City & Politics, History

How Winnipeg helped overthrow the last Chinese Emperor

Many may be familiar with the 1987 film “The Last Emperor” directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, chronicling the life of Puyi, the Qing Dynasty’s final Emperor. Movie fans may have also seen Jackie Chan’s film “1911” profiling the Xinhai Revolution led by Sun Yat Sen, which led to the end of Puyi’s dynasty. But few would think that Winnipeg may have played a role in the most pivotal and dramatic period of Chinese history. And we can see remnants of this history still standing in our own Chinatown.

My in-laws recently came to visit us from China, and while we were exploring the Exchange District, we came across 212 Pacific Ave.
Both in-laws quickly drew their cameras and started taking pictures. I asked my wife what they were so excited about, and she said: “Oh, that’s the KMT (Kuomintang), they’re the ones who overthrew the last Dynasty, and fought against Mao (Zedong).” The “KMT building” is unassuming, despite the brightly coloured albeit faded paint job, the Taiwanese flag, and painted-on Chinese characters. Peeking in the window, one can see old black and white photos, likely including a photo of Sun Yat Sen, China’s first Republic President who overthrew the last Qing Dynasty Emperor.
The Kuomintang is still a major political party in Taiwan, following their exile after the Communist revolution in the late 40s. My wife and her family are from Nanjing, the KMT capital of the former Republic of China.So why are the KMT in Winnipeg?Brandon University professor Allison Marshal documented early Chinese immigration to Manitoba in her book “The way of the Bachelor: Early Chinese settlement in Manitoba“. In this book, she explains how as Chinese immigrants fled from late 19th century Imperial China to the West to work on railroads (and arguably seek freedom), naturally, their political movements followed and flourished. The KMT (which was young and anti-Imperialist) sought donations and philanthropy from North American and European trade and businesses in an effort to fund their rebellion.
Sun Yat Sen, one of the most celebrated figures in Chinese history – by both the KMT and Chinese Communists alike – traveled abroad for years, building the finances for his revolution.Here in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the early KMT helped organize community events and became the center of Chinese culture and community in the province, while at the same time acting as a political movement against the Emperor back in China. Donations from the community in Manitoba may very well have helped fund Sun Yat Sen’s revolution. In fact, Sun Yat Sen himself apparently came to Manitoba in 1911 to build support from Chinese expats who had previously fled the Qing Dynasty’s oppressive rule.In 1911 the revolution succeeded in overthrowing the Imperial Qing Dynasty, and established the first Republic of China. In the 1940s the KMT under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek temporarily joined forces with the new Chinese Communist Party against the Japanese, who had invaded and occupied China throughout both the first and second Sino-Japanese wars. Following victory against Japan, a civil war broke out between the pro-West KMT and Mao’s Communists. The Communist won against the KMT, exiling them to Taiwan.
While the KMT continues to this day as the government of Taiwan, the Manitoba KMT, once a major political player in the prairie’s Chinese community, has all but vanished. All that seems to be left of this tumultuous time is the small building at 212 Pacific, still veiled in turn-of-the century mystique and intrigue – nobody walking by would ever realize that it is such an important part of local and global history.
For more information, be sure to read:
Every Day Religion, Ambiguity and Homosocial Relationships in Manitoba, Canada from 1911 to 1949 by Allison Marshal published in “Ordinary Lives and Grand Schemes”
The way of the Bachelor: Early Chinese settlement in Manitoba by Allison Marshal, UBC Press, 2012.  
David Jacks is a local activist, and finds Winnipeg fascinating.
Follow him on Twitter @JacksActII