Meeting Tan Kah Kee

The ornately decorated tomb of Tan Kah Kee faces the Taiwan Strait, representing his desire for his home country China to be whole with Taiwan back in its embrace. -- ST PHOTO: LARRY TEO
The ornately decorated tomb of Tan Kah Kee faces the Taiwan Strait, representing his desire for his home country China to be whole with Taiwan back in its embrace. -- ST PHOTO: LARRY TEO
The image of Tan Kah Kee in a theatre in the memorial hall dedicated to him is made from wax but the voice that issues from the audio system is authentically his, recorded in the 1950s and replayed for the ears of all visitors. -- ST PHOTO: LARRY TEO
The image of Tan Kah Kee in a theatre in the memorial hall dedicated to him is made from wax but the voice that issues from the audio system is authentically his, recorded in the 1950s and replayed for the ears of all visitors. -- ST PHOTO: LARRY TEO

His voice sounded scratchy over the stereo system as the recording was made in the early 1950s when audio technology was still primtive.

Yet I was hugely attracted to it, trying to apprehend every sound bite - all in the form of the Xiamen tongue - that sputtered across the air in the theatre.

The voice belonged to Mr Tan Kah Kee, and any one who knows the history of the Chinese in Southeast Asia well should know he was likely the greatest philanthropist of the overseas Chinese community.

His fame stemmed from his unstinting willingness to sacrifice his wealth for the betterment of education in early 20th-century China and then to help the Communists rebuild the country after World War II.

The speech I heard was probably his very first delivered at a gathering of political advisers under the Communist system. He himself was one of the select delegates, representing the overseas Chinese.

I was at the very end of a gallery in the Tan Kah Kee Memorial Hall located in his mausoleum park in Xiamen city, trying to fathom the generosity and patriotism of this man whom I had heard something of but never got to really appreciate.

A variety of emotions eddied in me as I walked through the hall, surveying his life from the time he came to Singapore beckoned by his father to help in his business to the day he gasped his last breath in a hospital in Beijing in 1961.

I knew that Mr Tan had built schools in Singapore and Fujian, his home province, when education was a luxury to many Chinese, but little did I know I would be overwhelmed by the number of learning institutions he helped put up.

The pictures of these schools just seemed endless.

The Jimei University that he founded in Xiamen has today expanded to such a sprawling scale that it was tiring just to walk from one end of a campus to the far end of an adjoining one.

Suddenly, I found a Tan Kah Kee who was so fleshed out that he was no longer just a big name with three sounds. He summed up what nationalistic Chinese were all about, overseas or at home, when the country was in its greatest-ever turbulence.

Now I know when his name started to be written large in history.

It was after the brutal and uncivil killing of an envoy sent by China’s Kuomintang government in 1928 to reason with Japanese troops following their ramsack of Jinan, capital of Shandong province. That made Mr Tan step forward to call for the boycott of Japanese goods in Southeast Asia.

I also learnt that he was a pioneer in the organisation of mechanics and drivers from Malaya to help ferry precious outside supplies to the Chinese government via treacherous mountain roads linking Yunnan province and the then British Burma as the Japanese had cut off all coastal access.

Now I know he switched his support to the Communists when he visited wartime Yanan - the base of the Communists then - after talking to some young people from Singapore who had joined their ranks and adopted their spartan lifestyle. He believed that these idealistic youths, including one from Nanyang Girls’ School, could not have chosen the wrong side.

Now I know that he abandoned everything in Singapore that he could not possibly take with him when the Communists, after seizing power in 1949, invited him to China to help build the “motherland” that he loved so much.

Now I know that he gave his last years to building railways to link the island part of Xiamen to greater Fujian and hence to the rest of China. A romantic man with a practical bent.

Anyone can learn the details because these are contained in history.

What matters in my visit to the park is that it was an awakening trip - me transported by the exploits of Mr Tan to a time when love for one’s homeland could be so absolute and so pure.

Hence a trip originally made for broadening knowledge was transformed into something like a pilgrimage - my heart held nothing but admiration for the man when I at last came to his grave at the seaside of the park.

As I stood before it, I was not awed by the ornate sculptures that adorn his tomb, but the august stories that had led to this resting place.

Even in death he is looking out from Xiamen to the east - toward a much bigger island across the Taiwan Strait which is still a missing piece in the jigsaw of China waiting to be reunited.

Caressing wind blows in constantly from the sea, and as I reflected on the big soul and heart of this man, the last sentence of the “Great Gatsby” came to mind:

“So we beat on boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

It might seem an incongruous comparison, but to live and die for something or someone one truly loves, giving up all if necessary, is something apparently the two characters share.

And besides, if one can never shake off the memory of a great love, the past will come to take you back no matter where the current has borne you - like China to Mr Tan.

larryteo@sph.com.sg