Aw Boon Haw

Singapore Infopedia


Aw Boon Haw (b. 1882, Yangon, Myanmar1–d. 1954, Honolulu, Hawaii, USA2), whose name means “gentle tiger”, was also nicknamed “Tiger Balm King”.3 He is known for having established the Chinese cure-all, Tiger Balm, and for building an empire around it.4 His other contributions include building the Haw Par Villa (also known as Tiger Balm Gardens) in Singapore, and setting up a local Chinese daily, the Sin Chew Jit Poh.5 He was also a philanthropist, funding the construction of schools, hospitals, maternity clinics, orphanages and homes for the aged.6

Early life
Aw was born in Yangon, Myanmar where his father had founded a medical shop, called Eng Aun Tong, or Hall of Everlasting Peace, with the help of his uncle in 1870.7 Aw’s name means “gentle tiger” in Hokkien, although he was of Hakka descent with roots in Fujian, China. He was the second of three sons; his older brother was named Boon Leong, meaning “gentle dragon”, and his younger brother Boon Par, meaning “gentle leopard”.8

In his youth, Aw was so ill-behaved that his father sent him to his ancestral village in China to be raised by an uncle, to no avail.9 In 1908, while Aw was still abroad, his father died, leaving his business to Boon Par.10 Boon Par, unable to bear the burden of running the business himself, sent word for Aw to return, so that they might run it together.11

Development of Tiger Balm ointment
The true origin of the soothing oriental ointment known today as Tiger Balm is unknown.12 According to Sam King, whose 1992 biography of Aw received the cooperation of the Aw family, Boon Par had received the recipe from an aged Chinese doctor, who had invented the ointment.13 The contemporary proprietors of the Tiger Balm brand, however, claim the recipe is derived from a formula originating from the days of Chinese emperors.14 Other rumours involve a German pharmacist who was a family friend.15 In any case, with Boon Par’s pharmaceutical training, the brothers produced an ointment they called Ban Kim Ewe or “Ten Thousand Golden Oil”.16 The ointment was a great success, and Aw subsequently renamed it Tiger Balm, and marketed it throughout Southeast Asia.17 Other Tiger products include Tiger Headache Cure, Balashin Sai (Pat Kwa Tan), Chee Thone San and Chinkawhite Wind Mixture.18

By 1920, Aw was among the richest men in Yangon.19 According to his Chinese biographer Zhang Ronghe, his business empire reached its peak in the mid-1930s, covering Thailand, Myanmar, Malaya, Indonesia, Hong Kong as well as a dozen cities in China. His empire, however, faced difficulties in the late 40s, when his son’s involvement in a currency-smuggling incident caused him to lose favour with Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government.20 He was later also accused of cooperating with the Japanese during World War II to further his business interests, importing rice for Japanese troops, and going so far as to visit Tokyo to express his admiration for the Japanese.21 Historians disagree on whether he might have done this under duress.22

1911: Opens Eng Aun Tong’s first branch outside Rangoon in Bangkok.23
1926: Moves his head office to Singapore after the British conducted an unsuccessful opium raid in his house.24 Opens Eng Aun Tong Medical Hall in Singapore.25 Turnover of his company reaches $10 million.26
1929: Founded Sin Chew Jit Poh, a Chinese newspaper competing with Tan Kah Kee’s Nanyang Siang Pau, to help promote Tiger Balm.27
1932: Moves his head office to Hong Kong to capture the China market.28
1937: Builds Haw Par Villa, otherwise known as the Tiger Balm Gardens, for his brother, Boon Par.29 The gardens depict Chinese mythology.30
1938: Receives an OBE for his philanthropic contributions.31
1950: Sets up Chung Khiaw Bank with other Hakka merchants, becoming its chairman.32
1954: Dies in Honolulu, Hawaii on his way home after a stomach operation in America.33 His empire is subsequently divided between six of his nine surviving children as well as four nephews, with nephew Aw Cheng Chye at its helm.34
1970: Cheng Chye transfers most of the Aw family’s business to a newly-incorporated company, Haw Par Brothers International Limited, listed on the Malaysian and Singaporean stock exchanges, serving as chairman himself.
1971: Against protests from the rest of the family, Cheng Chye hands control of the company over to Slater Walker Securities of London, in an attempt to expand the company. He remains the chairman initially, but dies later in the year.35 The Aw family thus loses control of the company.36

