“He liked to be the first responder”: In giving towards God’s work, late retailer Tang Wee Sung was “ahead of the curve”
by Gemma Koh // January 27, 2023, 4:56 pm
Tang Wee Sung with Ambassador-at-Large, Prof Tommy Koh and Mrs Koh at the Christmas Light-up at the foyer of Tangs in November 2014. The former chairman of Tangs was called home to the Lord on December 30, 2022. All photos courtesy of the Tang family.
June 2018. Unknown to the multitude of Orchard Road shoppers milling about Singapore’s iconic department store Tangs, five floors up in the Singapore Marriott Tang Plaza, the former chairman of Tangs was recommitting his life to God.
In the private pool of a suite named after his late mother, Tang Wee Sung emerged from the water with “his hands stretched to heaven in gratitude and freedom, and the joy of the Lord could be seen on his face”.
He was surrounded by his nearest and dearest, including his niece Belinda Tay, who recalled this moving scene to Salt&Light.
Wee Sung was baptised by long-time friends, including Steve Carpenter of Highway 19 Ministries,
“That image of him is forever etched in my mind and in my memory,” the Jerusalem-based Bible teacher, journalist and musician told mourners recently at Wee Sung’s wake.
“Although Wee Sung was baptised as child, he felt he wanted to reconfirm his commitment to God, by a second baptism of his own volition,” Steve said.
The visionary retailer was 69 when he was called home to the Lord on December 30, 2022.
Steve had arrived in Singapore just in time to say “a powerful prayer” over his friend before he slipped into his heavenly home, Wee Sung’s nephew Calvin Liok, 61, told Salt&Light.
A pioneer even in playdates
Much has been written about how Wee Sung was a “retail legend” and “a daring visionary who championed local fashion”.
In the late ’80s, shortly after taking over the reins of the iconic department store founded in 1932 by his father Tang Choon Keng – better known as CK Tang – he opened the company’s first lifestyle concept store. Tangs Studio had an edginess that was well-loved by those in the fashion industry.
Growing up, Wee Sung’s nephew, Calvin, and his older sister, Belinda, saw this creative foresight firsthand. The siblings, who lived two doors away from their “Kuku”, would pop over for frequent playdates with their mother’s younger brother.
“Wee Sung was the one who would come up with new games to play with us. He would devise a new version of Hide and Seek or Catching ” recalled Calvin. “He was always trying to get ahead of the curve during our playdates.”
Much has also been written about their uncle’s appreciation of food and the thoughtfulness he put into the parties he threw for family and friends.
Belinda told Salt&Light how Wee Sung surprised her with a dessert bar of different pies and cakes at his home after celebrating her birthday at a dinner out.
‘There are not enough testimonies of business people, like Wee Sung, who are powerfully affecting the kingdom of God.”
But less has been written about Wee Sung’s gusto for giving towards God’s work, said Ps Dian Botha of Cornerstone Community Church, which Wee Sung attended in the last 10 or so years of his life.
Added Ps Dian: “When I sat at his wake and heard all the eulogies, I thought, ‘There are not enough testimonies of business people, like Wee Sung, who are powerfully affecting the kingdom of God.’ I feel that his story can inspire and encourage others – no matter what we have – to contribute.”
Videoed eulogies from Perth, Australia, and California in the US spoke of Wee Sung’s pioneering spirit in missions work. His heart echoed that of his paternal grandfather, an itinerant Presbyterian pastor in Swatow, China, who had led a hard life as he travelled from region to region to share God’s word.
“Wee Sung gave generously just for God’s work,” Ps Dian told Salt&Light. He contributed substantially to Cornerstone’s efforts in Cambodia, including a purchase of a property to house and show Jesus’ love to young female factory workers who had come from the countryside.
“Wee Sung was a very, very kind man, very humble.”
Cleaning toilets for God
In the early ’80s, Wee Sung, who was in his 20s, came to worship at Church of Our Saviour (COOS) – then at Prince Charles Crescent – through friends.
It was a time of revival, and the church had launched a discipleship programme that every new member had to go through, said Ps Derek Hong, who was then its Senior Pastor.
“Part of the programme involved cleaning the church,” Ps Derek told Salt&Light.
“Wee Sung was given the job of cleaning the toilets. He gamely took it on without a whimper … I was impressed.”
“The coordinator would hand out the brooms, pails, mops, cleaning clothes to the teams of disciples. Some were assigned to wipe benches or to clean the floor.
“Somehow, Wee Sung was given the job of cleaning the toilets. He gamely took it on without a whimper, without complaint, even though all his life he never had to pick up a piece of litter in his own home.
“I was impressed,” said Ps Derek who added that, as a pastor, he was “very careful not to show Wee Sung special attention”, citing James 2:2-10.
“It’s sad that I outlived Wee Sung,” mused Ps Derek, who is 75.
