Tan Kah Kee's Biography

Tan Kah Kee
Tan Kah Kee, 1874 - 1961

An overseas Chinese legend, Mr. Tan Kah Kee's legacies have inspired many in Southeast Asia. From humble immigrant origins, he rose to prominence as an eminent entrepreneur, social reformer, political activist, philanthropist, community leader and educationist. Tan Kah Kee passed away at the age of 86 in Beijing on 12 August 1961 and was accorded a national funeral by the Chinese Government for his immense contributions to society.

This page is a timeline of details extracted from various literature sources about the life, efforts and contributions of Mr. Tan Kah Kee.


Jimei Village
Jimei Village

Tan Kah Kee was born at Ji Mei village in Tung An District, Fujian Province, China on . He received traditional education at Nan Xuan Private School in the village.

Singapore 1890
Hokkien Street, Chinatown 1890

In 1890, Tan Kah Kee arrived in Singapore for the first time. At the age of 16, he joined his father, Mr. Tan Kee Peck, in the family's rice trading business as an apprentice and bookkeeper. Tan proved himself to be an exceptional worker, and by 1892, he was put in charge of Chop Soon Ann company after his uncle fell ill and retired.

Jimei Village
Jimei Village, Tan Kah Kee's home town and birth place

In 1893, Tan Kah Kee travelled back to his home village Ji Mei, China and married Mdm Teo Po Ke. He remained in Ji Mei for almost two years before returning to Singapore in 1895. He later made two more trips back to China for his mother's death and funeral, and returned to Singapore for the 4th time in 1903.

In 1903, Chop Soon Ann failed, leaving Tan Kah Kee much on his own.

North Boat Quay 1904
Khiam Aik rice mill was located at North Boat Quay

With extraordinary fortitude and enterprise, he set about establishing a business of his own. One of his first businesses was Sin Lee Chuan, a small pineapple canning factory at Sembawang, which he managed to start with a small capital of 7,000 Straits dollars. He subsequently bought over Jit Sin, one of the largest pineapple cannery factories. He then bought a 500-acre undeveloped forested land in Singapore and started to open up the land, removing the thick foliage to start the Hock Shan Plantation.

From the profits he made from the pineapple business, he revived his family's old rice trade, setting up Khiam Aik rice mill at North Boat Quay, the original location of Chop Soon Ann.

Pineapple Boom
Pineapple was a blooming industry in the 1900s

1905 was the turning point in Tan Kah Kee's business fortune. He set up his third pineapple cannery at Rochor River, and business boomed. Tan Kah Kee's pineapple canneries did more than just building up his personal fortunes; they were seen as the forerunners of an indigenous industrial revolution in Southeast Asia. It showed the rest of the region that, with commercial impetus, industrialisation was possible.

Towards the end of the year, more competition entered the blooming pineapple industry, and profits dwindled. Tan Kah Kee understood that in order for the business to continue growing, he needed to capitalize on market forces and diversify into new markets and opportunites.

Harvesting sap from a rubber tree

Aware of the potential that the rubber trade had, Tan Kah Kee allocated part of the Hock Shan plantation to rubber saplings in 1906. At that time, rubber was largely viewed as a European business dominated by large-scale European companies. Tan was undetered. His foresight and bold decision proved to be astute, as rubber boomed in the subsequent years and became a mainstay in his business.

Old Tao Nan School
Tao Nan School at Armenian Street

Tan Kah Kee strongly believed that education was the key to social upliftment. In 1907, he founded Tao Nan School together with 109 other members of the Hokkien community.

Everybody is responsible for the rise or fall of the country
Handwritten words by Tan Kah Kee: Everybody is responsible for the rise or fall of the country

As a strong supporter of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, Tan Kah Kee joined the Tung Meng Hui in 1910 to resist the Qing Manchurian regime in China. Having seen the rapid growth of Western powers and rampant incompetence of a orrupt Qing regime, Tan Kah Kee was a strong believer of a Chinese revolution to restore democratic leadership.

Fujian Military Government, 1911
The new military government of Fujian, 1911

After the successful Xinhai Revolution in 1911, where revolutionists overthrew Qing dynasty rule, an independent military government was established in Fujian. To assist the new Fujian Province Recovery Regime, the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan set up the Preservation of Peace Society, and Tan Kah Kee was elected President of the society. He raised more than $200,000.

