Tan Hiok Nee (Tan Yeok Nee)

Tan Hiok Nee (b.1827d.1902, Chaozhou, China), alias Tan Yeok Nee, was a powerful and influential Teochew businessman in 19th-century Singapore and Johor. His name in Chinese is Chen Yu Yi, although he was more popularly known as Chen Xu Nian. Tan, who amassed great wealth through opium and spirit farming, played an important role in the development of the region, particularly Johor. 

Early life
Tan was born in Jin Sha village in Shang Pu (present day Caitang) of Chaozhou, China. He lost his father when he was young. As a youth, Tan was such a compulsive gambler that he gambled away the money he had borrowed for his mother's funeral. At the age of 17, Tan left his hometown to seek opportunities in Nanyang (Southeast Asia). He reached Pahang and worked in the mines of Pahang to pay for his travel expenses. After paying off his debts, he moved to Singapore and became a textile peddler. Tan operated daily at the Telok Blangah area and was popular among the residents due to his honesty. Among his regular customers was Temenggong Ibrahim, whose son, Abubakar, became his good friend.

At the time, Johor was largely undeveloped and the Temenggong was eager to attract enterprising Chinese to develop the territory. The Temenggong started the kang-chu system: Chosen Chinese were appointed as kang-chu (or port owners) and enjoyed jurisdiction and rights over certain rivers and their banks. As a result, the kang-chu have access to large tracts of land, which they used for revenue farming. 

With the help of the Temenggong, Tan moved to Johor in 1853. Tan, in partnership with Tan Ban Tye, obtained the kang-chu rights of Bukit Beranganon, a tributary of the Johor River. There, he began cultivation of pepper and gambier. Tan also traded in other types of merchandise and started a market on an island, midpoint of Sungai Segget. In 1862, Temenggong Ibrahim passed away and Abubakar succeeded his father as the Temenggong. From the middle of 1863, Temenggong Abubakar accelerated the pace of Johor's development. In September that year, Tan obtained four additional kang-chu rights within a one-week period. By then, he had become the most prominent businessman in Johor with seven kang-chu rights. This meant controls over the entire left bank of the Johor River, spanning from the south of Kota Tinggi to Pulau Ubin.

On 11 September 1863, Tan was given the sole control of the revenue rights to the town of Iskandar Putri in Johor Bahru. Within the next two years, Tan was involved in the trading of pepper, gambier and opium. Tan was also involved in the Singapore and Johor opium and spirit farms, partnering with Tan Seng Poh and Cheang Hong Lim. Tan Seng Poh was a Teochew tycoon, while Cheang was a Hokkien businessman whose family had held the monopoly to the opium and spirit farms for some time. In 1866, he set up the Kwang Hong Company in Singapore and became an established trader at Boat Quay. Tan Yeok Nee soon amassed a great fortune, which he prudently invested in the lucrative real estate. In 1868, Abubakar gained the title of Maharaja, and two years later he appointed Tan as Major China of Johor, the highest-ranking Chinese official in his government. In 1874, Tan was appointed as one of the two Chinese members in the State Council.

In 1875, Tan fled from Johor to Singapore and gave up all his connections to Johor. It was speculated that his political rivals had removed him during the Maharaja's absence due to their resentment of his prominence and power. After his flight, Tan's assets and kang-chu rights were repossessed by the Johor government. His family-home mansion at Tank Road, Singapore, which was built in 1885, was acquired for the purpose of the Singapore-Johor Railway. Subsequently, Tan returned to his hometown in China and passed away on 21 May 1902 at the age of 75. In 1912, his mansion became the St Mary's Home and Schools for Eurasian Girls. Later in 1938, it was turned into the Salvation Army's headquarters. On 29 November 1974, the house was gazetted as a national monument. It received a new lease of life as the Asian campus of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business on September 2000. Jalan Tan Hock Nee, a street in Johor Bahru, was also named after him. 

Tan had five sons. His second son Chen Ding Xing was a government official in China's Jiang Xi province. All his sons passed away before him. His eight grandsons, including Tan Chin Boon, Tan Chin Teat, Tan Chin Yeow and Tan Chin Hean, were well-known within the Teochew community and inherited his properties. One of his grandsons, Tan Chin Hean, was a prominent elite of society at the time and served as vice-chairman of the Ngee Ann Kongsi, president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and headed the Teochew Huay Kuan.

Joshua Chia Yeong Jia


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The information in this article is valid as at 15 October 2015 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Tan, Hiok Nee, 1827-1902
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