Tan Kah Kee



Tan Kah Kee (b. 21 October 1874, Jimei, Tong’an, Quanzhou, Fujian, China–d. 12 August 1961, Beijing, China)1 was a prominent Chinese businessman and philanthropist, nicknamed the “Henry Ford of Malaya”. He contributed extensively to the financing of schools and establishment of well-planned clusters of educational institutions, both in Singapore and China, but was better known as a Chinese nationalist who was keen in achieving China’s salvation through education and modernisation.2

Early life
Born in Jimei in Fujian province, Tan received a traditional education based on Confucian classics between the ages of eight and 16. He came to Singapore in 1890 to work for his father, Tan Kee Peck, who had a business, Chop Soon Ann (Shun’an) Rice Company.3


Career
Tan started work 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, Tan’s father branched out into pineapple plantation and cannery, and reached the peak of his economic success a few years later. However the business did not remain prosperous for long.4


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 losses made by 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 closed his father’s businesses to repay the debts and then started his own business in pineapple plantation and 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, shipping, a biscuit factory, and the manufacture of products such as tyres and shoes.5 He founded the Chinese newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau in 1923.6

By 1925, Tan’s business enterprises had created jobs for over 30,000 people in several countries.7 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 became his sons-in-laws), as well as Tan Lark Sye.8 In the 1920s, Tan was known as the “Henry Ford of Malaya”, as he had adopted Ford’s principle of being involved in all stages of the supply chain, except for things that could be outsourced more cheaply.9

Tan’s business empire reached its peak in 1925. 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 to turn his business around.10

Tan’s company wound up in February 1934, but he continued to be widely respected as a community leader.11

Timeline
1890:
Comes to Singapore to work for his father’s business, Chop Soon Ann (Shun’an) Rice Company.

1891–92, 1894–98: Takes over the management of Chop Soon Ann, including that of a sago factory and a pineapple factory.12
1903: Family embezzlement leads to the decline of his father’s business and the closure of Chop Soon Ann.
1904: Sets up a pineapple cannery, Sin Lee Chuan (Xinlichuan), on a limited budget of $7,000. Buys over Jit Sin for $17,000, when its senior partner passed away, and becomes its sole owner.
1905: Purchases 500 acres of jungle land in Singapore, initially for pineapple plantations and in the following year, for rubber planting. Hock Shan Plantation, as it is named, is a success and launches Tan into the rubber business.13
1906: Sets up Khiam Aik (Qianyi) Rice Mills from the profits of the pineapple cannery.
1917: Converts Khiam Aik into a rubber mill.
1919: Founds Tan Kah Kee & Co.
1920: With help from his brother, Tan Keng Hean, the company sets up Sumbawa Rubber Manufacturer, a manufacturing complex at Sumbawa Road producing various rubber goods.14
1923: Sets up Chinese newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau. Becomes the chairman of Ee Ho Hean Club, an exclusive club for Chinese businessmen.15
1925: Tan Kah Kee & Co is valued at an estimated $7.8 million.16
1929: Becomes the chairman of Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan. Among his many reforms, Tan establishes an education department to administer Tao Nan School, Ai Tong School and Chong Fook Girls’ School, and to subsidise eight other schools established by the Hokkien community.17
1929–31: The Great Depression affects Tan’s company and the bank requires it to be converted to a limited company.
1934: Tan Kah Kee Ltd winds up after conflicts between the board and Tan. Despite major business losses, Tan continues to finance the various schools he has thus far supported.
1937–41: Leads fund-raising efforts for the China Relief Fund in Southeast Asia and raises five billion yuan during the five-year period from the beginning of the war, in the form of remittances to families and donations.
1939: Mobilises overseas Chinese volunteer drivers and mechanics to transport military supplies to China via Burma.
1941: Becomes chairman of the Singapore Chinese Mobilisation Council to assist the government in the civil defence of Singapore.
1942: Escapes to Java, Indonesia, during World War II.18
1950: Retires to Jimei.19
1959: Establishes the Overseas Chinese Museum in Xiamen.
1960: Donates 5 million yuan to support his proposal to build an Overseas Chinese History Museum in Beijing.20

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’.21 In 1918, he led the movement to found the first Chinese secondary school in Singapore, Nanyang Chinese High School, located at Bukit Timah Road.22 He also donated large sums of money to two English-medium institutions, Anglo-Chinese School and Raffles College.23


In China, Tan developed key educational institutions such as Xiamen University (also known as Amoy University) in Fujian. He established the university in 1921 as a private university and maintained it for the next 16 years.24 A strong advocate of education, he believed education was the key to preparing the young for the demands of a modern society.25

