Aw Boon Haw

Aw Boon Haw in China, 1949

Aw Boon Haw sits for a portrait in China, 1949.

It may be called “hǔbiao wànjīnyóu” in its native tongue, but it’s just Tiger Balm to me. I’ve been using this Chinese remedy since my hippie mom rubbed it on my chest during the cold New England winters of my youth. The burn on my skin still has a calming, comforting effect.

Tiger Balm was invented by Chinese herbalist Aw Chu Kin in the 1870s, using the healing combination of mentholeucalyptusclovecassia and mint oil. Kin had two sons, Aw Boon Haw was a hell-raiser known for street fights and mad business skills while Aw Boon Par was gentle and more reserved.  Together, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par would make their father’s tincture a global phenomenon by the early 1930s.

The Tiger Balm building in Singapore, 1941.

Tiger Balm “Medical Hall” in Singapore, 1941

While Par honed the recipe down to what is now a legendary cure-all, Haw used his persuasive business skills to organize a medicinal empire. A born salesman, Haw knew how to market his product to the public giving the family recipe a strong and sexy name, Tiger Balm. Haw began promoting Tiger Balm across China going so far as to build a custom car featuring an enormous roaring tiger’s head on the grill.

By the time he was 40, Haw was the richest man in Rangoon. He built an enormous mansion and named the extensive botanical gardens after his quiet-natured brother. In spite of his showmanship, Haw was also a great philanthropist, donating his family’s magic ointment to doctors all over China and building countless schools and hospitals.

Aw Boon Haw showing his medicines in China, 1949.

Aw Boon Haw presenting his medicines in China, 1949.

Haw opened his gardens to the public in the early 1950s, and promoted good heath for all. Eighty years later, savvy business sense paired with a generous, caring spirit, has made Tiger Balm a worldwide classic.

Aw Boon Haw Gardens in Singapore, 1941.

The Aw Boon Haw Gardens, complete with wildlife, in Singapore, 1941.

 

The LIFE Magazine images found at Google Books.

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