Raising a church in an old cinema
Wee Sung was instrumental in making a connection that would help Church of our Saviour buy its current site at Margaret Drive.
“When COOS kept growing, we had to expand,” said Ps Derek. “We went to look at a cinema that was on sale, prayed about it, and felt it was right for us.
“We thought we would perhaps borrow $1 million and, with that, try to borrow the rest from the bank.”
“But we only had $100,000 then in our building fund.”
After an appeal to members, they managed to increase the fund to $300,000 in two months, from which they tithed 10%.
At that point, Wee Sung arranged for Ps Derek to meet his father, Tang Choon Keng, who was 81.
“We thought we would perhaps borrow $1 million, and with that, try to borrow the rest from the bank,” said Ps Derek.
Wee Sung had told Ps Derek that his father only spoke Teochew. To help bridge the communication gap, Ps Derek brought along a Hokkien-speaking older church member. (Ed’s note: The Teochew and Hokkien dialects are similar.)
They met Mr Tang at his office in the newly-completed Tang Plaza, which comprised the department store and a hotel.
“The first thing Mr Tang said to me was, ‘Ps Derek, I came to Singapore at the age of 21 with nothing. And now I have all this,’ he said, waving his hand over the expanse of his office. ‘I can’t take anything with me when I die.'”
(Ed’s note: To escape poverty, Mr Tang had left China for Singapore in 1923 with nothing but a tin trunk and a suitcase full of linen and lace. By the time Wee Sung was born, God had prospered the business.)
“Ps Derek, I came to Singapore at the age of 21 with nothing. And now I have all this. I can’t take anything with me when I die.” – CK Tang
“My son told me about your need. Can you tell me how much it costs?”
The asking price was $2.5 million. The owner of the cinema was not willing to negotiate.
“Without hesitation, Mr Tang said, ‘Whatever it costs, I will pay.’
“I almost fell off my chair,” said Ps Derek who thanked Mr Tang in his best Hokkien.
But Ps Derek was in for another shock.
Mr Tang then said: “I want to come and visit your church.”
Admitted Ps Derek: “I panicked. Because his home church was a very conservative Teochew-speaking one. And if he saw the way we were worshipping at COOS – dancing and shouting …
“So I told him, ‘Thank you for wanting to come. My church is a very happy church … we worship loudly and noisily.’
“He looked at me sternly and said, ‘No! A church must be solemn.’
“I saw wings growing on the funds and flying away,” admitted Ps Derek, who proceeded to rally his staff to pray.
“The following Sunday, Mr Tang turned up. He was dressed in a jacket and tie. He sat right at the back.
“Our church had grown so much, it was jam-packed even though we had torn down the walls. Everyone was sweltering under the ceiling fans,” recalled Ps Derek.
A Hokkien-speaking older church member was deployed to sit with Mr Tang and do “damage control”, related Ps Derek. The church member also prayed for Mr Tang’s aches and pains.
Over the next couple of weeks, Mr Tang did not show up for church. Ps Derek then asked Wee Sung to enquire of his father’s position. Based on what Mr Tang had said in his office, the church had put down the option to buy the cinema.
“A light came into Mr Tang’s bedroom and touched his body. It took all his aches and pains away.”
Wee Sung then told Ps Derek of what had happened after his father had come home from COOS.
Recalled Ps Derek: “As was Wee Sung’s father’s usual practice, he read the Bible before he slept. He had opened it to Psalm 47:1 – ‘Clap your hands, all you peoples. Shout to God with a voice of triumph.’
“He exclaimed to Wee Sung, ‘Your church does this! Okay!’
“On the same night, a light came into Mr Tang’s bedroom and touched his body. It took all his aches and pains away,” Ps Derek told Salt&Light. (The episode is related in a book by COOS.)
“Wee Sung’s father had also told him that he felt sorry for our church when he saw all of us sweltering in the heat.”
So, COOS received the cheque.
“It was a miracle for us,” said Ps Derek.
“Through Wee Sung’s connection, we were able to have this blessing.”
In time, Mr CK Tang came back to the church and sat in the same place in the back.
Wee Sung’s obituary gave big clues to what was close to his heart.
For instance, in lieu of wreaths, it asked for those who wanted to make donations to channel them to two causes. One of them was Youth With a Mission (YWAM) – a Christian missionary training organisation with ministries all over the world.
In a letter of condolence to Wee Sung’s family, founder of YWAM Loren Cunningham wrote: “Wee Sung has been a long-time friend of Youth With A Mission and of Darlene and me personally, serving for decades on our University of the Nations International Advisory Board, where he freely gave of his wisdom and expertise. We so appreciated his great generosity of spirit!”
In Singapore, Wee Sung helped YWAM to obtain a property in Geylang to serve as its headquarters here, and also helped to establish a base in Bali.
