- A Re-Investigation of the Mystery of Sun Yatsen’s Hawaiian Birth Certificate
On March 14, 1904, in central Honolulu, Mr. A. L. C. Atkinson, the Secretary of the Territory of Hawai‘i—the highest civil servant after the Governor of Hawai‘i—willingly put his signature and assent upon a Certificate of Hawaiian Birth for an individual called “Sun Yat Sen,” who described himself as a resident of Kula, Maui, Hawaiian Islands. This certificate stated that, from “the evidence submitted by witnesses” and “from his affidavit,” Sun was born in the Hawaiian Islands on March 24, 1870. The certificate has long been considered to be a problematic document, not least because posterity knows full well that the famous Dr. Sun Yatsen, the “Father of Modern China” and First President of the Chinese Republic, was not born in Hawai‘i, and that he was not born in the year 1870. Sun Yatsen’s real birth-date was of course on November 12, 1866, and his real birthplace was his ancestral village of Cuiheng, some fifty miles south of Guangzhou (the city of Canton) in the southern province of Guangdong, China.1 These basic facts were confirmed long ago with confidence among all of Sun Yatsen’s reputable biographers and historians, Chinese and Western alike.
Why then did one of Hawai‘i’s top civil servants put his name to this document? Had he been misled by “the evidence submitted by [End Page 57] the witnesses” and/or by the evidence of Sun’s own affidavit? Posterity does seem to think that he had, and most likely by both sides. Yet posterity may turn out to be mistaken in this conclusion, for I believe that the Hawaiian Secretary was not misled by any false evidence submitted by the relevant witnesses, or even by Sun himself. Moreover, I believe that Sun Yatsen’s Hawai‘i birth certificate, and the Hawai‘i/USA territorial passport that went with it, are documents whose origins have hitherto been widely misunderstood and misinterpreted. I will try to show here that understood correctly they were not frauds committed by Sun Yatsen against Hawai‘i. Rather, they constitute Hawai‘i’s bounty, bestowed willingly upon Sun Yatsen. Indeed, I believe they were bureaucratic gifts granted freely and knowingly to Sun in gratitude by a tight circle of born-and-bred Honolulu men who worked right at the top of Hawai‘i’s government and political establishment. What these documents, and the legal and travel rights they embodied represented, was the most valuable and practical “thank-you present” this circle was able to offer the 37-year-old Sun Yatsen, whose ideas, character, and revolutionary activities they admired, and whose career and prospects they had followed for a decade. Given that in 1904, Sun was by some distance the Hawaiian Islands’ internationally-most-famous occasional resident, these documents were created and given in recognition for political services this remarkable ‘Honolulu Boy’ had already performed, for the twin causes of advanced republican government and progressive republican ideology.2 These cherished causes were shared by the ruling political elite of the annexed Territory of Hawai‘i. This elite saw in Sun Yatsen’s progressive republican modernism a beacon and rallying point for Hawai‘i’s own Native Hawaiian people to reconcile themselves towards the enforced transformation of their country from its status as a sovereign native kingdom, to union with the world’s most advanced republic, the United States of America. The birth certificate and passport were also, I believe, an equally sincere recognition of the political services to republicanism of the leading Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) lawyer, Sun Yatsen’s friend, John Lota Kaulukou. It was Kaulukou and his measured vocal support in the key years 1894–8 for the Republic, and for its future annexation to the USA, who had been one of this circle’s key local political allies in this fraught and twisting journey.3
Fine as these resonant sentiments may all sound in principle, is [End Page 58] there really any good evidence to support such a fundamental re-evaluation of a much-scrutinized topic? For on the face of it...