Dr. Sun Yat-sen, founding father of modern China, spent time in Denver in 1911

Dr, Sun Yat-sen stamps

Nov. 12, 2016 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan 孙中山), the founding father of the Republic of China, one of the most important leaders of modern China. To celebrate, China issued commemorative coins and held events across the country. President Xi Jinping paid tribute to Dr. Sun Yat-sen in a speech.

Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (孙中山先生)
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (孙中山先生)

Growing up in China, I, of course, have read a lot about Dr. Sun Yat-sen. I even attended the university he founded in 1924, which has a beautiful campus and stunning architecture. The university’s motto contains five elements: study broadly, enquire accurately, reflect carefully, analyze wisely, and pursue earnestly.

When my Canadian friend Jules Nadeau sent me his recent piece about Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s brief stay in Denver, I read it with great interest. To be honest, I didn’t know that Dr. Sun Yat-sen spent time in Denver in 1911 when the Xinhai Revolution, the revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty, took place.

Thank you, Jules, for writing this interesting article. Thank you, Nelson Ho, for translating it from English to Chinese, and thank you to Annick Nadeau for the photos.


Jules Nadeau

Room 321 at the Brown Palace

I (ALMOST) SLEPT IN THE SAME ROOM AS SUN YAT-SEN

“Do you know that Dr. Sun Yat-sen was here in Denver when the Revolution of 1911 broke out in China?” The first Chinese friends I questioned with this shred of history were taken aback. “Really?” Others Denverites replied they had vaguely heard about that. But nothing else!

Initially, my first surprise, I heard about Sun Yat-sen visiting Colorado from Diana Lary, a professor of Chinese history at the University of British Columbia. After reading a book of this old friend, I received this confirmation: “In 1911 Sun Yat-sen was not expecting revolution to break out in China. He was in Denver raising money from the local Chinese community.” But nothing else!

Soon afterward, at West Side bookstore, my favorite hangout on 32nd avenue (Highland), proprietor Lois Harvey kindly offered me the large character book  The Man who Changed China. I was excited to read the short sentence Pearl Buck wrote in 1953: “He planned to stay for a few days… in Denver”.

No more possible doubt in my mind: The revolutionary hero really transited through the Mile-High City, but what else? My first intention was to locate a local history buff for more details: Perhaps in early 20th century newspapers?

Persisting in my inquiry, I repeated the same question to Mrs. Sherry Chao, the teacher of one of my grand-daughters at Denver Language School. Listening to her instant reply, it was my turn to be taken aback. “Of course, I know. He was here in 1911 and  spent the night at the Brown Palace. You know that old place downtown?” (Was that the “cheap hotel room” Pearl Buck referred to?)

Brown Palace Hotel

Subsequently, the person in the know I found–not Asian at all–was Debra Faulkner, the “hotel historian” at the Brown Palace. The author of The Ladies of the Brown quickly acknowledged everything about the well-respected Father of the Chinese Republic. “When you come at the hotel, I will show you the original register with his signature on the October 10th page”, said the PR lady on the phone.

During my first stop at the Brown, I was given an introduction tour of the venerable edifice built in 1892. I went from one significant spot to another with a small group of new employees. “Let me show you the suite of President Theodor Roosevelt”, mentioned the petite Debra Faulkner in a black costume. Twelve American presidents stayed at this hotel and the triangular-shaped building is full of memorabilia. The Beatles, Joan Baez, Helen Keller, Sarah Bernhardt, John Wayne and Boris Yeltsin all left their indelible mark at the celebrated landmark of Henry C. Brown.

That winter day I came back home in Highland with more books. In The Brown Palace, Denver’s Grande Dame, Sun Yat-sen figured well among the long list of celebrities. Author Corinne Hunt specified: “A small, dark, bespectacled man stood on the stage of the old Chinese Theatre on Market Street and made an impassioned plea for funds to help free his countrymen”, wrote the earlier historian (during two long decades) of the hotel.

Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, Annick Nadeau
Brown Palace Hotel in Denver,Annick Nadeau

The bleak room 321

My next visit to the four star hotel was the strategic one. I was accompanied by Vincent, a Chinese friend who knows a lot about Double Tenth (i.e. October 10th). As promised, Debra Faulkner carried the pièce de résistance under her arm and guided us directly to room 321. I had the feeling of entering a sacred temple. Vincent courteously elbowed me in. Some natural light filled the place that had no bed. Absolutely nothing fancy compared to any of the presidential suites. In it’s present condition, only a desolate “meeting room” with plenty of discarded tables and chairs. Nothing to honour the one and only statesman who is venerated both in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and in the Republic of China (ROC) in Taiwan.

“You can see the souvenir frame on the wall”, indicated Debra Faulkner while showing the only item of explanation. A small cameo photo of Sun Yat-sen. Four characters (wei gong tian xia) meaning “Brotherhood of all Nations”. A hundred words about the presence of the “founding father of the Republic of China”. Plus the signature of two men. Then Debra Faulkner opened her old black ledger and exhibited the original handwriting. “Y S Sun: 321”, and on the following line, “W S Wong: 323” (i. e. Wong Wun Soo). Residence for both of them: “San Francisco”. The last two guests to check in on the red-letter day.

