. Prominent among these was Sun Yat-sen. Dr Sun, Cantonese by race and culture, he had a close relationship with Hong Kong, where he received his secondary and university education. Hong Kong was also the cradle of his revolutionary thoughts and uprising plans.  He was a convinced Republican, and a believer in a radical restructuring of the Chinese society, economy, and belief-systems. He found considerable sympathy among many sections of Hong Kong's Chinese mercantile elite, who provided much of the funding for his revolutionary activities.

In 1895, Sun attempted a revolutionary uprising in Canton, which failed. He tried again, in October 1900, at Sam Chau Tin, immediately inland from Sha Tau Kok. This attempt also failed, as did the subsequent six attempts, all of which took place in the Kwangtung and Kwangsi area, before the eventual successful outbreak began in October 1911 at Wuhan. Having got rid of the old imperial system was one thing, but creating a successful modern government was another. Dr Sun was sidelined and the warlord era came in. It was not until after the Second World War and the Civil War that China was finally united under a central authority. Because of his leadership at the critical time of the overthrow of the Emperor, Dr Sun is remembered as the founder of modern China and is revered by both the communists and the nationalists.

The museum has two permanent exhibitions displaying a number of historical artefacts. Supplemented by a wide range of audiovisual programmes, the museum gives a comprehensive overview of the life and career of Dr Sun, and Hong Kong's vital role in the reform movements and revolutionary activities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The opulent Ho family mansion seems a strange choice for a museum to a revolutionary. The buildings associated with Sun Yat-sen in China are much humbler and seem more appropriate to his memory somehow. Nevertheless it is a fine way to preserve a mansion, which in itself is part of Hong Kong’s heritage, and well worth a visit.

 

Ho Kom Tong

 

The main staircase.    Courtesy of Richard Garrett.

 

A gilt decorated fireplace. Courtesy of Richard Garrett.

 

Statue of Sun Yat-sen in the garden. Courtesy of Richard Garrett.

 

 
Richard Garrett has lived in Hong Kong for more than forty years and is the author of numerous articles on people and places in Hong Kong, Macau and China. See www.richardjgarrett.com

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