Born in Shantou, China, Tan was the third of eight siblings. In 1937, he emigrated with his family from China to settle in of Singapore. Tan's father died in a death-house at Sago Lane in Chinatown when he was 14. Tan stopped schooling after his first year at a secondary school.
Tan's weightlifting career started when he walked past the former Gay World Amusement Park with his friends one day. There, Tan witnessed his first weightlifting competition and became intrigued with the sport.
Tan showed potential for weightlifting. After one year of training, Tan, then 20, became the national junior and senior champion in the lightweight division in 1953.
The lack of financial support meant that Tan had to pay out of his own pocket to finance his training and expenses. At that time, Tan was working as a clerk at Cathay Organisation. He also worked as a mechanic. However, he plodded on, after his late father that "One day, I will be the strongest man in the world".
In 1956, Tan failed at his first attempt in the at Melbourne where he . However, in 1958, Tan established a world record with a lift of 347 s in the for the lightweight division at the 6th British Empire and Commonwealth Games, now known as the Commonwealth Games, in Cardiff. He also won a gold at the 3rd Asian Games in Tokyo that year. In 1959, Tan won a gold medal at the in Bangkok.
On 8 September 1960, Tan made another attempt at the in Rome. In the lightweight category competition held at the Palazetto Dello Sports Hall, Russia's Viktor Busheuv had already won the gold by breaking the world record. It was down to Tan and Iraq's Abdul Wahid Aziz for the silver medal. Tan had one clean and jerk lift left when he felt some pain in his legs. The advised that he return to the Athlete's Village for , which would have meant a withdrawal from the competition. However, Tan did not give up and competed to claim the silver medal. He lifted a total of 380 kg to beat 33 rivals for second place.
Life after the Olympics
After his win at the Olympics, Tan tried to run a restaurant business but was unsuccessful. He worked as a taxi driver for a short stint, before becoming a weight-lifting in 1974. After his retirement from competition, Tan was hired as a gym supervisor by the Singapore Sports Council at the Kallang Family ClubFitt in November 1982.
Up until 1999, Tan continued to to work daily, six days a week. He lives in a three-room Housing Development Board on Jalan Batu in Tanjong Rhu with his wife and daughter.
Tan's Olympic medal made him the only Singaporean to have won a medal at all the major international games — the Seap Games, the Asian Games, the Commonwealth Games and the Olympic Games for 48 years. He also became the first weightlifter in the world to be awarded the International Weightlifting Federation Gold Award in 1984. In Singapore, Tan was the only athlete to be bestowed the ''Pingat Jasa Gemilang'' at the National Day awards.
On 26 June 1996, a commemorative medallion set by the Singapore Mint was launched to celebrate the 1996 Olympic Games at Atlanta. It features Tan on one side of the medallion, showing him getting ready to lift weights. When the image is tilted to a certain angle, the picture would show him having lifted the weights. , the official mascot of the Atlanta Olympics, is featured as a on the other side of the medallion.
In 1999, Tan was nominated for the "Spirit of the Century" award. In the same year, he was also nominated for "Singapore's Greatest Athlete" award, but conceded the award to former badminton champion, Wong Peng Soon, who was a four-time winner in the All England Open Badminton Championships in the 1950s. Tan was featured in 's "Millennium" series on Singapore sporting greats in 1999.
In 2000, McDonald's sponsored Tan's trip to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, where he joined the Singapore contingent and attended the weightlifting competition. McDonald's also donated S$10,000 with the aim to help revive the sport of weightlifting in Singapore. McDonald's also featured a two-minute special television commercial, titled "We Can Do It", featuring Tan's silver medal-winning feat at the 1960 Rome Olympics. The commercial re-enacts the different stages of Tan's life, from childhood to his triumph at the Olympics.
Tan is a man who never ed. Compared to the present day where Singapore athletes are promised a reward of S$1 million for winning a gold medal at the Olympics, Tan did not receive any monetary rewards for his effort in 1960.
Tan was given the honour of being the flagbearer at the closing ceremony of the on 30 June 2007. The leotard and which Tan wore during his 10?-hour competition in Rome were put on display in a glass case in the Singapore Sports Council's Sports Museum at the National Stadium.