Tan Kah Kee – A granddaughter’s journey of discovery


book cover of a painting of TKK

In small town Multikeo in Washington State, USA, niece Lee Tin Ling dined at a Chinese restaurant with her American in-laws. The Chinese proprietor, who was born in Fujian, struck up a conversation with her, and in the course of which, discovered she was a great granddaughter of Tan Kah Kee or TKK. ‘Tan Kah Kee? Why he’s a great man – everyone in China knows about him. He made his fortune in Southeast Asia, and gave away ALL his money to build schools in the country. Mao hailed him as a hero, etc…’ It was a 5-minute and rather animated elocution at the end of which everyone in her table fell silent, mouth gaping. Thus was Tin Ling’s stunning entrée to her great grandfather’s legacy.


Tan Kah Kee was furious when he heard that Wang Ching-wei, a senior general in Chiang Kai-shek’s government that was sequestered in the wartime capital of Chongqing, would be proposing to parliament that China surrender to the Japanese invaders. But because Tan Kah Kee was in Singapore and there was no time for him to travel to Chongqing, he shot off a cable to China’s Nationalist Party with this cryptic message: ‘Civil servants who propose surrender whilst enemy forces are still in the country are deemed as traitors’. Immediately there was an uproar in parliament and this cable was hotly and thoroughly debated, with the eventual result that a motion of no surrender was passed. Historians were to later claim that this moment was a victory for China, and marked a watershed in China’s struggle against the hated Japanese. In fact, up to today, it is still speculated that the episode, famously known as ‘The Cable Motion’, could have changed the entire course of Chinese history in the 20th century. But, true to his nature, Tan Kah Kee never let this incident pass without insisting that Chiang prosecute his general.

The year was 1940, and China’s luck was at its lowest point. Much of the eastern states were occupied by the Japanese, and the Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-shek, still fighting a rear-guard action from the safe haven of wartime capital Chongqing, was hopelessly corrupt.  As a de facto leader of the overseas Chinese, Tan Kah Kee has just embarked on an 8-month trip to China, dubbed the Comfort Mission, to bring aid and moral support to those suffering from the onslaught of the invaders. After being feted by Chiang, he visited Mao Zedong, then living in the caves of Yenan with a few thousand of his forces. Tan Kah Kee had heard of how the Communist Party – which was considered an enemy of the Nationalists, had conducted their affairs with much fairness and high principles of governance, earning the admiration and respect of those they came into contact with. At the end of his 8-day visit to this humble abode, Tan Kah Kee observed that Mao and his men ruled this region of a few thousand followers and the surrounding peasants with a firm hand tempered with fairness, frugality and much egalitarianism, implementing a system of thrift and reward matched with hard work, a viable education system for the children, and had somehow made his people economically self-supporting with what little they had. Tan Kah Kee  –  who had up to then despaired over the lack of a viable leadership to pull the country up from its ruinous depths –  was suddenly filled with a glowing sense of  hope.  Here was a group of high-principled and incorruptible people, widely read in socialist theories, leaders who didn’t stand on ceremonies and practised what they preach – here is the light at the end of the tunnel, and that the path towards salvation would be clear. Upon his return to Singapore, TKK wasted no time in announcing to his huaqiao compatriots that they should from then on change their allegiance to the Communist Party. The record 6-hour speech – which eventually gave rise to one of the most famous sayings in modern China – ‘The future of China lies in Yenan’ — not only angered Chiang but gave the Communist Party the seal of approval to continue their battle against the ruling faction, and confidence in their final march towards Beijing after the Japanese were finally driven from China’s shores. 

Just who is this man Tan Kah Kee, and why is he so revered today in China? As his granddaughter, and just one of some three hundred descendants now going into our 5th generation, his shadows hovered in our background during childhood, not unfamiliar, but more of a kind of ‘tales from grandmother’ variety.

To us he was a grandfather who’ went back to China’ and never returned. Who loved China so much he gave everything to the motherland, and the motherland rewarded him with a high position in government, not to mention a funeral so grand that the entire country had a holiday to commemorate.

Today his legacy is, at least for me, somehow far bigger than ever before, despite the geographic distance, cultural and language barriers. As someone entrusted to translate virtually the entire contents of his fabulous memorial museum into English, it is not easy for me to avoid the weight of Chinese history over the last 100 years, and especially the history of the overseas Chinese, and the sense of how his contributions can continue to impact the lives of everybody in this world today.

To say that TKK was a very wealthy businessman who donated all his money to schools, mostly in China, is to know only half the story. To say that he was a master orator and fundraiser, and a towering leader of the overseas Chinese, winning their trust and support is a bit closer…To believe that he’s a completely selfless character, an overseas Chinese patriot of the first order, battling the Japanese invaders, engaging with British colonialists and even the American President Harry Truman on equal terms, and concentrating all his energies and wealth to raise living standards and bring modernity and prosperity to whole generations of downtrodden people; an extremely courageous man who rallied his countrymen to fight brave battles against vicious invaders, and who actively searched for a viable leadership to ‘save China’ when he knew his ability was limited…yes, that is a fair description for a start.

To understand the man, one must understand his environment. The scenic fishing village of Jimei, where he was born, faces the sea, just a sampan ride away from Xiamen island, which is about three quarters the size of Singapore, and in the late 19th century, a minor port in south China. The Tong’an county surrounding Jimei was hard-scrabble poor, with its more able-bodied inhabitants periodically leaving for the Nanyang to seek a livelihood just to feed their families at home. In fact the common saying amongst villagers who wanted to survive was to ‘go down to sea’ – meaning literally to become a fisherman, not so much to be an entrepreneur, as the term means today.

