Tan Yeok Seong

Singapore Infopedia

by Tan, Andrew



Tan Yeok Seong (b. 1903, Penang, Malaysia–d. 1 April 1984, Singapore) was a historian of Southeast Asia and a collector of books and historical artefacts. Educated at Amoy University (now known as Xiamen University), Tan was well versed in English and Chinese. He donated his private collection of books and periodicals to the National Library of Singapore in 1964.

Early life
Born in Penang, Tan was educated at Penang Anglo-Chinese School and the Chinese High School in Singapore. At the age of 15, he went to Xiamen, Fujian province in China, to continue his education at Chip Bee High School, and thereafter enrolled at Amoy University, majoring in education, economics and history. Upon graduation in 1926, Tan returned to Penang to join the Education Department of the Straits Settlements as an inspector of Chinese schools.1

With the experience gained at the Education Department and a study trip to Shanghai, Tan ventured into the publishing business.In 1935, he set up Nanyang Book Company with some friends.3 In 1938, Tan left his government post and concentrated on producing textbooks catering to the needs of Chinese schools in Malaya. He did this full time, becoming the supervising director of Nanyang Book Company in 1941.4 The company soon became one of the five major textbook publishers for Chinese schools in Singapore, and the first to publish an English reader for Chinese schools, in conjunction with the Nanyang Standard English Reader, in 1936.5  Business flourished and branches of the company were set up in Malaya, Rangoon (Yangon) and Batavia (Jakarta).6

While primarily a businessman, Tan was better known for his passion for knowledge and scholarship.A widely respected historian of Southeast Asia, he was active in research on the region.He also took a keen interest in local affairs and actively promoted the study of history in Singapore. In 1935, together with Lim Hui Siang, Tan co-founded the Anthropological Museum of Amoy, which still exists today and boasts of being the first anthropological museum in China. In 1938, Tan represented Malaya at the Third Congress of Far Eastern Prehistorians. Also in the late 1930s, Jinan University in Shanghai appointed him Honorary Editor of South-Seas Research at its Department of Malayan Studies. Tan was an active member of the South Seas Society, of which he was president in 1940. In 1950, he became president of the Chinese Study Group, which researched on Chinese affairs and culture in English.9

During the Japanese Occupation (1942–45), Tan was appointed secretary of the Oversea Chinese Association, while Lim Boon Keng became president.10 Through his involvement, Tan was able to record war events first-hand in his book, History of the Formation of the Oversea Chinese Association and the Extortion by Japanese Military Administration of $50,000,000 Military Contribution from the Chinese in Malaya.11 After the war, he founded 马来亚少年  [Young Malayans], a Chinese language newspaper targeted at students in Malayan schools that ran from 1946 to 1955.12

In 1964, Tan donated his Ya Yin Kwan Collection comprising 10,000 volumes on the influence of the Chinese in Southeast Asia and the culture of China and the South Seas to the National Library of Singapore.13 The collection was intended to further the knowledge of Southeast Asian history and culture. On Tan’s request that the collection be housed in a separate area for public reading with staff to oversee it, the South-East Asia Room was set up at the former National Library Building at Stamford Road for this purpose.14 The room was officially opened on 28 August 1964 by then Minister for Culture S. Rajaratnam.15 The collection now forms part of the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library at the current National Library Building on Victoria Street.16

In 1969, through the South Seas Society, Tan organised an exhibition at the National Museum that featured over 200 pieces of Chinese porcelain dating back to the Ming and Qing dynasties.17 He also acquired a small collection of 8th- or 9th-century Buddhist statues and other associated artefacts from Sambas in Borneo (Kalimantan Barat, Indonesia), which are currently housed at the British Museum.18 One of the Sambas statues was exhibited at the “Treasures of the World from the British Museum” exhibition held at the National Museum of Singapore from December 2015 to May 2016.19

To mark Tan’s 80th birthday in 1983, some friends from the South Seas Society decided to compile and publish his academic and literary writings in a commemorative collection, Collected Writings from Ya Yin Studio (“Ya Yin” was the name of Tan’s study). However, the book was still at the printing press when he passed away a few months later.20

Tan Yeok Seong passed away on 1 April 1984, aged 81, after a long illness.21

Wives: Oo Hai Tong, Nellie Teoh Lee Neo.
Sons: Tan Peng Hong, Alex Tan Tiong Hee, Ivan Tan Seng Hee.
Daughters: Luna Tan, Pearly Tan Swee Chin.


