Tiger Balm – from Yangon to the world

Tiger Balm, the analgesic ointment is world famous. Yet, very few people know that the worldwide brand started with two brothers, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, in Yangon during the 1910s.

In the book titled ‘Far From Yangon’ by Yeap Joo Kim, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, sons of herbalist Aw Chu Kin, native of the Fujian province of China, first launched the balm in Myanmar. The book was translated into Myanmar by Zin Thant under the titled From Daik-U to Singapore. It’s a biography of Lee Chee Shan (1909-1986), the founder of Chung Khiawa Bank, a prominent bank in Singapore in 1982 and a cousin of the Aw brothers. The book briefly touches on the beginning of the Tiger Balm business.

Aw Chu Kin had three sons. According to the tradition, the eldest son inherited the family business: herbal medicine. As he passed away at 18 years old, his two younger siblings Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par took over the business.

Aw Boon Par learnt what was to become the Tiger Balm recipe from a Chinese herbalist. The initial ingredients were camphor, menthol, clove oil and several other oils.

The Aw brothers then officially launched the balm in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and quickly exported it to China, Japan, and Southeast Asia.

According to the book ‘From Daik-U to Singapore’, the brothers struggled from the very outset. They first started selling their goods from a roadside stall and advertising it by shouting from a rooftop.

Tiger Balm was first named Ban Kin Yu which, in the Hokkien dialect means “Ten Thousand Golden Oil”. As Aw Boon Haw was born in the year of the tiger, he soon renamed the brand Tiger Balm. They had produced gastrointestinal oral medication and ibuprofen, but this was intended to soothe muscle aches. Their ointment soon became popular and started selling well in Myanmar. However, the brothers fled to more auspicious markets.

“They had a problem with the British government and went to Singapore. They developed their balm business in Singapore. Most people believe Tiger Balm was invented in Singapore,” U Thurein Aung, historian at the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) told The Myanmar Times.

“The brothers were philanthropists. They built many buildings and memorials for themselves across the country. One of them was the Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par Memorial Hall in Hlaing Township,” he added.

Their Hlaing Memorial Hall is now being used as a Parahita sarthintike (charity school). The red one-storey building was decorated with a leaping tiger statue on its archway. The weather-worn signboard still reads “Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par Memorial Hall” in yellow letters.

Currently, the Haw Par Corporation in Singapore manufactures the world famous balm. However, the original Tiger Balm factory in China Town remains unidentified.

“My parents used to tell me about Tiger Balm when we were young. They left the country long ago and went to Singapore. There was another balm factory named Nagar Kabar (Dragon World) on Mahabandoola Road between 21st and 22nd Streets,” said U Kyin Hote, a Chinese man who opened a store on 21st Street.

“One of the brothers (Aw Boon Par) returned to Yangon after the war and died here,” said U Thurein Aung. “Most of the people in Myanmar do not know the origin of the brand. It was first made in Myanmar, when the country was rich and had plenty of potential,” he said.

Source : Myanmar Times

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