Former Tangs chairman Tang Wee Sung dies at 69; friends remember retail legend as a visionary

Mr Tang Wee Sung died on Dec 30 at age 69. PHOTO: ST FILE
Mr Tang Wee Sung was hailed by a long-time friend as a “retail legend” who was “gentle in spirit and kind-hearted”. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Mr Tang Wee Sung, the former chairman of Tangs, died on Friday at the age of 69.

The second son of retail tycoon Tang Choon Keng, who was better known as C. K. Tang, Mr Tang stepped down as chairman of Singapore’s oldest department store in 2016 as part of a succession planning exercise.

The Straits Times reported in 2017 that his brother, Mr Tang Wee Kit, is chairman of CK Tang’s executive committee and executive chairman of Tang Holdings. It was also reported that Mr Tang Wee Kit’s elder son Sean was named as CK Tang’s chief executive.

CK Tang was delisted in 2009.

Mr Tang Wee Sung’s nephew, Mr Calvin Liok, said his uncle, who was not married, had been in and out of hospital for more than a year owing to complications resulting from a bacterial infection. He declined to say more about his illness.

Mr Tang’s condition was worsened by his diabetes, the 61-year-old told The Straits Times at The Garden of Remembrance Christian columbarium in Old Choa Chu Kang Road, where the wake is being held.

On Dec 22, Mr Tang fell into a coma.

Though he was serious when it came to business, Mr Tang was a caring person who showed concern for the family and regularly hosted get-togethers on occasions such as Chinese New Year and Christmas at his Bukit Timah home, Mr Liok said.

Mr Joseph Chean, 56, the national director of Youth with A Mission Singapore, said Mr Tang helped the missionary group obtain a property in Geylang to serve as its headquarters here.

Though Mr Tang’s health problems prevented him from helping out physically, his support of the group’s work was his way of giving back, said Mr Chean.

“He always said, ‘Joe, I cannot go out to the streets like you, I cannot go to Geylang... but this is what I can do,’” he recalled.

Speaking to ST over a call, Mr Tang’s long-time friend and former vice-president of Tangs’ marketing and communication department, Mr Gerry Rezel, hailed him as a “retail legend” who was “gentle in spirit and kind-hearted”.

Mr Rezel, who had worked at Tangs for close to 35 years, first met Mr Tang in 1981, interviewing for a position in Tangs’ marketing team.

Mr Rezel said: “He took me through this model of the new Tang Plaza, which was the plan at the time to build the new Dynasty Hotel and shopping complex in Orchard Road. I was so impressed that it looked so contemporary, as compared to the old Tangs building.”

In 1988, Tangs launched its first lifestyle concept store, known as Tang Studios, at Scotts Shopping Centre. The store introduced the collections of local designers to the market, through creative designs and marketing initiatives, said Mr Rezel.

He added: “Wee Sung provided creative, marketing and overall store support to help them realise their goals and objectives.”

Mr Tang’s long-time friend Dick Lee called him a daring visionary who championed local fashion in the 1980s.

“When I returned from my fashion studies in London, Gerry Rezel, who was working at Tangs, introduced me to Wee Sung, who was looking for a display director for Tangs,” said the singer-songwriter, who spoke to ST via WhatsApp.

“We got along extremely well as his ideas for retail were in line with mine. He was generous, ambitious, creative, and daring enough to hire me!”

In the 1980s, Mr Tang presented the Soda show, which featured local designers selling under their own labels for the first time in a department store, said Mr Lee. The Society of Designing Arts (Soda) is an association of local designers Mr Lee founded with his partner Alan Koh.

“He revolutionised local retail with his forward-thinking concepts, which gave room for local designers to grow.”

Apart from his endeavours in the retail and fashion space, culinary icon and former food writer Violet Oon recalled the time she interviewed Mr Tang for a story in 1987 for her own monthly publication, The Food Paper.

In 1987, culinary icon and then food writer Violet Oon interviewed Mr Tang about his love for cooking, and some dishes he was preparing for Christmas. PHOTO: VIOLET OON

The story centred on Mr Tang’s love for cooking, and the preparation process of his Christmas dishes – deep fried wanton and turkey dijonnaise.

Referencing the photo of him included in the story, Ms Oon said: “What’s interesting about him was that he wasn’t glitzy. The picture of him in the piece is very indicative of the person he is – very staunch Christian, and his cooking was a mix of East and West.”

She added: “He was surrounded by all these creatives, which can be crazy, but he was always such a calm and down-to-earth person in the middle of it all.”

In 2008, Mr Tang was jailed for a day and fined $17,000 for attempting to buy a kidney. Organ trading is illegal in Singapore.

He underwent a kidney transplant a year later, and the kidney he received was donated by gangster “One-Eyed Dragon” Tan Chor Chin, who was hanged after being convicted of murder.

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