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Singapore Four Heavenly Kings of Pineapple 🍍 Tan Tye, Lim Nee Soon, Tan Kah Kee, Lee Kong Chian

Image credit: Hockkien Huay Kuan
Singapore was in the early 1900s, the world's largest cannery and exporter of canned pineapples. If you go to Clarke Quay by the Singapore River, you can still see two historic pineapple cannery buildings which are conserved 🍍

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Pineapple was grown as a catch crop in rubber plantations. As rubber trees need at least 5 years to mature, planters grew fast growing pineapples in the meantime.

Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Pineapples fetch good money, so they soon became the main cash crop itself. But, pineapples were hard to export as they don't keep or travel well. Some enterprising pioneers began experimenting with canning pineapples.

Seah Eng Kiong Pineapple Cannery at Bendemeer Road 1900. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
A Frenchman named Laurent started a cannery in 1875 but it was short lived. Another Frenchman Bernado also started a cannery. The most successful was Joseph Pierre Bastiani, a Corsican Italian who was renowned for his canning skills.

Clarke Quay 2003. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Pineapple canneries sprouted all over the island with several at Clarke Quay by the Singapore River. Canned pineapples were sent across the world from here.

J P Bastiani's cannery still stands at Clarke Street at Clarke Quay. In the 1890s, Bastiani bought over a rubber warehouse from Howarth, Erskine & Co. and converted it to a pineapple cannery. At its peak, Bastiani's cannery was producing 5,000 cans of pineapples a day.

Conserved and repurposed as upmarket restaurants, pubs and cafes, there is little today here that reminds anyone about the heritage of this historic building.

Tan Tye Place 1960. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
A few prominent Singapore pioneers made their early fortunes in pineapple canning and were known as Pineapple Kings 黄梨王.

Harvesting pineapples in 1910. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
One was Tan Keng Tye 陈清泰, born in Tong'an District, Fujian province of China. He arrived in Singapore in 1860 at age 21, working his way up to own pineapple plantations in Nee Soon and canneries at Clarke Quay.

Tan Keng Tye's Istana and Hin Choon brands of canned pineapples were exported around the world including Great Britain, the United States, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

One of his canneries at Tan Tye Place at Clarke Quay is conserved and repurposed to house food & beverage and entertainment businesses. There is little today to remind anyone that this was once a pineapple cannery of the legendary Pineapple King, Tan Keng Tye.

Pineapple cannery 1912. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Another Pineapple King was well known pioneer Tan Kah Kee who found his early breaks in Singapore in pineapple canning in the 1900s. Tan Kah Kee was also born in Tong'an District, Fujian in 1874 and came to Singapore in 1890.

Pineapples on their way to the cannery, Singapore 1900. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Tan Kah Kee was forced to switch career at age 30 when his rice trading business, Chop Soon Ann (which he inherited from his father) failed in 1903. One of his first ventures was Sin Lee Chuan pineapple cannery in Sembawang. Business prospered and he bought over Jit Sin, one of Singapore's largest pineapple canneries at that time. When business continued to grow, he set up his third pineapple cannery at Rochor River.

Lim Nee Soon 1916. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Singapore born (1879) Peranakan Lim Nee Soon was another prominent pioneer and Pineapple King. Lim Nee Soon owned huge tracts of land in Sembawang, Chong Pang, Nee Soon, and Bah Soon Pah where he planted rubber and pineapple in the early 1900s.

Image credit: Wikipedia
Today's Yishun town (one of Singapore's largest public housing estates with over 220,300 population) was built on his estates and his name Nee Soon pinyinised to "Yishun" in Mandarin Chinese (thus some future generations of Singaporeans may become unfamiliar with this legacy).

Lee Pineapple 1930s. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Lee Kong Chian was the fourth Heavenly King of canned pineapples. He came to Singapore from Na'an county in Fujian in 1903 at age 10. Lee Kong Chian made his early fortune in rubber. In the 1930s, he established pineapple plantations in peninsula Malaya and in Indonesia. His pineapple cannery in Skudai (Johor) which opened in the 1930s is still in operation to this day slated to close permanently at the end of 2023 after 92 years. The company will switch from pineapple to oil palm cultivation.

Sin Heng & Co Pineapple Factory in 1950s. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
A lot of the work in the cannery was by hand in the 1950s. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
Students visiting Lam Huat cannery in 1951. Image credit: National Archives of Singapore
After the Second World War in 1945, more Singapore pineapple plantations and canneries moved to peninsula Malaya. Pineapple canning declined in Singapore and by the 1960s, there were none left.

What are your memories of canned pineapples?


🖋Bukit Brown: Living Museum of History & Heritage
🖋 Tan Kah Kee Foundation

Date: 16 Jul 2020

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