Stephen Tan was a leading voice among a cohort of Chinese Christian leaders who lived through and informed the shape of decolonization and nation-building in the British (ex-)colonies of Malaya and Singapore. The Rev. Dr Stephen Tan – diasporic Chinese pastor, theologian, migrant, and missionary to China – played an important role in leading the transition between Western missionaries and “local” leadership, and in building an independent Malayan/Chinese Church beyond China. Yet, later in life he also reconnected with the Church in China, renewing ties both as an émigré and missionary.
A self-consciously Chinese, Christian, Malayan/Singaporean, he navigated a transition between multiple identities across different life stages, through a period of seismic political change. Working within the structures of mainline Protestant institutions – local and global – Tan’s life’s ministry reflected the shifting contours of Chinese/Christian networks between South China, Southeast Asia, and beyond.
Stephen Tan (Tan Chin Kwang, Chen Zhenguang) was born on December 26, 1932, in Guantang village, Chaoan county, the Eastern (Chaozhou/Teochew) region of Guangdong province. He was born into a well-established Christian family, the fourth generation tracing its Christian heritage to his great-grandfather, Chen Kaijun (陈开俊 / 豪业 b. 1849 ) a convert (1890) of the English Presbyterian Mission’s hospital (福音醫院) in Chaozhou prefecture. This great-grandfather co-founded the first Christian Church in Guantang village, which later joined the Lingtung Synod of the Church of Christ in China (1905-1949). The Tan-clan produced multiple male preachers, elders, evangelists and lay-leaders for the church in Chao-an, including his father, Chen Rouhui (陈柔惠), who was an elder and pastor of the Lingtung Synod.
As Tan recounts in his memoir, A Journey in Service, two incidents in his early life were particularly noteworthy in shaping his subsequent trajectory: first, the decision of his second sister and eldest brother to leave for the British port-city of Singapore in 1937 at the onset of the outbreak of China’s war with Japan; second, the death of his father in 1943, a result of exhaustion and health-related issues. These events ultimately resulted in his relocation to Singapore, together with his mother and third brother, in the spring of 1946. They arrived on the ship The Anhwei and were received by his eldest brother, settling among an established Teochew Christian community organized around a Teochew Presbyterian church in Bukit Timah.
Chinese Christians and Missionary Networks in late-colonial British Malaya and Singapore
Mid-century Malaya was a time of major political change, and China-born émigré Chinese students – like Tan – were viewed by the British colonial authorities as politically suspect, impediments to fostering a Malayan national consciousness. As a result, many youths who were China-born, and/or educated in Malaya’s Chinese vernacular schools, opted to continue their higher-education in the People’s Republic of China after 1949. Coming of age in this milieu, in which education for the Chinese in Malaya and Singapore was politically charged, Tan fortuitously secured a place at the newly established Trinity Theological College in Singapore, an ecumenical seminary founded in the wake of the Second World War.
Through his personal relationship with the Scottish missionary John Fleming of the Malayan Christian Council, Tan was able to matriculate at Trinity Theological College, even though he did not possess the necessary General Cambridge certificate or high school graduation certificate. He first studied for a Chinese-language Theological Training Course (1952-55), before formally enrolling in Trinity Theological College’s English-language program (1955-58).
John Fleming, to whom Tan’s memoirs are dedicated, made a large impression on Tan and was hugely consequential in shaping his trajectory in Christian ministry.
Tan had first encountered Fleming at the Bukit Timah (Glory) Presbyterian Church Youth Fellowship (榮耀堂青年團契), where Fleming was a regularly invited speaker. He subsequently assisted Fleming in his academic and pastoral work among the Chinese in Malaya. He accompanied Fleming on his tours of Malaya’s “New Villages” as part of Fleming’s dissertation research on Chinese Christian conversions in South Malaya’s New Villages. He regularly served as translator for Fleming, and on occasion, even as a substitute preacher.
Fleming also played an important role in embedding Tan within global Christian networks. Like Tan, Fleming was also a recent arrival to Malaya, having served in China as a missionary in Manchuria and Sichuan since 1938, until his departure in 1951. Yet, he was a privileged new arrival – a member of Nanking Theological Seminary’s Board of Founders and newly appointed head of the Malayan Christian Council – bringing his multiple connections to the worlds of Anglo-American ecumenical Protestantism. Fleming was instrumental in first securing support for Tan to continue his graduate studies at the University of Edinburgh’s Divinity School. He also encouraged Tan’s pursuit of further theological training at Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div., 1962-64), through the sponsorship of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the National Council of Churches of the USA. In 1980, when Tan considered pursuing further studies during his sabbatical year from Trinity Theological College, an elderly John Fleming also encouraged Tan to pursue his D.Min. at San Francisco Theological Seminary, where Tan completed a dissertation in Advanced Pastoral Studies.
Local Leadership in the Church
Tan’s first “return” to Malaya and Singapore in 1964 after six years of education abroad came at a pivotal moment of nation-building and nationalism in Singapore and Malaya. Singapore, a port-city on the southernmost tip of the Malayan Peninsula, had joined a newly-established Malaysian Federation in 1963, before separating to form an independent nation-state in August 1965. Yet, already since the 1950s when Singapore and the Malayan Federation achieved self-government, a British-led policy of Malayanization had initiated a gradual process of replacing Westerners in the colonial civil service with local Malayans.
