C. K. Tang (Tang Choon Keng)

Tang Choon Keng (b. 12 September 1901, Swatow, China- d. 3 September 2000, Singapore), a Teochew, established the landmark departmental store C.K. Tang in Singapore. He is known as C. K. Tang for short, a.k.a. Tang Un Tien and nicknamed the "Tin Trunk Man" or the "Curio King".

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

Almost a decade later, Tang's hard work gave him enough funds to begin a larger venture. He established a departmental store in 1932 with an initial sum of $3,000 with his first shop set up on the first floor of a building in River Valley Road. Subsequently, he built an impressive building at the corner of Jalan Mohamad Sultan and River Valley Road. He called this edifice Gainurn Building, a variation of his father's name, Tang Gan Urn's. Tang's first generation department store had a vast array of merchandise.

The vision of expanding his business was further realised when he bought a 1,351 sq m piece of land at the corner of Orchard and Scotts roads in 1958. Although the site faced the Tai San Ting Cemetery, he felt the it had commercial value as many British housewives in the Tanglin area passed it by on their way to the city. He constructed the landmark C.K. Tang Department Store at 310 Orchard Road at a cost of $50,000. The green-tiled roof and facade was modelled after the Imperial Palace in the Forbidden City in Beijing. This building was demolished in 1982 to make way for the new Tang complex. The shop 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 was again set to expand his business. This came to fruition in 1982 when the Tang complex, a 33-storey deluxe Dynasty hotel and the Tangs shopping complex were built at the same site.

Tang retired in 1987, giving the reins of corporate leadership to Tang Wee Sung, the second of his three sons. Tangs was the only major shopping centre in Singapore to not operate on Sundays, in deference to C. K. Tang's Christian faith, until 1996 when the decision was taken to open the store on Sundays.

Personal life
Tang's first wife, with whom he had eight children, passed away in 1981.  He subsequently remarried. 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. He instituted the policy of not opening the departmental store on Sunday so his family and Christian staff could go to church.

"Honesty is my foundation"

Lee Siew Yeen, 2001

Boo, K. (2000, September 4). Curio king C.K. Tang dies, aged 98. The Straits Times, p. 1.

C. K. Tang Limited Group. (2000).
Annual report (p. 1). Singapore: C.K Tang Limited Group.
(Call no: RSING 338.761658871095957 CKTLAR)

C. K. Tang Ltd. (n.d.). History. Retrieved May 30, 2003, from  www.tangs.com/AboutCKTang/AboutCKTang.asp?=SID1310

Obituary. (1981, May 8). The Straits Times, p. 33.

Salesman every shopper knew. (2000, September 4). The Straits Times, p. 42.

Teo, L. H. (1991, September 12). The tin trunk man. The Straits Times, Life!, pp. 1-3.

Tyers, R. (1993).
Ray Tyers' Singapore: Then & now (pp. 154, 167). Singapore: Landmark Books.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE)

Further Readings
Boo, K. (2000, September 8).
Farewell, CK Tang. The Straits Times, Home, p. 54.

Chew, M. (2000, September 4). Tangs store founder CK Tang dies, aged 100. The Business Times (Singapore), p. 3.

List of Images
Teo Lian Huay. (1991, September 12). The tin trunk man. The Straits Times, Life! p. 1.
A picture of C K Tang aged 90 and one where he is much younger.

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.

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

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