Tan Kah Kee

Tan Kah Kee (b. 21 October 1874, Jimei, Tong'an, Quanzhou, Fujian, China - d. 12 August 1961, Beijing, China) was a prominent Chinese businessman and philanthropist, nicknamed "Henry Ford of Malaya". He contributed extensively to financing schools and setting up well-planned clusters of educational institutions both in Singapore and in China but was better known as a Chinese nationalist who was keen in achieving the nation’s salvation through education and modernisation.

Early life
Tan's birthplace, Jimei in Fujian province, was a few miles from Xiamen. Both counties were to receive substantial donations from Tan for educational causes later. Tan was schooled between the ages of 8 and 16 in Jimei, receiving a traditional education based on Confucian classics. He came to Singapore in 1890 to work at his father’s rice mill (Chop Soon Ann) and sundry shop.

Tan started as an apprentice, dealing with accounts and performing secretarial duties. With his diligence and acute business sense, he did well and was soon promoted to the position of manager. Chop Soon Ann imported rice from Vietnam, Thailand and Burma and distributed the commodity in Singapore and the Malay States. In 1892, his father Tan Kee Peck branched out into pineapple plantation and pineapple cannery, and reached the peak of his economic success a few years later. However the business did not remain prosperous for long.

In 1903, when Tan returned to Singapore from his two-year stay in Jimei after handling his mother’s funeral, he was dismayed to find the closure of Chop Soon Ann and other firms. His father was also heavily in debt due to misappropriation of funds and business mismanagement by his father’s third wife and her son. The young Tan then started his own business in pineapple plantation and pineapple cannery, armed with the experience gained during his apprenticeship. Subsequently, he not only settled his father’s debts, but also expanded his business empire to include rice mills, rubber plantations, rubber mills, shipping, brickworks, a biscuit factory, and manufacturing of products such as tyres, shoes, hats, briefcases, toys and hair cream. He also ventured into retailing, and was the founder of the Chinese newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau in 1923.

Tan’s business enterprises created jobs for over 30,000 people and had 150 offices in five continents. He trained his employees, many of whom later became prominent businessmen and community leaders; the better known ones included Lee Kong Chian and Oon Khye Hong (who later become his sons-in-laws) as well as Tan Lark Sye. In the 1920s, he was known as the "Henry Ford of Malaya", as he adopted Henry Ford’s principle of being involved in all stages of the supply chain, except for things that could be outsourced more cheaply.

Tan’s business empire reached its peak in 1925. However his business expansion, especially in rubber goods manufacturing and retailing, later weighed him down due to strong competition from cheap Japanese imports. Tan resorted to loans from banks, and by 1927 his company was running a big deficit. The Great Depression that started in 1929 made it even harder for Tan to turn his business around.

Tan’s company wound up in February 1934, but he continued to be widely respected as a community leader.

: Came to Singapore to work for his father's business, Chop Soon Ann (Shun'an) Rice Company.
1891 - 1892 & 1894 - 1898 : Took over the management of Chop Soon Ann, including that of a sago factory and a pineapple factory.
1903 : Family embezzlement led to the decline of his father's business and the closure of Chop Soon Ann.
1904 : Set up a pineapple cannery, Sin Lee Chuan (Xinlichuan), on a limited budget of $7,000 and bought over Jit Sin after his partner dies.
1905 : Purchased 500 acres of jungle land in Singapore, initially for pineapple plantations but in the next year used for rubber planting. Hock Shan Plantation, as it was named, was a success and launched Tan into the rubber business.
1906 : Set up Khiam Aik (Qianyi) Rice Mills from the profits of the pineapple cannery.
1917 : Converted Khiam Aik into a rubber mill.
1919 : Founded Tan Kah Kee & Co.
1920 : With help from his brother, Tan Keng Hean, the company set up Sumbawa Rubber Manufacturer, a manufacturing complex at Sumbawa Road, producing various rubber goods from toys to tyres.
1923 : Set up the Chinese newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau. Became chairman of the Ee Ho Hean Club, an exclusive club for Chinese businessmen.
1925 : Tan Kah Kee & Co was valued at an estimated $7.8 million and noted as a pioneer in industrial development in Southeast Asia.
1929 : Became chairman of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan. Among his many reforms, Tan established an education department to administer Tao Nan School, Ai Tong School and Chong Hock Girls’ School, and to subsidise eight other schools established by the Hokkien community.
1929 - 1931 : The Great Depression affected Tan's company and the bank required it to be converted to a limited company.
1934 : Tan Kah Kee Ltd wound up after conflicts between the board and Tan. Despite major business losses, Tan continued to finance the various schools he had thus far supported.
1937 - 1941 : Led fundraising efforts for the China Relief Fund in Southeast Asia and raised 5,530 million yuan to help war victims in China.
1939 : Mobilised overseas Chinese volunteer drivers and mechanics to transport military supplies to China via Burma.
1941 : Became chairman of the Singapore Chinese Mobilisation Council to assist the government in the civil defence of Singapore.
1942 : Escaped to Java, Indonesia, during World War II.
1950 : Retired to Jimei.
1959 : Established the Overseas Chinese Museum in Xiamen.
1960 : Donated 5,000,000 yuan to support his proposal to build an Overseas Chinese History Museum in Beijing.

