Spotlight: Keeping the legacy of Tan Kah Kee alive

Source: Xinhua| 2020-09-01 19:28:50|Editor: huaxia

SINGAPORE, Sept. 1 (Xinhua) -- After Japan launched an all-round invasion against China in 1937, business pioneer and philanthropist Tan Kah Kee delivered passionate speeches to rally the overseas Chinese across Southeast Asian countries for funds and manpower to "help the motherland at her hour of need."


"Deep down, he was a patriot. He felt very strongly about supporting not just the motherland, but the entire Chinese race with its 5,000-year-old history... His appeal was emotional, straight from the heart," recounted Tan's granddaughter, Peggy Tan in a recent interview with Xinhua at her home in eastern Singapore.

For Tan, it was very important that the Chinese civilization was not endangered by foreign invaders. "It was a do-or-die situation," his granddaughter said.

Although Tan's descendants are now living in different parts of the world, Peggy Tan believed that her grandfather had always hoped to go back to China in his old age, after a lifetime of toil.

Tan settled down in China after the founding of the People's Republic of China and was buried in his hometown of Xiamen City of the southeastern Fujian Province after he died in 1961.

Born in Ji Mei village in Xiamen in 1874, Tan later moved to Singapore to join in the family's rice trading business. He soon rose to prominence as a respected entrepreneur, social reformer, political activist, philanthropist, community leader and educationist.

From as early as 1917, Tan led fundraising efforts for the Tianjin Flood Relief Fund set up by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry, an extensive campaign involving various sectors of the Chinese community in Singapore.

He was well-known for heading the Singapore China Relief Fund and raising money to support the Chinese against the Japanese invasion. He mobilized over 3,000 local drivers and technicians in Singapore to help transport war supplies to China.

He also led an overseas Chinese group to China to convey their condolences to war-plagued China, during which he met with then Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong, who later appraised him as the Banner of Overseas Chinese and the Glory of the Nation.

After Singapore fell into Japan's hands on Feb. 15, 1942, Tan became a prime target during the Japanese occupation because of his social status and involvement in anti-Japanese efforts.

Tan avoided capture and escaped to Marang, East Java, Indonesia. While in hiding, he started writing Memoirs of Nanyang Overseas Chinese.

Peggy Tan said her grandfather likely penned the memoir in a bid to document the thinking of the Chinese politicians at that time and his personal observations, as he felt that these records would prove useful to future generations.


Apart from his political activities, Tan was also a savvy businessman, expanding his business empire to include rice mills, rubber plantations, rubber mills, shipping and brickworks, among others.

Despite the wealth he accumulated, Tan was a frugal person, recalled Peggy Tan. He preferred simple meals, used simple appliances and seldom entertained friends to meals at home.

Peggy Tan recalled how her grandmother was not given any money to buy food during the time when her grandfather ran into financial difficulties. "As children, we heard stories of how she had to go to Tan Kah Kee's warehouse to beg for rice from the foreman!" said Peggy.

However, Tan was always generous to others even during hard times.

"To Tan Kah Kee, money should be treated like fertilizer, spread around as much as possible for best effect," Peggy Tan said. "In short, that wealth should not be hoarded, but used extensively for the betterment of society," she added.

Tan's behavior was considered unusual at that time in Singapore as other businessmen would normally save money for their descendants. But Tan believed that his own descendants should forge their own way of life.

Peggy Tan recalled, "A few years ago, some students of Pioneer Junior College in Singapore were sent on a trip to Ji Mei where they learnt about Tan Kah Kee's history. When they came back, they said they were so shocked that he didn't leave a single cent to his grandchildren!"


A humanitarian at heart, Tan channelled his wealth into philanthropic pursuits such as education. He wanted to lift large numbers of people out of poverty and offer them hope for a brighter future.

Back in the 20th century in Ji Mei, education was seen as a pastime of the elite, and was thought to be useless by the working class who wanted their children to help in farming and fishing.

Determined to help the poor children realize their potential abilities, Tan set up schools in China, such as Ji Mei School in his hometown, which officially opened in 1913.

He also displayed remarkable foresight and introduced into China practical subjects like agriculture, marine navigation, deep-sea fishing commerce, followed by academic subjects like maths, chemistry, history and geography.

In 1919, he founded The Chinese High School (now known as Hwa Chong Institution) in Singapore, the first Chinese institution of higher learning at that time in Southeast Asia, catering to Chinese dialect groups amongst the overseas Chinese.

These schools emphasised on the teaching of deep-seated morals, such as the concept of frugality, patriotism, respect for teachers and elders, honesty and integrity. "It was not just education that he is celebrated for, but the quality of education," said Peggy Tan.


Tan's descendants were also proud of how he mobilized 3,200 volunteer drivers and mechanics from Singapore, Malaysia and Myanmar to transport military supplies to China during the war time.

Today, descendants of those mechanics continue to meet with Tan's descendants in Ji Mei on important anniversary events.

Peggy Tan also brought 60 descendants of Tan on a two-week tour in October 2018 to retrace the routes the mechanics had travelled through from 1939 to 1942. During the travel, she recounted stories of Tan to the younger generation.

To carry on his legacy, Tan's descendants started the Tan Kah Kee Foundation, with an aim to foster Tan's spirit in entrepreneurship and dedication to education. It was set up in the 1980s from funds donated by businessmen and various Chinese associations in Singapore.

Peggy Tan sits on the board of the foundation to support annual events such as the Young Inventors Awards and Post Graduate Scholarship Awards. She also organizes and takes part in public forums which revisit the legacy of Tan.

There is a Mass Rapid Transit station in Singapore named after Tan and he is among the eight Singapore pioneers to appear on the 20-dollar commemorative notes for Singapore's Bicentennial in 2019.

The family is currently working to publish a book about the various Tan Kah Kee descendants of the second and third generations, added Peggy.

Back in China, Tan remained highly regarded. Peggy Tan said her cousin was in Beijing in September 2015 to receive a commemorative medal to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory in the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.

During the COVID-19 pandemic this year, they got boxes of masks from the Chinese part to help Tan's family members tide through the crisis, said Peggy Tan.

On what Tan would have thought of the COVID-19 situation if he were alive today, Peggy Tan said that he would have "certainly organized mercy missions to help."

"He would be even more surprised to find out that after two to three months, the whole situation has reversed (in China) and it was China that is rushing to help much of the world, with medical supplies and various aids," she said.

Despite many of Tan's descendants living in different countries all over the world, she said they continue to carry a deep connection with Singapore and China.

"They continue to feel this powerful call to return to discover their roots," Peggy Tan said. Enditem