A , Tang was born at the turn of the 20th century in Shantou, China to a Presbyterian pastor. He emigrated to the British colony of Singapore in 1923.
In Singapore, Tang began as a door-to-door salesman peddling hand-made Swatow lace, embroidery and linen products. With a hired rickshaw, Tang carried his goods in a pair of tin s which remained in his possession as a reminder of his humble beginnings. Tang later became known as the "Tin Trunk Man" and the "Curio King" for his rags to riches legacy.
Establishment of Tangs
In 1932, Tang was able to embark on a larger venture, having accumulated sufficient funds through hard work. He established a department store in 1932 with an initial of 3,000. Tang set up his first shop on the first floor of a building on River Valley Road, selling craft products from China.
Subsequently in 1940, Tang financed the construction of a new building at the corner of and River Valley Road to house a new department store. He called the new edifice ''Gainurn Building'', a variation of his father's name Tang Gan Urn. The department store sold a vast array of merchandise. By the 1950s, CK Tang had opened several more branches.
In 1958, Tang bought a 1,351-square metre piece of land at the corner of Orchard Road and Scotts Road at a cost of S$10,000 to further his vision of expanding his business. Although the site faced the Tai San Ting Cemetery, he felt that it had commercial value as many British housewives in the Tanglin area could stop by on their way to the . The decision was made against the advice of fellow businessmen who thought Orchard Road was unfashionable then. Years later, when the Singapore Government designated and developed Orchard Road as a prime shopping and tourist district, the price of land soared from S$3 per m? to S$6,000 per m?.
With the acquired land plot, Tang constructed the landmark C.K. Tang Department Store at 310 Orchard Road at a cost of S$50,000. The building's green-tiled roof and facade was modelled after the Imperial Palace of the Forbidden City in Beijing. In 1960, Tang voluntarily closed the store due to problems with the trade unions, but Tangs was re-opened the following year. In 1975, Tang's company was .
In the late 1970s, Tang expanded his business again when he decided to develop the neighbouring property lots which he had bought years before. In 1982, the building on Orchard Road was demolished to make way for the new Tang complex, comprising the 33-storey deluxe Dynasty Hotel and the Tangs shopping complex . The shopping complex consists of five floors of retail space covering more than 15,000 m?, under the slogan "All The Best Under One Roof".
In 1991, Tangs opened its first overseas branch in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Tang also collaborated with Malaysia's Mayang Sari Bhd to develop real estate, hotels and commercial properties in Kuala Lumpur. He also assisted the Dairy Farm International Holdings in its retail business in Malaysia.
Until 1996, Tangs was the only major shopping centre in Singapore to not operate on Sundays, in deference to Tang's Christian faith. Tang instituted the policy so that his family and Christian staff could attend church on Sundays. As a staunch Christian, Tang spoke of honesty and hard work as his guiding principles.
Tang's distinctive management philosophy was the focus on people, both customers and staff. Emphasis was given to quality of the staff, reasonable pricing and warm . Tang believed in investing in his staff, as his frontline staff would be the ones who would be in direct contact with the customers and he believed that the of the store depended on them. As a result, Tang reserved a substantial annual budget for staff training, which included tailored programs for sales staff, supervisors and management. Supervisors and managers were expected to undergo a minimum 100 hours of training. Tang also made an effort to get in touch with his staff at all levels, in order understand his customers' expectations on product and service quality. Despite the company's poor financial results in certain years, Tangs retained its reputation for good service and reliability.
Tang retired in 1987, handing the reins of corporate leadership to the second of his three sons, Tang Wee Sung. However, Tang retained the post of company president and was rarely out of touch with company business, personally checking the company's accounts and meeting suppliers.
Besides CK Tang, Tang Choon Keng was also known as Tang Un Tien.
In 1960, Tang was kidnapped by four armed thugs, but was freed unharmed within 84 hours after the family reportedly paid S$150,000 in ransom.
Tang's first wife passed away in 1980; he subsequently remarried. Tang had eight children. On September 3 2000, Tang died peacefully at home with his family around him at the age of 99.
Tang died on 3 September, 2000 in Singapore.