Dr Tan Chong Kee (born in 1963) was one of Singapore's best known figures in civil society activism. Eminently bilingual in English and Chinese, Tan is remembered most for being the founder of the now-defunct Singapore Internet Community (Sintercom), a website which aimed to provide a platform for discussions of issues to take place openly.
Set up in 1994 while he was studying Chinese Literature in Taipei after obtaining two degrees from Cambridge University in computer science, Sintercom was eventually closed in 2001 after the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) asked it to register itself as a political website despite earlier assurances that it did not have to.
Tan was a guest on several television panel discussions and documentaries, and the subject of newspaper articles on socio-political activists. He delivered the first lecture of IndigNation entitled "Same Sex Love in Classical Chinese Literature", in Mandarin at 7:30pm on Tuesday, 2 Aug 05 at Xposé Bar, 208 South Bridge Road, #01-00, Singapore 058757. Its historical significance was that it was the first time a government-approved public lecture on homosexuality had taken place in Singapore.
Tan, who had conducted extensive research into Chinese civilisation, challenged the notion that same-sex love was contrary to Asian culture. He traced and explored various ancient classical Chinese texts on same-sex love to demonstrate that same-sex love had been an integral part and parcel of Asian life.
There was initial concern on the part of the organisers whether they would face any trouble with the licensing authorities despite Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's promise in August 2004 that indoor talks would henceforth no longer require a police permit. The promise proved to be real. Where in 2004 and all the years prior to that, any talk with gay themes was routinely banned, in August 2005, Tan's lecture was held without interference, although undercover policemen did attend to monitor the situation. In fact, Tan's talk, "Same-sex Love in Classical Chinese Literature" was originally prepared for the Lovers' Lecture Series in March 2004, but not delivered then because the government rejected the application for a permit. Effectively, through IndigNation, the ban on that particular lecture had been reversed.
Other sources of angst surrounding the historic talk were the fact that Tan was scheduled to leave the country that week for good, and that Tin Chuan Ang who chaired the lecture had to leave halfway because his grandmother had suddenly suffered a minor stroke that night.
- "Learnt a lot from his talk."
- "Having listened to the many examples of same-sex love that Dr. Tan had pointed out in his talk, I started wondering how is it that even those of us with a strong Chinese consciousness are not aware of this rich history most of the time."
- "Chong Kee really knows his stuff."
A lengthier review was provided by Charles Tan, who recounted that Tan's talk drew an estimated crowd of 80 people, packed into a relatively small venue. Even though the event started half-an-hour later than advertised, the audience was attentive and broke into laughter whenever Tan amused them with humorous anecdotes. His talk drew on well-respected Chinese texts including sources from novels, biographies, excerpts from poems, and official books to validate his point. Presenting his talk chronologically by era and dynasty, Tan demonstrated how same sex love in China stretched back to the earliest periods in its civilisation and how widespread it was, with a prevalence among emperors, intellectuals and commoners alike. It was never considered criminal nor taboo. The lecture touched upon the evolution of homophobia which can be traced back as early as to the Song dynasty when revered scholars introduced "sexual morality" and reinterpreted Confucianism. This was further aggravated and reintroduced by the invasion of the Western imperialists at the end of the Qing dynasty. In the question-and-answer session, participants followed up with questions on the prevalence of drag, definition of male beauty, strength of the quoted text in withstanding scrutiny, pervasiveness of male prostitution, and social structures inherent in ancient China which allowed same-sex love to flourish. At the end of the talk, Dr. Tan clarified that the aim of his talk was to dispel the fallacy that traditional Chinese values forbid same sex love and that we should recognise that homophobia was a predominantly Western concept.
On 4 November 2013, Tan made the following speech during his wedding ceremony at the Chinese pavilion, Stowes Lake, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco:
"Dear friends and family, thank you so much for all your well wishes and support. For more years that I can remember, especially during wedding dinners, I had thought marriage would never happen to me. I was told my relationship had to be kept out of sight.
When Svetlana pronounced us married on Friday, it was hard to take in. Even now, it still hasn't quite sunken in that we are a legally married couple. I catch myself wondering when they will take it all away.
And being married feels different. We may have lived together for the last 5 1/2 years, and have told each other countless times we will be together forever, but doing so publicly means that now our family and friends expect us to love and cherish each other too. I like that kind of accountability
So thank you for your outpouring support. It really helped to make us feel that it is real. That our love for each other is seen and acknowledged. It means a lot to us. Thank you!"
Tan was interviewed by The Independent in January 2014.
- Sylvia Tan, "Tan Chong Kee", Fridae, 1 August 2005
- Fully Alive, a now-defunct website set up by Tan to promote psychological wellbeingwebsite
This article was written by Roy Tan.