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5 Things You Should Know About Haw Par

HawparlogoThere’s something about the weather at the moment that means I’m covered in mosquito bites – which explains why my home currently smells of that popular Singaporean mozzie bite relief salve – Tiger Balm, made by the Haw Par Corporation (SGX: H02).

Tiger Balm’s story goes back to the 1800s when Aw Chu Kin, the young son of a herbalist in Xiamen, Fujian Province, left China to seek his fortune in Burma (Myanmar). Settling in Rangoon (Yangon) he opened his own physician’s practice and apothecary named “Eng Aun Tong” – the Hall of Everlasting Peace.

Chu Kin had two sons – Boon Haw (an aggressive “tiger” who was educated in China after getting into trouble at school) and Boon Par (a quiet “leopard” who studied in British Colonial Burma).

When, in 1909, Chu Kin died he left the family practice to Boon Par. However, after struggling with the responsibility, Boon Par asked his older brother to return from China to join the company, telling him “I will learn about Western medicine, you can prescribe Chinese medicine. Together we won’t lose a single patient. He can choose between East and West and the fee will stay with us”.

The brothers perfected their late father’s cure-all herbal ointment, which originated in the old imperial courts of China to soothe aches and pains. Named  “Ban Kim Ewe” or “Ten Thousand Golden Oils” the brothers renamed it Tiger Balm – and ensured every customer left with a little bottle of the golden balm. Thanks to their aggressive sales tactics by 1926, annual sales had reached S$10m.

Singapore and Malaya

Boon Haw ventured south and was excited by the sights and sounds of bustling Singapore and Malaya. After seeing the “tiger” in the Singaporean currency’s watermark, he took it as a sign and established a production plant on Neil Road, Singapore in 1926. The company reached its peak by the 1930s, with the balm being sold in much of South East Asia as well as Hong Kong and China which saw the company begin to diversify into banking and publishing.

WWII

However, the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II hit the company badly. Boon Par closed the Singapore factory to flee to Burma, where he died. After the war Boon Haw re-opened the factory and newspapers and established the Chung Khiaw Bank (later taken over by OUB Bank).

Takeover

Following Boon Haw’s death in 1954, his nephew took over. His invitation to investment group Slate Walker Securities to take a stake in the family business had disastrous consequences – the company held secret negotiations and took over Haw Par.

After five years of shady business dealings and corporate takeovers Haw Par became the fifth-largest company on Singapore’s Stock Exchange.

Collapse

But the irregularities were uncovered – leading to a spectacular collapse and a jail term for its chairman, Richard Tarling. Haw Par was left in a shambles, causing the Singapore government to step in and appoint a well-respected manager, Michael Fam to take the helm.

After a few more years of tussling, UOB took a 30% stake in 1981 and Haw Par became a company with two core-operating businesses – healthcare and leisure.

Leisure

The Aw brothers built Haw Par Villa/Tiger Balm Gardens, off Pasir Panjang Road as an “Oriental theme park” back in 1937, with the aim to teach and preserve traditional Chinese values (now under the care of the Singapore Tourism Board).

The company also opened Underwater World Singapore on Sentosa Island, an Oceanarium that has seen over 30m visitors since it opened in 1991. Haw Par followed this up by opening another Oceanarium – Underwater World Pattaya, Thailand in 2003.

But did you know….

  1. Boon Haw used to cause a stir during drives around towns in Malaya in his custom-made car – it had the “head of a tiger and a honk that roared”. When the kampong folks crowded around he would give out samples of Tiger Balm – earning himself many future customers.
  2. During the war, the Japanese occupied Haw Par Villa; its hillside location utilised to keep watch over ships at sea. When the Japanese left, local residents attacked the villa out of hatred for their captors.
  3. Haw Par Corporation’s other medicated salve, Kwan Loong Medicated Oil, was founded 70 years ago by a physician in Ipoh, Malaysia and is said to      give, amongst other uses, fast and effective relief from headaches and dizziness.
  4. Oriental theme park Haw Par Villa was not a place for the faint-hearted – its graphic depiction of the “18 levels of Hell” according to Buddhist beliefs featured people being fried in oil, skinned alive or having their eyes gouged out. In the early days, the villa also housed a small zoo.
  5. Tiger balm consists mainly of camphor, menthol, cajuput oil, mint oil and clove oil – and contrary to public perception, no tiger parts.

Tiger Balm, despite being a world famous brand is not Haw Par’s biggest earner – according to Haw Par’s 2012 company report the bulk of its profits come from investments in United Overseas Bank, UOL Group and United Industrial Corporation.

Today, the company has strategic investments and properties as well as its leisure and healthcare businesses, distributing its Tiger Balm (and to a lesser extent its Kwan Loong) products throughout America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Australasia.

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The information provided is for general information purposes only and is not intended to be personalised investment or financial advice. Motley Fool Singapore contributor Alison Hunt doesn’t own shares in any companies mentioned.