Building a business empire

In his youth, TKK’s father was already in Singapore, a successful entrepreneur with property and a rice mill operation. Unfortunately his father became ill and the business soon faltered so badly that the son, even though he was only in his early twenties, had to see to its demise in an honorable way, painstakingly settling all his father’s debts. This extraordinary action made the local Chinese community sit up and take notice of the intelligent youth, who had already played a visible role in community activities and charitable acts.

For self-made men, the business world of the early 20th century in a British colony was characterized not by a gradual process of rising wealth but, like today, much cut and thrust where fortunes were made or lost overnight on hunches and bold decisions made on the fly, and often supported by the strong bonds of trust and friendship with various groups of influential people. It was a world of dizzying ups and downs, of cutthroat competition, cartels, of seizing adversity and turning them into opportunities, and dealing with a government who was also your colonial masters. It was a world that suited intrepid Chinese with a powerful entrepreneurial bent and the willingness to face hardship and uncertainty in foreign lands.

TKK began his business career with acquiring land to grow pineapples on the outskirts of town (and that can include Johor), a crop that had a ready market in the west. Naturally he had to set up canning facilities to process the fruit for export, making full use of suppliers’ credit to run his operations  – something rather uncommon then. More land was bought, and by 1904 he was well on his way to making his first fortune. Meanwhile, he had a profitable rice milling operation that would not only diversify his risks but also form the basis of stable income during the rollercoaster years. Not long after this, prices of canned pineapple began falling… The year was 1906 and TKK, urged by a British dealer, ‘bet his farm’ on rubber by converting a big chunk of pineapple plantation land to rubber growing, purely on the strength of a hunch. Then rubber was only a minor crop fairly recently introduced by the British and grown as an experiment by a few Chinese, whilst the rest had concentrated on the traditionally lucrative pepper and various other crops.

Enjoying a first-mover advantage, TKK lucked out when demand for rubber rose rapidly, as the period coincided with the rubber boom of the 1910,  with demand further fueled by the First World War. Like many of today’s astute entrepreneurs, TKK never waited to reap the sticky sap, but instead ‘flipped’ his first rubber estate for vast profits when the trees were only half-grown, whilst at the same time acquiring more land to plant the crop!

To maximize profits, and move a step ahead of the competition, his company dealt direct with buyers overseas, instead of selling produce to brokers, which was the norm.  He also went downstream, setting up factories that manufactured rubber products. Very much the hands-on businessman that he was, he personally experimented with and developed machinery that would make rubber soles, and even tyres. So even as he was the biggest exporter of tinned pineapple in Singapore as well as owner of a substantial rice milling operation, he also became one of the region’s biggest rubber barons….

As his empire grew, more plants followed, and also in other countries, such as a pineapple factory and ricemill in Thailand, food canning in Fujian. The rice mills soon included processing cooked rice for the Indian market, with TKK initiating a few modern technical inventions along the way.

Soon rice milling became a handy cash cow when contributions from the other businesses were patchy. At the start of WW1, when his businesses were threatened with a lack of ships to transport his goods, Tan Kah Kee was one of the first overseas Chinese to lease and eventually own steamers, subsequently profiting handsomely from the carry trade. This was certainly not the first nor last time when he turned adversity into opportunity.

 How did TKK amass his wealth in such a short time, and in areas not foreseen by others?  Besides possessing rare foresight, the man was a tinker and inventor. He also initiated a set of what we today would know as good business practices, such as keeping strict daily accounting, never believing in keeping too much inventory (the forerunner of our JIT?), obtaining supplies on credit (his high credit standing in the business community was something that’s unheard of before his time), constantly gathering detailed market information, and possessing a firm belief in advertising! He was also an inventor in his own right, applying for various patent rights to rubber processes. The colonial government, with whom TKK had cordial relations, began to show much interest in his business by visiting his rubber plant and publishing favorable comments. Soon the British came to admire TKK’s ‘enterprise and powers of organisation’, thus enhancing his prestige and social standing considerably.

He had a reputation for seeing an opportunity and turn a dollar very fast, e.g. when pineapple prices were down, he reduced production and resold a large quantity of tinplate, originally destined for pineapple canning, for an incredible profit, and benefiting from current high tin prices. Prescient enough to see that rubber was on the ascendancy, he not only switched his pineapple plantations into growing rubber but also turned his existing pineapple mills into rubber mills, taking full advantage of existing facilities. 

An employer who led by example, imbued with the personal touch and working long hours, never believing in taking holidays, TKK was sharp enough to recognize talent amongst his staff and associates. One such person was Lee Kong-chian –a junior employee who knew English and was put in charge of making deals directly with European buying houses. It was not long before the latter became a close confidante and supporter of TKK’s various causes. Lee Kong-chian later established his own vast rubber and land-owning empire, becoming one of Singapore most famous philanthropists. He also married my first aunt Ai-Lay, a match no doubt made by TKK himself, who was known for picking up promising young men as suitors for the respective hands of his daughters.

Unfortunately TKK’s glory days as a remarkably successful entrepreneur and industrialist spanned a short period. A millionaire by 1911,  he made literally millions in profit during boom years such as the period of the WWI, and reaching a zenith in 1922 with a startling  profit of $7.8 million. He had an empire that encompassed nearly 20,000 employees and businesses that included manufacturing boilers, engine works, rubber products, canned foodstuffs, and having a gross assets of $-……..at its height. All this was to come crashing down when the Great Depression hit in the early 1930s, when the price of rubber that went as high as $200 per picul (about 133 pounds) fell to an astounding $7. In those critical years, many of his capable staff also left him to set up their own business, always a sure sign that a company would be facing doom. The end came in 1934, when all his businesses were wound up by the banks, to which Tan Kah Kee was heavily indebted. Some of his detractors believed that if he had not so generously allocated his vast profits to building and funding schools – mostly in China – he could have saved his companies. However, TKK was unwaveringly adamant that his schools must continue operating, irregardless of whether he made profits or otherwise! If there had been disappointment, it would have to be the fact that he could not persuade the even more wealthy tycoons of the day – some of them overseas Chinese living in Indonesia – to donate to his education causes.                            