Later in 1911, after Dr. Sun Yat Sen was elected president of the Provisional Government of the newly established Republic of China, Tan Kah Kee raised an additional $50,000 to support Dr. Sun Yat Sen's democratic government.

Ai Tong School
Ai Tong School

Tan Kah Kee helped set up Ai Tong School, which opened for classes on 12 Oct 1912, teaching a curriculum based on the fundamentals of Chinese values.

He later went back to China to set up Ji Mei School in his hometown. Ji Mei School officially opened in 1913, and Tan Kah Kee returned to Singapore for the 5th time.

Chong Hock Girls' School
Chong Hock Girls' School

The First World War had broken out in 1914. Tan Kah Kee took a bold step and entered the shipping industry, which was a lucrative wartime undertaking. He rented a total of 4 vessels and started a successful shipping business.

In his rubber business, Tan Kah Kee also transitioned from rubber planting to rubber goods manufacturing, using the same workers at his pineapple cannery factories.

In the same year, he also set up Chong Hock Girls' School.

Tan Kah Kee
Factory workers at Tan Kah Kee's rubber mill

Tan Kah Kee continued expanding in the rubber business, and converted Khiam Aik into a rubber mill in 1917.

Tan Kah Kee also sent his younger brother back to Fujian to prepare setting up Ji Mei Secondary School and Ji Mei Normal School.

When the Tientsin Flood struck, Tan Kah Kee led fundraising efforts for the Tientsin Relief Fund set up by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry.

The Chinese High School
The Chinese High School

Tan Kah Kee founded The Chinese High School on 21 Mar 1919.

He also pledged $100,000 to building the proposed Anglo-Chinese College. After plans for the college were aborted, he donated $30,000 to Anglo Chinese School instead.

Tan Kah Kee decided to devote his life to promoting education, and returned to Ji Mei to prepare for the setting up of Xiamen University. He also organized Tung An Education Committee to provide annual financial help to more than thirty primary schools.

Xiamen University
The old campus of Xiamen University

Xiamen University officially opened in 1921.

In 1922, Tan Kah Kee returned to Singapore for the 6th time to expand his rubber business.

Ee Hoe Hean Club
Ee Hoe Hean Club at Bukit Pasoh

Tan Kah Kee founded the Nanyang Siang Pau Chinese newspaper. He also became chairman of Ee Hoe Hean Club, an exclusive club for Chinese businessmen.

Tan Kah Kee
Tan Kah Kee was known as the Henry Ford of Malaya

Tan Kah Kee reached the pinnacle of financial success in 1925, and was recognized as one of the earliest industrial pioneers in Southeast Asia. At his peak, he had more than 10,000 acres of rubber plantation. He was nicknamed Henry Ford of Malaya.

The Chinese High School
The clock tower building of The Chinese High School

In 1926, Tan Kah Kee expanded the campus of The Chinese High School, as well as founded Ji Mei Farming and Forestry School.

Tan Kah Kee's businesses began to decline due to heavily depressed rubber prices. He was forced to stop part of the building projects for Xiamen University and Ji Mei School.

Jinan Incident
Hostilities in the Jinan Incident

Japanese occupied Jinan, Shandong on May 3 1928, and slaughtered more than 5,000 Chinese soldiers and civilians. When the news reached Singapore, Tan Kah Kee organised the Shandong Relief Fund to aid China and create awareness of the Japanese aggression.

Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan
Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan

Tan Kah Kee was elected president of the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan in 1929.

Tan Kah Kee also made a generous $10,000 donation to Raffles College that year.

Tan Kah Kee Company
Exterior of Tan Kah Kee's company

In Feb 1934, Tan Kah Kee Ltd. was liquidated and wound up. Despite major business losses, Tan Kah Kee continued to finance the various schools he had supported thus far.

Tan Kah Kee also donated to the Bukit Ho Swee Fire Relief Fund that year.

Second Sino-Japanese War
The Second Sino-Japanese War erupted in July 1937

After news of eruption the Second Sino-Japanese War reached Singapore, Tan Kah Kee headed the Singapore China Relief Fund, and raised ten million Singapore dollars to support the Chinese against the Japanese invasion.

