Tan Kim Seng

Singapore Infopedia

by Chia, Joshua Yeong Jia, Chew, Valerie


Tan Kim Seng (b. 18 November 1806–d. 14 March 1864, Malacca, Malaya)1 was a wealthy trader and property owner with business interests in tin. A prominent philanthropist, Tan left behind memorials of his philanthropy in Singapore and Malacca.

Early life
Tan received his education in a private Chinese school in Malacca, and learned English and Dutch while attending a mission school. In the 1820s, he left for Singapore with a small amount of capital to set up Kim Seng & Company.3

Accomplishments and contributions
Tan’s ability to converse in Chinese and English gave him a great advantage and his business grew rapidly. Later, he set up a branch in Malacca, and subsequently in Shanghai, China, making him the first Singaporean businessman to do so. In 1850, he was made a justice of peace and his opinions on Chinese issues were highly valued by the British government. He was also appointed as a member of the committee responsible for sending exhibits to the Great Exhibition held in London, England, in 1851. To increase literacy among the Chinese, Tan founded Chui Eng Si E, a free Chinese school on Amoy Street.Kim Seng Bridge, which crosses the Singapore River, was originally built by him.5

Every Chinese New Year, Tan offered gifts of food and money to patients at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. He was also generous in organising balls and dinners for Europeans and was hence popular in the European community.During the secret society clash between the Hokkiens and Teochews in 1854, which resulted in 600 deaths and injuries, he mediated successfully with the help of Seah Eu Chin. In 1857, Tan Kim Seng donated $13,000 to the government for the construction of Singapore’s first reservoir and waterworks.The waterworks were completed in 1877 and officially opened the following year. However, Tan had already passed away on 14 March 1864 in Malacca.8

Besides his activities in Singapore, Tan was also a well-regarded member of the Chinese community in Malacca. He served as the president of one of the main Chinese temples there and built the Kim Seng Bridge near Stadt House.

Tan Kim Seng Fountain
To commemorate Tan’s generous contribution towards the establishment of the waterworks, the municipal commissioners erected the Tan Kim Seng Fountain at Fullerton Square. It was officially unveiled on 19 May 1882.10 Made by Andrew Handyside & Co from England, the Victorian-style iron fountain has three tiers and is decorated with classical figures. It was moved to the Esplanade Park at Connaught Drive in 1929 to make way for a carpark after construction of the Fullerton Building.11 In January 1994, it was shut down for repairs that lasted seven months. As part of this S$1.12-million restoration project, the seven-metre-high cast-iron fountain was rust-proofed and a new foundation was built.12 The Tan Kim Seng Fountain was gazetted as a national monument in 2010.13


Tan’s son Tan Beng Swee and grandson Tan Jiak Kim were also well-known merchants and philanthropists. Beng Swee Place and Jiak Kim Street were named after them.14


Joshua Chia Yeong Jia and Valerie Chew

1. Wolfgang Franke and Tʻieh-fan Chʻen, Chinese Epigraphic Materials in Malaysia, vol. 1. (Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press, 1987), 430. (Call no. RSING 495.11709595 CHI)
2. Richard Hartung, ed., Singapore, Insights from the Inside, vol. 2. (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2015), 84. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
3. Yan Ching-Hwang, Ethnic Chinese Business in Asia: History, Culture and Business Enterprise (Singapore: World Scientific, 2014), 290. (Call no. RSEA 338.708995105 YAN)
4. Song ONG Siang, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984), 46. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])
5. Victor R. Savage and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, Singapore Street Names: A Study of Toponymics (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2013), 214–15. (Call no. RSING 915.9570014 SAV-[TRA])
6. Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore, 46.
7. “Historic Fountain,” Straits Times, 3 May 1929, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Song, One Hundred Years’ History of the Chinese in Singapore, 49.
9. Yan, Ethnic Chinese Business in Asia, 292.
10. Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage: Through Places of Historical Interest (Singapore: Dhoraisingam S. Samuel, 2010), 301. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SAM-[HIS])
11. “Historic Fountain”; Samuel, Singapore’s Heritage, 301.
12. “Tan Kim Seng Fountain Regains Glory,” Straits Times, 16 August 1994, 26. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Singapore. National Heritage Board, “Two New National Monuments Celebrate Singapore’s Post-Independence Years and Contributions of Notable Individuals,” 27 December 2010, press release. (From National Archives of Singapore document no. 20110103003)
14. Peter Dunlop, Street Names of Singapore (Singapore: Who’s Who Pub., 2000), 299. (Call no. RSING 959.57 DUN-[HIS])

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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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