20 Pages

« Nanyang Chinese Patriotism towards China knows no political Boundaries »: The Case of Tan Kah Kee (1874-1961) - article ; n°1 ; vol.32, pg 163-181


Gain access to the library to view online
Learn more


Archipel - Année 1986 - Volume 32 - Numéro 1 - Pages 163-181
19 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



Published by
Published 01 January 1986
Reads 21
Language English
Document size 1 MB

Yong Ching-Fatt
« Nanyang Chinese Patriotism towards China knows no political
Boundaries »: The Case of Tan Kah Kee (1874-1961)
In: Archipel. Volume 32, 1986. pp. 163-181.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Ching-Fatt Yong. « Nanyang Chinese Patriotism towards China knows no political Boundaries »: The Case of Tan Kah Kee
(1874-1961). In: Archipel. Volume 32, 1986. pp. 163-181.
doi : 10.3406/arch.1986.2317
http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/arch_0044-8613_1986_num_32_1_2317YONG Ching-Fatt
«Nanyang Chinese Patriotism towards
China knows no Political Boundaries»:
the Case of Tan Kah Kee (1874-1961)
at the On ripe 12 August old age 1961, of 87. there He passed was accorded away in a Peking state funeral an extraordinary by the governman,
ment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in recognition of his deeds
and achievements during his illustrious lifetime. Among his mourners were
some of the top-ranking party, military and government officials in the land,
including Chu Teh, Chou En-lai, Ch'en Po-ta, Liao Ch'eng-chih and Tung
Pi-wu. Mao Tse-tung, Liu Shao-ch'i, Madam Sun Yat-sen and many others
lay their wreaths and sent their condolences to Tan Kah Kee's family. From
Peking, the hearse was carried by train and arrived on 20 August for a
final burial at the Ao Garden at Chip Bee, Fukien province, on a grand
and extensive ground covering some 20,000 square feet. There an ornate,
elaborate and personally designed tomb had long been completed as his res
ting place. Thousands of mourners from Fukien province lined the roads
and streets from Chip Bee right through to the Ao Garden to pay their
last homage to the best and proudest son even produced in the area in
modern times - Tan Kah Kee.
In the wake of his death, many returned huarch'iao held their own memor
ial services in 23 cities and towns in China including Peking, Foochow,
Amoy and Canton. These were followed by the Chinese living in Hong Kong
and Kowloon, Singapore, Rangoon, Jakarta, Semarang, Bandung, Sura
baya, Palembang, Pontianak, Yokohama, Calcutta, Paris and Leipzig in
West Germany, as a sign of respect and sorrow. Never in the history of
the Chinese in Southeast Asia had so many found it compelling to mourn
the loss of a single man.
This paper examines Tan Kah Kee's political role in Singapore/Malaya
and in China prior to 1950 and assesses his position in the history of modern 164
China and Southeast Asia.
Born in Chip Bee village, Tung An district, Fukien province, China, on
21 October 1874, Tan Kah Kee spent over fifty years between 1890 and
1950 in Singapore, these being some of the best and most productive times
in his life.
His life and times encompassed a vast and exciting era of revolutionary
change in China and rapid socio-political change in Southeast Asia. Person
ally, he witnessed the decline and demise of the Manchu regime, the rise
and fall of the Kuomintang government under Chiang Kai-shek and the
rebirth of a modernised China under Communist rule. In Southeast Asia
generally, and in Malaya and Singapore particularly, he saw Western impe
rialism in full flight, gradually being eroded by the rise and development
of Southeast Asian nationalism which aimed at the creation of modern inde
pendent nation states.
Tan Kah Kee's Chinese background covered a traumatic and painful era.