Schools in Singapore
1907: Sets up Tao Nan School.26

1912: Sets up Ai Tong School.27
1915: Sets up Chong Hock Girls’ School.
1918: Sets up Nanyang Girls’ School (which becomes Nanyang Girls’ High School in 1930).
1919: Sets up Nanyang Chinese High School, the first Chinese institution of higher learning in Southeast Asia to be set up by the Chinese community.28 Pledges $100,000 to the proposed Anglo-Chinese College, but donates the $30,000 paid subscription to the physics and chemistry fund in the Anglo-Chinese School when plans for the former are aborted.29
1929: Donates $10,000 to Raffles College (which later becomes the University of Malaya in 1949, and University of Singapore in 1961; it is today the National University of Singapore).
1941: Sets up Nanyang Normal School.
1947: Converts Nanyang Normal School to Nan Chiao Girls’ High School.30

Schools in China
1894: Sets up Ti Chai Hsueh Shu, a traditional Chinese tuition school.31

1913: Sets up Jimei Primary School.
1918: Sets up Jimei Normal School and Secondary School.
1919: Sets up Jimei kindergarten.32 / Sets up Xiamen University, making him the first Chinese to have founded a major modern university.33
1920: Sets up Jimei Marine School and Commercial School.
1921: Sets up Amoy University.34

Tan was a founding member of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, established in 1906. His appointment as president of the clan association, Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan, further enhanced his position as a leader of the Hokkien community in Singapore. However, 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.35

Tan was a social activist during tumultuous times, aiding relief efforts such as the Fujian and Guangdong Flood Relief Fund,36 and was closely associated with the Tong Meng Hui or Chinese Revolutionary Alliance (predecessor of the Kuomintang) and the nationalist movement.37 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 fund-raising efforts for the China Relief Fund, which contributed 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.38

When the Japanese invaded Singapore, Tan helped to recruit the Chinese to assist the British.39 After the war, the British authorities became concerned about the politicisation of the Chinese in Malaya and Singapore in general, and the organised Left groups in particular. In 1949, Tan went on a ten-month tour of China and was appointed a member of the People’s Political Consultative Conference, which met every six months to advise the Government of China. The British had considered cancelling his British citizenship so that he would not be able to re-enter Singapore. However, the cancellation could not be justified and no action was taken. Tan returned to Singapore on 15 February 1950. His tour of China not only brought him government positions but he was also pleased by the new leadership and the direction in which China was progressing. He returned to China on 21 May 1950, and renounced his British citizenship in 1957. He lived the rest of his life in Fujian.40

In recognition of his contributions, Tan was given a state funeral by the Chinese government upon his death on 12 August 1961.41

Family42
Father:
Tan Kee Peck (d. 1909).

Brother: Tan Keng Hean (1889–1936).
First wife: Teo Po Ke (1876–1916) from Chi Mei – four sons (Chay Bing, Khuat Siong, Pok Ai and Pok Chay) and three daughters (Ai Lay, Lai Ho and Ai Eng).
Second wife: Goh Shiok Neo (1875–1974) from Amoy – three sons (Guan Khai, Guan Chay and Guan Aik) and three daughters (Ah Hui, Ah Moi and Pho Tee).
Third wife: Yap Kheok Neo (1887–1970) from Amoy – one son (Koh Kheng) and three daughters (Lai On who died at the age of 13, Mary Tan and Lai Choo).
Fourth wife: Madam Chou from Singapore (died prior to the Japanese occupation in 1942) – one son (Kok Whye).



