Tiger Balm Brothers: Crazy Rich Asians of the 1930s
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Tiger Balm: The magical cure for all pain and your Ah Ma’s prized possession. This ointment is so iconic that even Lady Gaga endorses it and tourists bring it back home as souvenirs.
The men behind the brand were known as the Tiger Balm brothers. They were the OG ballers who also created Haw Par Villa and they led epic lives.
When Boon Haw built the Haw Par Mansion in 1937, he used up all of Singapore’s gold stocks to gild the building’s domes. But the brothers were more than just millionaires with a penchant for luxury. To get to where they were, they depended on their grit and larger-than-life ideas.
When their father died in 1908, Boon Haw and Boon Par inherited a small Chinese medicine business. Over the years, the brothers took the business to a whole new level. While Boon Par zhng-ed the original “Ten Thousand Golden Balm” recipe, Boon Haw marketed the brand.
20 years on, the brothers became the richest men in Rangoon and decided to try their luck in Singapore. At the time, brands normally advertised in newspapers. But Boon Haw wasn’t that basic.
Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg rode around in a car with a 3-D Facebook logo mounted on it. It sounds outrageous, but that was exactly what Boon Haw did with Tiger Balm.
To sell his product, Boon Haw would personally drive the flashy Tiger Mobile into villages. He’d then use the vehicle as bait to attract villagers before making his pitch.
Extra as it seems, the Tiger Mobile was used for a very practical reason. Boon Haw realised that newspaper ads only targeted the atas Singaporeans. The Tiger Mobile helped him reach out to the illiterate masses.
By 1931, the brothers were doing so well for themselves that they started work on a very special passion project - The out-of-this-world Tiger Balm Gardens.
Boon Haw’s vision was to teach the public good moral values through Chinese mythology.
He could’ve easily achieved this goal with a conventional museum. But instead, he opted for a 32,000 square foot amusement park filled with demons and human-animal hybrids straight from our nightmares.
In a huge act of brotherly love, Boon Haw actually dedicated the 1-million dollar park to his quieter brother, Boon Par.
He even built a mansion for him within the park’s grounds. At the time, it was the most expensive one-story house on the island. This MTV-crib worthy home was made up of a large central dome surrounded by 6 smaller ones. It was also the first house in Singapore to have a private swimming pool.
The brothers weren’t shy to share the beauty of their villa. They frequently entertained hundreds of guests at one time. Because of the brothers’ influence, they had friends in high places and some were controversial. In 1937, they hosted a garden dinner for an ex-warlord from China.
The Aw brothers were the definition of “Go Big or Go Home”. From advertising to philanthropy, they weren’t the kind to hold anything back. In 1937, the brothers dispatched 60,000 packets of Tiger Balm to victims of a flood in China. Two years later, they donated 43,000 packets of Tiger Balm to the children’s Coronation Committee.
But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. By 1954, both brothers had passed away and business was interrupted by inheritance squabbles. Haw Par Villa in Singapore is the last Tiger Balm Garden left as the other two in Hong Kong and China have been demolished and deserted.
That being said, Tiger Balm remains a household name after almost a century. Without the brothers’ crazy ideas and big gestures, Tiger Balm would not be what it is today.