Tan Kah Kee

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Tan Kah Kee
Tan Kah Kee.jpg
Born(1874-10-21)21 October 1874
Died12 August 1961(1961-08-12) (aged 86)
Other namesChen Jiageng
OccupationBusinessman, investor, philanthropist
Known for
  • Philanthropic work
  • Setting up schools in China and Southeast Asia
  • Helping to raise funds to support China in major events in the 20th century
Parent(s)Tan Kee Peck (father)
RelativesTan Keng Hian (younger brother)
Lee Kong Chian (son-in-law)
Tan Kah Kee
Traditional Chinese陳嘉庚
Simplified Chinese陈嘉庚
Hokkien POJTân Kah-kiⁿ

Tan Kah Kee (simplified Chinese: 陈嘉庚; traditional Chinese: 陳嘉庚; pinyin: Chén Jiāgēng; Pe̍h-ōe-jī: Tân Kah-kiⁿ, 21 October 1874 – 12 August 1961), was a Chinese-born Singaporean businessman, investor, and philanthropist. He was a community leader and philanthropist active in Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Xiamen, and Guangzhou. A prominent figure in the overseas Chinese community in Southeast Asia in the 20th century, he was responsible for gathering much support from the community to aid China in major events such as the Xinhai Revolution (1911), the Kuomintang's Northern Expedition (1926–28), and the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45). Apart from donating most of his assets and earnings to aid China in those major events, Tan set up funds in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong and contributed to the establishment of several schools in Southeast Asia and China's Fujian Province, including Xiamen University.


Tan Kah Kee was born in Xiamen, Fujian Province in 1874 during the Qing dynasty of China. In 1890, at the age of 16, he travelled to Singapore in the Straits Settlements to help his father, who owned a rice trading business. In 1903, after his father's business collapsed, Tan started his own company and built a business empire from rubber plantations, manufacturing, sawmills, canneries, real estate, import and export brokerage, ocean transport and rice trading. As he was proficient in Hokkien, he achieved much success doing business in Singapore because Hokkien was the lingua franca of overseas Chinese in Singapore throughout most of the 19th and 20th centuries. His business was at its prime from 1912–14 when he was known as the "Henry Ford of the Malayan community".[1]

Tan had a leading role among the 110 founders of Tao Nan School in Singapore.[1] In 1919, he set up The Chinese High School (now Hwa Chong Institution) in Singapore. Earlier, in 1918, he established the Jimei Schools (now Jimei University) in Xiamen. Tan was also a member of the Anglo-Chinese College Council and had pledged S$100,000 to the proposed Anglo Chinese School College in 1919. However, when the proposal was turned down by the Government, he agreed to channel the $30,000 he had given to the Anglo-Chinese School fund for physics and chemistry. This helped to complete the Secondary School at Cairnhill in 1928.[2] In 1921, he set up Xiamen University and financially supported it until the Nationalist government of the Republic of China took over in 1937. In 1920, Tan arranged a marriage between his daughter, Tan Ai Leh, and Lee Kong Chian, his protégé and a businessman.

Tan was one of the prominent overseas Chinese to provide financial support to China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. He organised many relief funds under his name, one of which alone managed to raise ten million Straits dollars in 1937. He was also a participant in the Legislative Yuan of the Nationalist government in Chongqing. After the Japanese invaded and occupied Malaya and Singapore in 1942, they deemed these contributors "undesirable" and conducted systematic extermination of anti-Japanese elements in Singapore through the Sook Ching Massacre. Tan survived because he escaped from Singapore before it fell to the Japanese, and went into hiding in Malang, a town in East Java province, Indonesia. He strongly rejected proposals to attempt to negotiate with the Japanese and regarded such attempts as characteristic of a hanjian (a Chinese term for race traitor). He also attempted to dissuade Wang Jingwei from such activities. He exercised considerable effort against the governor of Fujian Province, Chen Yi, for perceived maladministration.[3]

In 1943, while he was in Java, Tan began writing his memoirs, The Memoirs of an Overseas Chinese of the Southern Ocean (南僑回憶錄; 南侨回忆录; Nánqiáo Huíyìlù), which later became an important document of the history of the overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia.