External threats in the form of war, unequal treaties, indemnities, loss of
territories, and foreign intervention in Chinese politics and internal affairs,
prompted the rise of Chinese nationalism in the 1890's and they served
as fuels for perpetuating the national feeling after the 1890 's. On the other
hand, internal crisis, consisting of rebellions, misgovernment, warlordism,
socio-economic dislocation, natural disasters and famine, fostered hua ch'iao
compassion for China. When China's destiny became at stake, thus the con
cern and obsession of the politically-conscious Chinese, it was neither unnat
ural nor surprising that the hua-ch'iao communities overseas responded
by rallying behind her in whatever ways deemed feasible, even at the cost
of clashing with the colonial interests at times.
While modern China and her deepening national crises kept the hua-
ch'iao loyalty on the boil, it should be pointed out that the colonial environ
ment in the pre-War Singapore and Malaya was not at all conducive to the
creation of a political loyalty towards these two territories among the Chi
The British colonial authorities were clearly and positively in favour of
the Straits-born Chinese, who were invariably English-educated and pro
minent professionals, including lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects and
accountants. These were groomed and nurtured to serve as spokesmen for
the whole Chinese community to the increasing resentment and envy of
the hua-ch'iao community. Even so, there was only limited opportunity for
political mobility for the King's favoured subjects as there was neither fran
chise nor parliamentary democracy as such in pre-War Singapore. A lack
of genuine political mobility for competent and ambitious Chinese under
colonial rule must, to a certain extent, be considered responsible for those
immigrant Chinese who continued to look to China for inspiration and aspi- 165
ration. This phenomenon, together with the colonial disinterest in the Chi
nese culture and language, may even explain why some of the brightest
Straits-born scholars and professionals including Dr Ku Hung-ming
(1857-1928), Dr Wu Lien-teh and Dr Lim Boon Keng (1869-1957) returned
to serve China in various capacities.
Tan Kah Kee's rise to political leadership and power from the 1920's
was built on a combination of complex conditions then existing in both Sin
gapore and China. These complex included his powerful econo
mic base, his pre-eminent social status, his formidable institutional and
power base, his cordial working relationships with the British and his accep
tance by the Kuomintang regime in the pre-War years, among others.
He successfully built up his financial fortune from 1904 through rubber
planting, pineapple canning and rice trade and became a millionaire by 1910.
The First World War prompted him to venture into shipping which made
him a multi-millionaire by 1918. His post- War business career was impress
ive with his firm, Tan Kah Kee & Co. branching out into every single line
of the rubber industry, including planting, trade, milling, rubber goods
manufacturing and retailing. At the height of his career in 1925, he made
a net profit of $ 8 million 0). In 1946 when publishing his own autobio
graphy, Nan-ch'iao hui-i-lu, Tan Kah Kee readily admitted that one must
first «...establish enterprises before being capable of serving the society
and, latter on, of leading the Southeast Asian Chinese to help promote
China's war effort against Japan» (2).
Suffice it to say here that Tan Kah Kee's uncanny ability to control a
great business empire with an employment figure of over 10,000 each year
during the 1920's was in itself a great feat. With his unquestionable skills
in business management, it presented no problem at all to him to provide
pang, community and political leadership whenever opportunities arose.
Moreover, a sound and creditable economic base in itself must mean an
equally sound and creditable social standing and prestige. In a commercial
and capitalist society in Singapore, a person with means had traditionally
enjoyed a higher social status. Tan Kah Kee was more than that. He was
a rubber magnate, a business tycoon, and a towering industrialist, easily
and popularly recognisable to the governments and the masses. There is
no doubt that his sound economic base was partly responsible for him being
appointed by the British authorities in 1918 as a Justice of the Peace, and
in 1923 as a member of the Chinese Advisory Board, dealing with Chinese
community affairs. Finally, a sound economic base allowed Tan Kah Kee
to be more charitable and generous in his social, educational and commun
ity works. By so doing, his prestige as a social reformer, philantropist,
educational promoter and community leader was further cemented.
