Tan Yee Khan was born on September 24, 1940, in Ipoh, Perak, Malaysia.
He went to school at the St. Michael’s Institution (SMI) in his city of birth. When asked about his school days, Tan credited the staff at SMI for giving him “the opportunity to excel in the game I love. The teachers and principal saw the potential in me and they encouraged me to take up badminton.”
It was also at SMI where he met Ng Boon Bee. In 1957, Tan and Ng were both competing at the Malaysian Combined Schools tournament when Coach Thoe Boon Teng arranged for the two players to form a partnership. In the same year, the young 17-year-old Tan and Ng challenged the Malaysia Open but had a quick first round exit. The following year, Tan left SMI to train with Eddy Choong who had just returned from England.
Before winning his flurry of titles with Ng in Men’s Doubles, 19-year-old Tan was noticed in August 1959 by the Straits Times due to his win in singles over 16-year-old Tang Xianhu at the Selangor International Championships. “Yee Khan crushes ‘The Thing’ – Malaya Wins the First Round of Badminton Prodigies” titled the Straits Times. Journalist Norman Siebel wrote: “Taller and much stronger, Yee Khan used his destructive and accurate smash to upset the smooth rhythm of the Indonesian player…All praise to Yee Khan for an admirable display. He showed the even temperament so essential for success and ability to stem a losing tide and turn it into a winning streak by employing the rights tactics.” Just as Siebel wrote, Tan was already much taller than most Asian players and especially his partner, Ng Boon Bee.
In 1960, Tan briefly trained with Wong Peng Soon. In July of the same year, Tan and Ng won their first international title at the Perak Open after defeating compatriots, Lai Fook Yin and Lee Guan Chong, 15-12, 15-10. That title was followed by another one – their first on foreign soil – at the 1960 Indonesian Championships.
In 1961, Tan and Ng continued to win more international titles but the highlight of their year was at the All-Malaya Open which would later become the Malaysian Open. Over the course of a decade, the Malaysian duo would win a record-breaking six titles at the event. It was also in 1961 that they won their first title at a multi-sport event, the Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games.
Tan and Ng made their mark at the first ever Badminton Asia Championships organized by the then-Asian Badminton Confederation in 1962. The event was held in Kuala Lumpur, on Malayan soil. In the team event, the Malayans were lethal. They were very stingy about handing away tie points and made presents of bagels to Burma, Hong Kong, Pakistan and then Indonesia to grab the team title. Tan and Ng continued with the Malayan streak of domination in the Individual Event and secured the gold medal in Men’s Doubles for Malaya.
Later that year at the 1962 Asian Games held in Jakarta, Indonesia, the Malayans were unable to replicate their performance at the Badminton Asia Championships and only secured a bronze medal in the Team Event. Tan and Ng refused to settle for less than a gold medal in the individual event and overcame local favourites, Tan Joe Hok and Liem Tjeng Kiang, in the final. Tan and Ng’s gold medal in Men’s Doubles stopped the Indonesians from achieving a clean sweep of titles. The host country had won four individual gold medals and both of the men and women team events.
In 1963, Tan and Ng continued their run at the Malaysia Open and won their second consecutive title. The Malayan also won their first title at the 1963 Singapore Open thus beginning their six years of supreme reign at the event.
In May 1964, hard-hitting Tan competed in Men’s Singles at the Japan International Invitation Tournament in Tokyo and encountered 5-time All England winner Erland Kops in the third round. To everyone’s surprise, Tan defeated Kops in three games with the score of 15-10 2-15 15-5. “I am happy because it is the first time I haven been able to beat Kops. I ran out of stamina in the second set but managed to make a comeback in the third set,” said Tan in an interview after his win. Tan went on to win the event at the Japan International Invitation Tournament. His only other known title in singles was at the West Indian Championships during the same year.
Since all of his known international titles were in Men’s Doubles with Ng, it is worth noting that Tan is also in possession of a Mixed Doubles title at the 1965 Badminton Asia Championships with Englishwoman Angela Bairstow.
In 1965, Tan and Ng expanded outside of Asia and began their campaign for the most prestigious title of all – the All England Championships. The Malayans brushed aside all opposition without losing a single game and neutralized the scratch pairing of Erland Kops and Oon Chong Jing, 15-7, 15-5 in the final round to win the All England title on their first attempt!
Tan later reflected on his win, “(…) It was our first trip to Europe. We had to pay half the fare while the BAM paid the other half. That was the rule then. We went around seeking donations from others. We managed to collect RM1,000. And the greatest moment in our lives was when we won the title that year.”
The following year of 1966 was a mix of repeats and firsts. Their biggest repeat was their second consecutive triumph at the All England. This time in the final round, they met the very established pair of Finn Kobberø and Jørgen Hammergaard Hansen who had dominated the All England for a decade with six titles as a pair from 1955 to 1964. The Danes returned to the All England for their coveted seventh title to break the record of the most titles at the All England and nearly made it when Tan and Yee broke away from the Danes in the deuce of the third game. The Malayans emerged with their second consecutive All England title with the score of 9-15, 15-9, 17-15. This was the Danes’ last appearance in an All England final.
Fresh from their All England win, the Perak-born duo continued 1966 with new titles from the Canada, US and Danish Opens. By then, Tan and Ng were household names. When they landed at the airport in Ipoh, the pair was given a hero’s reception and paraded around the city in a 20-car motorcade.