TKK descendents at Ee Hoe Hean, S'pore.

TKK descendents at Ee Hoe Hean, Singapore.

Remarkably, the business downfall did not completely break his heart, and historians are to later surmise that the folding up of Tan Kah Kee & Co was probably a Godsend, for the man was now able to get more directly involved in social and political work, including playing a role in a bigger stage – in fact, nothing less than the salvation of China.


 In the huaqiao society of colonial Singapore and Malaya, the practice of letting money work for the common good, coupled with an in-borne capacity for forceful leadership and immense organizational skill, brought TKK fame and respect at a young age.

Not being a scholar in the traditional sense, he was yet extremely widely read and mostly self-taught, letting his inquiring and lucidly analytical mind range over a wide spectrum of issues of the day. He was well-informed concerning community and political affairs, and later as a media owner, made full use of the press to express his passion for education and concern for social mores, the economy and politics in general. During his lifetime, he wrote a total of six books on various themes. His autobiography Nan Chiau Hui Yi Lu, written in two volumes when in hiding from the Japanese in Java, has become a valuable document of his thoughts, aspirations, and deeds that marked his life up to World War 2.

An early sign of social leadership was his position in 1911 as main fund-raiser and president of Tao Nan School, then a pre-eminent Hokkien school. The community of the Fujian (hokkien) pang was roused by his eloquent and emotional speeches which touched on founding tertiary education as a strategy for modernizing society, and preserving Chinese cultural essence and spirit. By 1918 he had become a respected local community leader and public figure, mainly from his educational endeavours in Jimei and Singapore. But it was his founding of Xiamen University in 1921 that spread his name to all of China and SE Asia, consolidating his position as a community leader.

Besides education, he was also directly involved – between 1915 to 1941 — in leading at least five major fundraising campaigns on behalf of various organizations for flood relief, children’s health protection, fires and other calamities in China. Quite naturally, TKK’s prestige and status were further enhanced.

His political awakening probably began with the winds of change brought about by Sun Yat Sen’s revolution. The latter had himself visited Southeast Asia several times, and TKK, as a member of a welcoming party, met him at least three times between 1909-1911, and even helped raise funds for party causes. Incidentally this was also the time when TKK lopped off his queue and began wearing ‘western’ clothing, as a symbol of shedding feudalistic practices for a modern society.

But it was in 1928 and against a heady mix of education pursuits, newspaper publishing and running an increasingly complex business empire, that TKK managed to find time to get directly involved in Chinese politics by taking the lead in establishing a Shandong Relief Fund in Singapore.  A response to a military incident between Chiang’s forces and the Japanese in Jinan, Shandong, when over 5000 Chinese soldiers and civilians were killed or wounded, the fund raised money for victims caught in the crossfire.

 But what is so important to historians is that this massive operation, which was skillfully managed, reaching down to every strata of Chinese huaqiao society and including a well-executed boycott of Japanese goods, not only raised a record $1.34 million at the end of a well-sustained 8-month long campaign, but also created a number of firsts for the overseas Chinese. Surpassing any of the previous funds raised for political events in China in scale and importance, the Fund in effect became a united front movement under TKK’s leadership, as he was able to sustain a mass political and nationalist movement unprecedented in scale and depth in the history of the overseas Chinese and their support for motherland causes. In Singapore, the Fund also set a pattern of mass mobilization of the 1930s when similar organisational principles, forms and techniques were used.

The opportunity presented itself when the SCRFU (Singapore China Relief Fund Union) was established in 1937, in response to the infamous Marco Polo Bridge Incident which signaled the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War and the commencement of the Second World War in SE Asia.  This war brought Chinese nationalism of the 20th century to a crescendo, thoroughly politicizing the generation of overseas Chinese at war, and the scene was set for the rise of the greatest anti-war mass movement the huaqiao have ever participated in and witnessed. To kick it off a mass rally was held, with TKK at the helm, and leaders appointed from clan groups and sub-committees organized to drive different aspects of fundraising. A groundswell movement of this nature naturally gave rise to related activities such as political rallies, cultural variety shows and propaganda in the press and the schools. This stirred up national feelings which so alarmed the colonial government that they made sure that no less a leader than TKK (whom they respected and often consulted) with his stature and leadership capability, should be put in full command of the movement. 

The SCRFU also spearheaded campaigns for the return of skilled and professional huaqiao to serve the Kuomintang government in Chongqing, now the wartime capital of the nationalists. One of the more visible manifestation of this call was the recruitment of 3,200 huaqiao drivers and mechanics (known as the jigong) from Singapore, Malaya, Burma and Indochina, to help open supply routes to Chongqing from Rangoon when the enemy had cut off all routes from the eastern seaboard. The jigong, who had answered TKK’s personal call to sacrifice their lives for the nation’s sake, worked and lived under appalling conditions and with the daily threat of being straffed by Japanese aircraft along the notorious 32 bends on this treacherous and mountainous highway. In fact, by the end of the war, over 1000 had lost their lives, and many of those that had survived decided not to return to Southeast Asia but to settle and set up families in Yunnan. The jigongs have since become part of the anti-Japanese resistance folklore, with many books and a TV documentary to their name.  Until today, there has been an annual commemoration ceremony for this brave group of men –  now reduced to just a handful of survivors in their eighties and nineties –  in Wanding, Yunnan. Members of my family and the Jimei Schools committee have been privileged to be invited to this moving event every year.