Although wealth per se conveyed esteem in the Chinese communities 166
overseas, it was the fulfilment of social responsibility through providing
community services, financial support and manpower resources when need
arose which was crucial to the building of a creditable social standing, and
to the rise of community leadership. His track record in education promot
ion in both Singapore and China was impressive. In Singapore, he helped
found five Chinese primary and secondary schools and donated some $
40,000 to both the Raffles College and the Anglo-Chinese School. The pro
motion of education for the whole Chinese community between 1907 and
1949 consolidated his community status and leadership by 1918 when the
Singapore Chinese High School was founded. However, it was in Chip Bee
and Amoy where he invested by far the largest quantities of his fortunes
in education. By the time he died in 1961, Tan Kah Kee had spent over
$ 15 million on the building and maintenance of his Chip Bee Schools and
the Amoy University, founded in 1921. His second son, Tan Khuat Siong,
gave a figure of over $ 20 million in 1963 for his father's educational donat
ions of a life time (3).
Tan Kah Kee was one of the few hua-ch'iao who recognized the impor
tance of education as a means of modernizing China. He argued strongly
when campaigning for the establishment of the Amoy University in 1919
that university graduates, armed with modern scientific, technical and spe
cialist knowledge, would be better equipped to build a nation, to wipe out
the relics of political dictatorship and to promote education and enter
prise (4). His own role in the transformation of China was to utilise his financ
ial resources to maintain the Chip Bee Schools and the Amoy University
and to turn out graduates for bringing about an orderly China <5). Tan Kah
Kee achieved national fame when the Amoy University was founded and
he has remained the only person in the history of China to have single-
handedly founded a university and maintained it for 16 years until 1937
when it became one of the State universities in China.
Tan Kah Kee was charitable in temperament and donated a sum of $
0.5 million <6) towards charities between 1904 and 1931. Moreover, he led
five major fund-raising campaigns between 1917 and 1934 for charities.
However, in his lifetime he refused to spend money on his children, saying
that «wealth would impair the ambition of the wise (children) and increase
the follies of the foolish» and that «money is like fertiliser; it has to be spread
One other major source for building a formidable social standing and
community leadership and power was through the establishment of an intri
cate and complex kinship and patron-client network. The ability and wil
lingness of Tan Kah Kee to bring these interlocking relationships, either
overtly or tacitly, into community actions for common good enhanced his
own leadership status and power in the Chinese community in Singapore 167
and Malaya.
Tan Kah Kee had seventeen children, nine boys and eight girls. Admitt
edly, not all his children were married to powerful families. Nevertheless,
some of the marriages did help bring wealthy families together. Tan Kah
Kee's kinship connections were extended to Lee Kong Chian (1920), Lim
Nee Soon (1923), Chang Kang Swi (1928), Chew Hean Swee (1935) and Yap
Geok Twee (1947) C7). All these families were obliged to help him in his drive
for community and political leadership and through them Tan Kah Kee was
able to reach out to other powerful families (e.g., Lee Choon Guan, Tan
Cheng Lock, See Tiong Wah and Oei Tiong Ham) who happened to esta
blish kinship relationships with them.
In his lifetime, Tan Kah Kee had numerous clients, which in itself boos
ted his social standing. As a patron and patriarch, Tan Kah Kee's clients
came from at least three sources, his ex-employees, students and graduat
es from Tao Nan and the Singapore Chinese High School and those from
his Chip Bee Schools and Amoy University. Many of these were naturally
grateful to him for employment and education, others felt morally bound
to support his community and political leadership in whatever way they
could. Some even went on to follow in his footsteps by providing employ
ment and education to the Chinese in various parts of Southeast Asia.
