Tan Kah Kee (Hokkien: Tân Kah-kiⁿ) (October 21, 1874 - August 12, 1961) was a prominent businessman, community leader, and philanthropist in colonial Singapore, and eventually a respectable Communist leader in the People's Republic of China.
Mr Tan Kah Kee was born in Jimei, Xiamen, Fujian Province, China, and went to Singapore in 1890, when he was 16 years old, to work for his father's rice store. After his father's business collapsed in 1903, Tan started his own business and built an empire from rubber plantations and manufacturing, sawmills, canneries, real estate, import and export brokerage, ocean transport to rice trading. His business was at its prime from 1912-1914, where he was known as "Henry Ford of Malaya".
With the profit that he made from his business empire, Tan contributed greatly to the community, both in Malaya and his native Fujian Province. He set up the Jimei Schools (now Jimei University) in 1913. In 1919, he set up The Chinese High School, now named Hwa Chong Institution in Singapore, while in 1921, he set up the Xiamen University and financially supported it until the Government of the Republic of China took it over in 1937. In 1920, he married his daughter Tan Ai Li to Lee Kong Chian, who worked under him and who later became a famous Singaporean philanthropist and businessman.
Lee Kong Chian, like Tan Kah Kee, was a great philanthropist and patron of education. Lee was a pupil in the prestigious Tao Nan School. Tan Kah Kee was one of the 110 founding members of Tao Nan School. Famed for its traditional Chinese culture and excellent pupils, Tao Nan School is now a greatly respected and prestigious school. The school's current location is in Marine Parade, Singapore, and has attracted many students.
Tan was one of the prominent ethnic Chinese Malayans to financially support Chinese efforts in the Second Sino-Japanese War which broke out in 1937 and organized many relief funds under his name. . He was also a participant in the Legislative Yuan of the Nationalist Government under Chiang Kai-shek in Chongqing. After the Japanese invaded and occupied Malaya and Singapore during the Battle of Malaya and the Battle of Singapore, these contributors were defined as "undesirables" and were subjected to systematic extermination in the Sook Ching Massacre, although Tan survived. Tan Kah Kee strongly rejected proposals to attempt to negotiate with the Japanese, regarding any such attempts as characteristic of a hanjian (traitor of the Chinese), and petitioned the pessimistic Wang Jingwei to dissuade him from any such activities.
Tan was the de facto leader of the Singaporean Chinese community, serving as chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and helped organise the Hokkien clan association. However, he lost this role when the Chinese Civil War divided the Singaporean Chinese community into Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Kuomintang sympathizers. Tan was a CCP supporter as he was disillusioned with the corruption within the Nationalists. After the Communist victory in China, Tan tried to return to Singapore in 1950, but was denied entry by British colonial authority which was concerned about communist influence in Singapore and Malaya. He then moved permanently to China and served in numerous positions within the CCP. He died in 1961 in Beijing and was given a state funeral by the People's Republic of China. In Singapore, the Tan Kah Kee Scholarship Fund, which later became the Tan Kah Kee Foundation, was established in memory of this philanthropy.
In 1943, while taking refuge in Java from the Japanese, Tan began writing his memoirs, The Memoirs of an Overseas Chinese of the Southern Ocean (). This work became a valuable resource of the history of overseas Chinese.