Gathering celebrates the Maui ties of a Chinese revolutionary

KEOKEA – Before he was a revolutionary, Sun Yat-sen was a Honolulu schoolboy. Before he overthrew the Qing dynasty and became the first president of China’s republic, he was working in his older brother’s shop in Kahului.

Nearly 150 years after the birth of the Chinese revolutionary whom many call the “founding father of modern China,” Chinese government officials and descendants of Sun Yat-sen celebrated his life on Maui and Oahu, where his family had a strong connection and where the young doctor came to build up his education, escape from angry government officials and foster his dreams of democracy.

On Sunday, the final event of a four-day celebration in Hawaii, around 50 people from China, Taiwan and the U.S. Mainland stepped foot on the Keokea fields where the Sun family spent much of their time while on Maui.

“(Sun Yat-sen) came from a country where society was very poor, it was corrupted,” said Victor Sun, great-grandson of Sun Yat-sen’s older brother, Sun Mei. “What (Hawaii made) him see is there’s a new way of living. This is why when later on in his writing he covers all aspects of not only building up the country, but about humanity, about equality, about freedom and about social problems. If he hadn’t come over here, he wouldn’t know any of this.”

Sun Yat-sen was born in the South China province of Guangdong on Nov. 12, 1866. His older brother, Sun Mei, came to Hawaii in 1871, and his business ventures would finance much of his younger brother’s ambitions. Sun Mei was a rice merchant and a shopkeeper and brought over many migrant workers in response to King David Kalakaua’s offer to pay $100 in gold for every Chinese brought to work in the sugar cane fields, said Leland K.H. Sun, great-grandson of Sun Yat-sen.

With the money he earned, Sun Mei was able to bring 13-year-old Sun Yat-sen from China to enroll at Iolani School and Oahu College, which became known as Punahou School. Getting a taste of another culture opened Sun Yat-sen’s eyes, Victor Sun said. He eagerly read about the U.S. Constitution, about Abraham Lincoln and democracy.

“Seeing how the rest of the world is so advanced and how China was so backwards, that’s when he realized something’s got to be done,” Leland Sun said.

Returning to China and continuing his education in Hong Kong, Sun Yat-sen became a doctor and began to “nourish his revolutionary ideas,” Victor Sun said. Under the conservative Qing dynasty, China “had clung to its traditional ways” and “suffered humiliation at the hands of more technologically advanced nations,” according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Frustrated with the government, Sun Yat-sen organized a revolutionary group called the Revive China Society, made up of Chinese expatriates in Hawaii. In 1895, he led the first uprising in Guangzhou, which failed and sent him on a long exile.

Sun Mei once again came to his brother’s aid. He had won a bid for 3,900 acres of government-leased land, and his slice of property stretched from a 1,600-foot elevation to the shoreline, according to current property owner Haleakala Ranch. Fearing for his family’s life, Sun Yat-sen sent his mother, wife and children to the ranch in Keokea and visited from time to time, Victor Sun said. In case anybody came looking for them, the family kept the horses saddled and a sailboat docked at Makena, said Robert Cup Choy, whose grandfather came to Maui around the same time as Sun Mei.

“If somebody came from the Qing government, they could use the gong (on the ranch) to alert everybody, jump on the horse and go to the sailboat to escape,” Cup Choy said.

From 1878 to 1910, Sun Yat-sen made six trips to Hawaii, according to the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Hawaii Foundation. In 1904, he even acquired a Certificate of Hawaiian Birth and told authorities he lived on Maui, allowing him to circumvent the U.S. Chinese Exclusion Act and sail to San Francisco.

Despite a life of constant danger, Sun Yat-sen, who once narrowly escaped deportation in England, continued to spread his three-fold principles of nationalism, democracy and the people’s livelihood, which focused on more equal land rights. Leland Sun said his great-grandfather traveled all around the world garnering support from non-Chinese and Chinese alike, including the Maui-based Wo Hing Society.

“He had the gift of gab,” Leland Sun said. “And for wahine, he was very good looking. He had a magnetic personality that brought people to him.”

Sun Mei lost much of his possessions in his quest to help his younger brother. He sold more than 700 head of cattle from his Keokea ranch to help fund his brother’s initial revolutionary efforts, and eventually declared bankruptcy, Cup Choy said. After he lost his Kahului house due to the plague in 1900, he bought a saloon in Happy Valley.

In 1908, Sun Mei’s wife sold the Keokea ranch to the Tavares family, who sold it 20 years later to Haleakala Ranch, Cup Choy said. According to Haleakala Ranch, the Sun family estimates that Sun Mei contributed nearly $700,000 to his brother’s cause.

Sun Mei was never resentful of the sacrifices he made for Sun Yat-sen, Victor Sun said. As the older brother, he was charged with caring for his family, and he believed in what his brother fought for, though “the uprising failed 10 times before it finally succeeded.”

In October 1911, revolutionaries finally launched a successful uprising and elected Sun Yat-sen the provisional president of the new republic. When news reached Keokea, “the community broke into spontaneous celebration,” according to Haleakala Ranch history.

“(Sun Yat-sen) was very persistent, very patient,” Victor Sun said. “He was able to bring the West to merge with the East. That is the most critical thing.”

Some of Sun Yat-sen’s reforms are “actually being carried out by China nowadays,” Victor Sun said. Poet, author and public official Qiu Shuhong called him a “national hero” and “a great democratic forerunner.”

“He has changed the country of China from a poor and remote country to a prosperous one,” said Qiu, the chairman adviser of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Zhongshan Committee of the Zhongshan Public Diplomacy Association.

“Dr. Sun Yat-sen also has advocated the idea of opening up to the outside world,” Qiu added through a translator. “Since the reform and opening up in the past 30 years, China actually has made great achievements on the country’s development.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at