Captain of learning: Remembering Tan Kah Kee

Updated: 08 Apr 2008
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The late Chinese philanthropist and millionaire Tan Kah Kee donated his entire fortune to education.


FOUR years ago, the son of Tan Kah Kee gave a speech at an event in Beijing that commemorated the 130th anniversary of the late philanthropist’s birth.


“My father didn’t leave behind much fortune for us, but what we inherited is his intellectual assets – which is even more valuable to all of us,” said Tan Yuan Ji, then 89.


The businessman, whose descendants have settled in Singapore and other parts of the world, recalled that his father was very strict with his children and educated them to be prudent in money matters.


Tan Kah Kee (second from left) inspecting the construction site of Xiamen University.


According to Yuan Ji, his father led by example and was thrifty in what he ate, wore and used. He expected his children to do the same.


But, when it came to education, the late Kah Kee was extremely lavish.


Throughout his eventful life, Kah Kee channelled all his energy and the money he earned from his overseas businesses – in rubber, a pineapple plantation and manufacturing – back to society.


He founded and funded Jimei University and Xiamen University in his hometown of Xiamen, Fujian Province, China, and other schools such as the Singapore Chinese High School and Tao Nan School, also in Singapore.


When he died in 1961, he donated his remaining savings of three million yuan to education.


The selflessness exemplified by the late Tan Kah Kee is embraced and highly regarded by students of Jimei University and Xiamen University as well as the people of Xiamen. Tan’s statue is placed at the main entrance of Jimei University to commemmorate the great philanthropist.


“He visited the Jimei school to examine its construction every day. He was very frugal. He set aside only 15 yuan from his monthly pension of 300 yuan for our food allowance. Each of the children only received 0.15 yuan for pocket money,” Yuan Ji recalled.


The rest of his father’s money, he said, was donated to education.


Rise to the top


Born to a humble family of merchants in Jimei Village, Xiamen, in 1874, Kah Kee started school at the age of nine.


At 17, he moved to Singapore to help in his father’s wholesale rice business.


Kah Kee later set up his own pineapple production business and paid off his father’s business debts.


His business expanded to rice and saw milling, manufacturing and a sugar refinery. By 1925, he owned over 15,000 acres of rubber plantation and employed more than 30,000 people in his various businesses.


With a fortune of a million taels of gold, he was hailed as one of the greatest rubber magnates in Singapore and Malaya.


In the wake of the world financial crisis in the 20s and 30s, his businesses suffered and he declared bankruptcy in 1934. But by then, he had already amassed a fortune that enabled him to support a cause close to his heart – education.


A staunch believer that sound education can bring prosperity to a nation, he established his first family school in Jimei at the age of 21. In 1912, he returned to the new Republic of China from Singapore and opened Jimei Primary School the subsequent year.


In an interview with The Star, Xiamen University General Alumni Association editor Huang Zhongshi said, “He had a great vision. He first set up a primary school and later a teacher training college because he wanted to produce adequate teachers for the education system.”


Author Hong Yonghong co-wrote New Biography of Tan Kah Keewith the philanthropist’s nephew, Tan Keong Choon.


After setting up the teacher training college, Kah Kee expanded the Jimei school village to include a high school, a kindergarten and institutes in agriculture, navigation, commerce, forestry and marine studies as well as other facilities.


These schools and institutes, which still exist today, were fully funded by Kah Kee. Students were invited to class to study for free to encourage them to pursue knowledge, Huang said.


In 1996, Jimei University was formed to bring together all the institutes and faculties. Today, the university has an enrolment of more than 20,000 full-time students.


Founder of universities


Kah Kee travelled between Singapore, Malaya and China to prepare for the setting up of the second university. He spent a million yuan to establish Xiamen University in 1921.


According to university records, it was even bigger in size than the Jimei school village and became one of the most famous overseas Chinese higher learning institutions in the region at that time.


Many of the university’s alumni came from South-East Asia, especially Malaya, Singapore and Indonesia.


Xiamen University General Alumni Association editor Huang Zongshi: ‘He (Tan Kah Kee) had a great vision.’


The philanthropist, who was also a well-respected overseas Chinese leader, hired the best team possible to run the university and educate the students. Among the famed Chinese and Singaporean literary figures and writers who served the university at that time were Lu Xun, Lim Boon Keng and Lin Yutang.


“Why did these academicians come to Xiamen University from Beijing?” Huang said. “This was because the remuneration paid to them was lucrative and the university did not owe them salaries.


“The management paid them on time every month. Lu Xun earned 400 silver dollars while the principal only got 500 silver dollars for coming to the university.”