Aw’s newspaper empire included dailies such as the Sing Kong Yih Pao (1935, Amoy), Sing Tao Yih Pao (1938, Hong Kong), Sing Pin Jih Pao (1938, Penang), Sing Ming Yih Pao (1946, Bangkok), Hongkong Tiger Standard (1946, Hong Kong) and Singapore Tiger Standard (1950, Singapore).37 After Haw Par Brothers was acquired by Slater Walker in 1971, its newspaper division was sold back to the Aw family.38 This division continued to flourish in Hong Kong as the Sing Tao group, headed by Aw’s daughter Sally Aw Sian (also known as Aw Sien), until the mid-late-80s when unsuccessful dabbling in real estate and other publishing ventures drained the division’s coffers.39 In mid-1999, Sally sold controlling shares of Sing Tao to Lazard Fund Asia for HK$262 million.40

Father: Aw Chi Kim, a herbalist from Zhongchuan, Yong Ding, Fujian, China.41
Mother: Lee Kim Peck.
Brothers: Aw Boon Leong (“gentle dragon”), Aw Boon Par (“gentle leopard”).
Wives: Tay Piah Hong, Tan Kim Kee (a.k.a. Kyi Kyi), Ooi Geik Cheah, Khoo Siew Eng.42
Sons: Aw Kow (adopted) – later director of Sin Chew Jit Poh, Singapore Tiger Standard and Chung Khiaw Bank; Aw Swan (adopted; possibly an illegitimate son by a servant girl) – later general manager of Eng Aun Tong Medical Hall and its Canton factory; Aw Hoe (adopted) – later general manager of the Medical Hall and managing director of Tiger Standard and Sin Chew Jit Poh. Killed in an aeroplane crash in 1951; Aw It Haw (by Geik Cheah) 43; Aw Jee Haw (a.k.a. Haw Kia; by Geik Cheah) – killed by a Japanese shell in 1942; Aw Sar Haw (by Siew Eng) – died of cholera in 1942; Aw See Haw (by Siew Eng).44
Daughters: Sally Aw Sian (adopted)45; Aw Seng (by Siew Eng).46

