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1906 - 1909

Paving (1906 - 1909)

The Beginning

The year was 1906.

A group of Singapore’s richest and most powerful Chinese merchants were on their way to Thian Hock Keng temple on busy Telok Ayer Street. These men were leaders of the Hokkien clan association, or Huay Kuan, and the temple was their headquarters. These traditional Chinese men, with their long, loose robes, shaven heads and long plaits, had gathered to discuss creating a modern Chinese school for the Hokkiens and for future generations of Singapore.
The Chinese people in Singapore set up their own private lessons (私塾 sishu) and free schools (义学 yixue), where children learnt the Confucian classics, calligraphy and how to use the abacus. The Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan ran Chongwen Ge (崇文阁) and Chui Eng Free School. However, by the end of the 19th century, this education system had become outdated.

From 1901, these old schools were replaced with a new system of primary, secondary and tertiary education. Confucian classics were still taught, along with Western subjects such as Geography and modern languages. These more modern schools were called xuetang (学堂).

The school had no building of its own in those days. It rented a house on North Bridge Road, across the road from St Andrew’s Cathedral. This was the home of the late Tan Kim Ching, a powerful diplomat and Tan Boo Liat’s grandfather. It was nicknamed ‘Siam House’ in his honour.
Tan Boo Liat was head of the Hokkien community. His proposal to the Hokkiens to set up a school quickly was warmly supported – the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan pledged an annual subsidy and the Hokkien merchants donated a total of $58,900.

In all, there were 110 founding members for this new school, including the first president of Tao Nan’s school board Goh Siew Tin (吴寿珍), Teo Sian Keng (张善庆), rice merchant Lee Cheng Yan (李清渊), as well as trader and banker Low Kim Pong (刘金榜). There was also Tan Kah Kee, who was crucial to Tao Nan’s expansion and success.

On 18 November 1906, Tao Nan School (道南学堂 dao nan xuetang) was born – the very first of six modern schools the Singapore Hokkien Huay Kuan would set up.

Tan Boo Liat's great grandfather, the rice merchant and philanthropist
Tan Tock Seng (1798 - 1850).
Tao Nan was not meant to be a boys’ school, but there are no signs of female students in the beginning. The 90 boys in the very first batch of students were aged from about 7 to 15. They all wore the school uniform: long-sleeved shirt, trousers and hat. They were divided into four classes, with lessons taken by four teachers. Among them was a 14-year-old boy who later became one of Singapore’s most famous philanthropists. His name was Lee Kong Chian.

Classes Begin

Tao Nan was established in November 1906 with 90 students. By 1908, this had doubled to 182; in 1909, there were 292 pupils in eight classes. In between, in December 1907, the school advertised for teachers who spoke with a Zhangzhou or Quanzhou accent – most Hokkiens in Singapore came from those two areas in China’s Fujian province.

In the early years, Tao Nan’s school programme was an intriguing mix of old and new. As a Chinese school, it drilled into students the Confucian classics and loyalty to the Chinese Emperor. Textbooks and teachers came from China, and the language used in class was Hokkien. On the other hand, History, Geography and Mandarin were also taught, plus three hours of physical education each week.

However, the Chinese – across China, and in Malaya – were beginning to recognise the value of unity. In 1909, Tao Nan opened its doors to non-Hokkien children, becoming the first Chinese school in Singapore to take in students from other dialect groups. The school continues to be a trailblazer in the years that follow.