Tao Nan School

Singapore Infopedia


One of Singapore’s oldest primary schools, Tao Nan School was established on 18  November 1906 by the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan (Singapore Hokkien Clan Association).1 The school was first located on North Bridge Road and then Armenian Street, before moving to Marine Parade in 1982.2 The school building on Armenian Street now houses the Peranakan Museum.3 Tao Nan School has since gained a reputation for providing a well-balanced Chinese and English education.4

Early history
The establishment of Tao Nan School on 18 November 1906 was initiated by Tan Boo Liat, great-grandson of entrepreneur and philanthropist Tan Tock Seng. The idea gained the support of Hokkien merchants, and the school was set up with funds donated by the Hokkien community as well as an annual subsidy by the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan. Chen Baochen, one of the tutors of the last Qing Emperor Puyi, was credited with naming the school Daonan Xuetang or "Tao Nan Study Hall". Siam House on North Bridge Road – the residence of Tan Kim Ching, the eldest son of Tan Tock Seng – served as the temporary location of the school. In its first year, 90 students enrolled in the school and this number steadily increased over the years.5

Initially admitting only Hokkien students, in 1909 Tao Nan became the first modern Chinese school in Singapore to accept students from different dialect groups in order to foster cohesiveness within the Chinese community. Its curriculum was aimed at promoting Chinese culture and appreciating Chinese values, with lessons centred on Confucian classics, history, geography and even physical education.6

Developments: 1910s to 1970s
Construction of a school building was proposed by prominent businessman and philanthropist Tan Kah Kee. A plot of land at Armenian Street was purchased with $10,000 donated by sugar baron Oei Tiong Ham in 1910. As president of the school board, Tan Kah Kee embarked on a donation drive to finance the building project. The drive managed to raise slightly more than $40,000, and Tan himself donated $2,000. The neoclassical school building designed in a style described as “Eclectic Classical” was completed in March 1912. The school moved from North Bridge Road to Armenian Street and was renamed Daonan Xuexiao or "Tao Nan School", according to a directive from China's Ministry of Education.7

English lessons were introduced in 1914. Tao Nan subsequently changed its medium of instruction from Hokkien to Mandarin in 1916, making it the first school in Singapore to turn from dialects. The school was closed during the Japanese Occupation but reopened two months after the Japanese surrendered. It became a government-aided school in 1958 and improved its standard of English by hiring more English teachers and allocating more time to the subject. By 1982, English had replaced Mandarin as the medium of instruction.8

The Urban Renewal Programme of 1971 moved numerous families from the city to various housing estates in the suburbs. This led to a decline in student population in Tao Nan until 1976, when the Hokkien Huay Kuan decided that the school be relocated at the suburbs to cater to the population there.9

Developments since 1980s
Construction at the new site in Marine Parade began in 1980 and by the following year, the building was ready.10 After 76 years in the city, Tao Nan moved to Marine Parade in 1982. In 1983, the new school building was declared officially opened by then Minister for Defence Goh Chok Tong. In 1990, the school was selected for the Special Assistance Programme. Since then, it has established itself as a school providing a well-balanced bilingual education.The Gifted Education Programme was introduced in the school in 1996.11

In 2014, Tao Nan moved to temporary premises on Bedok South Road, while its Marine Parade campus was undergoing upgrading. The school moved back in 2016, in time for its 110th anniversary celebration.12

The original school building at Armenian Street was refurbished as the Asian Civilisations Museum, which opened to the public on 21 April 1997. On 27 February 1998, the building was gazetted as a national monument by the Preservation of Monuments Board (now Preservation of Sites and Monuments) as a reflection of the social and cultural roots of early Chinese immigrants in Singapore. In 2005, plans were made for the building to be redeveloped to house the world’s first Peranakan Museum. The museum officially opened on 25 April 2008.13 

Tao Nan School graduates include prominent personalities such as philanthropist Lee Kong Chian and former Minister of State Ow Chin Hock as well as Pan Shou, Singapore's award-winning Chinese calligrapher and  a former principal of the school.14

Lim Siew Yeen & Renuka M.

1. Angeline Foo, Collecting Memories: The Asian Civilisations Museum at the Old Tao Nan School (Singapore: National Heritage Board, 1997), 14–15. (Call no. RSING 372.95957 COL)
2. “Dear Old School, Now a Museum,” Straits Times, 13 June 1997, 17. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Wan Meng Hao and Jacqueline Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2009), 98. (Call no. RSING 959.57 WAN-[HIS])
4. Foo, Collecting Memories, 37.
5. Foo, Collecting Memories, 14–17.
6. Foo, Collecting Memories, 17; Tao Nan School, 100 Years of Tao Nan (Singapore: SNP International Pub, 2006), 15. (Call no. YRSING 372.95957 TAO)
7. Foo, Collecting Memories, 19, 40–45; Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 98–100.
8. Foo, Collecting Memories, 19, 20, 24–27, 35–37; Wan and Lau, Heritage Places of Singapore, 99.
9. Foo, Collecting Memories, 37.
10. Foo, Collecting Memories, 37.
11. “Two More Schools in Gifted Programme,” Straits Times, 5 January 1996, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Sandra Davie, “Priority Still Based on Permanent Campus,” Straits Times, 22 June 2013, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Ng Chee Meng, “Tao Nan School 110th Anniversary,” speech, Tao Nan School, 4 November 2016, transcript, Ministry of Education.
13. National Heritage Board, National Heritage Board Annual Report 2013/2014: A Legacy of Heritage (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, 2011), 9; Deepika Shetty, “Boutique Museum Has All Things Nonya,” Straits Times, 26 April 2008, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
14. Foo, Collecting Memories, 17, 21, 22, 39.

Further resources
Architectural Heritage Award Winners,” Straits Times, 9 July 1998, 31. (From NewspaperSG)

Ngiam Tong Hai, “New Tao Nan School Ready Next Year,” Straits Times, 17 July 1980, 7. (From NewspaperSG)

Tan Hseuh Yun, “Schoolday Memories Bind Tao Nan's Ex-Pupils Together,” Straits Times, 12 June 1996, 23. (From NewspaperSG)

Tao Nan Primary School, Dao nan xue xiao ba shi wu zhou nian ji nian te kan 道南学校八十五周年纪念特刊 [Tao Nan primary School 85th Anniversary Commemorative Magazine] (Singapore: Tao Nan School, 1991). (Call no. Chinese RSING 372.95957 TAO)

Tao Nan School,” Straits Times, 18 March 1995, 28. (From NewspaperSG)

Tao Nan School Items Wanted?” Straits Times, 5 June 1996, 26. (From NewspaperSG)

Tommy Koh, et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet and National Heritage Board, 2006), 39, 48, 131, 132, 549. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])

The information in this article is valid as at 2017 and correct as far as we can 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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