Later that year, Tan and Ng successfully defended their Asian Games Men’s Doubles title against Indonesians Tjoe Tjong Boon and Ang Tjin Siang. In 1966, badminton was included for the first time at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Jamaica. The Malayan pair made an appearance and did not drop a game until the final round. In the final round, they faced compatriots, Tan Aik Huang and Yew Cheng Hoe, and lost 14-15, 5-15 in one of their very rare defeats.
Nearing the end of the 1966-1967 Thomas Cup campaign, Tan and Ng were caught in the infamous Challenge Round between Indonesia and Malaysia. The final round of 9 matches was played on the nights of June 9 & 10, 1967, in Jakarta.
On the first night, Malaysia won 3 matches, including Tan and Ng’s victory against A P Unang and Darmawan Supatera 15-6, 15-7. Malaysia ended the night with a 3-1 lead in the 9-match tie. On the second night, the Indonesians quickly won 2 matches to make a comeback of 3 points to Malaysia’s 4 points when Tan and Ng sent out to secure the final point for Malaysia. This time, they were to play Muljadi and Agus Susanto. The Malaysians easily won the first game 15-2 in just 11 minutes and things were looking well for the Malaysians with their 10-2 lead in the second game. According to accounts, the Malaysians made a few mistakes which encouraged the 12,000-strong crowd to cheer errors, throw things and use flash photography to blind the Malaysian players. Frazzled by the crowd, the Malaysians dropped the second game 13-18 in the favour of the Indonesians. Fueled by the miraculous comeback, the crowd began to riot and set fires in the stadium. During the 5-minute break before the third game, Herbert Scheele the tournament referee requested the Indonesian authorities to clear the stadium before resuming play but to no avail. To ensure the players’ safety, Scheele discontinued the match and no winner was determined. The IBF offered to resume play at a more neutral location in New Zealand but Indonesia refused. After careful consideration, the IBF decided to award the Thomas Cup to Malaysia.
The Malaysians returned to the 1968 All England but failed to disrupt Erland Kops and Henning Borch who were in the middle of their three-year consecutive streak of titles at the All England.
In 1968, they won their sixth final Malaysia and fifth final Singapore Opens.
It was at the 1969 Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games that the famous partnership ended due to unfortunate circumstances. Tan collapsed during training and was unconscious for 24 hours. He spent 20 days at the Rangoon General Hospital before being discharged. Tan had close encounters as a child when he fell from a tree and was bitten by a snake while studying in China on another occasion. This event prompted to Tan to retire from badminton competition.
When asked about his successful partnership with Ng, Tan attributed their secret to success to the fact that they started playing together at a very early age and were “like-minded when we were on court. It is not easy to be champions all the time – especially in the doubles. Both of us understood each other well and that was the key to our success. We were very independent as a pair. There were no videos to assess our opponents. We remembered how past champions played. We did our own analyses and we learnt to be thinking players.”
International Badminton Federation’s Herbert Scheele wrote about Tan and Ng in the 1966 IBF Handbook: “In doubles, it was equally clear that the world’s best pair was composed of Malaysia's Ng Boon Bee and Tan Yee Khan, a quite magnificent combination with that remarkable knack of being able to raise their game that little much when most required.”
After badminton, Ng continue to pursue badminton but Tan transferred his skills to the sport of golf with relative success. Tan must have found his transfer to a lighter sport refreshing since he once said:“When we were playing, everything was heavy – the wooden racquet, the bags, the shoes. We used more energy. Now, the speed of the game has increased and the scoring format is different. But the style of the game has not changed that much.”
Tan won the Malaysian Open Amateur Golf title in 1970 and was selected for the Malaysian Putra Cup team the following year. In November 1973, he won the Malacca Open Championships by a margin of 11 strokes.
He made a brief comeback to badminton in 1972 and won the Malaysia National Championships in Men’s Doubles with Teh Kew San. He had previously won those same championships with Ng in 1963, 1964, 1965, 1967 and 1968.
In 1998, Tan was inducted into the IBF Hall of Fame.
On the Malaysian scene, Tan was inducted into the Olympic Council of Malaysia Hall of Fame in 2004 and awarded a datukship - Darjah Datuk Paduka Mahkota Perak (DPMP) - by the Sultan of Perak in 2005. His Alma Mater, St. Michael’s Institution, honoured him with the title of Michaelian Achiever of the Year in April 2005.
Tan now runs and resides at the Sea View Hotel & Holiday Resort on an island in Perak. Since 2000, Tan organized annual meetings of former and current Malaysian badminton greats at his resort. At the 2001 edition of that meeting, Tan received the title of “Father of Malaysian Badminton.”
1998 – IBF Hall of Fame
2005 – Darjah Datuk Paduka Mahkota Perak(DPMP)
2004 – Olympic Council of Malaysia Hall of Fame
2005 – Michaelian Achiever of the Year
BIBLIOGRAPHY & REFERENCES
Encyclopaedia of Badminton (Pat Davis)
Guinness Book of Badminton (Pat Davis)
International Badminton – the first 75 years
The Straits Times (April 29, 1962)
The Straits Times (December 10, 1969)
The Straits Times (May 27, 1964)
The Straits Times (November 19, 1964)
The Straits Times (November 5, 1973)
Thestar.com.my (February 11, 2016)
Thestar.com.my (February 15, 2014)
Thestar.com.my (January 13, 2007)
Thestar.com.my (July 13, 2005)
-- By Yves Lacroix