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We're the Tan family - 80 under one roof

Built on a 27,000 sq ft plot, the 32-bedroom mansion houses five generations and more than 80 members of the Tan clan. The oldest is 86 years old, the youngest just five months. -ST
Wong Kim Hoh

Tue, Mar 05, 2013
The Straits Times

SINGAPORE - From the outside, it looks like a nondescript block of walk-up apartments: a tiled compound doubling as a carpark, a two-storey hexagonal structure to the left, and a horse-shoe, two-winged building to the right.

But it is possibly the largest household on this island. Built on a 27,000 sq ft plot, the 32-bedroom mansion houses five generations and more than 80 members of the Tan clan. The oldest is 86 years old, the youngest just five months.

The head of the household is Mr Tan Hong Khoon, 59, chairman of Prime Group International. Besides a chain of 19 Prime supermarkets in Singapore, it operates a modern pig farm, five Sun Island golf-cum- holiday resorts and two international schools in China.

The house was built in 1990, after the death of Mr Tan's father Tan Ah Chye, a Punggol pig farmer who had 13 children. All were involved in the family farm and lived together with their relatives until pig farming was phased out in the mid-1980s.

Under Mr Tan Hong Khoon's charge, the family diversified into other businesses. Most of those living in Toh Crescent work in the family business, holding positions ranging from cashiers to financial controllers.

Prime vice-president Tan Hong Chiew, 62, who refers to his cousin Hong Khoon as "chairman", explained why the mansion was built: "Because our elders worked so hard, both chairman and I managed to go to university and become the first graduates in the family. We feel it is our responsibility to repay and look after them."

The clan's unusual living arrangements made headlines not long after the house was built. Except for the addition of about 15 new family members, little has changed.

On Saturday, the Tans marked a family milestone - 100 years in Singapore - with a book about their clan and business.

The household runs on rules and standard operating procedures, with a central committee to take care of needs and iron out issues.

"People find the way we live strange. But we've always lived like this. We were taught to look after each other. It is how we were brought up and it works for us because we are firm, fair and open," said Hong Chiew, who heads the four-member family committee.

"We don't stop family members from living outside. Only a handful have done so. But why would they, when everything here is paid for and they are well looked after?"

Family members have most of their needs taken care of, including medical expenses and school fees for the children. Retirees get a monthly allowance.

Younger folk help to take the elderly to medical appointments and a bus takes the children to school. Students who do well are rewarded with prize money at a ceremony every December.

We're the Tan family - 80 under one roof
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: ST)

Although wealthy, the Tans' lifestyle is far from ostentatious.

Living conditions are comfortable, if cramped, and furnishings are basic. There are sometimes four people to a room that measures 192 sq ft - and comes with a fridge, a TV set and air-conditioner.

There are no attached bathrooms, just two communal bathrooms and two toilets - one squat, one sitting - on each floor.

"The cleaning on each floor is taken care of by one family member living on that floor," said Hong Chiew.

Designated family members look after the garden, the drawing room where guests are entertained and meetings held, the dining area and the library where the children study. There are 10 washing machines and six drying stations for the laundry.

The giant household has only two maids - one to look after Hong Chiew's 86-year-old mother, and the other to help the hired cook.

Madam Ho Mee Yong, 65, prepares lunch and dinner for the family from Mondays to Saturdays. Meals on Sundays are prepared by eight family members.

"I plan my menu about two days in advance. Besides soup, I usually prepare at least four dishes - fish, meat and two vegetable dishes - for each meal," said Madam Ho, adding that she cooks for 30 at lunch, and double that number for dinner. She orders 150 eggs and at least 30kg each of vegetables, meat and fish every week.

"Our food bill comes up to more than $7,000 and our utilities bill, $4,000 each month," said Hong Chiew.

A set of rules ensures harmony. Family members, for instance, have to respect their elders, must not complain about meals or bring home members of the opposite sex to stay over.

Chairman Hong Khoon, voted by the family to head the business and household, said: "What I have is responsibility, not power. I have the responsibility of inculcating the values and living by example. Our values become our lifestyle."

His niece, Ms Frances Tan, 44, agrees. The general manager of Prime Supermarket, she is part of the family committee and helps to sort out issues younger members may have.

"The younger family members are more outspoken so you need patience to explain... why and how we can live peacefully together. But they've grown up in this environment, they understand."

Indeed, Hong Khoon's grandniece Tan Wan Xin, 22, will not have it any other way. Now working as a hotel receptionist before she leaves for a hospitality management course in Switzerland, she said: "You really learn the importance of family.

"When I was young, I always had cousins to play with, and elders to approach for help with homework. Now that I'm older, I see my friends worrying about housing problems and caring for their elderly if they should fall sick.

"But I don't have these worries. If my parents should fall sick, I know they will be well taken care of, not by strangers but by loved ones you trust and grew up with."

Family rules

When children bicker, parents should counsel and discipline them in their own rooms.

Adults should not quarrel.

Disagreements should be talked through and resolved harmoniously.

Husbands should not criticise or find fault with their wives or children in front of other family members. They should seek the advice of elders if there are problems.

No complaining about meals.

No littering, graffiti, or vandalism.

No gathering in groups to gossip.

Respect elders, address them when you see them. Take good care of the younger generation.

Children must tell parents if they plan to return home late or stay out for the night.

Youngsters cannot bring home friends of the opposite sex to spend the night. Accept work that is delegated.

Prime 'example of family values'

Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing on Saturday praised the Tan family behind the Prime supermarket chain for treating their staff like family.

"Though it is a family business, they do not refer to themselves as the Tans but as a united body of workers and they share the rewards with their staff," said Mr Chan, in Mandarin, at a forum and book launch to mark the family's 100 years in Singapore.

He said Prime Group International was a good example of how small and medium-sized enterprises could lead the way in creating a pro-family environment. It is not only big companies that can do this, he said.

More than 400 guests attended the book launch and forum held at the Chui Huay Lim Club in Keng Lee Road to discuss how to better balance the demands of family and business.

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