One final result for and outcome of a pre-eminent social standing con
cerns Tan Kah Kee's community networks and power base. It was in these
areas where Tan Kah Kee exerted his socio-political influences, mobilised
his manpower resources and support, and led the Chinese community for
action. While Tan Kah Kee had established various institutional networks,
including the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce, the Straits Con
fucian Association, the Singapore Chinese Rubber Dealers' Association and
the Tung Meng Hui, his two most important power bases were the Hok
kien Huay Kuan and the Ee Ho Hean Club. The Hokkien Huay Kuan was
the highest pang body for the Hokkiens in Singapore; he became its leader
until 1949. The Ee Ho Hean Club was historically known as a millionaire's
Club in Singapore with members from the wealthy sector of the Chinese
community. He became its president for some 16 years between 1923 and
1947. With Tan Kah Kee at the helm of the Hokkien Huay Kuan, it was
possible for him to mobilize and utilize the pang's financial, man
power and intellectual resources for community affairs and political actions.
The Ee Ho Hean Club was one of the most dynamic Chinese socio-political
clubs in the twentieth century with leaders from all other Chinese pangs
(dialect-groupings) joining it as from 1920's. By being a more truly inter-
pang Club, Tan Kah Kee extended his influence over other pang leaders
for a common cause or action. Prior to 1928, the Ee Ho Hean Club had
already been known as a nerve centre for Chinese nationalism. It was a 168
den for ch'ang long au-fu (dragons and tigers), which were capable of doing
extraordinary things. Tan Kah Kee relentlessly and consciously kept up
the reformist and revolutionary tradition by making it the headquarters
of all his major socio-political campaigns for funds an for national salva
tion between 1928 and 1941. He did it by involving leaders from other pangs
to join hands with him in the campaigns. Serving as a planning, contact
and action centre, the Ee Ho Hean Club was to become formidable socio
political force where members, who were merchant-capitalists and reco
gnised pang and clean leaders, pooled their resources together for a com
mon cause. It was indeed a power house because each individual member
not only had substantial financial status, resources and social influence on
his own, but also extensive organisational networks and personal following.
It was on this basis that the Club became the most important power base
of Tan Kah Kee and an institution of historical significance in the Chinese
community of Singapore.
With solid backing from Club members, Tan Kah Kee was able to launch
such mass movements as the Shantung Relief Fund (1928-9) and the Sin
gapore China Relief Fund (1937-42). An examination of their respective
power structure will reveal that the Club members were well entrenched
in them. For example, out of the 32 committee members of the Shantung
Relief Fund, half of them were Club members. More importantly, these
members held key positions, e.g., president, vice-president and treasurer.
For the Singapore China Relief Fund, the picture was similar with Club contributing 15 members of its 31-member Committee. Again,
its president, Tan Kah Kee, and treasurer, Lee Chin Tian, were Ee Ho Hean
While the Chinese government's recognition of Tan Kah Kee's leader
ship and leadership qualities came belatedly during the 1930's, the British
toleration, acceptance and, finally, legitimization of his leadership was cru
cial to his political success between 1928 and 1942. Except during Clementi's
governorship (1930-4), Tan Kah Kee enjoyed a cordial working relation
ship with the British who had respected his organisational power and enter
prise and had endorsed his application for naturalization as a British sub
ject in 1916, appointed him a JP in 1918 and a member of the Chinese Advi
sory Board in 1923. Much of this cordial relationship between them was
fostered through Sng Choon Yee, his crucial government link. Sng was a
close friend of Tan Kah Kee and a member of the Ee Ho Hean Club; he
was the Chief Chinese Translator between 1927 and 1931 and was promo
ted in 1932 to be the Chinese Secretary for the Secretary for Chinese
Affairs, thus the «right-hand man» of first A.M. goodman and then A.B.
