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The Fascinating History of Haw Par Corporation – Part 1

The Haw Par Corporation (SGX: H02) is one of Singapore’s oldest listed companies and its origin story is one of drama, ambition and spectacular failure.

But, its intriguing history seems to have been lost in the annals of time for many. That’s not surprising, especially when you consider the fact that United Overseas Bank (SGX: U11) had emerged as Haw Par’s largest shareholder (that relationship is still intact today) some 36 years ago in 1978 – and that development had taken place decades after Haw Par’s story started!

Rangoon, where it all began

The Aw brothers were born in the 1880’s in Rangoon (Now known as Yangon, a city in Myanmar). The elder brother was named Aw Boon Haw while the younger brother was named Aw Boon Par. At that time, their father, Aw Chu Kin ran a Traditional Chinese Medicine shop in the capital of Myanmar (then known as Burma). Aw Chu Kin had a recipe for a special cure-all ointment that he sold in his shop. After he passed away, the two brothers joined forces to expand the family’s TCM business. They improved the recipe and began selling it throughout the city – that’s the Tiger Balm that’s still being sold by Haw Par Corporation today.

By 1920, the Aw brothers were one of the richest people in Rangoon. However, that was never enough for the elder brother, Boon Haw. He expanded the business into Malaya and Singapore. In the late 1920’s, they relocated the business’s headquarters to Singapore.

Even though the Aw brothers had built their wealth around the Tiger Balm business, they valued diversification and had spread their wings into many other businesses that include publishing and banking.

With their formidable wealth, the Aw brothers weren’t shy in flaunting it. Some extravagant displays of wealth the brothers had done included: 1) Having a tiger head crafted onto a car and; 2) Building  a villa with intricate statues and carvings based on Chinese mythology – the now famous Haw Par Villa as a home.

But despite their wealth, the ravages of war caught on to them and the younger Boon Par died during the Second World War in Burma. Boon Haw himself survived the war for a decade more and died at the age of 72 in 1954.

The end of an era

The passing of Boon Haw marked the beginning of the end of the Haw Par empire. Stay tuned though, as I’ll be covering shortly, how the company was totally destroyed in the 1970’s and how United Overseas Bank ended up being its largest shareholder after a well-known power-struggle with the Hong Leong Group and Chiarapurk Jack, a famous Thai businessman back then.

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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 Stanley Lim doesn’t own shares in any companies mentioned.