Authors

Bonny Tan & Jane Wee




References
1. Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 1. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)
2. Chen, J. (1994). The memoirs of Tan Kah-Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. vii–xi. (Call no.: RSING 338.04092 TAN)
3. Chen, J. (1994). The memoirs of Tan Kah-Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 289. (Call no.: RSING 338.04092 TAN)
4. Chen, J. (1994). The memoirs of Tan Kah-Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. 289–290, 292–293. (Call no.: RSING 338.04092 TAN)
5. Chen, J. (1994). The memoirs of Tan Kah-Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. 294–311, 315, 320, 324. (Call no.: RSING 338.04092 TAN)
6. Leong, W. K. (2011, August 28). We should remember Tan Kah Kee. The Straits Times, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. Leong, W. K. (2011, August 28). We should remember Tan Kah Kee. The Straits Times, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
8. Chen, J. (1994). The memoirs of Tan Kah-Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. vii. (Call no.: RSING 338.04092 TAN); 8 years in school but a champion of education. (1997, September 11). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. Yang, J. F. (1987). Chen jia geng xian sheng zhuan lue [A short biography of Tan Kah Kee]. Xin jia po: Chen jia kang ji jin li shi hui, p. 12. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 959.57020924 YCF-[HIS]); Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 60–61. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)
10. Chen, J. (1994). The memoirs of Tan Kah-Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. 325, 328–334. (Call no.: RSING 338.04092 TAN)
11. Chen, J. (1994). The memoirs of Tan Kah-Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 334. (Call no.: RSING 338.04092 TAN)
12. Chen, J. (1994). The memoirs of Tan Kah-Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. 289–290. (Call no.: RSING 338.04092 TAN)
13. Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 41–42, 44. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)
14. Chen. J. (1994). The memoirs of Tan Kah-Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. 300, 316, 320, 330. (Call no.: RSING 338.04092 TAN)
15. Leong, W. K. (2011, August 28). We should remember Tan Kah Kee. The Straits Times, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG; Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 165. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)
16. Chen, J. (1994). The memoirs of Tan Kah-Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 325. (Call no.: RSING 338.04092 TAN)
17. Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 86–90, 172. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)
18. Chen, J. (1994). The memoirs of Tan Kah-Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. 61, 118, 127, 153, 159, 330, 334. (Call no.: RSING 338.04092 TAN)
19. 8 years in school but a champion of education. (1997, September 11). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 350. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)
21. Tan, B. H. (1987, December 22). Tan Kah Kee: A Chinese patriot. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Lee, G. B. (1986, November 2). A rich legacy shared. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
23. Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 89. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)
24. Tan, B. H. (1987, December 22). Tan Kah Kee: A Chinese patriot. The Straits Times, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
25. Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 182. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)
26. Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 86. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)
27. Yang, J. F. (1987). Chen jia geng xian sheng zhuan lue [A short biography of Tan Kah Kee]. Xin jia po: Chen jia kang ji jin li shi hui, p. 14. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 959.57020924 YCF-[HIS])
28. Lee, G. B. (1986, November 2). A rich legacy shared. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
29. Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 89. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)
30. Lee, G. B. (1986, November 2). A rich legacy shared. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
31. Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 86. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)
32. Yang, J. F. (1987). Chen jia geng xian sheng zhuan lue [A short biography of Tan Kah Kee]. Xin jia po: Chen jia kang ji jin li shi hui, p. 14. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 959.57020924 YCF-[HIS])
33. 8 years in school but a champion of education. (1997, September 11). The Straits Times, p. 2. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
34. Yang, J. F. (1987). Chen jia geng xian sheng zhuan lue [A short biography of Tan Kah Kee]. Xin jia po: Chen jia kang ji jin li shi hui, p. 15. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 959.57020924 YCF-[HIS])
35. Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 144, 147, 166, 172. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON); Yang, J. F. (1987). Chen jia geng xian sheng zhuan lue [A short biography of Tan Kah Kee]. Xin jia po: Chen jia kang ji jin li shi hui, p. 16. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 959.57020924 YCF-[HIS])
36. Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 107. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)
37. Leong, W. K. (2011, August 28). We should remember Tan Kah Kee. The Straits Times, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38. Chen, J. (1994). The memoirs of Tan Kah-Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press, pp. 61, 71, 127. (Call no.: RSING 338.04092 TAN)
39. Chen, J. (1994). The memoirs of Tan Kah-Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press, p. 154. (Call no.: RSING 338.04092 TAN)
40. Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 332, 341–345. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)
41. Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, p. 1. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)
42. Yong, C. F. (1987). Tan Kah-Kee: The making of an overseas Chinese legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press, pp. 21, 24, 35–36. (Call no.: RSING 338.040924 YON)



Further resources
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)

Mulliner, K., & The-Mulliner, L. (1991). Historical dictionary of Singapore. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, pp. 146–147.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57003 MUL-[HIS])

Pan, L. (Ed.). (1988). The encyclopedia of the Chinese overseas. Singapore: Archipelago Press, p. 207.

(Call no.: RSING 304.80951 ENC)

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

Pioneers [Viderecording]. Singapore: SBC, 1993.

(Call no.: RSING 959.57 PIO-[HIS])

Tan, B. H. (1982, November 8). Pioneer’s search for roots. The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Tan, B. H. (1988, July 11). Tan Kah Kee: More to the man than public figure. The Straits Times, p. 3. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Who’s who in Malaya, 1925 [Microfilm no.: NL 6705]. (1925). Singapore: Fishers Ltd in conjunction with Mass Printers Ltd., p. 175.

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.: Chinese RSING 959.57020924 TKK-[HIS]) 



The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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
Pioneers
Chen, Jiageng, 1874-1961
Pioneers--Singapore--Biography
People and communities>>Social groups and communities
Singapore--History
Philanthropists--Singapore--Biography
Personalities>>Biographies>>Pioneers