TAN KIM SENG was not the typical refugee from South China. He was born in Malacca in 1806, a third-generation Malaccan from a family with a trading business that had been established for over half a century.
He struck out to Singapore in the 1820s when the free port was in the heady days of its founding. By the age of 35, he had become a force in business and community. Described as Antonio of the Rialto, his address was simply ‘Left Bank, Singapore River.’ In 1849, he founded Chong Wen Ge, the first Chinese school in Singapore. He played a pivotal role in the attempt to quell the Great Riot of 1854. In 1857, he gave the government the then large sum of $13,000 to bring water into town - only to see it frittered away. He believed in investing in real estate and became a major landowner with warehouses, mansions and the largest single piece of property on the island.
He was a bridge builder, bridging clan rivalry by the marriage of his children and, literally, building bridges that bear his name in both Singapore and Malacca.
Astutely, he maintained a connection with his hometown of Malacca. Kim Seng & Co traded there. He became the Teng Choo of Cheng Hoon Teng Temple – and thus the leader of the Chinese community in Malacca. And when his time came, he chose to die and be buried in his place of birth.
Tan Kim Seng’s will is a window to his values and beliefs. Its first few pages are devoted to taking care of the vulnerable members of his circle: his wife, daughters, adopted sons, servants, friends. Although it was also designed to repel ‘the curse of the third generation’, he could not anticipate how his well-thought-out plan would be unravelled by English Law.
Yet, Tan Kim Seng’s legacy continues through charitable acts by his descendants and his imprint on the history of Singapore and Malacca.
Mrs Vivienne Tan was General Manager (Investment Properties) of Centrepoint Properties Ltd from 1992-2006 and sat on the board of the National Museum of Singapore from 2006-2016.
A great-granddaughter of Wong Ah Fook, the pioneer entrepreneur of Johor State, Mrs Vivienne Tan is married to Prof Walter Tan, the great-great-great-grandson of Tan Kim Seng.
The book is published by Landmark Books and will be available from 25 February 2019 onwards at Books Kinokuniya, Times bookstores and MPH Bookstores, as well as localbooks.com at S$40 after GST.