Tan was the de facto leader of the Chinese community in Singapore, serving as chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and helping to organise the Hokkien clan association. However, he lost this role when the Chinese Civil War divided Singapore's Chinese community into Communist and Kuomintang sympathisers. Tan was a Communist supporter due to the corruption within the Kuomintang.[citation needed]

In 1947 Tan founded the Chiyu Banking Corporation in Hong Kong, an intended to be a sustainable business with profits to be devoted to education in Xiamen and the rest of Fujian province in China.

After the Communist victory in China and the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, Tan tried to return to Singapore in 1950 but was denied entry by the British colonial authorities concerned about communist influence in Singapore and Malaya. He then moved permanently to China and served in numerous positions in the Chinese Communist Party.

Tan died in 1961 in Beijing and was given a state funeral by the Chinese government. In Singapore, the Tan Kah Kee Scholarship Fund, which later became known as the Tan Kah Kee Foundation, was established in memory of this philanthropy.

Personal life[edit]

Tan's sons were:

  • Tan Chay Bing (陳濟民; Chén Jìmín), Tan Khuat Siong (陳厥祥; Chén Juéxiáng), Tan Pok Ai (陳博愛; Chén Bó'ài), Tan Pok Chay (陳博濟; Chén Bójì), Tan Kok Kheng (陳國慶; Chén Guóqìng), Tan Guan Khai (陳元凱; Chén Yuánkǎi), Tan Guan Chay (陳元濟; Chén Yuánjì), Tan Kok Whye (陳國懷; Chén Guóhuái) and Tan Guan Aik (陳元翼; Chén Yuányì)

Tan's daughters were:

  • Tan Ai Leh (陳愛禮; Chén Àilǐ), Tan Lay Ho (陳麗好; Chén Lìhǎo), Tan Ah Hui (陳亞輝; Chén Yàhuī), Tan Mary (陳瑪麗; Chén Mǎlì), Tan Lay Choo (陳麗珠; Chén Lìzhū), Tan Poh Tee (陳保治; Chén Bǎozhì) and Tan Ai Eng (陳愛英; Chén Àiyīng)

Many of his children maintained close relationship with or even married other prominent Chinese figures in Singapore. For example, Tan Ai Leh, his eldest daughter, was married to Lee Kong Chian; Tan Lay Ho was married to Lim Chong Kuo, the eldest son of respected merchant Lim Nee Soon.


In recognition of Tan's contributions to education and society throughout his lifetime, there are places and establishments in China and Southeast Asia named after Tan or built to commemorate him, including: the Tan Kah Kee Memorial Museum in Tan's hometown in Jimei; the Tan Kah Kee Foundation, which offers postgraduate scholarships; the Tan Kah Kee MRT station along the Downtown MRT line in Singapore. The schools in the Anglo-Chinese School family have houses named after Tan. Chongfu School's Main Hall is named after him.

The asteroid 2963 Chen Jiageng is named after him.

Image gallery[edit]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Brief history of Nan Chiau Archived 8 December 2015 at the Wayback Machine, The Herencia, Retrieved 12 December 2015
  2. ^ Tan Kah Kee House (TKK), Anglo-Chinese School (Independent), and Ai Tong School url=https://www.acsindep.moe.edu.sg/student-development/houses/tkk-house/
  3. ^ Boorman, Howard L. (1968). "Fei Hsiao-t'ung". Biographical Dictionary of Republican China. II. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 252.

General references[edit]

  • Jiageng Chen; A. H. C. Ward; Raymond W. Chu; Janet W. Salaff (1994). The Memoirs of Tan Kah Kee. Singapore: Singapore University Press. p. 366.
  • Yong Chin Fatt (1989). Tan Kah Kee: The Making of an Overseas Chinese Legend. Singapore: Oxford University Press.
  • Tan Kah Kee (1996). The Memoirs of an Overseas Chinese of the South Seas (in Chinese). Taiyuan: Shanxi Guji chuban she.
  • Bonny Tan (22 January 1999). "Tan Kah Kee". Singapore Infopedia. Singapore National Library Board. Archived from the original on 1 July 2010. Retrieved 30 July 2009.

External links[edit]