From an emperor’s court to television: Follow the history of Tiger Balm
Thailand’s famous Tiger Balm made a surprise appearance in the hit South Korean series “King the Land” recently when the protagonist was shown buying the “panacea for pain” in a Thai shop.
But did you know that this balm was not actually created in Thailand?
Tiger Balm began its journey in the 1870s when Chinese herbalist Aw Chu Kin left the Emperor’s court to set up an apothecary in Rangoon (now Yangon). His shop was called Eng Aun Tong, or Hall of Everlasting Peace, where he made and sold his special concoction Ban Kin Yu or “10,000 Golden Oil”. This magical oil purportedly eased all aches and pains.
On his deathbed in 1908, he asked his sons Aw Boon Haw (“Gentle Tiger”) and Aw Boon Par (“Gentle Leopard”) to perfect the product.
By 1924, the brothers had polished the recipe as we know it and come up with Tiger Balm, named after Boon Haw. The brothers designed the hexagonal glass container, not only because it was auspicious but also because it was easy to hold.
By then, the brothers had turned Eng Aun Tong into a successful business empire, producing and selling pharmaceutical products, including Tiger Balm. The balm did not just sell well in Burma (Myanmar) but also in China, Japan and Southeast Asia.
Boon Haw then set his sights on Singapore to build the Tiger Balm empire, while his brother stayed in Rangoon to manage the business for a while before joining him a couple of years later.
In Singapore, Boon Haw built a larger factory with a production capacity that was 10 times greater than in Rangoon.
He also wanted to expand his influence and founded “Star Newspapers” in Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong. A sister newspaper called “Sing Sian Yer Pao” was published in Thailand, targeting the Chinese diaspora here.
Boon Haw also opened the Chung Khiaw Bank, which was later taken over by the United Overseas Bank (UOB).
Meanwhile, the reach of Tiger Balm was becoming wider, and it had already started gaining popularity in Thailand.
It is believed that the Thai word for balm, “ya mong” or medicine of mong, was created when locals learned that the Tiger Balm they were being sold was being produced in Burma. Mong or Maung is the title used to address Burmese men.
In Singapore, meanwhile, Boon Haw built a theme park and designed the “Tiger Car” that roared. This was part of his marketing technique.
Boon Par died in Myanmar in 1944, he was 56 then. His brother Boon Haw died in 1954 aged 72 from a heart attack after a major operation in Honolulu. He was on his way to Hong Kong from Boston at the time.
The business was then taken over by Boon Par’s son Aw Cheng Chye, who renamed the business from Haw Par Brothers (Private) Limited to Haw Par Brothers International Limited. He then had it listed in the now-defunct Stock Exchange of Malaysia and Singapore in 1969.
A couple of years later, the Aw family sold the controlling stake in the business to Slater Walker Securities Limited, an English venture group that was notorious for buying and selling companies.
Haw Par’s properties and newspapers were sold off, while Slater Walker underestimated the company’s production capacity.
Cheng Chye then negotiated a 20-year joint venture deal with Thailand-based Jack Chia Industries and Australia Drug Houses for manufacturing, which would eventually lead to the company’s downfall.
The agreement was made with an annual profit guarantee of just 2 million Singapore dollars (about 51.8 million baht).
By the time the venture drew to a close in 1991, the brand had suffered badly under Jack Chia Group’s tenure.
Jack Chia Group had developed a direct imitator to Tiger Balm called “Golden Lion Shield Balm”, packed in an identical hexagonal jar and gold lid. It was sold alongside Tiger Balm.
After this period of uncertainty, the company was taken over in 1981 by Dr Wee Cho Yaw, Singaporean mega-millionaire and owner of UOB.
Under his ownership, Tiger Balm regained its prowess by developing new products to match changing demands.
Haw Par changed its name again to Haw Par Corporation Limited in 1997, and by 2022 it was generating S$182 million in revenue with a profit of S$155.
The famous “panacea for pain” quickly expanded into Western markets and is now being endorsed by Hollywood celebrities like Lady Gaga and Gwyneth Paltrow. British actor Benedict Cumberbatch has also reportedly used the ointment to soothe his muscles.
Meanwhile, US Olympic gold medallist Christian Taylor and BMX rider Terry Adams are brand ambassadors.
Currently, the Haw Par Corporation has also ventured into the leisure and property development industry. Underwater World Pattaya is one of its developments.
Haw Par’s Thai branch was established in 1991, and by last year, it was generating 507 million baht in revenue and 113 million baht in profit.