Tan Tock Seng (陈笃生) was one of Singapore’s most important early pioneers. Born in 1798 in Malacca, he moved to Singapore in 1819 at the age of 21, shortly after the British arrived. Starting out by selling fruits, vegetables and poultry, he soon put together enough capital to set up a shop at Boat Quay. Tan, who was Hokkien, learnt to speak English and got on well with the European traders. He entered into a partnership with John Horrocks Whitehead (1810–1846), a prominent trader from the firm of Shaw, Whitehead & Co, and it was largely due to their joint speculation in land that Tan became immensely wealthy.
Tan owned large tracts of land, including more than 20 hectares at the site of the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station. He also owned another plot of land that stretched from Connaught Drive to High Street and up to Tank Road. Tan and his brother Tan Oo Long also owned a nutmeg plantation. Tan’s close connections with the local community made him a natural leader and his tact and ability to resolve disputes among the Chinese endeared him to the British.
In 1844, seeing the plight of the locals on the island, Tan contributed $7,000 towards the construction of a Chinese Pauper’s Hospital on top of Pearl’s Hill which was to take care of the 'diseased of all nations'. Construction of the hospital took three years but after it was completed, it stood empty for two more years due to a lack of funds to equip the hospital and employ staff. In 1849, the first patients were admitted to the hospital. The hospital moved to premises located at the junction of Serangoon Road and Balestier Road in 1861. In 1903, this tract of land was acquired and the hospital moved yet again, to its current location off Moulmein Road.
Tan Tock Seng died in 1850 and was buried in an unknown location. Indeed, a newspaper report documenting his funeral simply stated that his cortege journeyed to a ‘burial place’. Tan Tock Seng was survived by his wife Lee Seo Neo (1807–1877).
The land where the tombs are now located was acquired by Tan Tock Seng’s son, Tan Kim Ching (1829 - 1892), in 1877, and this is where the younger Tan chose to bury his wife, Chua Seah Neo, when she died in 1882. It was quite possible that at this time, Kim Ching made the decision to exhume his father’s remains and re-inter them at the same Outram Road site, right next to his own wife’s tomb. In 1969, the tombs were threatened with exhumation when the government widened Outram Road to cope with increased traffic. Appeals from Tan Tock Seng’s descendants to safeguard the tombs were successful. But in the 1980s, the tombs were forgotten, until they were ‘rediscovered’ in 1989. Since then, descendants of Tan Tock Seng have been tending to the tomb and a major sprucing up of the site was carried out in 2009.