Tag Archives: branding

Rebirth of an old Shanghai icon

The history buff in me is intrigued by the recent rebirth of an old Shanghai icon – Shanghai Vive. Banking on the glamour of old Shanghai, the great grandson of the late Chinese President, Chiang Kai Shek; Demos Chiang is reviving this cosmetic brand of choice of the society ladies of 1930’s Shanghai.


Shanghai Vive or literally, “Two Sisters” (双妹, pronounced as “Shuang Mei”) in Chinese, is vowing successful ladies in their mid-30’s with its retro chic and clean cut contemporary look.  Set in the equally legendary Peace Hotel, Shanghai Vive is making a comeback after an absence of half a century.


No expenses have been spared on its re-launch.  French creative firm Cent Degres, was commissioned to design its product packaging and stores.  Demos’ firm, DEM, is responsible for its restructuring and marketing strategy.  Infusing the spirit of the swinging 1930’s with a modern feel, the logo bearing the “Two Sisters” has been updated with a streamlined look.  Its sleek perfume bottle is designed to resemble a lady in a long dress, wrapped with a fur stole.  Complete with an old-fashioned atomizer pump, this perfume bottle is vintage at heart with a contemporary beat.


Born in 1898, this century old brand first gained international recognition when it won the gold medal at the 1915 Panama World Expo for its “Radiance Restorative Cream.”  Following that, it slowly expanded toParis and even gained a small but loyal following there.  And this was at a time when big and successful brands like Shalimar, Mitsouko (Guerlain) and the iconic Chanel No. 5 were all the rage then.  No small feat for a small, China-made brand.


The rejuvenated Shanghai Vive has added jewellery and accessories to its line besides its staple of cosmetics and skincare products.  Drawing on its heritage and expertise in cosmetology, Shanghai Vive has modernized its 100 year-old beauty formula to incorporate cutting-edge technology. Instilling the essence of East and West, Shanghai Vive’s jewellery design brings out the best of both worlds, with a quintessentially Asian spirit.


State-owned chemical consortium, Shanghai Jahwa Group (which owns the brand) plans to spread the magic of Shanghai Vive across Shanghai with more than 20 branches in the next 2 to 3 years.  It is confident that the brand would be profitable in 7 years’ time.


Having successfully revitalized another old Shanghainese brand, Herborist, Shanghai Jahwa is lending its Midas touch to Shanghai Vive.  With is smart positioning and slick marketing, Shanghai Jahwa is just the company to breathe new life into Shanghai Vive.


However, sceptics are unsure if Chinese consumers would bite given its high price.  Unlike the mid-priced Herborist, Shanghai Vive is marketed as a high-end luxury good.  Price-wise, it is competing head-on with well-known foreign players.  At RMB $1,000 per bottle of 50ml perfume, this places it in the league of Chanel and Dior.  In fact, these established brands cost even less, at between RMB $500-900 per bottle. So, is Shanghai Vive pricing itself out?


Price aside, brand worshipping Chinese consumers typically turn their nose up at local Mainland products, preferring well-known foreign brands.  It would be a real challenge to get them to pay a premium for a Chinese brand.


Are chic design, sleek packaging and smart marketing enough to convince the well-heeled 30-something ladies to part with their money?  This is a group that cares for the quality of their beauty products more than brand stories.  Perhaps Shanghai Vive should rev up the marketing of what’s in their secret formula, making it a must-buy for the ladies.


While it would take more than nostalgia to sell to the Chinese, the romance of 1930’s old Shanghai has great appeal to Westerners.  Retro chic is hip and there is a genuine appreciation of quality Chinese products in the West.  So, perhaps Shanghai Jahwa should consider opening a branch in USA and Europe as well?


Whether Shanghai Vive eventually endears itself to Chinese or Western consumers, it is heartening to see an old Shanghai icon being given a new lease of life.  Trying to make its mark among the big boys of international luxury brands, makes you want to root for its success.  Somehow, you wish to see it return to its former glory and be the darling of high society ladies again.

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Roaring Away Mosqui

As we usher in the Year of the Tiger, one is reminded of the humble, traditional rub, Tiger Balm. Yes, I know it sounds like something that your parents or grandparents uses and I hate the smell of it but I swear it relieves the itch of mosquito bites like magic. Other creams or ointments that I’ve tried don’t work as well.

