How Gan clan became 'happening'

SINGAPORE - First, the Gan Clan Association changed its name to simply Gan Clan Singapore.

Next came a new logo based on the Chinese character yan, or Gan - the surname of the community which the clan represents - to replace the old one showing a red rising sun.

Then, last year, the first two levels of its premises in Bukit Pasoh were leased out to a modern Western restaurant called The Clan. It has been a crowd-puller since, mainly for its beef served on hot stones.

And last month, after two years of preparation and spending more than $500,000, the 47-year-old clan group turned its third level into the Gan Heritage Centre to showcase the Gans' illustrious past, dating to the days of Confucius some 2,500 years ago in ancient China.

With nearly 800 members today, it is a medium-sized group among the 300 Chinese clan associations in Singapore. The biggest has nearly 8,000 members, and the smallest, not more than 50.

The most famous Gan in Singapore is perhaps 19th-century philanthropist Gan Eng Seng, who founded the school named after him in Telok Ayer Street in 1885. It is now in Henderson Road. Health Minister Gan Kim Yong is the clan's honorary adviser.

The clan has gained attention for its rejuvenation efforts since prominent businesswoman Gan See Khem, 67, became its first woman president three years ago.

The eldest daughter of its late founder and long-time president Gan Yue Cheng, she is a former Nominated MP and heads Health Management International, a health-care provider and hospital management consultancy group.

She has driven changes to modernise the association and make it more appealing to the young. Dr Gan is used to breaking new ground. She was the first woman to join the then University of Singapore's faculty of business administration as a lecturer after returning from Britain with a doctorate in 1977. She and fellow businesswoman Claire Chiang were the first two women to be elected to the executive council of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 1997.

The mother of three grown-up children is no new face at the Gan clan though, having served a two-year term as vice-president in 1991, following the death of her father, a textile merchant.

"I left after only one term as my own business was just taking off," Dr Gan told The Sunday Times.

She returned in 2010 as president after much persuasion from its ageing leaders but, given her mainly English-educated background, she felt she was an unlikely clan leader.

"When I first became the clan's vice-president in 1991 at 44, I had already forgotten all my Chinese and couldn't even speak or write in the language any more. But the older leaders were very supportive, willing to help me re-learn the language," she recalled.

They increased membership from about 300 to more than 400 and organised the first World Gan Clan Conference here in 1991. That set a trend for other clan bodies to hold similar global meetings, she recalled with pride.

After returning as president, she studied the association's structure and membership profile before holding a strategic planning workshop with the 37 members of its executive committee.

"I realised that the clan had no direction, and was happy just organising events during Chinese festivals and social activities such as karaoke sessions and group outings," she said. "The average age of executive committee members was 65 then, with 60 per cent of the general membership above 65, and 75 per cent of them were men."

The Constitution was amended to trim the executive committee to 18 plus three co-opted members. "With too many committee members, they end up doing nothing because it is difficult to get such a large group to come together to agree on anything," she explained.

Next, she started recruiting younger members. She hopes that by the time she retires in 2015, the average age of the executive committee members will be just over 50.

She said: "There are some 30,000 Gans in Singapore and our vision now is bonding them with a shared heritage, and the setting up of our heritage centre recently was meant to achieve this. Our mission is to promote Chinese culture, values and language as well as volunteerism for community outreach."

With better governance and management practices in place, she hopes more professionals will join the association. An upcoming membership drive will welcome non-Gans such as members' spouses as associate members, and foreign students and workers on term membership. The target is to double membership to 1,500.

Dr Gan hopes to attract more English-educated Gans like herself as well.

"After getting myself involved, I came to appreciate the Chinese community, language and culture much better," she said. "I have recruited a few young professionals into the executive committee and all of them are capable of leading the clan into the future." Entrepreneur Annie Gan, 42, one of three vice-presidents, said: "I joined the clan two years ago because I was moved by Dr Gan's dedication and commitment to transform the association into a happening place."

Another new executive committee member and the clan's youth group leader, Mr Raymond Gan, 41, a general manager of a construction firm, said young members recruited recently include those in their 20s.

"We now organise networking and wine-tasting sessions as well as talks on investments in English for the younger members and they are proving very popular," he added.

wengkam@sph.com.sg