Tracing the history of Tiger Balm, India’s favourite painkiller

The Haw Par Villa in Singapore offers insights about traditional Chinese values.

Published : Nov 03, 2022 10:15 IST

As I read a news report on the pervasive and needless use of analgesics, my mind harks back to another time. In our growing up years in the south, we never got to hear of any allopathic medicine for headaches or body pains. These were always benign, passing afflictions attributable to the humid tropical weather. When the monsoon arrived and interminable rain fell, children and adults alike would be down with cold, aches, or fevers. Only malaria was held in remote respect and treated with quinine.

We had a sprawling home set in the middle of a vast estate of coconut and areca palms, mango and jackfruit trees, and tamarinds and cashews, sheltering our joint family, and about three generations of us lived there. At the lowest rung in the hierarchy were the children, at the middle level were the parents of these children, and at the very top was the single set of grandparents. Sometimes, some indigent elder relatives came for Ayurvedic treatment and stayed for a while.

Not much discipline was enforced on the children. We had to study just enough to pass our school examinations and the rest of the time we could play. In the sweltering evenings after school and on weekends, we ran all over the place, climbed low trees, hid among bushes and foliage, and splashed about in the pond. Sudden downpours drenched us, not to speak of the long monsoon months or the dew-heavy morning winds of December and January. As if predestined, we would catch a cold with a running nose, have mild fever and headache, besides cuts and injuries. At any point of time, a few of us were retired hurt.

But analgesics were never to be found in our home. For fever or cough, tulsi leaves were soaked in water and we were made to drink the decoction. Or, chew a few tulsi leaves in the morning. Alternatively, ginger was boiled, and the resultant decoction imbibed. Ginger and honey were mixed and taken as a cure for throat infection and to ease chest congestion. Garlic and pepper rasam was an efficacious remedy. Turmeric-in-warm milk worked wonders. And there was the kashayam, which was more for the elderly. There were some aunts who were forever drinking kashayams: for what maladies I did not know. For adults who had headache—children never got headaches—eucalyptus oil was optional.

Our world had not heard of Anacin or Vicks which came from somewhere, much, much later. I think that happened when I was in higher classes or even in college. Anyway, our grandfather was all for Ayurvedic remedies. He worked in the forest department of the Cochin state and had completed his postgraduation in Botany. His work took him deep into the heart of the forest. In his spare time he published books about medicinal plants of the Cochin state forests. There were brown, calico-bound volumes of his books in the library on the first floor.

Those years, I noticed some itinerant visitors, a trifle gaudily attired for our place, showing off a little. They were distant cousins and their parents who came for brief periods. We children did not know much about them but I learnt that they lived in the FMS (Federated Malay States) and had come home on leave, from Penang to Madras by ship and then by an overnight train to our home. Like the gypsies in One Hundred Years of Solitude (a novel by Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez), who brought ice to Macondo, they introduced a small, squat, hexagonal bottle which was densely packed. That was Tiger Balm, the most powerful remedy known to man against all aches, joint pain, breathing difficulties, and congestion. The small container was secured in my grandmother’s room where children had no access.

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As it happened, once, I fell down and hurt my knee. The pain was mild but I had resorted to attention-seeking behaviour. That’s when my grandmother applied a bit of the magic potion on the knee. The balm had an overpowering scent and felt warm on the skin. Later I learnt that Tiger Balm had come with those relatives who worked in the FMS.

Those days, the FMS and other states in that region had many south Indians from the Madras Presidency, Travancore and Cochin—today’s Tamil Nadu and Kerala—who worked in the rubber plantations or other trading companies. In the beginning they had emigrated as indentured labour. Some of them were more skilled and had better jobs. Their descendants still live in Malaysia and Singapore.

Birth of the balm

Tiger Balm is a heka herbal product, developed in the early 20th century in Rangoon, Burma—today’s Yangon and Myanmar. In 1918, the product was named Tiger Balm to widen its appeal and successfully marketed by two Chinese brothers, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, who owned the company. They ran into problems with the British administration in Rangoon and so shifted their base to Singapore. By all accounts of their lives, they were headstrong and flamboyant and led colourful lives. But their business was a huge success, and Tiger Balm became a well-known brand, first in South-East Asia and then in other countries as the Chinese diaspora expanded.

Illustration for Frontline

Illustration for Frontline | Photo Credit: Satheesh Vellinezhi

I am in Singapore and decide to find a little more about the men behind Tiger Balm. On a hilltop in the western part of the city, in a Crazy Rich Asians (a film) sort of place, there exists the Haw Par Villa, a minor Disney Land of the Confucian or Buddhist kind. One evening I get off the MRT (Metro Rail Transit system) and walk up a quiet hill side. There are very few visitors. Some are commuters hurrying to catch the MRT home. The Tiger Balm kings lived here in an Art Deco building until it was destroyed in Japanese bombing during the Second World War. I walk under the gateway built in traditional Chinese style. The tiger image is prominent on the gate, hard to miss. There are other tiger sculptures too. It is a quirky place full of pavilions and sculptured figures, trying to retell fables from Chinese mythology. Both the Buddha and Confucius are extolled. There is a statue of the Laughing Buddha and another of Confucius. Their teachings and messages are displayed. I read them. Life is about making the right moral choices, a tenet somewhat contrary to the lives led by the brothers. They were simply high-fliers.

Illustration for Frontline

Illustration for Frontline | Photo Credit: Satheesh Vellinezhi

But we know that Haw was a marketing genius who would do all that it took to reinforce the brand image of his healing balm. As I saunter along, I see a parking lot where an NSU, a German car of its time, is parked. It has a tiger head on the front grill, above the fender. The car is painted in tiger stripes. I am told all the cars Haw had were painted as tiger surrogates and that he drove around in them. The sound of the horn was replaced with a tiger’s roar. A marketing strategy ahead of its time.

In the park, there are exhortations to avoid indebtedness. Thrift is emphasised. Saving is a virtue. Wasting money on women and wine is expressly forbidden. I infer that only if one has money, one can buy Tiger Balm, loads of it. I walk past Hell’s Museum, carefully skirting it.

Evening is drawing out. Rain clouds gather. I can see the Port of Singapore, one of the busiest in the world. Derricks and cranes silhouette against the sky. Beyond is the sea. Tiger Balm is today sold over in a hundred countries. It generated $110.56 million in revenues in 2015. The Tiger Balm now sold in India is produced at a Hyderabad-based manufacturing facility and Haw Par Corporation got a revenue of Rs.85 crore from the sales. Imagine, the pygmy little bottle first came to India, at least in our homes, taking the FMS route, through men who came on home leave, crossing the Bay of Bengal and other seas. In many parts of southern India, it is still part of our sociology of indentured labour and collective memory.

P. Krishna Gopinath is a Delhi-based writer with an interest in photography and Western classical music.

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