Jordan, the last Secretary for Chinese Affairs in the pre-War years. To
some extent, Sng's support for Tan Kah Kee's political leadership was a 169
reflection of his own smothered nationalistic feeling for China, then under
immense duress. More importantly, his final choice for Tan Kah Kee as
the leader of the Shantung Relief fund, the Singapore China Relief Fund
and the Southseas China Relief Fund Union (1938-1949) was made in the
context and understanding that Tan Kah Kee was more responsible, more
prone to compromise, more answerable to the British, and less likely to
cause long-term damage to the British rule in Singapore and Malaya. Thus
on reflection of his socio-political campaigns between 1928 and 1941, Tan
Kah Kee gladly acknowledged the assistance provided by Sng Choon Yee
and was grateful to him for them (8). In the post-War years, however, as
Tan Kah Kee' s political confidence grew appreciably stronger and his poli
tical status higher, Sng Choon Yee's advice and assistance were rarely
sought. The two remained friends right through to the end of Tan Kah Kee's
Tan Kah Kee's political conciousness began at the age of ten and ele
ven in 1884 and 1885 when war broke out between China and France which
destroyed the Foochow Shipyards and China's Southern fleet. However,
it was the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-5) which had made a more signifi
cant impact on him. Writing in 1949, Tan Kah Kee gave an account of the
impact of the War on Fukien province and confirmed that he had been con-
cious of the aggressiveness of the Japanese and the impotency of the Man-
chu regime to uphold China's territorial sovereignty. Out of the experience
of this impact of the War arose the patriot for China's cause of later years.
Tan Kah Kee's latent anti-Manchu feelings were steadily being built up
during the 1900's with the visit of Chinese reformists and revolutionaries
to Singapore. These political exiles attempted to enlist overseas Chinese
support and to propagate their contending ideologies on reform, revolu
tion and modernization of China. Tan Kah Kee never met K'ang Yu-wei
(1858-1927) and was never noted as his supporter. However, he met Sun
Yat-sen three times in Singapore, twice in 1909 and once in 1911 when
Sun was on his way to Nanking in the wake of the Double-tenth revolu
tion. Tan Kah Kee was impressed with Sun Yat-sen's leadership and jo
ined the Singapore branch of the Tung Meng Hui (United League) in 1910.
In 1911, Tan Kah Kee promised to raise $ 50,000 for Sun Yat-sen and remit
ted it to him in 1912 when Sun Yat-sen cabled him for the money. The three
meetings with Sun Yat-sen cemented Tan Kah Kee's personal friendship
with the founder of the Chinese Republic of China.
Tan Kah Kee's first taste of political power and leadership took place
in November 1911 when leaders of the Hokkien pang responded to the 1911
revolution by convening a public rally of the Hokkiens to discuss financial
assistance for the independent Fukien province. At this historic meeting,
attended by over 1,000 Hokkiens, Tan Kah Kee was elected president of 170
the Hokkien Protection fund, along with nineteen other office-bearers, who
were responsible for raising a sum of $ 120,000 for the military govern
ment of Fukien province. The nine-months campaign for funds tested his
leadership qualities and consolidated his position and prestige as a formi
dable pang leader. Had Tan Kah Kee made more publicity in the local Chi
nese newspapers and mobilized more manpower resources for fund-raising,
the result would have been better. By comparison, the Kwang-tung Pro
tection Fund, founded on 20 November 1911, by the Kwantung pang rai
sed a staggering $ 200,000 to make the independence of more
Between September 1912 and April 1928, it seems paradoxical that Tan
Kah Kee was culturally, educationally, socially and economically active and
even aggressive while remaining politically dormant and inarticulate. It was
probably a combination of akward political circumstances in China (i.e., war-
lordism) and in Singapore (British pressure) that kept Tan Kah Kee politi
cally quiet for all the years up to 1928. During these years of comparative
silence, Tan Kah Kee's love for China was channelled through educational
and industrial promotion at a feverish pace. He was positive that his Amoy
University would produce thousands of graduates to man various institu
tions all over China and to help bring about an orderly society. His various
industrial plants in Singapore during the 1920' s were regarded by him as
training schools for training skilled workers and technicians for the modern
ization of China.
