THE TIGER BALM KING
IN SOUTHEAST Asia, Tiger Balm is ubiquitous in most towns and cities. It is almost a panacea for any minor ailments ranging from mosquito bites to minor cuts. The man who created this ointment and built an empire on it has a family history that is the stuff that movies are made of.
MALAYSIANS today are more familiar with brand names like Mopiko and Zambuk
but at the dawn of this century and decades after the Second World War,
Tiger Balm as an embrocation and liniment was unrivalled in its fame.
The man behind the product which symbolically bears his name is Aw Boon
Haw. To a lesser extent, sharing his fame but largely responsible for the
birth of the balm was his brother Boon Par.
It had originally been concocted by a Burmese elder who, taking a liking
to Boon Par, gave it to him. But it was Boon Haw who had the vision and
the zeal to make Tiger Balm what it was to become.
Living up to his name, Boon Haw was as fearless and courageous as the
tiger in his entrepreneurial pursuits. Boon Par's name was founded in
another jungle predator, the leopard. Tiger and leopard, both Aw brothers
pounced quickly on business opportunities and rapidly clawed their way to
the top of the hill of gold.
They had grown up in Burma, to which their father had migrated from
China. Later Boon Haw moved to Singapore where he was introduced to an
ever-widening circle of friends. Boon Haw scented opportunity in the air,
and went on to make millions.
Sam King, a retired journalist, has managed to extract the essence of an
age gone by and rekindle the charm of the old world that belonged to
people like Boon Haw.
This book will especially appeal to those who are well acquainted with
the venerable Chinese and nyonya traditions. King accurately describes,
and delightfully too, the many social nuances which the Hakkas and the
The more arresting passages of King's book centre on Boon Haw's passion
for women. He had an extremely healthy sexual appetite, matched only by
his zeal to acquire wealth. He ended up with four wives. Boon Par was
similarly inclined, and had three.
The Tiger Balm King was also well-known for his philanthropic ways. Two
touching episodes are worth recounting. In them, Boon Haw displayed acts
of charity which carry the mark of a great man.
In the first instance in Hong Kong, a fetching young lass of Russian
aristocratic descent was brought before him for a night's pleasure. The
poor creature desperately wanted to earn sufficient fare to join her lover
At the last moment she retreated from her immoral purpose. In despair
and loneliness, Tanya related her plight to Boon Haw. The following day
(they slept in separate rooms), Boon Haw left her $5,000. "So much for
disappointing a man," she said. He had asked for nothing in return.
In the second incident, a refugee from war-torn China showed up at Boon
Haws residence in Hong Kong with two sackfuls of jade heirlooms. The
Tiger's love for jade pieces was general knowledge. The visitor appealed
for a reasonable sum for his family treasures to rebuild his life. Boon
Haw asked the man to name his price and gave it to him.
Before the stranger left the house, Boon Haw returned the most valuable
piece of the lot to its owner at no cost. The Low Fu (Tiger in Cantonese)
did not forget his humble beginnings and understood well the man's
determination. Boon Haw knew he could only give what he could not keep to
gain what he could not lose.
Readers of Tiger Balm King would no doubt be pleased to learn that Boon
Haw was also the man who started the newspapers Sin Chew Jit Poh, Hong
Kong Standard and Singapore Standard. Somewhere in between, he added a
bank to his name - Chung Khiaw Bank.
Boon Haw is also the generous benefactor behind the creation of the
Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas at Kek Lok Si in Ayer Itam, Penang.
His love for his brother Boon Par is immortalised in Haw Par Villa in
Singapore. The millionaire lived in an exciting time. He lived through the
roaring Twenties and survived the warring Forties. His was an age when
life's fortunes sometimes depended on a turn of the cards. The Tiger Balm
King once lost and regained a fortune ($20,000) in two cuts of the deck
with another rich man.