By far the greatest contributions made by the SCRFU was in the area of voluntary donations, bond subscription and indirectly, remittances to families in China (C$5,000 million) between 1938 and 1941. It is believed that these huge inflows of hard cash had the effect of keeping the Kuomintang government financially solvent.

This was also the period (1938) of the famous 22-word ‘cable motion’ sent by TKK to the People’s Political Council then in session in Chongqing. The cable hinted darkly that a senior general (Wang Ching-wei, who, as fate would have it, was once friendly with TKK himself) in the Kuomintang government was a traitor to China and should be condemned for suggesting capitulation to the Japanese.

 That this cable motion was debated heatedly and finally accepted was secondary to the fact that TKK made history by being, according to historian CF Yong, “the first nominated member of the Council from overseas to submit a cable motion which was so pungent, so calculated and so effective in its attempt to silence peace talks with Japan on the one hand and on the other to humiliate potential ‘traitors’ within the Chinese government…. Moreover, TKK was the first person in the history of modern China to expose Wang Ching-wei as China’s modern Chin Kuai” ( a crafty Sung prime minister who betrayed the Sung Dynasty).  Who knows what the course of China’s history would take had there been no cable motion and ‘peace’ talks with the enemy had taken place?

By the autumn of 1939, TKK felt it was time to make a personal assessment of the  conditions of China’s war resistance against Japan which had begun in 1937. Part of the objective was also to lend comfort to those soldiers and civilians who have suffered the most, to boost the morale of the general population, and to report back to the huaqiao so that more effective fund-raising can be conducted.  Under the auspices of the SCRFU, the comfort mission was formed comprising a party of 50 huaqiao not only from Singapore but including those from other parts of SE Asia.  The first port of call would be Chongqing.

Though TKK had often come out in support of Chiang, this would be the first time they met face to face. As befitting their status as major fund providers, the comfort mission was given the red carpet treatment, including a fancy European-style banquet in opulent surroundings. But TKK noticed that though there were numerous reconstruction projects in the city, there was also filth in public places, and evidence of decadent living amongst the wealthier population. What was upsetting was also the fact that civil servants could own and run private enterprises – this being a sure ticket to corrupt practices.

But a major issue which worried TKK throughout this turbulent period was the rift between the nationalists and the communists within China. This struggle could set back the country’s effort at securing a final victory against Japan, as he saw Chiang’s forces were determined to eradicate their rivals. TKK knew that should a civil war take place, it would be  “tantamount to suicide”. Interestingly enough, members of the communist party also visited TKK in Chongqing, and discussions were focused on this rift. Though the communists had known all along of TKK’s opposition to them, and his expressed support for the nationalists, they were still keen to have TKK attend a tea party in the Eighth Route Army’s liaison mission in Chongqing.  Here TKK made one of his best speeches, and which went down very well with his hosts,  tackling the issue of political ideology, including Sun Yat Sen’s Three Principles, the lessons learnt from the French revolution, and communism in Russia.

Despite Chiang Kai-shek’s chagrin and veiled warnings about how the communist were not to be trusted, TKK was anxious to visit Yenan, stronghold of the communist party, especially after having read a book by Edgar Snow called Red Star Over China which praised Mao. Whilst the rest of the comfort mission contingent headed in several directions to carry out their assignment, TKK together with his two closest aides, traveled to remote Shaanxi province to spend a much documented 8 days with Mao and his followers.

TKK observed that the small city of Yenan and farmland outskirts were run competently along egalitarian lines, with people going about their lives simply and comfortably, yet with a purpose. The communist government had put in place essential services with departments ranging from finance, public security, health and a judicial system. Corruption was not tolerated, with those caught either sacked or receiving capital punishment, depending on the gravity of the bribes.  There was an absence of idlers and the unemployed, thieves and beggars.  Frugality and economic self-sufficiency were diligently practised, with newly reclaimed farmland given to those who needed it; taxes were levied only after the second harvest, and only when there were bumper crops. There were adequate schools of various kinds, including a university where students obtained free tuition plus a small allowance and farmed the land when not attending classes; time was also spent fanning out to the countryside teaching farmers basic hygiene – a subject that was close to TKK’s heart.

Whilst private enterprise, e.g shops along the main streets of Yenan, was allowed to thrive, lowly-paid public servants received a virtual cradle–to-grave benefits which included free medical, food and lodging. Though industries were small scale – as Yenan region was mainly agricultural –  the rural folk saw a marked improvement in their lot since the communists arrived.

And what did TKK think of Mao? He thought the leader of the communist party approachable, relaxed and modest, yet expressing his opinions frankly. There was no ‘standing on ceremony’ with Mao, and definitely no looking down on junior staff. He and his followers lived mainly in caves, with bare-bone furnishing, an austere lifestyle that was much lauded by TKK, who had enough of the wasteful decadence he saw in Chongqing.

Having visited both Chongqing and Yenan, TKK was in a position to compare the virtues of the two contending regimes. It also dispelled some of the myths and assertions then in circulation against the communist socio-political system in China.  In Chongqing TKK saw corruption, decadence, wastefulness and filth, whilst in Yenan there was self-reliance amongst a hardworking people with a frugal puritanical streak, and who governed with fairness and a democratic process that did not exclude capitalism. There were no signs of abject poverty or social dislocation, and the communists worked with the people in fighting against their common enemy, Japan.

According to TKK’s historian CF Yong, “What TKK saw in Yenan delighted him no end as he believed he had found a new earth and new heaven. He saw in Mao a public-minded and loyal patriot, whilst in Chiang he saw a cunning and crafty dictator…after Yenan TKK came to the conclusion that Chiang’s government would collapse and that Mao would win.”

