This article uses heretofore unavailable or unexamined archival documents to offer new insights into and analysis of two specific historical questions concerning Tan Kah Kee. The first question has to do with the precise circumstances and motivations that underpinned Tan’s departure from Singapore in 1950, which turned out to be a permanent return to China. The second question has to do with a more recent revisionist argument that suggests that Tan tried — and failed — to escape from China in 1954 and 1957. Both questions have a certain historical significance in that they are closely connected to how Tan has been, and is, remembered in the modern histories of Singapore, the People’s Republic of China (prc), and the Chinese overseas.
The prevailing historiographical view on Tan’s permanent return to China in 1950 is that it was essentially the product of both “push and pull” factors; that is, that Tan was both pushed out of Singapore by the increasingly hostile political situation after the British pressure that was placed on him as a result of the Malayan Emergency, and attracted back to China by the “pull” that the establishment of New China (in 1949) exerted on his patriotic sentiments. Based on a close reading of archival evidence, this article demonstrates that Tan was not pushed out of Singapore. He left on his own terms, and because he wanted to play a part in New China.
The New Biography of Tan Kah Kee suggests that Tan attempted to escape to Singapore in 1954 and 1957, because he had become disillusioned with the radicalizing political situation in China, and thus decided to leave Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party behind. In this narrative, Tan’s escape ultimately fails because, in 1954, Zhou Enlai uses political blackmail to force Tan to stay and, in 1957, the British authorities in Singapore ban him from returning. This article demonstrates that this narrative is unsupported by archival evidence. Tan only made one attempt to travel to Singapore in 1955, and it was neither an escape attempt nor was it blocked by the Chinese Communists or the British. Rather than fleeing the prc, Tan was likely trying to travel to Singapore on behalf of the prc.
mfa“Minutes of Premier Zhou Enlai’s Meeting with Indonesian Ambassador Arnold Mononutu regarding the Afro-Asian Conference and Visiting Indonesia”19550122Accessed 28 July 2015(http://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/113190)
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