A parallel process took place within the Church, which saw “local” Christians replacing Western missionaries in leadership roles. Ordained in 1967 in Kluang, South Malaya, Tan was one of the first Presbyterian pastors to be called to the ministry during this time of nation-building. When the Singapore/Malaysia Synods of the Presbyterian Church split in 1970, Tan joined the Singapore Synod as its moderator, and then General Secretary, as he was then serving at the True Way Church in Queenstown, Singapore (1970-1975).
In 1975, Tan was appointed as the first non-Western principal of Singapore’s Trinity Theological College, where he served until 1982. In this capacity, he led and played a coordinating role in the Association for Theological Education in Southeast Asia (ATESEA). At the same time, from 1977 he was appointed missionary-at-large for the Council of World Mission (CWM). The CWM – formed as the missions arm of the United Reformed Church, an amalgamation of the nonconformist the Presbyterian Church in England and the London Missionary Society – had in the 1970s progressively begun to change its institutional structure, to affirm equal partnership and mutuality between British missionaries and churches established by those missions. Tan was a key participant in a 1975 conference held in Singapore, which heralded this transformation.
His longstanding ties with the Presbyterian Church in England’s missionaries, and his own role as a beneficiary of their networks, made him a natural candidate to assume a leadership role. Thus, his life also reflects an exemplary case of the shift in missionary work from Global North missionaries, to the purview of Asian Christian elites.
“Returnee” Missionary to China
The conclusion of Tan’s tenure as Principal of Trinity Theological College in Singapore in 1982 coincided with a new chapter in his work – as missionary to China. Already in 1981, with the gradual re-opening of the People’s Republic of China to international religious exchange, Tan was one of the early overseas clergy to “return” to re-establish ties with the Chinese Church. Unlike evangelical groups who sought clandestine methods to conduct missionary work in China, Tan always went to China in his capacity as representative of CWM and Trinity Theological College. His first visit in 1981 brought him into contact with Bishop K.H. Ting, assistant chairman Luo Guanzhong, General Secretary Han Wenzao, and other leaders of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement. On that trip, he was also able to make an extensive tour of South China – particularly his native-place of Chao-an prefecture – reconnecting with his ancestral village and Christian communities there.
Thus began a three-decade long engagement with the church in China, as he leveraged these connections in building relationships between the TSPM church, the CWM, and Singapore’s Trinity Theological College. Between 1994 and 1996, Ginling Theological Seminary provided him opportunities to visit, lecture, and teach across seven seminaries in Shenyang, Zhejiang, Hunan, Sichuan, Anhui, Guangzhou, Fujian, Yunnan, and Guizhou. His strongest ties, however, were with the churches in Chaozhou and South Fujian, where he spent the most time and energy with the church organizing theological education and clergy-training, even into the final decade of his life. Still, this chapter of “China-missions” did not distract from his ongoing responsibilities (from 1982) as Pastor at Singapore’s Chen Li Presbyterian Church, and his work with the Presbyterian Synod of Singapore, for which he is fondly remembered.
Tan’s seven decades of Christian ministry between late-colonial Malaya/Singapore, the (predominantly ethnic Chinese) Presbyterian Church in postcolonial Singapore, and the People’s Republic of China, reflect several unique transformations in the history of modern Chinese Christianity.
First, his trajectory out of China reflects the impact of mid-century mobilities out of China, which were indelibly structured by the forces of war and revolution. Unlike many China-born Chinese living in British Malaya at this time, however, he benefited from his connections with Western missionaries, relationships which shaped the course of his subsequent career.
Second, his work reflects a consistent commitment to the institutions and networks of mainline Protestantism. Notably, many of these are no longer as salient among Singapore’s Chinese Christians, in light of the recent resurgence of Pentecostal and evangelical Christianity. One interesting footnote in the history of the Chinese émigré Presbyterian Church in Singapore, is that an evangelical/fundamentalist split divided the church into multiple factions in the 1950s. Although Tan rarely publicly wrote about these debates – which involved some of his fellow Teochew-Presbyterians and extended family – his position ultimately hewed to that of his teacher and mentor John Fleming, standing firmly in the camp of mainline Protestant ecumenicism.
Finally, his “return” to China as a missionary in the 1980s reflects a deep and abiding attachment to the Church, native-place networks, and ancestral village. He never relocated permanently to China – with family scattered across Hong Kong, Australia, the United States, and beyond but his ties with the global and local Chinese Church remained strong.
Tan, who died in June 2022, is survived by Evelyn, his wife of 57 years, and three children.
Fleming, John Robb. “The Growth of the Chinese Church in the New Villages of the State of Johore, Malaya, 1950/60: A Study in the Communication of the Gospel to Chinese Converts.” Unpublished Th.D. Thesis. Union Theological Seminary, New York, 1962.
Hood, George. Neither Bang nor Whimper: The End of a Missionary Era in China. Singapore: The Presbyterian Church in Singapore, in association with the Friends of the Church in China (U.K.), 1991.
Hunt, Robert, Lee Kam-Hing, and John Roxborogh, ed. Christianity in Malaysia: A Denominational History. Petaling Jaya: Pelanduk Pub., 1992.
Tan, Stephen (Chen Zhenguang). 事奉之旅 [Journey in Service]. Singapore: Presbyterian Church of Singapore, 2016.