Tan Beng Swee
by Yong Chun Yuan
Tan Beng Swee (b. 1828, Singapore–d. 4 November 1884, Singapore) was a wealthy Straits Chinese merchant and philanthropist. As the second-generation patriarch of the prominent Tan family, he served as a leader of the Chinese communities in both Malacca and Singapore.
Family background and career
Tan was born in Singapore in 1828 to a prominent Malay-speaking Straits Chinese family. His father Tan Kim Seng was a wealthy trader who founded Kim Seng & Co. in 1840. The elder Tan had donated generously to improve public waterworks in Singapore and his contributions were memorialised in the Tan Kim Seng Fountain built in 1882.
Tan began working in his father’s firm from an early age and was appointed partner in 1852 at the age of 23. He took over the management of the company when his father passed away in 1864 and continued expanding the family business, eventually establishing a branch in Shanghai.
Under his stewardship, the firm enjoyed close business relations with leading European business agencies like Boustead and Co. In addition to his trading interests, Tan also served as a director on the board of the Tanjong Pagar Dock Company.
Leader in the Chinese community
Following his father’s death, Tan took over responsibility for the welfare of the Chinese community in Malacca, which was then part of the British Straits Settlements. He succeeded his father as president of the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Malacca and as leader arbitrated disputes within the community. He also donated a piece of land in 1875 for use as a Chinese cemetery. This was done to help alleviate the shortage of space at the Bukit China burial ground used by the Malaccan Chinese community.
As a public service, Tan presented a large clock to the people of Malacca to allow for more accurate timekeeping. This clock was eventually housed in the Tan Beng Swee Clock Tower, which was erected by his son Tan Jiak Kim in Malacca’s Dutch Square in 1886.
Tan was also a leader of the Hokkien community in Singapore and sat on the management committee of the Thian Hock Keng temple on Telok Ayer Street. He was also president of the Singapore branch of the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple located on Silat Road. Until his death in 1884, Tan’s office served as the place of registration for Hokkien marriages.
In 1876, Tan established the Po Chiak Kung ancestral temple for the Tan clan in Singapore with the help of Tan Kim Ching, another wealthy Straits Chinese merchant. Commonly known as Tan Si Chong Su, the temple located on Magazine Road also served as an assembly hall for clan members.
Public service and philanthropy
Tan also contributed to the wider community through service in various public offices. Under the British colonial administration, he served as a justice of the peace and was elevated to the position of visiting justice in 1870. He was appointed as a magistrate of police to try offenders involved in the 1871 Chinese riots. Tan also served as a municipal commissioner for many years. He was nominated to be a member of the Legislative Council in 1882 but refused the offer on the grounds that he lacked fluency in English.
Following in his father’s philanthropic footsteps, Tan sponsored educational institutions such as the Cui Ying School (also known as Chui Eng Si E and Kim Seng Chinese Free School) located on Amoy Street in Singapore. The school was established by his father in 1854 to provide free education to Chinese boys and remained in operation until 1954. Tan also set up another Chinese free school for boys in Malacca that had an enrollment of around 100 students.
Together with other leading merchants from the different Chinese dialect groups, Tan helped raise funds for famine relief in northern China in 1877.
In 1879, Tan donated a sum of $7,000 to construct three new wards at the Tan Tock Seng Hospital. One of the hospital’s wards was later named after him in recognition of his financial contribution. He was also made a lifetime member of the hospital’s management committee.
Family and later life
Tan’s wife died in 1870 and was buried at his estate in River Valley Road. This private burial was in breach of the Conservancy Act and drew censure from the Municipal Council. Tan apologised for his actions and was subsequently issued the requisite burial permit.
To celebrate the marriage of his eldest son Jiak Kim in 1878, Tan hosted grand festivities at both the Stadt House in Malacca and the Town Hall in Singapore. Graced by numerous local dignitaries, the celebrations were well received by the local population. Jiak Kim went on to become an outstanding philanthropist and political activist in his own right.
On 4 November 1884, Tan passed away at the age of 56 in his residence on River Valley Road. His body was transported by sea aboard the steamer Benmore to Malacca for burial.
In 1928, the lane known as Kim Seng Place was renamed Beng Swee Place in honour of Tan. The lane was located near the junction of Bras Basah Road and Waterloo Street but no longer exists today following development works in the area.
Yong Chun Yuan
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(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SON)
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(Call no.: RSING 301.45195105957 YEN)
The information in this article is valid as at 21 June 2013 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 resources on the topic.