Though the Yenan visit was the highlight of TKK’s comfort mission’s tour of China, another 6 months were to be spent traveling to many provinces and cities, including a return trip to Chongqing where relations with the Nationalist Party slowly deteriorated. A side trip to Fujian province revealed an arcane tax system imposed by a corrupt provincial governor that caused great hardship on the population, but despite TKK’s strenuous efforts at persuading the central government to repeal this, together with other injustices, very little was done and this episode became one of the determining factors which made TKK arrive at the conclusion that the Kuomintang was unfit to take over the reins of saving China, even if the more immediate issue of what looked like impending civil war had been settled.

By the end of the tour in early December 1940, when the party arrived at Rangoon to catch a ship to Penang, TKK had, in the words of CF Yong, “become a hardened and committed battler – battling against (the governor) for social-political justice in his native province, against Chiang Kai-shek for national unity, and soon to battle the kamikaze in Singapore for the survival of all Singaporeans.” It was at this point that, though aged 67, TKK had never been more discouraged, and was philosophically ready to accept failure, quoting Henry Ford’s dictum: ‘A righteous failure is not a shame, the fear of it is.”

The short interval between TKK’s return and the Japanese occupation in Feb 1942 saw TKK’s huaqiao leadership position being seriously challenged in Singapore by the local Kuomintang faction, but he was able to fend this off with near unanimous support from the local business community. With the Japanese invasion all but imminent, the colonial government sought and obtained TKK’s help in mobilizing the Chinese community to supply auxillary manpower to defend the ‘impregnable fortress’ island. The British also wanted to arm the Chinese but this was turned down by TKK, who knew that should Singapore surrender to the invaders, retribution on the Chinese would be too horrifying to contemplate. (As it turned out,  at least 50,000 Chinese were brutally massacred by the Japanese during the war, and one of the first issues TKK had to deal with on his return from Java was to tackle the question of whether to persecute local informers who betrayed resistance fighters. Very much to his credit, he did not pursue this, believing that the populace had suffered enough).

With one million guilders on his head, TKK’s 3-year sojourn in occupied Indonesia was initially spent with much trepidation, anxiety and agony,  sometimes coming within a hairbreadth of being caught. However, it is believed that despite being a refugee, TKK did not suffer much physical hardship, as he was well cared for by graduates of his Jimei Schools and Xiamen University. He had much time to think, read and write, making this period one of the most productive in his literary and intellectual life. His extensive memoirs Nan Chiau Hui-Yi-Lu, written during this period, supplied valuable information for biographers.

With the Allies’ victory in August 1945, TKK made his way back to Singapore via Batavia (present day Jakarta), escorted by Sukarno’s personal guards to ensure his safety. Having borne the brunt of the Japanese forces, the end of WW2 is a cathartic time for the huaqiao, and TKK was feted by overseas Chinese not only in Singapore and Malaya but also Batavia, anxious to mark the end of the war and to celebrate his safety.

When civil war broke out in China in 1946, TKK  – who had previously thought it futile to intervene, blaming the war on the intractable stance of the Kuomintang  – decided to throw in his lot with the ‘leftists’, and in his capacity of head of SCRFU, telegrammed to President Truman to withdraw his support for Chiang. This resulted in bitter enmity between the pro-Kuomintang and Pro-TKK groups which soon polarized the Singapore and Malaya huaqiao communities as never before, resulting in heated political rallies and many slanging matches in the media. The British colonialists became alarmed, especially with a resurgent Malayan Communist Party who allied themselves with the TKK group, and issued stern warnings, as well as banned the China Democratic League, set up to support TKK. Soon TKK was persuaded to make a public statement to support law and order under the administration, and drop his support for the Malayan communist uprising. This had the effect of not just cooling huaqiao temperatures all round, but scored the British a major political and moral victory at this early stage of the Emergency.

By 1948, after the Communist Party had succeeded in capturing much of China, including the south, victory was imminent. A few months later, TKK received an invitation from Mao to take part in the People’s Political Consultative Conference in Beijing, which he duly accepted. As preparations were made for his departure there were signs that he planned to leave the nanyang for good, and settling in his beloved Jimei to spend  his remaining years nurturing education.

As he sailed for Hongkong in May 1949, thousands of wellwishers saw him off , and just as many welcomed him along each destination point in China, with his movements and speeches well-covered in the press. In the newly minted government’s first plenary session, TKK was elected to a 21-man Preparatory Executive Committee as a representative of the overseas Chinese, andn later, as a member of the national committee of the PPCC, as well as a member of the Central People’s Government in Beijing. In other words, TKK became an official of the PRC from its birth in Oct 1, 1949.

Quite soon after, he embarked on an extensive tour to over 40 cities and 14 provinces in China, intent on seeing for himself what the war had wrought on the population, and where progress had been made. He was able to pursue his concern with promoting health and raising hygiene standards…



Ever since his twenties, TKK had the urge to help educate the younger generations of his countrymen. He made education his prime focus, almost his raison d’etre, and the centre of his lifelong passion to get China out of its social and economic rut. Not getting much education himself, and having keenly observed how the west had succeeded with their entrenched educational traditions which provided the groundwork for science and technology to enrich their own countries and advance civilization proper, he felt that China had absolutely no choice but to catch up.  Ignorant, dirt-poor, and lacking even the basics of hygiene, the Chinese, though proud inheritors of 5000 continuous years of a remarkable civilisation, would be destined for the scrap heap of history if help had not arrived through free and easily available ‘modern’ education.

