Remembering Terence Tan: Preserving and Propagating Teochew Culture and History with a Sincere Heart

Mr Terence Tan was a Teochew collector from Singapore and an accomplished researcher of Teochew modern history. The mere mention of his name draws praise from people with a keen interest in Teochew cultural history. He collected and organised extensive volumes of documents, music records, and old photographs related to Teochew. He also edited a book titled Memories of Old Swatow and enthusiastically supported other researchers in publishing their work, including articles, books, and magazines. His contributions to the research and dissemination of Teochew cultural history were immense. 

Even until the last days of his life in 2021, Terence was busy organising the materials he had on his computer to share with friends in various countries. In the blink of an eye, we approach the third anniversary of Terence’s passing. The Teochew Store reached out to his family and close friends, collecting documentary materials to revisit his acquaintance and contributions to Teochew cultural history through different perspectives.

Mr Terence Tan, Teochew collector from Singapore 


Becoming good friends with a Teochew master storyteller

“As for Teochew culture, I think it all started from his uncles from Indonesia”, said Mrs Alice Tan, mother of Terence. The history of the Tan family in Southeast Asia began with Terence’s great-grandfather. Originally from Gekyor (Jieyang), he settled in the Riau Islands in Indonesia, near Singapore. To this day, Terence’s family in Singapore maintains close contact with their relatives in Indonesia. Conversing in Teochew and eating Teochew porridge with salted side dishes at home was how Terence grew up with a strong sense of Teochew identity.

“Terence started to love Teochew culture during his secondary school days. He loved listening to Ng Chia Keng on the radio. He later met him personally, and they became close friends” In the recollection of Terence’s mother, another important influence was Singapore’s famous Teochew storyteller, Mr Ng Chia Keng. A household name across Southeast Asia, Ng Chia Keng started a career reading Chinese classical stories, martial arts novels, radio plays and nursery rhymes on radio in Singapore in 1947. It spanned 35 years, ending in 1982 when Singapore ended the broadcast of Chinese vernacular programmes.

Annotated Selection of Teochew Nursery Rhymes (音釋潮州兒歌擷萃), a book selected and annotated by Ng Chia Keng and edited by Terence, was published in 1995. It contained 42 Teochew nursery rhymes that Ng Chia Keng handpicked from extensive Teochew language materials and added phonetic notations and explanations. In the book’s preface, Ng Chia Keng wrote, “The contributor, Mr Terence Tan, took time from his busy schedule in university to respond whenever and wherever to correct and improve this book. Using all his creative juices, he found ways to create the orthographic characters of ancient words on the computer that the typesetters did not have. This enabled this ‘kiddie stuff’ to be completed for release.”

Dr Kow Mei Kao, at the time a lecturer of the Chinese Language Department of the National University of Singapore (NUS), mentioned in his foreword for the book, “In 1994, Terence Tan, a third-year student in the Chinese Language Department of the NUS (now a reporter for Lianhe Zaobao in Singapore) told the present author he intended to help Mr Ng publish the book Annotated Selection of Teochew Nursery Rhymes, and he volunteered to draft and proofread the manuscript for Mr Ng. Terence requested the present author to assist with the text arrangement... Terence even took the trouble to make a fair copy of the proof sheet, thus ensuring the publication of this collection as scheduled.”

Terence with his sister, grandma and mother


From collecting to publishing old photographs: the impact of Memories of Old Swatow

Entering Terence’s study room, one can see piles of Chinese and Teochew language books in all four corners. His greatest hobby was collecting old books, newspapers, magazines, music records, and photos.

“My son read a lot when he was young. He never dumped old books but kept them. Unlike me, he was a hoarder,” said Mrs Tan, almost with a sense of helplessness. “During those years at university, my brother would squirrel away some savings to buy some books on Teochew and Chinese. When he started working, his Chinese book collection grew exponentially. In all honesty, I used to think he spent too much time and his savings on researching and collecting all things Teochew,” Terence’s sister, Tina, added.

In 2011, the Singapore Teochew Poit Ip Huay Kuan published Memories of Old Swatow, compiled by Terence. The book collects nearly 200 old postcards and photographs of scenes of Swatow (Shantou) and Teochew (Chaozhou) cities from the early 20th century to the 1950s. The content is divided into five chapters: “From the turn of the century to the 1930”, “People and Custom”, “The War Year”, “Swatow in the 1950”, and “Scenic Views of Old Chaochow”.

Swatow was the primary port and centre of commerce of the Teochew region in the early 20th century. The book showcases images of Swatow’s landmarks during its early urban development and voluminous information about its people, society, and economy. Its great historical documentary value stirred the Teochew communities in both Singapore and China.

In his introduction to the book, Terence noted, “Compared to the ancient capital of Peking or the major cities of Shanghai, Tientsin, Canton and Hong Kong, early postcards and photographs of Swatow and Chaochow are extremely rare and hard to come by.” A witness to Terence’s dedication and efforts, Tina said, “He had the world’s largest collection of postcards of Old Swatow. The postcards were collected over more than a decade.”

