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Tan Ean Kiam

Amoy, Fujian (1881-1943)

Introduction

Tan Ean Kiam (1881 – 1943) originated from Fujian, China. In his early life, he attended school but did not continue his education. He then travelled with his father to Singapore in 1899.

Starting a Business
At 28, Tan Ean Kiam started a business with a friend, Joo Guan. The company business included trading of local produce but as the demand for rubber increased, they decided to include trading of rubber in 1912. He invested in rubber factories and bought rubber plantations as the business grew larger. Unfortunately, the business did not last for more than 5 years. By 1917, the falling demand of rubber hurt the business badly. Subsequently, Joo Guan decided to head for the exit and Tan eventually bought out all his shares.

Like clouds with silver lining, the demand for rubber began to rise rapidly in 1922. He built Bin Seng & Company and procured large stocks of rubber. When the Stevenson Plan introduced by the British to restrict raw resources, prices of the rubber escalated from $20 per ton to $200 per ton. This enabled the company to reap more revenue which led to the building of two more mills built by 1933.

Overseas Chinese Bank
In another business investment, Tan Ean Kiam together with Khoo Kok Wah established the Oversea Chinese Bank (OCB) on 28 June 1919. Operating on $20 million capital, the bank set up branches in Southeast Asia and China. In addition, Tan was one of the first managing directors to oversee the business operations.

However, by late 1920s, the bank business suffered a drastic economic meltdown. The Great Depression had befallen on them and this inadvertently put the business at risks of bankruptcy. On another setback, the invasion by the Japanese on Manchuria led to a loss of a substantial portion of assets in China. The economic condition was even worse after the British devalued the sterling pound by 40%. At that time, upon considering the viability of continuing the business, Tan Ean Kiam decided that OCB had to merge with other banks in order to survive in the brutal economic environment.

Hence, on 31 October 1932, Tan decided to merge OCB with two other banks: Ho Hong Bank and the Chinese Commercial Bank to form the Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation (OCBC). Every share in Ho Hong Bank was equivalent to one share in OCBC and one share in Chinese Commercial Bank was equivalent to three shares in OCBC. Tan Ean Kiam continued to serve as the managing director in OCBC until his death in 1943.

Role in the Chinese Community
While he accumulating his wealth through his business, Tan Ean Kiam was also actively involved in improving the lives of the Chinese community in Singapore and was also involved in other social activities in China. He joined Tung Meng Hui, a nationalist revolutionary movement of Dr. Sun Yat Sen in 1916 and contributed financially to this organisation.

In China, Tan was particularly involved in improving the transport infrastructure. He planned to build a bridge between his village (Amoy) and Chip Bee. He also engaged Tong Bee Motor Vehicle Company to ferry goods to and fro. For education, Tan contributed a large donation to Xiamen University.

In other philanthropic endeavour, Tan was elected as one of the honorary auditors for the Swatow Relief fund in 1922. In Singapore, Tan was one of the founding members of the Tong An Clan Association in 1924. He was also elected as the association’s first chairman.

The Dr. Sun Yat Sen Villa in Singapore was acquired by Tan and other Chinese entrepreneurs: Lee Kong Chian, Chen Hean Swee, Lee Chor Seng, Yeo Kiat Tiow and Lee Chin Tian. The building was eventually handed over to Singapore Chamber of Commerce to be preserved as a national heritage.

The Japanese Invasion
As he was greatly involved in helping the Chinese community in Singapore and China, Tan was subjected to torture and maltreatment by the Japanese when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942. Tan was then a committee member of the Chinese section of the Malaya Patriotic Fund’s Singapore branch and also the deputy chairman of the China Relief Organization.

Tan Ean Kiam eventually died of a heart attack in 1943. His grave is currently housed at Bukit Brown Cemetery.

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