TKK’s vision was to provide everyone with a foundation for nothing less than the acquisition of knowledge to improve one’s life – something which all of us in Singapore take for granted today. The huge profits he made from his businesses in Singapore were predestined to be spent here, to set up school after school, and funding it with quality teachers and facilities. Towards the end of his life, it was estimated that he established – both in Singapore and China – a total of 118 schools! And even when funds ran out in 1934, that did not stop him – through friends, associates and his powerful connections, as welll as an innate talent to fundraise, there was somehow money available for one more school.

Ever pragmatic, TKK started with primary schools, and even established a nursery school, in his native Jimei. His first school was opened for student intake in 1913, the year my father, his sixth son, was born.  (In fact, father mentioned that the best years of his life were when he was aged 5-8, and a pupil in Jimei, remembering rather vividly how to avoid the public latrines placed by the main road!)

In the early 20th century, it was unheard of for girls to attend school, so when TKK’s brother Tan Keng Hean and his intellectually formidable wife set up the province’s first girls school, they spent a great deal of energy knocking on the doors of skeptical villagers to persuade them to send their daughters to school.

On this sprawling plot in Jimei, he was eventually to build 14 schools, some of them functioning more like technical colleges, like the Ocean Navigation/Marine School, Aquaculture School, School of Physics and Chemistry, Economics, Mathematics, the Arts. Many of these institutions also happened to be the first of its kind to be built in Southern China. And when his beloved Jimei schools were bombed by the Japanese, he made sure that education never stopped by directing classrooms, teachers and students to be transferred to areas further inland,  making the best out of rather humbled and difficult circumstances.

Jimei quickly grew into a town of schools, including a university established only about 15 years ago. Today besides commercial and residential buildings and parks, there are impressive stadiums, gymnasium, and a grand auditorium that would not look out of place as an Olympic venue in Beijing.

Amoy (or Xiamen in putonghua Mandarin) University, was founded by TKK in 1921 and merit a special place in his heart. Unable to raise enough money, he virtually funded the institution single-handedly for 16 years until straightened financial circumstances compelled him to hand it over to the Chinese government of the day. The university was born of his unshakeable conviction that only university graduates trained in modern scientific, technical and specialist knowledge could wipe out the relics of political dictatorship and jumpstart the modern economy, allowing China to enter a new world order as equals. With an initial contribution of $1 million (plus $3million for maintenance spread over 10 years), TKK was able to rouse the huaqiao, at a public rally in 1919, not only to respond generously but to wholeheartedly agree with him on the imperative of this patriotic project. China then had only a handful of universities, half of which were established by foreigners who emphasized medicine, theology and literature, with scant regard to the practical subjects such as agriculture, engineering, commerce. TKK would change this, with Fujian’s first university which would turn out graduates in their thousands, and who would contribute directly to nation-building.

TKK pointed out to his fellowmen that in the west, many of the better known universities were supported financially by private interests, so it was only fitting that the huaqiao, having accumulated adequate disposable wealth, should pledge large sums to founding universities. As a sign of his commitment, he also announced that he had willed his entire assets (which at that time was quite awesome, comprising shops, warehouses, and a huge acreage of plantation land) to a foundation for education. He had hoped then that other even wealthier huaqiao would follow in his footsteps but unfortunately he was to meet with various set backs in the next two decades – crucial years for a fledgling education institution of this magnitude. This was despite having his close friend and trusted Xiamen University vice chancellor Dr Lim Boon Keng –  a prominent bi-lingual Singapore Peranakan and Justice of the Peace with many firsts to his name – travel to southeast Asia to solicit for funds during the early years. The university’s early days were also marked by student unrest and much ideological bickering between students and founders. The latter, represented by Dr Lim, leant towards the teaching of Confucian ethics which stressed moral training, linguistic competence (with English as the second language) and technical literacy, whilst the former saw all this as ‘old fashioned’. These students also came under the influence of ‘modern’ thinkers like Lu-Xun, a famous author and philosopher of the period who advocated a complete and revolutionary break with the past. Incidentally it also didn’t help that Lu-Xun was a faculty member in Xiamen University for a spell, and to this day a statue of him still stands in the grounds of the university.

Xiamen University today has not only survived its turbulent past, but is ranked as one of the top 20 universities in China for academic excellence, turning out 00,000 graduates a year for a truly wide range of professions that included medicine to scientific research, ………… Post liberation, TKK alone saw to the construction or major refurbishment of another 24 buildings, which together with the 40 buildings already existing, make up a thriving university town spread over more than 2 sqkm of choice inner suburban land (a spread even larger than the charming tourist island of Gulangyu nearby).

But setting up schools did not start and end with Jimei or even Xiamen. Even before Jimei, TKK had established a number of schools in Singapore. In fact, from 1907 to 1941 he donated to 13 schools, starting with sums of a few thousands to the first school, Tao Nan School, and the largest amount, nearly $150,000 to Chinese High School during the 1920s, when his business empire was at its zenith. In the final years before WW2, when finances were low, he had yet managed to scrap together a few hundred dollars in annual subscriptions to the Nanyang Normal College. From 1919 TKK also donated to Anglo Chinese School (ACS), an English school established by British missionaries when their project to set up an English university ran aground. And that remained the Singapore school that many of my English-school going uncles, (including my father), cousins, siblings, nephews, nieces and myself were educated from the 1920s to this day. To honour him, one of the 4 house colours to this day is named after TKK. At our 2008 reunion in Xiamen, some 13 of us descendants who were also ACS alumni gathered for a photo to commemorate the occasion.

It is actually not far wrong to say that TKK was obsessed with providing for education. When his business went into a downward spiral, he was besides himself with worry, and did everything he could to save his empire, not so much for himself, but for his educational endeavours. During his darkest day, he was to remark, ‘ It is quite alright if my businesses failed, but my schools cannot be allowed to fail…I can still rebuild my empire, but to restart the schools would be impossible.’  Besides leaning on the wealthy huaqiao and also his son-in-law Lee Kong Chian to provide sustained funding, TKK was also influential enough to have his compatriots establish the Chiyu Bank – set up in Hongkong (and now majority-owned by Bank of China), whose main purpose was and still is to disburse part of its profits to operate his schools.