Deng Cueng from China, the director of the documentary Wild Teochew and editor of Historical Photos of Teochew, got to know Terence through Memories of Old Swatow 13 years ago. Although the two men had never met, they exchanged emails and discussed old images of Teochew, forging an immediate bond. As Deng Cueng prepared to publish his Historical Photos of Teochew in 2015, Terence consented unreservedly to the book’s inclusion of his collection of photographs of the former Teochew Prefectural City (Chaozhou). His generous gesture moved Deng Cueng, who wrote, “Without (Terence’s) support, there would be no publication of Historical Photos of Teochew.”

Tan Gia Lim, author of An Introduction to the Culture and History of the Teochews in Singapore, was another close friend of Terence. “We got to know each other in 2015. At that time, I was writing my book and needed to use some images from Memories of Old Swatow. I contacted him via email, and he quickly responded and agreed. He was very sincere and warm towards his friends. Through his introductions, I got to know many other Teochew culture and history co-workers. I am grateful to have become acquainted with a like-minded friend.”

Photo of covers of Teochew Home News (electronic copy), Memories of Old SwatowAnnotated Selection of Teochew Nursery Rhymes and The Classic Records Reading & Appreciating 


Donating his precious collections

In addition to historical images, Terence collected and organised old Teochew opera music records and documentation of Teochew cultural history. In 2006, he selflessly donated 681 music records he had gathered over the years to the Chaoshan History Culture Research Centre in Swatow, China. These records were mostly recorded between the 1930s and the early 1950s. They are invaluable for what they offer for study into the Teochew opera’s preservation and dissemination, changes and development of music and singing techniques, and recent history. Using modern audio technology, the Chaoshan History Culture Research digitised a selection of classic performances. It released them under the title The Classic Records Reading & Appreciating in 2010. With this, we now listen to and admire the voices of famous artists from many years ago.

In the course of his research, Terence discovered many early writings from Japan that were concerned with the Teochew area. He catalogued and described these materials, including monographs, journal articles and book chapters, in a paper titled “Record and Examination of Pre-1945 Japanese Language Materials on Chaoshan” (1945年前日文潮汕资料知见录), which he shared on the academic social networking site Terence expressed in the abstract of his article: “I hope this paper will draw the academic community’s attention to this batch of important first-hand materials that examine modern Swatow politics, economy and social history as well as Japan-Swatow relations... I believe this book catalogue and article index will provide fellow scholars with research convenience.”

Further to these, Terence made available on The Teochew Store website scanned copies of his collection of Teochew Home News (潮州鄉訊). This was a fortnightly magazine edited by Mr Goh Yee Siang that circulated in Singapore and Malaya between 1947 and 1962. Terence commented on the collection’s value: “It is an indispensable source of reference for researchers studying the Teochew diaspora and possesses scholarly value that cannot be overlooked.” All 26 volumes and 273 issues of Teochew Home News can be downloaded for free from The Teochew Store.

A few months before he passed away, with Gia Lim’s help, Terence donated his entire collection of Chinese books to the Yeo Khee Lim Teochew Culture Research Centre. The research centre accepted the collection and sent the books temporarily to the storage facilities of Nam Hwa Teochew Opera. “Because there was no time to record the donation, the research centre invited Terence to catalogue the books in preparation for establishing a Teochew Collection Library. Terence was delighted by the idea. Unfortunately, poor health led to him being bedridden until his passing. The plan to establish a library has been in limbo till today. Not being able to fulfil my promise to a good friend and properly handling the books he entrusted to me is my great regret,” said Gia Lim.

“My brother’s selflessness came from our dad, Patrick. He was a caring and giving man. He never once turned away a request for help from family or friends. For instance, my dad helped to put several of my cousins through higher education. Terence witnessed this trait in our dad. His selfless sharing of knowledge and expertise was honed through the years as being a child of our father,” Tina explained.

In his piece “In Memory of Mr Terence Tan: He opened our eyes to the old images of modern Chaoshan,” Deng Cueng wrote, “(Mr Terence) helped us to see the intense passion of an overseas Teochew for the culture and history of his ancestral home place. As local-born Teochews, we should go even further to protect, cherish, study and spread the Teochew history and culture. This will be our greatest show of respect for sinseh.”

Even though Terence is no longer with us, his love and outstanding contributions to Teochew culture and history continue to flow with life’s cycles. Terence’s passion is a source of pride for Mrs Tan. “I am comforted by the contributions he made in his lifetime to society through Chinese culture and history”, she expressed. “This is his eternal legacy. I believe his soul in heaven also feels proud and happy.”

Terence with his father, Patrick

Watch the Shantou Radio and Television feature interview of Mr Terence Tan in 2011.


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