 Some of you may remember the old, Haw Par Villa in Pasir Panjang Road we used to visit as kids. An old mansion of the founders of Tiger Balm, it became a free park open to the public. Memories of the park’s illustration of Chinese mythology come to mind, especially for its graphic depiction of the 18 Levels of Hell in Buddhist belief. Come to think of it one wonders why parents allow their children to be subjected to such gore and violence. Obviously for the internet savvy kids of this generation, long jaded by the violence found in numerous video games, this is nothing to bat an eyelid at all. But for the more innocent kids from a much tamer generation, portrayals of people being fried in oil or having their eyes gouged out or body sawed into half or having their intestines dismembered or of being skinned alive were pretty potent stuff. These were supposed punishments meted out by the different chambers of court in the 18 Levels of Hell for crimes committed in one’s life. The park later underwent many transformations, morphing into a theme park with water rides among them but could not appeal to today’s sophisticated consumers.

 A Tale of Two Brothers

 So how did it all begin?  Its story can be traced all the way back to the ancient imperial court of China and the exotic Rangoon in Myanmar.

 Aw Chu Kin, descended from an imperial court herbalist, dreamt of seeking his fortune in a faraway land and set sail for Myanmar from his native Fujian province, China. He set up a medical shop, Eng Aun Tong or Hall of Everlasting Peace, in 1870 and started developing an ancient formula from the imperial court of China for relieving aches and pains. It never occurred to him that this little remedy would outlive him and his sons for generations to come.

 Aw had two sons, the aggressive ‘tiger’ and the quiet ‘leopard’ – Boon Haw and Boon Par. Ironically both their names have the character which means “civil” or “gentle” but only the younger ‘leopard’ seems to take on that characteristic. The second characters in their names mean “tiger” and “leopard” respectively.

 Tiger was a hyperactive boy who seemed to have channelled all his energy into street fights. The last straw came when he beat up his teacher. Aw had had enough of his son’s errant ways by then and sent him back to his hometown in China. Little would the old man know that Tiger would turn out to be a superb salesman and astute businessman.

 On his deathbed, Aw asked that his age-old formula for aches be perfected and passed the medical shop practice to Leopard. Leopard soon found the running of the business a strain and invited his elder brother, Tiger, back.

 Their English education served them in good stead in business, Leopard envisioned a East meets West medical practice where they could capture both markets. He implored, “ I will learn all I can about Western medicine, and you can prescribe Chinese medicine. Together we won’t lose a single patient. He can choose between East and West and the money will remain in our territory. ” 

 It proved to be a perfect partnership; with the more reserved Leopard experimenting in the kitchen, perfecting the formula passed down by their father and the outgoing Tiger running the business side of it. They name the final product, “Ban Kim Ewe”, literally “Ten Thousand Golden Oil”. A bold and unforgettable trademark was chosen – the Tiger. Apparently way before branding became a buzzword, this shrewd entrepreneur knew how to create a strong brand name.

 They made sure that no customer ever leaves the medical shop without this little jar of ‘magic potion’ – touted as the cure-all for ailments. Tiger worked on all the Chinese shops in Rangoon and convinced them to carry his balm.

 Tiger soon became the richest man in Rangoon – all these before he hit 40.

 The Next Chapter: Singapore and beyond

 The bustling port of Singapore and the potential he saw in the Malayan towns beckoned the keen alertness of Tiger’s.  Legend has it that when he saw the image of a tiger in the watermark of then Singapore’s currency, he was certain that Singapore was the place to be.

 Tiger moved his base to Singapore in 1926 and built a huge factory at Neil Road, with 10 times the production capacity of Rangoon’s. He had a custom-made car fitted with a tiger’s head and plied the small towns of Malaya, giving out samples of Tiger Balm. Now isn’t that the hallmark of a born marketer and a branding guru?

 He did a roaring trade, establishing factories and distributorship around the region from Malaya, Batavia, Thailand to Hong Kong and China.

 What’s in that yellow paste?