The late Kah Kee’s selfless contribution to education has made him a respectable icon at the universities and in Xiamen.


Xiamen University post-graduate student He Jinxing said he was attracted by the beauty of the campus at first but he was even more amazed after learning about the tremendous sacrifice of the philanthropist.


“What we have now is the labour of Mr Tan. He established this beautiful university in 1921 and his spirit has made a deep impact on everyone at Xiamen University,” he said.


Jimei University student Lin Danping said: “I didn’t know about Mr Tan when I first came to the university. Only after a visit to Mr Tan’s former residence (in Xiamen) did I get to know about him. It was a turbulent period in the 1910s but he still put his money in education – this was a class act.”


The beautiful Jimei High School, inspired by architectural characteristics designed by its founder Tan Kah Kee, is still standing in the Jimei school village in Xiamen, Fujian Province, China.


Kah Kee’s influence is seen not only in his selflessness but also in the architecture of both Jimei and Xiamen universities. The unique red-and-white brick walls of the building clusters, hostels and other facilities were designed by the philanthropist himself.


Many overseas Chinese and alumni, like the late Lee Kong Chian (Kah Kee’s son-in-law and founder of Lee Rubber Company in Johor), have followed in his footsteps by donating money for the expansion of the universities.


His final years


Kah Kee’s love for his motherland and his support for its revolution movement was never a secret. He backed Sun Yat-Sen financially in the latter’s uprising to overthrow the Qing Dynasty which ended 267 years of rule in 1911.


During the Japanese Occupation, Kah Kee fled to Java where he wrote a book entitled A Memoir of an Overseas Chinese while Xiamen University was relocated to Changting in western Fujian to escape destruction.


After the retreat of the Japanese in 1945, Kah Kee was given a hero’s welcome on his return to Singapore. At a ceremony in Chongqing, China, to celebrate his return, the late Chairman Mao Zedong had inscribed a scroll about Kah Kee which read “Banner of Overseas Chinese, Glory of the Nation”.


In 1950, he returned to settle in Xiamen where he devoted his life to the reconstruction of China under the Communist Party’s rule. He served in the Returning Overseas Chinese League, Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.


He then set up the Overseas Chinese Museum in Xiamen in 1956 to allow the younger generation to learn about the life of overseas Chinese.


In 1961, he died of cancer in Beijing and, after a state funeral, his body was transported back to Jimei where it was buried at the Ao Yuan Garden.


All in all, the philanthropist contributed an estimated 150 million yuan towards education both in China and abroad.


The mausoleum of the late Chinese philanthropist Tan Kah Kee at Jimei town in Xiamen, China.


Hong Yonghong, who co-wrote New Biography of Tan Kah Kee with the philanthropist’s nephew Tan Keong Choon, said: “If you take a look at his whole life, whether it was how he did his business, treated people, set up schools, denounced the Japanese Occupation and had a hand in the formation of New China, I cannot find any weakness in him.”


Hong said many people may have made donations towards education but the late Tan Kah Kee is perhaps the only person to give all his fortune towards this cause.


Leaders of Jimei and Xiamen universities and the people of Xiamen, he said, embrace the institutions’ respective mottos: “Sincerity and Fortitude” and “Strive for Excellence” (which Kah Kee personally penned) as well as the philanthropist’s noble spirit.


Xiamen University student Han Jian said: “In his mind, he had a clear philosophy of life that only education can make the nation prosperous.”


Echoing Han’s views, another student Che Hongtu said: “I think Mr Tan Kah Kee was a very charismatic personality. Having a person like him do such an important thing like setting up Xiamen University is indeed very respectable.”


At the 130th anniversary commemoration event, the delegation of 45 members of Kah Kee’s family was given a warm welcome when they visited the universities and Overseas Chinese Museum in Xiamen.


“We know that all this warm welcome was because of the great reputation of Tan Kah Kee,” his grandson Dib Jin said in a speech at the museum.


“The contribution of our grandfather remains unreachable but, as his descendants, we have no excuse not to do our part to continue his legacy.”


Xiamen University’s former vice-chancellor Lim Boon Keng best described the philanthropist in the university’s magazine of 1929: “He is a quiet and honest person who works hard for education. He doesn’t like people to sing praises about what he has done.


“All his factories in Singapore and Johor and the hundreds of acres of rubber estate were set up for nothing but to pay the operational costs of the university.”


Such was the ever generous and philanthropic Tan Kah Kee – a legend who will be remembered forever.


SOURCE: The Star by Chow How Ban


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