 By giving his last penny to education, TKK had more than live up to his philosophy: ‘Money is like fertilizer, to be useful it has to be spread around.’

Cheng Yi and the Tan Kah Kee Spirit

Armed with such a strong moral compass, a man like Tan Kah Kee was expected to craft an unforgettable motto and live his life by it. Thus for him it would be Cheng Yi, which means sincerity and perserverance.  Cheng Yi just about underpins his relationship with the world at large, whilst at the same time internalizing the sum total of his thoughts and actions –  a simple concept that is yet fraught with all the complexities of a man who was driven and hopeful, anxious and tormented, selflessly brave and decisive.

TKK’s admirers and researchers themselves have come up with the Tan Kah Kee Spirit, which enshrines his deep Confucius precepts and practices, providing a clear moral compass for successful human endeavours. Personally, I prefer to see him as a grandfather, who, though non-religious, could yet perform a leap of faith into the unknown, giving his last ounce of energy, hoping for the best, but fully accepting his fate.

When TKK became an industrialist, developing rubber products for sale, he designed a logo in the shape of a bell, with a simple character, zhong, (as in zhong guo, China) but also a pun on ‘bell’ (zhong). He said this is to remind the Chinese to wake up from their slumber – a poverty-stricken land rent asunder by strife and rebellions, a country with a glorious past but which had now lost its compass.

Much of Jimei’s economy depends on education, with growing revenue from tourism – with the Tan Kah Kee Memorial Park as the town’s biggest draw.

The first visit

My first glimpse of Jimei was on a trishaw, slowly rumbling up to the TKK Residence in the autumn of 1986. My Singapore manager and I had traveled from Fuzhou, 5 hours up the dusty road on a local bus, which dropped us off at the Jimei bus-stop. That year was when I made my first trip to China, on a business mission, and the scenery along this highway could have stepped out of a Chinese ink painting – padi fields in the foreground, wooded greenery in the middle, and shadowy limestone cliffs in the background. Regrettably, I cannot find this any more today…could I have been dreaming?

 The buildings which grandfather built stood out as elegantly refreshing, nothing quite like the blocky Russian utilitarian massiveness I had seen on a 6-week odyssey to 16 cities and 11 provinces in China.  The Jimei schools gleamed like a unique version of a Mediterranean cum classical Chinese style of architecture.  When supervising its construction, TKK once remarked that the buildings should be clad in  ‘western style clothing but wearing a Chinese hat’ and how true – a brick and stone façade with gracefully pitched roofs of glistening green tiles*, something I never saw in China before. Was this what attracted President Richard Nixon’s curiosity when, on the road out of Xiamen (during his visit to China in 1972?), he asked to make an impromptu visit to this spread after listening to a short spiel about TKK in the car?

What surprised me most was that my uncle Jin Kiat, entrusted to take care of all TKK descendants, believed me when I phoned from Fuzhou the night before to say I was TKK’s granddaughter and would be making a visit. Upon arrival at the TKK Residence (which then served as an office), I found an impressive line-up of school officials patiently waiting for me. They didn’t turn a hair when they saw me trundle up in a rickety trishaw, half hidden inside by a heap of luggage!

For the next three days, I stayed at Kwei-lai Tang (House for Returnees, built by Chou Enlai for TKK’s descendants), a single-storey traditional courtyard house with several sparsely furnished rooms, and amply fed by Jin Kiat’s family who lived down the lane. The village atmosphere was most palpable and friendly, with children and pedestrians and cyclists. The air was fresh, and from the Residence (known as the GuJu), a splendid white-clad villa which was the home of TKK from the 1930s to his last days, you just have to walk in a straight line, past the Kwei-lai Tang, to his statue at the eastern end, which faces a beautiful park, which in turn overlooks his Ao-yuan Memorial tomb, a tall concrete needle that pointed to the sky and sea beyond.

Surrounding the Memorial and on the avenue leading to it is an extensive collection of stone-carved panels depicting various aspects of his life, from his days in the Nanyang, his many business enterprises, migrant workers on ships heading for the promised land, etc to Sun Yat Sen’s founding of the Republic, Comfort Mission trip, Japanese occupation, Nanchiau jigong men negotiating the treacherous 32 bends, historic Yenan visit. Amongst them are charming scenes of domesticity, school children in class, groups of people practicing good hygiene, rubber tappers, medical instruments, a selection of the world’s flora and fauna. A veritable encyclopaedia, and obviously work supervised to some detail by the man himself.

Though he was thrifty to a fault, Tan Kah Kee never objected to the money spent on his tomb, believing that what is depicted is necessary as teaching aids to the public. At the foot of the Memorial is his tombstone, elaborately carved in the shape of a turtle. In Chinese, a ‘hai gui’ or sea turtle stands for an immigrant, and a ‘hui gui’ an overseas Chinese returnee, so buried underneath here is one of China’s most famous sons and a hui gui. Many a time have my relatives and I stand on this spot at Qingming to place flowers and observe a minute’s respectful silence, caressed by the soft breezes from the ocean, and washed by the gentle rain that falls during this time of year.

Today visitors have a new place to go – the Tan Kah Kee Memorial Museum, a grand building designed to a neo-classical Chinese style, facing the Ao-yuan tomb and the sea beyond, with a magnificent flight of stairs leading up to imposing doorways. Opened only in October 2008, it contains three stories of artifacts, writings, photos, paintings and murals. Besides the obligatory statue, there is a theatrette with a running film commentary. Soon the museum will also house a large collection of Chinese art treasures which TKK salvaged post World War 2, when he persuaded the newly installed Communist government to purchase these items from their owners – cash-poor genteel folks anxious to rebuild their lives. 