Tan Kah Kee Chairman China Relief Fund
Tan Kah Kee addresses 10,000 at Happy World in May 1939

On 19 Oct 1938, Tan Kah Kee was elected as president of the South-East Asia Federation of the China Relief Fund. When he heard that Wang Jingwei, a senior official in the China government, suggested holding peace talks with the Japanese, he was furious. He wrote a motion to Chinese parliament to strongly oppose Wang. He succeeded, and this episode was thereafter famously remembered as The Cable Motion in Chinese History.

Tan Kah Kee also actively organised public mass aseemblies in Singapore to spread awarenss of the Japanese aggression, and to garner and inspire support from the overseas Chinese in anti-Japanese efforts. He publicly encouraged the boycott of Japanese goods.

Tan Kah Kee welcomed in China 1940
Tan Kah Kee was warmly welcomed by the Chinese during his visit in 1940

In 1939, Tan Kah Kee founded Nanyang Fishery and Marine School.

In 1940, Tan Kah Kee organised the Overseas Chinese Consolation and Inspection Team, and visited Chongqing and Yenan on 26 Mar amidst the ongoing war.

Pearl Harbour Wreckage
Wreckage at Pearl Harbor, Dec 1941

In 1941, Tan Kah Kee was re-elected as president of the Relief Committee of Nanyang Overseas Chinese for China's Refugees.

Tan Kah Kee also founded Nanyang Overseas Chinese Normal School in that year.

On 7 Dec 1941, the Japanese army launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, erupting the Pacific War. On 30 Dec 1941, the Overseas Chinese Mobilization Council was set up and led by Tan Kah Kee.

Tan Kah Kee's home in Java
Tan Kah Kee's home in Java

Singapore fell to Japan on 15 Feb 1942. During the Sook Ching massacre, Japanese hunted and killed any Chinese suspected of harbouring anti-Japanese sentiments. Because of his social status and earlier involvement in anti-Japanese efforts, Tan Kah Kee was a prime target for the Japanese during the occupation.

Fortunately, Tan Kah Kee managed to avoid capture and escaped to Marang, East Java, Indonesia. While in hiding, he started writing Memoirs of Nanyang Overseas Chinese.

Tan Kah Kee with Nehru
Tan Kah Kee was a supporter of Nehru's Indian independence movement

After the war ended in 1945, Tan Kah Kee returned to Singapore.

In 1946, he founded and published Nan Chiao Jit Poh, a newspaper that was critical of the ruling Kuomintang in China. Tan Kah Kee was also openly supportive of Nehru in his fight for India's independence.

Nan Chiao Girls High School
Tan Kah Kee founded Nan Chiao Girls High School in 1947

In 1947, Tan Kah Kee organised a conference with Singapore Overseas Chinese, and criticized the Dutch colonists' cruel treatment of the Indonesian Chinese. He decided to impose economic sanctions on the Dutch government.

Tan Kah Kee founded Nan Chiao Girls High School in 1947.

He also founded the Jiyou bank in Hong Kong to finance the running of various schools in Ji Mei.

Tan Kah Kee Farewell Speech
Tan Kah Kee giving a speech during the Farewell Party

In 1949, Tan Kah Kee returned to China for the first time since the end of the World War.

Tan Kah Kee decided to devote the rest of his life and fortune to reconstruction projects. He rebuilt the Ji Mei schools and Ji Mei University, and also proposed to build the Hokkien Railway. In 1950, Tan Kah Kee returned to Singapore for the last time to wind up his businesses and retire to his hometown, Ji Mei.

Overseas Chinese Museum in Xiamen
Overseas Chinese Museum in Xiamen

Throughout 1955, Tan Kah Kee traveled China to inspect the conditions in the various provinces.

In 1956, Tan Kah Kee was elected as Chairman of the Returned Overseas Chinese Association.

In 1959, Tan Kah Kee established the Overseas Chinese Museum in Xiamen.

Tan Kah Kee Tombstone
Tan Kah Kee's Tombstone

Tan Kah Kee passed away in Beijing on 12 Aug 1961. His body was returned to Ji Mei village, where a state funeral was held. Finally, he was buried in Ao Yuan, Ji Mei.