when i was a student, i did not know or care much about the significance of this school - the first dialect school to use manadarin as a medium of instruction. each time i visited the usis library located at hill street, i would walk past this old building. in later years, when i had char kway teow at the coffee shop across the road from this building, i would just give it a cursory glance.
it was much later that i came to hear more about this school. my friend, who lived in marine parade, would mention the long waiting list of children trying to gain admission to this school. another friend of mine told me that his son opted to live in an hdb flat near the school rather than to live in a private property so that his own son (my friend's grandchild) could get a place in the school.
tao nan school was set up by the hokkien huay kuan. it began in 1906 with 36 pupils in 'siam house' in north bridge road. the medium of instruction was hokkien. it moved to armenian street in 1910 and in 1916 tao nan became the first school in singapore to use mandarin as the medium of instruction.
a number of philanthropists have been associated with the school. lee kong chian was once a pupil of tao nan. tan kah kee served as its president for 12 years and oei tiong ham donated money to buy the piece of land at armenian street.
when the school moved to marine crescent in 1982, the neo-classical style building was left vacant for a number of years. after it was refurbished, it reopened as a wing of the asian civilisations museum in 1997. in 1998 the historic building was gazetted as a national monument.
today, it houses the pernanakan museum.