The Descendants Visit (Oct 2008)

The buzz in the crowded reception area outside the main function hall in our Xiamen hotel was decidedly heady, filled with excitement and laughter as relatives hugged each other, or boldly introduced themselves to people they have never met in all their lives. It was certainly a defining moment, a unique atmosphere to be treasured – just imagine, these people were all related to me!  English was the lingua franca, as a sea of mainly Chinese faces but with a sprinkling of Caucasians (spouses) — having spread much carbon footprints traveling from eight countries in four continents –  congregated in this small space, balancing cups of tea, and nibbling finger food.  Our China hosts must have observed with some amusement as American and Australian accents mixed easily with Singlish, with the occasional clipped British ones (from a niece and her daughter who lived in the Isle of Wight!) floating through the air.  Listed in the directory are names as exotic as Colette Von Prockl-Chng (fifth generation with Polish/American/Chinese ancestry) and Sasha Aiko Tan (Japanese, American Chinese).  Like the majority of huaqiao emigrants, Tan Kah Kee’s seeds have truly scattered far and wide.

Soon we made our way into the hall with tables and seats arranged in true conference style. There the descendants were briefed on what to expect during all the ceremonies, as well as mundane things like what to wear and which bus number to take. We were also briefed on our two-week trip to four cities (besides Xiamen/Jimei) and ending with more banquets in Beijing, the headquarters of our hosts.

Each of us was also given a ‘goody bag’ containing a file of notes, souvenir gifts and a ‘Little Red Book’ listing all our names (English and Chinese) and order in the complicated family tree. One of my personal contributions was a logo, based on TKK’s original bell logo, designed just for this visit and emblazoned on tour-guide flags, coach windscreens, folders, and gift items given to several of our hosts.  In gratitude for the very generous invitation, everyone chipped in with donations that would go towards the upkeep of a primary school in rural Fujian province.

 From his four wives and 17 children, Tan Kah Kee has over 300 descendants encompassing 5 generations, but on this rather humid autumn day in October, only 100 -ranging from an uncle at aged 92 to a baby of 9 months –  managed to come. The trip was many months in the planning, made possible only because we live in an internet age, and aided by the vast and efficient organizational powers of our hosts, the Jimei Schools Committee and several quasi-government organizations, including the United Front of the People’s Political Consultative Committee. These people by now have become friends to us three ‘ring-leaders’ – my two cousins Danny Tan and DJ Tan, and myself. In particular, Danny and DJ planned this epic visit in great detail, personally making several visits prior to the big trip, just to make sure protocol was properly observed, and everything went according to plan. In fact, it was a big credit to everyone involved that the entire trip went so smoothly, right down to the issue of plane tickets, baggage transfer, sightseeing trips, etc. Perhaps we were beneficiaries of a post-Olympic effect?

Many of us have travlled on such organised visits to Jimei at least twice before, for a Tan Kah Kee celebration of one kind or another, followed by an enjoyable side-trip to a tourist resort or major cities. But the one in October 2008 was especially memorable for the sheer number of descendants (101), and the grand reception accorded – a mass rally at the sports hall and stadium, numerous banquets, and the pomp and splendour that accompanied the opening of the Tan Kah Kee Memorial Museum. Speeches, formal thank-you ceremonies, were very much the order of the day. However the most treasured moment was a group photo – babies and all –  taken at the foot of the new museum. Duly signed by everyone, these framed reproductions were ceremoniously presented to all our hosts.

Those nephews and nieces (representing the younger generations, and now adults with children in tow), who have lived all their lives in the west, were prompted to remark that the trip would be permanently etched in their minds. They were overwhelmed by the thunderous applause that met us as we walked into a stadium of thousands to take our seats, surprised by jostling reporters angling for a soundbite, and stunned by the splendour of the banqueting traditions. Most of them had not the foggiest notion of just who their illustrious ancestor was. But to the people of China, Tan Kah Kee was not only a towering figure of historic proportions, he was highly respected and admired for his integrity, vision, his bravery and unwavering focus to pull China up by its bootstraps. Most moving of all, he was also much loved for his compassion and selfless devotion to the people of this vast land.

 I wonder if it had really sunk in when the head of the United Front (and a senior government official), upon receiving us in the awesome, plushy decorated hall that was their Beijing headquarters, stated in his simple and elegant way that China today had finally achieved the objectives of grandfather’s dreams – that of a strong and proud nation that could take its rightful place in the world order. As descendants of Tan Kah Kee we were warmly welcomed to visit, to live, to do business(!) and to participate in many exchange programmes available. China owed a debt to this son of the soil, and as his descendants we should not forget it.


A famous man is often remembered for his sayings, and Tan Kah Kee has a venerable collection of them. Some of my favourites:

Money makes the rich lazy, and the foolish, something even worse.

If you have an idle moment, for heavens sake don’t waste it, find something worthwhile to do.

There is no point in passing your fortune to your children – the smart ones can easily find their own, and the foolish ones will waste all your money anyway.

Disaster never seemed to have an end…I was feeling like a person running for his life from a robber, and then finding himself suddenly in the presence of a tiger.. (when the depression hit, with rubber prices at impossible lows, his best people having left him, school expenses became too much to bear, and debtors began knocking on his door…)


I find some consolation in the old saying “The one who begins a good cause does not necessarily have to see it through”.  (when, due to his business collapse, he was unable to continue to fund Xiamen University, which he founded and built in 1921, and had to ask the Chinese government to take over its operations 16 years later)


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