While Netflix showed us the American version of a Tiger King. The OG Tiger King had already came and went. Long before Joe Exotic started his calamity of murder (for hire), mayhem, and madness. The OG Tiger King, Boon Haw built his empire on marketing, mansions and money. Gobs of money.
Who is the Real Tiger King
Born in 1882 in a small village in Myanmar; Boon Haw grew up to be a savvy businessman. While his name Boon Haw, may not be a household name (but does translate to gentle tiger). His product, Tiger Balm is.
Usually placed between the chapstick and vaseline. Tiger Balm is a household staple found in many medicine cabinets. This multi tool topical OTC medicine is used to ease cold and flu aches, joint pain, minor burns, mosquito bites and much more.
The success and the expansion of the Tiger Balm business is much accredited to Boon Haw’s strategic and persistent marketing campaigns.
And much like the pungent and long lasting scent of Tiger Balm. Boon Haw’s story also has a lasting impression.
Boon Haw | The Makings of a Tiger King
Aw Chu Kin, Boon Haw’s father. Started an apothecary in Myanmar in 1870. By using his medicinal plant knowledge, Aw Chu Kin conjured up a cure-all ointment for aches and pains. He named it, Ten Thousand Golden Oil.
Setting it at the right price point and positioning it on the market as the ‘cure all’. The conconcion superceded its competitors and quickly grew in popularity.
Following in his father’s career path. Boon Haw also studied Chinese medicine but his studies started on a rocky front. You see, Boon Haw wasn’t the ideal student. He was more like the black sheep of the family.
At a young age his temper got the best of him, and he attacked one of his teachers. To set him straight (maybe a scared straight tactic), his father sent him off to China. Where he lived in his grandfather’s village to learn Chinese morals, manners, and Chinese traditional herbalism.
Meanwhile, Boon Haw’s younger brother Boon Par (keeping within the big cat family, the name means gentle leopard). Stayed in Myanmar and studied western medicine.
When Aw Chu Kin passed away. His business was handed over to his non-punching teacher son, Boon Par.
Invented by a Father |Perfected by his Sons
When Aw Chu Kin died, Boon Haw was still studying abroad. Not wanting to be in business alone. Boon Par sent for his older brother to return. He wanted a partner to revamp, rebrand and remarket their father’s elixor.
Together, these two combined their knowledge of Western and Chinese medicine and reformulated Ten Thousand Golden’s Oil into Tiger Balm. As the business gained momentum. The need to scale up manufacturing was urgent. So the brothers in the late 1920, expanded to Singapore and set up the Eng Aun Tong factory.
Needing to advertise their product and not wanting to pay for it. They started a publishing company, (as one does) the Sin Chew Jit Poh. Which they expanded circulation to Thailand and Hong Kong.
Not wanting to leave out the illiterate. Boon Haw made sure their advertisements were strong in color and the Tiger Balm product was large and in the center of the advertisement and didn’t have a lot of text. He wanted the product to be easily identifiable.
With all these combined efforts. This launched Tiger Balm to become the 1# ointment in South East Asia and China.
Haw Par Villa | The Gift the Keeps on Giving
As gifting goes, Boon Haw pulled the ultimate flex. In 1937, he truly went the extra mile by building Haw Par Villa; a mansion that overlooked the sea and equipped with its own theme park. It was the ultimate thank you gift to his younger bro.
The concept of this hybrid mansion / amusement park was genius for its time. While the austentatious Art Deco mansion was an absolute attention grabber. The theme park lured in hoards of crowds for two reasons. One, there wasn’t a like attraction on the island and two, the entry fee was nada, zilch, free to enter.
Built with a thousand statues to showcase stories of Chinese folklore and myths to teach morals, traditions and values. The main strategy of the park, was to sell Tiger Balm to its visitors. They even had a catmobile to drive around the park grounds. And yes, the horn roared when pushed.
And like a moth to a flame, it worked. The villa attracted up to a million visitors a year in its heyday. Because of it success, Boon Haw erected two more villas just like it in Hong Kong and China.
PS. If you know nothing of Haw Par Village and happened to have stumbled upon it. You may think you have entered into a dream gone nightmare like Alice in Wonderland/ Wizard of Oz mixed in with Salvador Dali that’s looking through an Asian filter that will have you clicking your heels wishing to go home.
But I’ll leave that for another post. Right now, we’ll just focus on the Tiger King himself. If you want to see pictures back in the day. Checkout how different the main entrance gate is to what it is now. You can actually see the ocean in these pics.
The Rise and Fall of the Tiger King
At the height of his successful businesses. Boon Haw was loving life. His outgoing and extrovert personality served his work life well. He had a keen sense of marketing strategies, ran multiple publishing companies, and ventured into banking. Like the tiger he is, he pounced on every business opportunity that crossed his path.
But as we all know, with more public exposure one gains, the more attention it draws. And Boon Haw certainly had his haters. Or so he thought. Tan Kah Kee, an equally savvy, successful businessman, who also had philanthropic like tendencies. Might have been seen as Boon Haw’s nemesis. Truth is, the rivalry was really just jealousy (on Boon Haw’s part).
It’s said, flashy Boon Haw challenged Tan Kah Kee to a gambling match in a high class rich dude’s club. Not to draw attention, Tan Kah Kee turned down the challenge.
Besides playing cards in the high rollers clubs. Boon Haw had a passion for women. Lots of women. Which led him to be married to four women at the same time. Yup, that’s right. In today’s traditional marriage and laws (yes, we’re talking young) this would have had raised multiple red flags (whistle blown… too many players on the field!!).
When World War II spread its reach into Singapore, the brothers fled. Boon Par went to Burma and Boon Haw and family fled to his mansion in Hong Kong.
During the war, the brothers were apart but kept the Tiger Balm business going. They saw the need for the ointment, especially during war. So they kept the price low which kept the money flowing.
When the Japanese arrived in Singapore. They occupied Haw Par Villa, as it was the perfect location with views of the ocean. From this vantage point, they could see the shipping traffic.
If war wasn’t rough enough. Two sons of Boon Haw died at young ages. Quickly followed, Boon Par died in Burma in 1944. You would think this would be it, but another of Boon Haw’s son died in a plane crash at the age of 30. He was said to be heir to the Tiger Balm empire.
Once the war was over. Boon Haw returned to Singapore in 1945, to a vandalised and ruined villa. As heartbroken as he already was, he had the villa torn down but left the remains of the theme park.
It was 10 years after the death of his younger brother, that Boon Haw died of a heart attack while on a layover in Honolulu going back to Hong Kong.
Word on the street has it. Younger brother, Boon Par had a premonition on his deathbed and said, “My brother will survive me by 10 years.”