Tan Che Sang

Singapore Infopedia

by Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman


Tan Che Sang (b.1763, Fujian, China–d. 2 April 1835, Singapore) was one of the earliest merchants from Malacca to come to Singapore when Stamford Raffles set up a British settlement in Singapore in 1819.1 A tycoon known for his addiction to gambling, Tan’s prominence in the early colonial period was evidenced by a large turnout at his funeral.2

Early years
Tan, who was Hokkien, was one of the most prominent Chinese pioneers in the early years of the British settlement in Singapore.3 Born in Fujian province, China, Tan left his native city in 1778 at the age of 15 to build his fortune – succeeding first in Riau, then Penang (where he stayed for 10 years), followed by Malacca. He arrived in Singapore in 1819, and lived on the island until his death in 1835.4

Wealthy tycoon
Upon news of a newly established settlement in Singapore in 1819, merchants – especially those from Malacca – streamed into the island and established warehouses along the left bank of the Singapore River.5 Tan was one of those merchants; he bought a warehouse from William Farquhar, then Resident of Singapore, and became an agent for early Chinese junks.6

Farquhar had built this warehouse with a detached house across his Residency. Located at High Street, the site of the warehouse comprised an area of 51,558 sq ft, and is part of the High Street Centre Building.7 Later, under the Raffles resettlement plan of 1822–23, Tan moved his warehouse to Commercial Square (now known as Raffles Place), but kept this High Street site until his death in 1835. Tan was issued a title, lease No. 298, on 11 June 1827 for this High Street site.8 He stipulated in his will that this site be reserved permanently for ancestral heritage purposes, and was not to be sold.9

Following Tan’s death in 1835, his descendants became embroiled in major lawsuits over his legacy.10 In one such action instituted by Wee Swee Lum, the executor of his late daughter Tan Swan Neo, against a Lee Boon Neo and others in 1880, the court held that on the true construction of the will, the direction reserving the warehouse was void as creating a perpetuity, and that Tan Che Sang had died intestate in respect of such property. The court thereby ordered a sale of the site in 30 lots.11

Tan also benefited from Raffles' project of partitioning the city in order to manage the town’s land use. The blueprint for this project was the Jackson Plan, which was also notably the first town plan of Singapore. Under this plan, Raffles reclaimed land near Commercial Square and auctioned off parcels of it. During the auctions, location tickets or grants were issued under Raffles' name, which allowed for the occupation of the land after payment was made.12 Tan acquired several sites for his business, as proven by more than five lease titles that were issued to him between 1826 and 1828.13

From 1826, leases were issued in exchange for location tickets held by residents who had cleared and built on lands on the tickets. The exchange was to legalise occupiers who owned land and buildings in Singapore Town, after the London Treaty of 1824 officially made Singapore a British territory.14

Although Tan was one of the richest tycoons in those days, he was reputed to be a miser and a gambler. He tried to curb his gambling habit by cutting off the first joint of one of his little fingers, but the extreme measure proved ineffective.15 Tan was also known to have hoarded his wealth in iron boxes – as banks were non-existent in those times – and slept among them.16

Although it was said that Tan was close to Farquhar and dealt directly with him, he “had no social contact with the ruling community, and was a strange, withdrawn man, an inveterate gambler obsessed with making money...”.17

Tan had also built a house in Kampong Glam – one that he did not occupy. Instead, the house was first sold to a Mr Ker and then later to Christian Baumgarten, Singapore's Registrar at the time.18

Tan died on 2 April 1835. His funeral on 13 April saw a turnout of around 10,000 to 15,000 people who came to pay their last respects. The final procession passed through the commercial part of the town on its way to the Hokkien burial ground.19


Nor-Afidah Abd Rahman

1. Xu Yunqiao 许云樵, Ma lai ya congtan 马来亚丛谈 [Malayan conversation] (Singapore: Youth Book Company, 1961), 27–28 (Call no. Chinese RCLOS 959.5 HYC); Ching-hwang Yen, Ethnicities, Personalities and Politics in the Ethnic Chinese Worlds (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., 2017), 139. (Call no. RSING 305.8951 YAN)
2. Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore: The Annotated Edition (Singapore: National Library Board, 2016), 17–18 (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON); Charles Burton Buckley, An Anecdotal History of Old Times in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 216 (Call no. RSING 959.57 BUC-[HIS]); “Funeral of a Chinese Miser,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1835—1969), 14 July 1836, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Xu Yunqiao, Ma lai ya congtan, 27–28; Yen, Ethnicities, Personalities and Politics, 139.
4. Xu Yunqiao, Ma lai ya congtan, 27–28; C. M. Turnbull, A History of Singapore, 1819–1988 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1989), 13–14 (Call no. RSING 959.57 TUR-[HIS]); Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese, 16–17.
5. Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese, 9.
6. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 13–14; Leong Fook Meng, “Early Land Transactions in Singapore: The Real Estates of William Farquhar (1744–1839), John Crawfurd (1783–1868), and Their Families,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Society 77, no. 1 (286): 28. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
7. Leong, “Early Land Transactions in Singapore,” 28.
8. Leong, “Early Land Transactions in Singapore,” 28.
9. Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese, 18–19.
10. Xu Yunqiao, Ma lai ya congtan, 27–28; “Every Name Tells a Story,” Straits Times, 14 August 1990, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 14–15; Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese, 19.
12. Leong, “Early Land Transactions in Singapore,” 24–25.
13. Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese, 35–36.
14. Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese, 35–36.
15. “Funeral of a Chinese Miser”; Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese, 17.
16. Xu Yunqiao, Ma lai ya congtan, 27–28; Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese, 17.
17. Turnbull, History of Singapore, 13.
18. Buckley, Anecdotal History of Old Times, 216.
19.  Funeral of a Chinese Miser”; “2 Chinese Views of Malaya More Than a Century Ago,” Straits Times, 25 August 1961, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at September 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic. 

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