Social contributions
Tan contributed to various educational endeavours. In Singapore he helped to set up schools like Tao Nan, Ai Tong, Nan Chiau Girls' and Chong Hock Girls'. In 1918, he founded the first Chinese secondary school in Singapore, Nanyang Chinese High School. Originally located at Niven Road, it moved to bigger premises on Bukit Timah Road six years later. He also donated large sums of money to two English-medium institutions, the Anglo-Chinese School and Raffles College. In addition, he developed key educational institutions in China, establishing Xiamen University (also known as Amoy University) in Fujian in 1921 as a private university and maintaining it for the next 16 years. Tan was a strong advocate for education as he believed that education was the key to preparing the young for the demands of a modern society.

Tan was a founding member of the Singapore Chinese Chamber Commerce established in 1906. His appointment as president of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, the clan association, further enhanced his position as a leader of the Hokkien community in Singapore, but he encouraged all dialect groups to unite and join forces when it came to rendering support for China, and executing community reforms such as eradicating opium addiction, improving housing and personal hygiene and shortening the duration of funeral wakes.

Tan was a social activist during tumultuous times, aiding relief efforts such as the Fujian and Guangdong Flood Relief Fund, and was closely associated with the Kuomintang and the nationalist movement between 1906 and 1912. By the time the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937, the Hokkien and other Chinese dialect groups were behind Tan in his leadership of fundraising efforts for the China Relief Fund, which was used to contribute to China’s war efforts against the Japanese invasion. In October 1938, Tan was unanimously elected as chairman of the Federation of Southseas China Relief Fund Union that represented the China Relief Funds set up across Southeast Asia. Besides raising funds, Tan also recruited volunteer drivers and mechanics to help China in the transportation of military supplies via Burma during China’s war against the Japanese.

When the Japanese invaded Singapore, Tan helped to recruit Chinese to assist the British. However, his support for the Chinese Communist Party after World War II led the British to deny him re-entry into Singapore in 1950. He lived the rest of his life in Fujian.

In recognition of his contributions, he was given a state funeral by the Chinese government upon his death on 12 August 1961.

Schools in Singapore
1907 : Set up Tao Nan School.
1912 : Set up Ai Tong School.
1915 : Set up Chong Hock Girls' School.
1918 : Set up Nanyang Girls’ School (which became Nanyang Girls’ High School in 1930).
1919 : Set up Nanyang Chinese High School, the first Chinese institution of higher learning in Southeast Asia to be set up by the Chinese community.
1919 : Pledged $100,000 to the proposed Anglo-Chinese College but donated the $30,000 paid subscription to the physics and chemistry fund in the Anglo-Chinese School when plans for the former was aborted.
1929 : Donated $10,000 to Raffles College (which later became the University of Malaya).
1941 : Set up Nanyang Normal School.
1947 : Set up Nan Chiao Girls' High School.

Schools in China
1894 : Set up Ti Chai Hsueh Shu, a traditional Chinese tuition school.
1913 : Set up Jimei Primary School.
1918 : Set up Jimei Normal School and Secondary School.
1919 : Set up Jimei kindergarten.
1919 : Set up Xiamen University, making Tan the first Chinese to have founded a major modern university.
1920 : Set up Jimei Marine School and Commercial School.
1921 : Set up Amoy University.

Father: Tan Kee Peck (d.1909).
Wife: Teo Po Ke (d. 1917).

Bonny Tan and Jane Wee

A rich legacy shared. (1986, November 2). The Sunday Times, pp. 1- 2.

Biographies of prominent Chinese in Singapore (p. 1). [1950]. Singapore: Nan Kok Pub.
(Call no.: RRARE 920.05951 SIM)

Chen. J. (1994) The memoirs of Tan Kah-Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 338.04092 TAN)

8 years in school but a champion of education (1997, September 11), The Straits Times, Life: Life!, p. 2.

Pioneers of Singapore: A catalogue of oral history interviews
(pp. 22-112). (1984). Singapore: Archives & Oral History Dept.
(Call no.: RSING 016.9595700992 SIN)

Yang, J. F. (1987). Chen jia geng xian sheng zhuan lèue (pp. 11-23) [A short biography of Tan Kah Kee]. Xin jia po: Chen jia kang ji jin li shi hui.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57020924 YCF)

Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
(Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)

Tan Kah Kee: A chinese patriot. (1987, December 22). The Straits Times, p. 8.

Further readings
Hew, K. Y. (1995). Tan Kah-Kee: Pictorial stories of a legendary overseas Chinese in English and Chinese. Singapore: Canfonian.
(Call no.: RSING 338.04092 HEW)

Life of Tan Kah Kee. Pioneers [Videotape]. Singapore: SBC, 1993
(Call no.: RAV 959.57 PIO)

Mulliner, K. (1991). Historical dictionary of Singapore (pp. 146-7). Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press .
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.57003 MUL)

Pioneer's search for roots. (1982, November 8). The Straits Times, Section 3, p. 1.

Play tells life story of Tan Kah Kee. (1991, July 11). The Straits Times, p. 18.

Tan Kah Kee: More to the man than public figure. ( 1988, July 11). The Straits Times, Section 2, p. 3.

The encyclopedia of the Chinese overseas (p. 207). (1998). Singapore: Archipelago Press.
(Call no.: RSING 304.80951 ENC) 

Who's who in Malaya, 1925 (p. 175). (1925). Singapore: [Fishers Ltd & Mass Printers].
(Call no.: RCLOS 920.9595 WHO)

Yang, J. F. (1982). Zhan qian de chen jia geng yan lun shi liao yu fen xi [Tan Kah Kee in pre-war Singapore: Selected documents and analysis]. Xin jia po: Nan yang xue hui.
(Call no.: RCLOS 959.57020924 TKK.Y )

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.

Chen, Jiageng, 1874-1961
People and communities>>Social groups and communities

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