C. K. Tang (Tang Choon Keng)



Tang Choon Keng (b. 12 September 1901, Swatow, China–d. 3 September 2000, Singapore) was a Teochew who established the landmark department store C. K. Tang in Singapore. Popularly known as C. K. Tang, he was also known as Tang Un Tien and nicknamed the “Tin Trunk Man” and “Curio King”.1

Early life
Born in Swatow, China, at the turn of the 20th century to a Presbyterian pastor, Tang first arrived in Singapore in 1923. He made a living peddling hand-made Swatow lace and embroidery door-to-door.2 He carried his goods in a tin trunk, which remained in his possession throughout his life as a reminder of his humble beginnings.3


Accomplishments
After almost a decade of hard work, Tang had enough funds to start a larger venture. He established a department store in 1932 with an initial sum of $3,000, with its first shop located on the first floor of a building in River Valley Road.4 Subsequently, he built an impressive building at the corner of Jalan Mohamad Sultan and River Valley Road. He called this edifice Gainurn Building, which was a variation of his father’s name, Tang Gan Urn.5 Tang’s first-generation department store had a vast array of merchandise.6

The vision of expanding his business was further realised when Tang bought a 1,351-square-metre piece of land at the corner of Orchard Road and Scotts Road in 1958. Although the site faced the Tai San Ting Cemetery, he felt that it had commercial value as many British housewives in the Tanglin area passed it on their way to the city.At this site, he constructed the landmark C. K. Tang Department Store at a cost of $200,000.8 The building, which had a distinctive green-tiled roof, gently sloping and upturned at the corners, was modelled after the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City in Beijing, China.9

The department store was voluntarily closed in 1960 by Tang due to problems with the trade unions, but was re-opened the following year. In the late 1970s, Tang set about expanding his business again. This came to fruition in 1982 when the C. K. Tang building was demolished to make way for the new Tang complex, which comprised a 33-storey deluxe Dynasty hotel and the Tangs shopping complex.10

Tang retired in 1987, handing the reins of corporate leadership over to Tang Wee Sung, the second of his three sons.11 Tangs was the only major shopping centre in Singapore not to operate on Sundays, so that Tang’s family and his Christian staff could attend church. This practice continued until 1996 when the decision to open the store on Sundays was made.12

Personal life
Tang’s first wife, with whom he had eight children, passed away in 1981.13 He subsequently remarried.14 Once kidnapped by four armed thugs in 1960, Tang was freed unharmed within 84 hours after the family reportedly paid $150,000 in ransom. Tang was a staunch Christian who spoke of honesty and hard work as his guiding principles.15



Author

Lee Siew Yeen



References
1. Boo, K. (2000, September 4). Curio king C. K. Tang dies, aged 98The Straits Times, p. 1; Boland, G. (1958, October 12). The house of curios that Mr. Tang builtThe Straits Times, p. 9; Lee, P. Salesman every shopper knew. (2000, September 4). The Straits Times, p. 42; Obituary. (2000, September 13). The Straits Times, p. 71. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
2. Boo, K. (2000, September 4). Curio king C. K. Tang dies, aged 98The Straits Times, p. 1; Chew, M. (2000, September 4). Tangs store founder C K Tang dies, aged 100. The Business Times, p. 3; Lee, P. Salesman every shopper knew. (2000, September 4). The Straits Times, p. 42. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
3. The tin trunk man. (1991, September 12). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Boo, K. (2000, September 4). Curio king C. K. Tang dies, aged 98The Straits Times, p. 1; Lee, P. Salesman every shopper knew. (2000, September 4). The Straits Times, p. 42. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
5. Lee, P. (2000, September 4). Salesman every shopper knew. The Straits Times, p. 42; Boland, G. (1958, October 12). The house of curios that Mr. Tang builtThe Straits Times, p. 9; Chew, M. (2000, September 4). Tangs store founder C K Tang dies, aged 100The Business Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
6. Lee, P. (2000, September 4). Salesman every shopper knew. The Straits Times, p. 42. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Lee, P. (2000, September 4). Salesman every shopper knew. The Straits Times, p. 42; Teo, L. H. (1991, September 12). C. K. Tang on: The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Boland, G. (1958, October 20). Enterprise with name famous the world over. The Singapore Free Press, p. 1; Eastern arts and crafts store opens today. (1958, October 20). Singapore Standard, p. 7; Chew, M. (2000, September 4). Tangs store founder C K Tang dies, aged 100The Business Times, p. 3; Tan, L. (1982, May 22). The Tang Dynasty. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. The tin trunk man. (1991, September 12). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Tyers, R. (1993). Ray Tyers’ Singapore: Then & now. Singapore: Landmark Books, p. 167. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS])
10. Lee, P. (2000, September 4). Salesman every shopper knew. The Straits Times, p. 42; Boo, K. (2000, September 4). Curio king C. K. Tang dies, aged 98The Straits Times, p. 1; Pow Chong, G. (1982, March 28). Palace of Chinese art and craft. The Straits Times, p. 13. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Boo, K. (2000, September 4). Curio king C. K. Tang dies, aged 98The Straits Times, p. 1; Boo, K. (2000, September 8). Farewell, C K TangThe Straits Times, p. 54. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Lee, P. (2000, September 4). Salesman every shopper knew. The Straits Times, p. 42; Boo, K. (2000, September 4). Curio king C. K. Tang dies, aged 98The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
13. Obituary. (1981, May 8). The Straits Times, p. 33. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Boo, K. (2000, September 8). Farewell, C K TangThe Straits Times, p. 54; Boo, K. (2000, September 4). Curio king C. K. Tang dies, aged 98The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15. Lee, P. (2000, September 4). Salesman every shopper knew. The Straits Times, p. 42. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; C. K. Tang Limited Group. (2000). Annual report. Singapore: Author, p. 1. (Call no: RCLOS 338.761658871095957 CKTLAR-[AR])



The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we can 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.

 

Subject
Community leaders
Tang, Choon Keng, 1901-2000
Personalities>>Biographies>>Community Leaders
Business, finance and industry>>Industry>>Services>>Retail and wholesale
Businessmen--Singapore--Biography