Aw Boon Haw 胡文虎 and Aw Boon Par 胡文豹, the brothers behind Tiger Balm’s huge Asian success
HF: The following article about Aw Boon Haw and his brother Aw Boon Par was written by Stephanie Chung Po-yin and first published in the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography, edited by May Holdsworth and Christopher Munn. The publisher, HK University Press, has kindly granted permission for it to be posted here, but retains copyright over this material from 2012. I do not know if Tiger Balm was ever actually manufactured in Hong Kong but am including these biographies because of the enormous success Tiger Balm achieved and continues to achieve in Hong Kong, China and many south eastern Asian countries.
The images shown here were not incorporated in the original book article.
Thanks to SCT for proof reading the retyped article.
Aw Boon Haw 胡文虎 b. 13 February 1882, Rangoon, Burma; d. 4 September 1954, Hawaii. Entrepreneur.
Aw Boon Par 胡文豹 b 14 September 1884, Rangoon; d. 7 September 1944, Rangoon. Entrepreneur.
Born to Aw Chi Kim, owner of a Chinese herbal medicine shop in Rangoon, Aw Boon Haw and his brother Aw Boon Par made their fortune with Tiger Balm, a medicinal ointment reputed to be a cure-all. Conflicting stories exist about who invented the formula for the ointment, but it is certain that Tiger Balm became a commercial success and a household name throughout South China and South-East Asia only after the brothers had branded and marketed it.
Aw Chi Kim, a Hakka from Zhongchuan, a village in Yongding County, Fujian Province, had emigrated from China in the 1860s and settled in Rangoon, where he met and married Lee Kim Pek, a local-born woman whose forbears were from Chaozhou. In 1870 Aw Chi Kim opened a small herbal medicine shop, Eng Aun Tong (Yongan Tang – Hall of Everlasting Peace). Three sons were born to him and his wife: the eldest, Boon Leng (Wenlong, ‘Cultured Dragon’), died in his teens; the second and third sons were Boon Haw (‘Cultured Tiger’) and Boon Par (‘Cultured Leopard’).
Boon Haw attended Chinese schools while Boon Par received an English education. At the age of ten, Boon Haw was sent to school in Yongding but his formal education ceased in his mid-teens when he returned to Rangoon. Meanwhile Boon Par continued to study in Burma and eventually became fluent in spoken and written English as well as Chinese and Burmese.
After Aw Chi Kim died in 1908, the elder son set out to re-establish ties with his father’s suppliers of herbal medicines. Travelling to Thailand, Hong Kong, China and Japan, Boon Haw noted the visual advertising methods and packaging of products prevalent there. On his return to Burma, he produced a poster for the family’s medicinal products which bore the image of a springing tiger with its mouth open and paws extended. This image – symbolising stamina and potency – became a key component in subsequent publicity campaigns and the trademark for other products, which eventually included pills, powders and tonics.
With an eye on expansion into China, the Aw brothers moved their headquarters from Rangoon to Singapore in 1926. Soon they were engaged in a newspaper advertising war against a commercial rival, a Vietnam-based Chinese family business which traded a patent medicine named Two Heavens Oil (Ertian You). To ensure easy access to advertising space for their own products, the brothers launched the Sin Chew Jit Poh newspaper in Singapore in 1929. This was followed by similar newspaper launches in Shantou and Xiamen. In 1938 they also launched Sing Tao Daily in Hong Kong, targeting the Chinese mercantile community in the colony. Between 1929 and 1951 the brothers founded 17 Chinese and English-language newspapers in South-East Asia and China. At the same time, they also ventured into banking, rubber production and real estate.
In 1935 they created in Hong Kong a Tiger and Leopard Villa (Haw Par Villa), more commonly known as the Tiger Balm Gardens, an amusement park featuring scenes and tableaux from Chinese mythology. This was a popular tourist site until closed for redevelopment in 2001. A similar park was built in Singapore in 1937.
Boon Par died in Rangoon during the Sino-Japanese War. He left three wives and four children (two boys and two girls). Boon Haw, meanwhile, had stayed in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation; like other rich and prominent businessmen, he was courted by the Japanese authorities for his support, which later led to some public criticism of his political opportunism. The medicine and newspaper businesses survived the War and continued to operate under Boon Haw. Boon Haw had four wives and nine children (seven boys and two girls). His publishing empire, centred on the Sing Tao Daily, was inherited by his adopted daughter, Sally Aw.
- The Tiger Balm story: how ointment for every ailment was created, fell out of favour, then found new generation of users SCMP 17th February 2018
- What it takes to survive over 100 years in business? Like Tiger Balm YourStory 10th January 2014
This article was first posted on 10th May 2020.
A selection of biographies published in the Dictionary of Hong Kong Biography which have been posted on our website:
- Ann Tse-kai Hong Kong industrialist, established Winsor Industrial Ltd textile manufacturing
- Sir John Douglas Clague – connected to a wide array of Hong Kong businesses and lobbyist for the first Cross Harbour tunnel
- John Bell-Irving, Jardines’ Hong Kong taipan 1886 and business partner of Sir Paul Chater
- Douglas Lapraik – watchmaker, shipowner and co-founder of the Hongkong & Whampoa Dock Company
- Augustine Heard & Company, major American 19th century China trading house with its headquarters in Hong Kong from 1856
- Sir Shouson Chow – director of many Hong Kong firms and corporations
- Noel Croucher – philanthropist and director of Green Island Cement and Hong
- Sir Robert Hormus Kotewall, founder of R.H.Kotewall & Co. and connected to many other Hong Kong companies