 Have you ever wondered what is in that yellow paste? A topical herbal rub developed from the finest blend of essential oils; it contains mainly camphor, menthol, cajuput oil, mint oil and clove oil. The rest of it is made up of petroleum jelly and paraffin base. Contrary to misconception, the rub does not contain any tiger parts. In fact, the earlier version of Tiger Balm contains 25% of camphor. A new product, Tiger Balm White HR, uses Eucalyptus oil instead of cajuput oil.

What can it do?

 Although I have used it only for mosquito bites, it is known to be able to relieve arthritis, rheumatism, muscular and joint pains, neck and back pain, muscular aches caused by stress, sprains and even tired feet.

 Other products

 Over the years the company had diversified its range and developed many other products. Among which are pain-relieving patch and even a refresher that comes in a snazzy little bottle with a spray. Its latest product, the Tiger Balm Joint Rub is supposedly greaseless and contains no alcohol. Admittedly, if not for the purpose of researching this article, I would not have known about the other products or the extensive nature of them. I may have chanced upon some of them at the pharmacy but may not have registered in my over-loaded mind :p

 The end of an era

 So how did this modern day fairy tale end? After Tiger made his mark in the healthcare industry, he ventured into banking and publishing establishing Chung Khiaw Bank and the Sin Chew Jit Poh.

 Even during the Japanese Occupation, Tiger continued with business operations from Hong Kong while younger Leopard closed the factory in Singapore and returned to Myanmar where he passed away in 1944. When the war ended, Tiger returned to Singapore and rejuvenated his businesses here. He reopened the factory and started his newspaper again. He also repaired his home and gardens. The mighty Tiger eventually fell victim to a heart attack and departed in 1954. He was on his way to Hong Kong then following a major operation in Boston.

 His nephew, Aw Cheng Chye, took over control of the family business and became Chairman of Haw Par Brothers (Private) Limited and Sin Poh (Star News) Amalgameted (Private) Limited. He also assumed the leadership of Chung Khiaw Bank, taking over from his brother-in-law, Lee Chee Shan. The family business was consolidated into a company that was listed on the stock exchanges of Singapore and Malaya as Haw Par Brothers International Limited (later renamed Haw Par Corporation Limited.)

 Keen to expand his business empire, Cheng Chye got British investment group Slater Walker Securities Limited to take a stake in Haw Par. Sadly, that proved to be the downfall of the company. Unknown to Cheng Chye, Slater had been conducting secret negotiations and eventually wrested control of Haw Par from him. What followed was five years of whirlwind expansion with a frenzy of corporate takeovers that made Haw Par the fifth largest company on the local stock exchange.

 Unfortunately, all these were achieved through underhanded means. Irregularities were soon uncovered bringing down the empire in one fell swoop. The former chairman, Richard Tarling was imprisoned. Witnessing the shattered shape the company was in, the government decided to bring in Michael Fam to get the company back on its feet.

 During the Slater years, Tiger Balm was franchised to Jack Chia Limited for 20 years for the main Asian territories. The company had also acquired Scott and English, Drug Houses of Australia and Kwan Loong but divested itself of major operating businesses like the Chinese newspaper, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Chung Khiaw Bank.

 Next came a tussle for control among the three corporate giants. Hong Leong group had a 7% stake while Jack Chia had 16% and United Overseas Bank (UOB) held 17%. Amidst rumours of a pact between Hong Leong and Jack Chia for a joint control, UOB eventually trumped them all with a total of 30% stake in 1981. Their stake has since grown to 43% over the years.

 The company today

Haw Par is today a company with two core operating businesses – healthcare and leisure – as well as strategic investments with property among one of them.

 With a healthy balance sheet, the company has gone on to take the lead in manufacturing and supplying generic drugs in Singapore. Haw Par Healthcare Limited was privatized in 2003 after years of robust growth since its listing in the stock market.


 With its unique branding, Tiger Balm won the Heritage Brand Award in 2005. It was jointly organized by Association of Small and Medium Enterprise (ASME) and Lianhe Zaobao. Among the other accolades was the Singapore Brand Award in 2002, organized by International Enterprise Singapore (IE Singapore). It goes to show that Tiger Balm’s branding has withstood the test of time.

 My wish list

 Now if only Tiger Balm could come up with a non-sticky, non smelly version that would be perfect! I’m waiting…is anyone listening out there?

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