“He liked to be the first person to participate, largely with his giving … so that we could get the project going.”
Joseph Chean, national director of Youth with A Mission Singapore, had told The Straits Times that Wee Sung’s health problems prevented him from helping out physically, but his support of the group’s work was his way of giving back.
“He always said, ‘Joe, I cannot go out to the streets like you, I cannot go to Geylang … but this is what I can do.'”
Alan Lim, Joseph’s predecessor, told Salt&Light: “Wee Sung loved to be involved in new initiatives, in pioneering projects. He liked to be the first responder – the first person to participate and get engaged, largely with his giving. He liked to get involved in the fundraising so that we could get the project going.
“Wee Sung was really a kind, generous and caring person. He engaged in a holistic way, not just serving the organisation – but by also being interested in the well-being of the individuals and their families.
“He understood that care for missions involves real people.”
Heart for the displaced
Belinda recalls her uncle’s generosity and kindness – even to people far from Singapore.
During Covid, she had told him about a project in the Middle East that was bringing relief to a group of internationally displaced people.
“And he said, ‘Why don’t you use my home to do the fundraising?’
“He had a big dining table that was perfect for entertaining,” she said.
However, Covid social restrictions during that time meant that Belinda could only invite three donors, after including a chef and herself. So she changed the venue to one that could accommodate more people.
“But the point was that he was open to a project so far from Singapore, and he cared about the people I talked about and wrote out a cheque for them.”
“A live coal burning for the nations”
From Southern California where she lives, Christy Brennt – co-founder of Circuit Riders with her late husband Brian Brennt – shared with mourners at Wee Sung’s wake a prophecy over Wee Sung.
Circuit Riders is a YWAM community focused on reaching universities and high schools, training and discipling catalytic leaders and teams.
“Wee Sung and Brian shared the dream of the next generation of missional leaders sharing the Gospel in new and creative ways.”
Founder of YWAM, Loren Cunningham, had asked the Brennts to encourage a friend of his in Singapore, who was in ill health. Christy and Brian had a prayer ministry at that time in 2010.
“After visiting Wee Sung in Singapore, Brian continued to be burdened for him, and asked me to see if the Holy Spirit would speak to me about this man I had never met,” Christy told Salt&Light. “That day, the Lord gave me a specific word to give to Wee Sung”:
“Are you known in heaven for your riches, or for your earthly reputation? No. You’re known as a richly decorated servant, a jewel for this age. He calls you the Emerald of Singapore, a prize to the kingdom and a hope to those who labour. Look upon your breastplate, righteous son. There you see the emerald, a glowing stone, a live coal burning for Him. A live coal burning for justice. A live coal burning for the nations.”
Over 10 years, she saw that prophetic word “unfold before my very eyes” – along with that of a picture of “Wee Sung expanding the tent pegs of an enormous canvas tent that seemed to have no end”.
Said Christy: “Wee Sung and Brian shared the dream of seeing a renaissance in the world missions community … with the next generation of missional leaders sharing the Gospel in new and creative ways.”
“At the time we were pioneering a work in America but didn’t know what it would look like. We started with 10 young leaders and soon began doing circuits throughout American universities.”
“It was never about numbers for Wee Sung. It was always about people, about loving in the way Jesus was showing him to love.”
Over the years, Circuit Riders grew to 250 staff, with training schools and tours that reach 550 universities a year.
“Brian was a catalytic and powerful trainer, but the difficulty of pioneering would leave us disoriented at times,” she said.
“Wee Sung was Brian’s advocate and a creative, experienced voice, speaking into our building and expanding. He saved us from mistakes that young pioneers often make and was a real architect within our youth culture as we expanded into music and media.”
Wee Sung would give language to and champion the godly dreams in their hearts with a childlike faith, said Christy.
Through Wee Sung’s connections with “fiery young catalysts in Singapore”, Circuit Riders took their Carry The Love event to the city state. Today, the national movement reaches hundreds of universities across America, Europe and beyond.
Together with Brian, and through his funding and mentorship, Wee Sung filled stadiums through The Send, which was birthed in Orlando, Florida, in 2019, said Christy. At this event, she was healed of an autoimmune disease she had been battling for 38 years.
Said Christy’s son, Nick Brennt in his eulogy: “Wee Sung’s love for Jesus was fierce, full of passion, his love for his friends and family loyal and full of intention.
“My biggest struggle with Wee Sung was convincing him of the number of people who have been impacted by Jesus because of his generosity and mentorship.”
They are in the “tens of thousands”, he said.
“But later I understood. Wee Sung didn’t see his success as his. He saw it as Jesus’. He saw it as a platform to give God glory. It was never about numbers for Wee Sung. It was always about people,” said Nick.
“It was always about loving in the way Jesus was showing him to love.”
“Stay, expand your work in Geylang,” God tells YWAM, who is building Project Gateway in obedience
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