I did not find it useful to photograph the 321 because there was nothing there about history. The word overlooked came to my mind. The room was as anonymous as Sun Yat-sen himself wanted to remain on that day in Denver. As a “revolutionist leader”, he was afraid to be assassinated and chose to circulate incognito in the United States.

Overnighting in the 321?

We were happy about this successful peek, yet I wanted to do better about the locus historicus. So I worked out the idea of spending one night alone in the three-digit room. “How about this, I told Debra Faulkner on the phone, you set up a sofa or a simple mattress or I can even bring my own sleeping bag. I wanna stay there one night. Then I can write my narrative on the spot. I will not mention one single word about the special accommodation. My word of honor.” I repeated the same request on a third visit to the Brown. Mrs Faulkner smiled and qualified the whole idea as “unusual”. Nevertheless she promised to transmit my demand to the responsible comrade–as they say in the PRC.

Days of waiting started and I was getting increasingly impatient because I was soon going to leave the Rockies. Anyway, I remained optimistic. The historian-PR lady certainly processed my request. Besides, she went ahead and made a reservation for a party of five for the very popular Sunday afternoon tea in the lobby. “I hope that’s OK”, she added. Needless to say, in my mind, the tea ritual and the 321 night both had to be narrated from a concrete “I was there” journalistic perspective.

brown-palace-2-sun-zhongshan
Brown Palace Hotel in Denver, Annick Nadeau

Terse negative reply

Meanwhile, I was informed that both media requests had to be approved by the Director of Sales Mark Shine. “I will raise [it] with him and with our Rooms Director Ryan Pratt, being sure to mention your impressive media credentials. So stay tuned!” wrote Debra Faulkner (while admitting that the former guy tended to “ignore” her).

Finally, the terse answer went solely to her. “We will not be able to accommodate this request. Thanks”, wrote Mark Shine. Subsequently, Debra Faulkner added to my attention: “I am so sorry, but that appears to be the end of it… I emphasized repeatedly that you had no expectations of a typical overnight “luxury” experience in Room 321. I apologize sincerely for my ineffective advocacy.” No effort was made to offer any kind of alternative to my plan.

The journalist I am was disappointed. As a person very close to Chinese communities I still don’t understand how a director at the Brown can have so little consideration for a historical event that could bring a lot of attention to the hotel. I am sure Chinese visitors to the Mile High City would be ready to pay handsome amounts of money to book in at the 321. It’s not too late for a change of mind but…

Denver contributed $500 

The inexplicable indifference of the Brown made me read more about Sun Yat-sen and the first Double-Ten. Vincent helped me with some old newspaper clippings. In a round up, the Daily News (Denver) had a front-page photo of the future president showing his “black mustache, his closely clipped hair and a derby hat”. His stay was “brief though momentous”. The “liberator of his people” and Wong Wun Soo lectured in the old Chinese theater at 2021 Market Street (near Twentieth) where they were hailed by the Chee Kung Tong secret society (later the Chinese Freemasons).

“Compatriots, the time has now come for the people of China to rise against the imperial government. It is ordained that the emperor be driven from his throne and killed”, proclaimed the “Americanized Chinaman of the most advanced type”, according to the Rocky Mountain News. “Loyal followers closely guarded” [the rebel physician] who had a price of $100,00 on his head.” A reward promised to the Chinaman who would “decapitate him and send his head to Peking as proof of his death”, added the article.

Actually two teams of anti-Manchu detractors traveled across America to speak and raise funds. Sun Yat-sen and his companion took the northern route while another team traversed the south. The 44 years old man collected more than $500 in Denver–a small part of the handsome sum of more than $140,000 totally amassed (which is equivalent to $3,540,600 today) by the year’s end, according to San Francisco historian Him Mark Lai.

However the success of the Wuchang uprising was much more crucial than the garnered funds. The collapse of the imperial regime on October 10th led to the establishment of the Republic of China. After his arrival in Colorado, Sun Yat-sen learned of the big news from press reports. Professor Diana Lary e-mailed me: “A group of young officers, imbued with anti-Manchu ideology, accidentally caused a small explosion [in Wuchang], and everything unraveled from there. Sun Yat-sen was probably as surprised as anyone else, including the Manchus. When I used to teach this I stressed how accidental the process of revolutionary change could be.”

In his memoirs, Sun estimated that the “diplomatic front” was for him of utmost significance and instead of returning home, he hastened to leave alone for the East coast and sailed from New York to the European continent. After some time spent in London and Paris (where he met ex-President Georges Clemenceau), plus other meetings with financiers in Singapore and Hong Kong, he arrived in Shanghai in time for Christmas. On January 1st, 1912, the traveling insurgent was inaugurated as the Provisional President of the newly established Republic of China.


The long-time barefoot Sinophile Jules Nadeau is a freelance writer living in Montreal who spent 10 years in Greater China. He is the author of 20 Million Chinese Made in Taiwan and also 1997: In the Mouth of the Red Dragon. In 1979, Jules Nadeau was a full-time journalist at La Presse, a French language daily in the province of Québec. 

Author: Fan Wu

Fan Wu grew up on a state-run farm in southern China. After college, she received a scholarship from Stanford University to come to the United States. Her two novels are February Flowers, translated into eight languages, and Beautiful as Yesterday, praised by Amy Tan as “a story with intelligence, insight, and heart.” For more, please visit www.fanwuwrites.com