Tan Kah Kee (1874 - 1961) wore many hats: he was aphilanthropist, business tycoon, social reformer, educationpromoter, community leader and Chinese patriot. An immigrantfrom Jimei in the Fujian Province of China, Tan arrived inSingapore in 1890 to help out at his father’s rice mill andsundries shop, Chop Soon Ann.
Tan Kah Kee. Image courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
His traditional education at the Nan Xuan Private School inJimei between the ages of 8 to 16 had instilled in himConfucian values, which showed in his work ethic as a teenager.Tan proved himself to be an exceptional apprentice whilehandling accounts and performing secretarial duties, displayingremarkable acumen and diligence. On this account, he was put incharge as manager of the Chop Soon Ann company in 1892 afterhis uncle fell ill and retired. The business that had beenpreviously importing rice from Taiwan, Thailand, and Burma andredistributing to Singapore and the Malay states, branched outinto pineapple farming and cannery based on his father Tan KeePeck’s decision. However, the shop’s economic success wasshort-lived and did not flourish for long.
In 1893, Tan Kah Kee returned to his home village Jimei inChina and married Teo Po Ke. He remained in China for two yearsbefore returning to Singapore in 1895, but found himselfreturning to Jimei two more times later for his mother’s deathand funeral. During his fourth return to Singapore in 1903, hewas met with the bad news of Chop Soon Ann’s closure and hisfather’s heavy debts due to misappropriation of funds andmismanagement of the business by his father’s third wife andher son.
Nevertheless, Tan’s resilience and enterprising spirit sawhim establish a business of his own. Applying what he hadlearned from his father’s business, Tan set up Sin Lee Chuan, asmall pineapple canning factory in Sembawang. Later, he boughtover Jit Sin, one of the largest pineapple cannery factories inSingapore. He then went on to acquire land that he cleared tostart the Hock Shan Plantation.
By then, Tan Kah Kee owned a repertoire of businessesranging from rice mills and rubber plantations, to biscuitfactories, shipping, and manufacturing of products such astyres, shoes, hats, briefcases, toys, and hair cream. Hesettled his father’s debts and continued to build hisempire.
In 1923, he ventured into retail business and became thefounder of Chinese newspaper Nanyang Siang Pau. Tan’s activeinvolvement in his plantation, manufacturing, and shippinglines earned him the nickname, “Henry Ford of Malaya” ashe emulated Ford’s principle of being involved in all stages ofthe supply chain. At the peak of his business, between 1923 and1925, he had over 1400 workers in 150 offices on fivecontinents and an amassed wealth of an estimated S$10.8 milliondollars. Among the employees he trained to become prominentbusinessmen and community leaders were Lee Kong Chian and OonKhye Hong (both of whom later became his son-in-laws).
His enormous wealth allowed him to support educationalenterprises back home, and later in Singapore. A strongproponent of education being the key to social upliftment, TanKah Kee founded many primary, secondary, and tertiary educationinstitutions. His most famous educational enterprise was thefounding of Xiamen (Amoy) University that still standstoday.
1894 – Set up Ti Chai Hsueh Shu Chinese tuition school(China)
1907 – Founded Tao Nan School with 109 other members of theHokkien Community (Singapore)
1912 – Helped set up Ai Tong School (Singapore)
1913 – Set up Ji Mei School in his hometown (China)
1915 – Set up Chong Hock Girls’ School (Singapore)
1917 – Sent his younger brother back to Fujian to preparesetting up Ji Mei Secondary School and Ji Mei Normal School(China)
1918 – Set up Nanyang Girl’s school (Singapore)
1919 – Founded The Nanyang Chinese High School (Singapore)
1919 – Donated $30,000 to the Anglo-Chinese School (Singapore)
1921 – Set up and officially opened Xiamen University (China)
1926 – Expanded campus of The Chinese High School, and Ji MeiFarming and Forestry School.
1929 – Made a generous $10,000 donation to Raffles College(Singapore)
1939 – Founded Nanyang Fishery and Marine School (Singapore)
1941 – Set up Nanyang Normal School (Singapore)
1947 – Founded Nan Chiao Girls High School in 1947 (Singapore)
1949 – Rebuilt Ji Mei schools and Ji Mei University (China)
Jimei Secondary School set up by Tan Kah Kee. Image courtesyof National Archives of Singapore.
Tan’s businesses reached their zenith in 1925, and by then,he was lauded as one of the earliest industrial pioneers inSoutheast Asia. However, shortly after, his businesses began tosuffer. While some attribute the collapse of his businessempire to his commitment of setting up non-profit educationalenterprises, others also point to the strong competition fromcheap Japanese imports that wrecked his rubber goodsmanufacturing and retail trade. In 1926, he was forced to stoppart of the building projects for Xiamen University and Ji MeiSchool. Tan was left with little choice, but to resort to loansfrom banks, but pretty soon his accounts were also running inthe red.
Tan Kah Kee giving a thank-you speech. Image courtesy ofNational Archives of Singapore.
Outside of the business realm, he was elected as presidentof the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan in 1929, and effectively theleader of the Hokkien community in Singapore. In his enhancedcapacity as president, he encouraged all dialect groups tounite and join forces when it came to supporting China andchampioning for community reforms such as eradicating opiumaddiction, improving housing and personal hygiene, as well asshortening the duration of funeral wakes.
When the Sino-Japanese war broke out in the next decade in1937, the Hokkien and other Chinese dialect groups were behindTan in his fundraising efforts for the China Relief fund to aidChina’s war efforts against the Japanese invasion.
Tan Kah Kee penning a letter. Image courtesy of the National Archives of Singapore.
In the same year of 1929, the arrival of the GreatDepression made it even harder for Tan to turn his businessesaround; he eventually liquidated the company and wound it up in1934. Despite major losses, he continued to finance the variousschools he had been supporting.
In 1938, he was elected as president of the South-East AsiaFederation of the China Relief Fund, where he activelyorganised public mass assemblies in Singapore to bring to lightthe Japanese aggression. When Singapore herself fell to Japanin 1942, Tan Kah Kee had to escape as the Japanese were killingany Chinese persons suspected of harbouring anti-Japanesesentiments. Due to his social status and active involvement inpast anti-Japanese efforts, Tan avoided capture by fleeing toMarang, Indonesia.
Place where Tan Kah Kee stayed in Java. Image courtesy ofNational Archives of Singapore.
Tan Kah Kee returned to Singapore in 1946 and publishedNan Chiao Jit Poh, a newspaper disparaging the rulingKuomintang in China.
In 1949, he returned to China for the first time since theend of the World Wars. He devoted the rest of his life andfortune to reconstruction projects, tackling unfinished schoolsand the Hokkien Railway. In 1950, he returned to Singapore forthe last time to wind up his business and retire for good inhis hometown of Jimei.
Tan Kah Kee passed away in Beijing in 1961 at the age of 87.The Chinese government gave him a state funeral in recognitionof his contributions, and he was laid to rest in Ao Yuan,Jimei.
Tan Kah Kee’s tombstone. Image courtesy of National Archives of Singapore.
Chinese Migrants Abroad
Cultural, Educational, and Social Dimensions of the ChineseDiaspora
Edited by: Michael W Charney (University of London, UK), BrendaS A Yeoh (National University of Singapore), Tong Chee Kiong(National University of Singapore)