Tan Teck Soon

by Hee, En Ming

Tan Teck Soon (b. 1859, Singapore–d. 25 November 1922, Singapore) was a Chinese scholar and writer active in Singapore at the turn of the 20th century.1 He was a founding member of the influential gentlemen’s debating club known as the Straits Philosophical Society (1893–1916), and one of only two Chinese members, the other being Lim Boon Keng.2 Tan’s most notable contribution, as an intellect and writer, was in reconceptualising Chinese civilisation as progressive and open to change, which had challenged the prevailing Western idea that Chinese civilisation was antiquated and unprogressive.3

Early life
Tan Teck Soon was the elder son of Tan See Boo, a Presbyterian Christian from Amoy, China, who came to Singapore to do missionary work.4 His mother was a student at Sophia Cooke’s school for Chinese girls, which was run under the auspices of the Society for the Promotion of Female Education in the East.5

Tan studied at Raffles Institution and was an outstanding student, particularly in the field of Chinese Studies. At the age of 14, he became the first Straits Chinese to win the Guthrie Scholarship for Chinese boys, and chose to go to China to further his studies rather than Great Britain, which was the prevailing choice at the time. This made him a rare exception. In China, he studied at the Anglo-Chinese College in Amoy.6

Major accomplishments
When Tan returned from his studies, he worked in the government service before moving to the Siamese consulate department of the firm, Kim Ching and Co.7 He was active in the fields of publishing, education and writing, working alongside Reverend Archibald Lamont of the Presbyterian mission.8 From 1890 to 1894, Tan was the editor and proprietor of the newspaper, Daily Advertiser, which he had bought with Lamont. The Daily Advertiser kept the Chinese community in Singapore informed of developments in mainland China.9 Tan and Lamont also ran the Singapore Chinese Educational Institute, a night school for working Chinese adults offering courses in English language, Chinese language, history, mathematics and shorthand.10 In 1894, the duo wrote a book on the lives of migrant Chinese in Singapore, titled Bright Celestials: The Chinaman at Home and Abroad. From 1898 to 1905, Tan was the general manager of an influential Chinese daily, the Thien Nan Shin Pao.11 

A great intellect and writer, Tan wrote and presented papers at the Straits Philosophical Society and contributed articles in the Straits Chinese Magazine, a journal focusing on cultural concerns in Western and Asian society.12 He also gave public lectures on topics such as Chinese customs, for example the tradition of tea drinking, rituals associated with marriage celebrations, and religious rites observed during Chinese funerals.13

Perhaps Tan’s most important intellectual contribution was his advancement of the idea that the Chinese civilisation is progressive. He stressed that, contrary to Western stereotypes, Chinese culture and thought are flexible, adaptive and complex. He saw the ability of Chinese thinkers to mix different schools of thought, such as Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, as a positive trait and a sign of their tolerant and liberal character. He was intrigued by the commonality of progressive thought in all cultures.14

While Tan admired much about Chinese thought and society, he also had reservations. He was a stern critic of the Chinese patriarchal system and the imperial government. To him, the Chinese patriarchy was oppressive, rigid and inflexible, and prone to encourage infighting, and the Chinese imperial government, whom he frequently referred to as imbeciles, lacked leadership to help China make the best of its immense resources.15

In 1900, Tan presented a paper on the Reform Movement in China. The paper had a rather positive take on foreign influence, believing that it had allowed the Chinese to assimilate and acquire progressive ideals.16 His criticisms were more directed at the Chinese ruling class members who were unwilling to accept these new ideals. He chastised them for their greed, corruption and lack of morals.17

Despite his positive assessment of the impact of foreign influence, Tan was also concerned about the encroachment of Western powers in China.18 In 1907, he presented before the Straits Philosophical Society an optimistic paper on the reform movement in China, which he saw as having a transformative effect on the rest of the region, and perhaps the world. The paper was later published in the Straits Chinese Magazine. Using strong language such as “evils of extraterritoriality”, “menace of foreign interference” and the foreigner as “a source of irritation and disaster”, Tan criticised the Western imperialists.19

Despite his influence on the intellectual scene at the turn of the 20th century, Tan was not as well-known as many of his contemporaries; he was modest and assuming, and he lived away from the public eye during his later years. However, the respect that he had among both the colonial and Chinese elites of the time speaks much of his strength of character and intellect.20

Hee En Ming

1. Christine Doran, “Bright Celestial: Progress in the Political Thought of Tan Teck Soon,” Sojourn: Social Issues in Southeast Asia 21, no. 1 (April 2016), 46–50 (Call no. RSING 300.5 SSISA); “Deaths,” Straits Times, 25 November 1922, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
2. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 51.
3. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 53; Song Siang Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 94, 598. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
4. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 50.
5. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 50.
6. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 50.
7. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 50–52.
8. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 50–52.
9. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 50–52.
10. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 50–52.
11. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 50–52.
12. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 52.
13. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 52, 57; “Some Chinese Customs. Interesting Lecture at the YMCA,” Straits Times, 28 March 1916, 7 (From NewspaperSG); “Chinese Customs,” Malaya Tribune, 28 March 1916, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 53–54.
15. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 56.
16. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 58–59.
17. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 58–59.
18. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 58-59; “Mr Tan Teck Soon on the Reform Movement in China,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (Weekly), 5 July 1900, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
19. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 60–62
20. Doran, “Bright Celestial,” 63–64; Song, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese
94, 598.

Further resources
C. F. Yong, Chinese Leadership and Power in Colonial Singapore (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1992). (Call no. RSING 959.5702 YON-[HIS])

Mark Ravindra Frost, “Transcultural Diaspora: The Straits Chinese in Singapore, 1819–1918,” Asia Research Institute Working Paper Series, no. 10 (Singapore: National University, August 2003)

Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). (Call no. R 951.072 DUA)

Some Chinese Customs: Interesting Lecture at the YMCA,” Straits Times, 28 March 1916, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

T. S. Tan, “The Middle Kingdom,” Transactions of the Straits Philosophical Society 1 (1894), 17–36. (Call no. RRARE 106 TRA; microfilm NL5718]

T. S. Tan, “The Reform Movement in China,” Transactions of the Straits Philosophical Society 8 (1900–1901), 40–58. (Call no. RRARE 106 TRA; microfilm NL5719]

Walter Makepeace, Gilbert E. Brooke and Roland St. J. Braddell, One Hundred Years of Singapore
 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1991). (Call no. RSING 959.57 ONE-[HIS])

The information in this article is valid as of September 2022 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 reading materials on the topic.