Bonny Tan 

1. “Aw Boon Haw,” HuayiNet, accessed 23 November 2016; Sam King, Tiger Balm King (Singapore: Times Books International, 1992), 19 (Call no. RSING 338.04092 KIN); K. Mulliner and Lian The-Mulliner, Historical Dictionary of Singapore (Metuchen: Scarecrow Press, 1991), 29–30 (Call no. RSING 959.57003 MUL-[HIS]); Victor Sim, ed., Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Nan Kok, 1950), 4 (Call no. RCLOS 920.05957 SIM); Tommy Koh, T. et al., eds., Singapore: The Encyclopedia (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet in association with the National Heritage Board, 2006), 51. (Call no. RSING 959.57003 SIN-[HIS])
2. Mulliner and The-Mulliner, Historical Dictionary of Singapore, 29–30; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 51.
3. HuayiNet, “Aw Boon Haw”; Mulliner and The-Mulliner, Historical Dictionary of Singapore, 29–30.
4. “The Tiger’s Tale,” in Judith Brandel and Tina Turbeville, Tiger Balm Gardens (Singapore: Aw Boon Haw Foundation, 1998)
5. Sylvia Toh Paik Choo, Legend from a Jar: The Story of Haw Par: Haw Par Brothers International Limited's 25th Anniversary Commemorative Book (Singapore: Haw Par Brothers International, 1994), 20 (Call no. RSING 338.8809 HAW);  HuayiNet, “Aw Boon Haw”; King, Tiger Balm King, 29–30; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 516. HuayiNet, “Aw Boon Haw”; King, Tiger Balm King, 57; Sim, Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 4.
7. King, Tiger Balm King, 17, 19; “The Tiger’s Tale”; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 51.
8. King, Tiger Balm King, 11, 19.
9. HuayiNet, “Aw Boon Haw”; King, Tiger Balm King, 20–21.
10. King, Tiger Balm King, 21.
11. Toh, Legend from a Jar, 14–15; King, Tiger Balm King, 19.
12. “Lifestyle of The Tiger Was a Walking Advertisement,” Straits Times, 25 October 1998, 39. (From NewspaperSG)
13. King, Tiger Balm King, 23–26.
14. Toh, Legend from a Jar, 15; “About Us: Heritage,” Haw Par Corporation Ltd., accessed 24 November 2016.
15. “Lifestyle of The Tiger.”
16. HuayiNet, “Aw Boon Haw”; King, Tiger Balm King, 26–27.
17. Toh, Legend from a Jar, 16–17; King, Tiger Balm King, 30.
18. King, Tiger Balm King, 29–30; Sim, Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 4.
19. King, Tiger Balm King, 56; “The Tiger’s Tale.”
20. “Lifestyle of The Tiger.”
21. King, Tiger Balm King, 328–31; “Lifestyle of The Tiger”; Kao Chen, “Was Aw a Japanese Collaborator?” Straits Times, 25 October 1998, 39. (From NewspaperSG)
22. Chen, “Was Aw a Japanese Collaborator?
23. “Lifestyle of The Tiger”; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 51.
24. Susan Berfield, “Fall of the House of Aw,” Asiaweek (12 February 1999);  HuayiNet, “Aw Boon Haw”; “Lifestyle of The Tiger”; King, Tiger Balm King, 99–103; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 51.
25. HuayiNet, “Aw Boon Haw”; King, Tiger Balm King, 103; Mulliner and The-Mulliner, Historical Dictionary of Singapore, 29–30; Sim, Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 4.
26. “Lifestyle of The Tiger.”
27. HuayiNet, “Aw Boon Haw”; King, Tiger Balm King, 249; “The Tiger’s Tale”;  Lifestyle of The Tiger”; Sim, Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 4; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 51.
28. "Lifestyle of The Tiger.                           
29. Toh, Legend from a Jar, 20; HuayiNet, “Aw Boon Haw”; Mulliner and The-Mulliner, Historical Dictionary of Singapore, 29–30; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 51.
30. Mulliner and The-Mulliner, Historical Dictionary of Singapore, 29–30.
31. Toh, Legend from a Jar, 20; HuayiNet, “Aw Boon Haw.”
32. HuayiNet, “Aw Boon Haw”; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 51.
33. “Lifestyle of The Tiger”; Koh, et al., Singapore: The Encyclopedia, 51.
34. Toh, Legend from a Jar, 21; “Lifestyle of The Tiger.”
35. Toh, Legend from a Jar, 5–6.
36. “Lifestyle of The Tiger.”
37. Sim, Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 4.
38. Toh, Legend from a Jar, 7.
39. Berfield, “Fall of the House of Aw.”
40. “HK Global China in Talks to Buy Sing Tao Stake,” Dow Jones International News, 3 January 2001. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
41. “The Tiger’s Tale.”
42. King, Tiger Balm King, 4, 18–19, 39, 59, 66, 128, 315.
43. King, Tiger Balm King, 47–50, 91, 139, 271–72, 353; Sim, Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 4.
44. King, Tiger Balm King, 276, 324, 326, 329, 353.
45. Berfield, “Fall of the House of Aw”; “HK Global China in Talks”; King, Tiger Balm King, 314; Sim, Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 4.
46. King, Tiger Balm King, 317; Sim, Biographies of Prominent Chinese in Singapore, 4.

Further resource
Tiger Balm, Annual Report (Singapore: Tiger Balm, 1990). (Call no. RCLOS 338.7616154509 TBARTB-[AR])

The information in this article is valid as at August 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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