Category: Teochew Pioneers

Tan Kai Soon 陳開順 (1803-1857)

Tan Kai Soon (var: Tan Kye Soon, Tan Kah Soon, Tan Kee Soon) (1803-1857), a leader of Ngee Heng (also transliterated according to Hokkien pronunciation as Ghee Hin) 義興, the regional branch of  Heaven and Earth Society (Triad),  and owner the Tan Chu Kang gambier estate at Sungei Mandai Kechil.

According to an account, Tan Kai Soon fled to Singapore after taking part in a failed anti-Qing uprising by the Double-Sword Society 雙刀會. This is unlikely for two reasons. Firstly Tan Kai Soon was from Tang-huang village in Hai-yor county 海陽縣南桂都東鳳鄉 (presently Teo-An county 潮安), whereas the Double-Sword Society was centred in Teo-yor 潮陽, Gek-yor 揭陽 and Pho-leng 普寧  counties. Secondly the attack of the Double-Sword Society on Gek-yor city took place in the 11th lunar month of 1844, while Tah Kai Soon was already in Johore where he was granted a Surat Sungei (“River Permit”) by the Temenggong to open a new Kangkar along Sungei Tebrau on 22 October 1844.

The establishment of a new Tan Chu Kang in Johore (presently Kangkar Tebrau) was reportedly due to  Tan Kai Soon’s  frustration with increasing British interference with the affairs of the Kangkar settlements in Singapore (the British implemented a system of registering rural landholdings in early 1840s). A letter to The Singapore Free Press on 26 March 1846, written by Tan Tek Hye who styled himself as “Keeper of the Quinquangular Seal”, revealed that the move was ordered by chief of the San-Ho-Hwey (likely referring to Tan Kai Soon) and involved 4750 Ngee Heng members (presumably Teochews). (Read letter here)

Tan Kai Soon was instrumental in founding Johore Bahru in 1855, which Teochews called Sin-Sua 新山 (new mountain, or territory). The town was also formerly known as Little Swatow due to the dominant Teochew presence. It was said that Tan Kai Soon later won the favour of the Johor Sultan when he led a force to pacify a disturbance in Muar. Besides being Kapitan Cina in Johore, he was appointed Chief of Police. Consequently,  Ngee Heng remained a legitimate organisation in Johore even after it was disbanded in Singapore as a secret society by the British in 1890.

Tan Kai Soon’s  spirit tablet was placed with those of 72 Ngee Heng leaders at the society’s lodge at Rochor in Singapore. These tablets were moved several times due to historical reasons and are most recently reported to be housed at Pu Zhao Chan Si Temple (read more.) The tablet shows that Tan Kai Soon was conferred the title “Patriotic Guardman Serving the Ming” 候明義士.

There is another spiritual tablet belonging to a Tan Deg Cai (based on peng-im) 陳德財, who is likely to be identical with  Tan Tek (C)Hye, the “Keeper of the Quinquangular Seal”. He was a Tenghai county native and held the honour of a “Patriotic Guardman of Imperial Ming” 皇明義士.


Untitled-3Left and centre: receipts issued by Ngee Heng; Right: membership certificate (from 《柔佛潮人拓殖与发展史稿》 by郑良树)



Chan Ah Lek 曾亞六 (1813-1873)

Chan Ah Lek 曾亞六 (1813-1873, Teochew)  pioneered the opening of the present Yishun area.

He was given permit by the colonial authorities in 1850 to open a gambier plantation covering 44 acres on the northern bank of Sungei Seletar.  The area was then named Chan Chu Kang after him.  When Chan Ah Lek passed away in 1873, the land was handed over to his wife Chan Eng Neo 曾英娘. It was put on sale in 1909 and finally taken over by Lim Nee Soon in 1919.

Chan Ah Lek joined Ngee Heng Kongsi 義興公司首 leader Tan Kai Soon to open new gambier plantations in Johor in 1859. He also donated to Tan Kim Seng’s  building of Chongwen-ge 崇文阁 literary centre at Thian Hock Kheng in 1849.

(Source:  Liu Yi-Chun and Chen Kuo-Chuan, The Characteristics of Agricultural Land-Use in Prewar Singapore:A Case Study in Yishun District – opens PDF file)