Andrew Tan

1. Victor Sim, ed., Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Nan Kok Publication, 1950), 62. (Call no. RCLOS 920.05957 SIM)

2. A. T. H. Tan, “The Life of Tan Yeok Seong,” in Catalogue of the Ya Yin Kwan Collection in the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library (Singapore: National Library Board, 2006), 13. (Call no. RSING q338.092 TAN)
3. Nanyang shuju shiwu zhounian jinian tekan 南洋书局十五周年纪念特刊 [Nanyang Book Co., Ltd. 1935–1950]. (Singapore: Nanyang Book Co. Ltd., 1950), 1 (Call no. Chinese RDTYS 070.5095957 NAN); Ang Seow Leng, “The Ya Yin Kwan Collection: Treasures of Early Southeast Asian History,” BiblioAsia 5, no. 2 (2) (July 2009): 29. (Call no. RSING 027.495957 SNBBA)
4. Sim, Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 62.
5. C. L. Yeap, “Xinjiapo, malaixiya he yinni hua xiao jiaokeshu chuban gaikuang,” 新加坡, 马来西亚和印尼华校教科书出版概况 (1903–1965) [An overview of textbook publishing in Chinese schools in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia (1903–1965)] in Xin mayinhua xiao jiaokeshu fazhan huigu (fu tu) 新马印华校教科书发展回顾 (附图) [A historical survey of Chinese-school textbooks in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia (with pictorial material)], ed. C. L. Yeap and T. B. Wee (Singapore: Chinese Heritage Centre, 2005), 53 (Call no. Chinese RSING 495.107 HIS); H. Zhong, “A Historical Account of the Chinese Book Industry in the 1950s to the 1960s,” in Education at Large: Student Life and Education in Singapore, 1945–1965, ed. Siao See Teng (Singapore: World Scientific, 2013), 72. (Call no. RSING 373.18095957 EDU)
6. “Nanyang shuju shiwu zhounian jinian tekan,” 1–2.
7. Sim, Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 62.
8. Tan, “The Life of Tan Yeok Seong,” 14–15.
9. Sim, Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 62.
10. Tan, “The Life of Tan Yeok Seong,” 14.
11. Tan Yeok Seong, History of the formation of the Oversea Chinese Association and the Extortion by J.M.A. of $50,000,000 Military Contribution from the Chinese in Malaya (Singapore: Nanyang Book Co., 1947). (Call no. RCLOS 940.53109595 TAN)
12. Tan, “The Life of Tan Yeok Seong,” 15; Ma lai ya shaonian 马来亚少年 [Young Malayans] (Singapore: 马来亚少年报社, 南洋书局, 1946–1955). (Call no. Chinese RCLOS 079.5957 MLYSN)
13. L. C. Ngian, “Preface,” in Catalogue of the Ya Yin Kwan Collection in the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library (Singapore: National Library Board, 2006), 12. (Call no. RSING q338.092 TAN)
14. Tan Yeok Seong, “A Note from the Donor on the Presentation of the Ya Yin Kwan Collection of Books to the National Library,” in Ye yin guan wen cun 椰阴馆文存 [Collected writings from the Ya-Yin Studio], vol. 3. (Singapore: 南洋学会, 1983), 1–2 (Call no. Chinese RSING 959.008 TYS); Tan, “The Life of Tan Yeok Seong,” 15–16.
15. “SE-Asia Room of Library Opens Today,” Straits Times, 28 August 1964, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Catalogue of the Ya Yin Kwan Collection in the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library (Singapore: National Library Board, 2006). (Call no. RSING 338.092 TAN)
17. “Old China That Tells A Story,” Straits Times, 15 August 1969, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Tan Yeok Seong, Preliminary Report on the Discovery of the Hoard of Hindu Religious Objects, Near Sambas, West Borneo (Singapore: Nanyang Book Co, 1948), 1 (Call no. RCLOS 991.1 TAN); Deepika Shetty, “Human History in 239 Objects,” Straits Times, 4 December 2015 (From NewspaperSG); S. K. Coll, “The Gallery: Asian Antiquities’ New London Home,” The Asian Wall Street Journal, 13 November 1992, 9. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website) 
19. Shetty, “Human History in 239 Objects.”
20. Teo Han Wue, “History Lives for Him,” Straits Times, 5 April 1984, 2; Teo Han Wue, “Gift for Historian on His 80th Birthday,” Straits Times, 7 November 1983, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “Leading Scholar Tan Dies at 81,” Straits Times, 3 April 1984, 9 (From NewspaperSG); Teo, “History Lives for Him.” 
22. “Mr. Tan Yeok Seong,” Straits Times, 2 April 1984, 23. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 23 September 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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