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.
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?