Yet, Tan Kah Kee, the irresistible and the irrepressible, responded posi
tively and forcefully to the unification of China in 1927-8 under Chiang Kai-
shek. He was among the first Chinese in Singapore to rejoice at the unifi
cation and personally wrote a notice in Chinese - «Support the Nanking
government is our main objective»- to be hung at the office of his news
paper, the Nanyang Siang Pau. His rationale was that since most foreign
powers had recognised the Nanking government in 1928, it was the duty
of Chinese nationals to do likewise. From that moment on, Tan Kah Kee
became a staunch supporter of Chiang Kai-shek and his regime until 1940
when he visited China on a comfort Mission to assess the war conditions
and formulate his own personal opinion about the nature, direction, opera
tion and leadership of the Kuomintang regime in Chungking. But in 1928,
Tan Kah Kee was mildly intoxicated and exhilarated with the illusion of
the birth of a «new» China which had eluded him for seveteen years. As
a Chinese nationalist at heart, Tan Kah Kee was prepared to do more for
his country and people to wipe off years of forlorn hope, imposed silence
and suppressed passion. And wipe off the humiliation he did and with a
vengeance, when the Tsinan Incident exploded on 3 May 1928. This Inci
dent was a military clash between Chiang Kai-shek's northern Expedition 171
Army and the Japanese troops in Tsinan, Shantung province, resulting in
heavy Chinese military and civilian casualties. This Incident unleashed an
unprecedented nationalist fervour in the Chinese community in Singapore
and Malaya in the form of two political mass movements: one fund-raising
for war victims and the other a prolonged and hostile economic boycott
against Japanese goods. Through the assistance of Sng Choon Yee within
the Chinese Secretariat, Tan Kah Kee was able to call a public rally on 17
May for Shantung relief. Attended by over 1,000 delegates, representing
122 community organisations, Tan Kah Kee chaired the meeting and was
elected as chairman of the 32-member Shantung Relief Fund Committee,
with his headquarters at the Ee Ho Hean Club. While raising a sum of $
1.34 million for Shantung Relief, the nine-month campaign for funds tho
roughly politicised the Chinese community in Singapore. It became a mass
political movement with sound organisational principles (e.g., centraliza
tion of fund-raising under the Fund and popularization of fund-raising rea
ching down to all pangs and classes) and techniques (e.g., decentralization
and compartmentalization of fund-subscriptions). Many other forms of fund-
raising were experimented with, with considerable success. These inclu
ded the staging of variety shows, theatrical performances and Teochew ope
ras, a special donation from Chinese commercial firms, a monthly subscrip
tion from employees working in Chinese rubber firms and a «rubber sur
tax» under the management of the Rubber Dealers' Association,
imposing a ten cents levy on each picul of rubber sheets imported into Sin
gapore. Moreover, Chinese newspapers were used more extensively for
publicising activities of the Fund and lists of donors every day. Finally, two
affiliated Funds were created for soliciting subscriptions: a Ladies' Relief
Fund and a Harbour and Marine Relief Fund. The former aimed at collec
ting subscriptions from women and the latter from transport workers, sai
lors, and carriers working at the Singapore river and Singapore waterfront.
As well, the Shantung Relief Fund established fourteen other fund-raising
corps, each responsible for one specific zone in Singapore. Fund-raisers from
these Corps were to collect subscriptions through doorknocks on each house
in each street within their stipulated zone. In terms of mass participation,
a Nanyang Siang Pau reporter was prepared to estimate that one third
of Singapore's Chinese population, or over 100,000, had participated in the
campaign one way or another, while A.M. Goodman, the Secretary for Chi
nese Affairs, concurred that «in Singapore practically every Chinese rich
or poor subscribed, from Straits-born Chinese such as Eu Tong Sen, M.B.E.,
and S.J. Chan, the present member of the Council down to rickshaw pul
lers and singing girls» (9).
Quite apart from mass participation, the Shantung Relief Fund broke
the pang limitations and barriers, making the Chinese more ready to be