Walking With The Founders of Tiger Balm

Tiger Balm is a popular ointment with a distinct menthol smell and memorable packaging.

When I read the description of Haw Par Villa in Singapore my eyes immediately glazed over. The park is a series of dated statues and dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese mythology, legends and Confucianism. I saw the photos and the words cheesy and dated popped into my mind.

Despite my reservations for this specific tour, I joined The Original Singapore Walks for their tour in Haw Par Villa. I had taken several tours with them in my inaugural visit to Singapore in 2004 and was greatly impressed with the guides’ knowledge. In my travel experience, they might be the best guides I have encountered. These guides are a cross between an erudite PHD and a charismatic MC. I watched as the guide eerily memorized the 15 tourists’ names within minutes. Very impressive.

Being a frequent traveler to Thailand, you will often see and hear about Tiger Balm. Tiger Balm is a popular ointment with a distinct menthol smell and memorable packaging. Thais use it frequently and speak of it glowingly. I always assumed this was a native Thai product.

Tiger Balm was originally a Burmese product that grew up in Singapore

I learned on my tour that Tiger Balm was originally a Burmese product that grew up in Singapore. My guide shared with me the story of Haw Par Villa that intrigued and engaged. If I had been alone, I would have departed the park in moments. My guide made the park come alive with history and trivia.

Entrance to the park

Entrance to the park – Haw Par Villa

Tiger Balm was originally developed in the 1870s in Rangoon (now known as Yangon) in Burma by a Chinese man named Aw Chu Kin. On his deathbed, his sons, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, were asked to lead the company. By the 1920s, they had transformed this small business into a runaway success. They brothers moved to Singapore in 1926.

Possibly the coolest car ever!

Possibly the coolest car ever!

The brothers built a park called Tiger Balm Gardens in 1937. Their home was also located here but does not exist today. The brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par translating to gentle tiger and gentle leopard respectively created this park for teaching traditional Chinese values. And of course, a great opportunity to market Tiger Balm! The park contains over 1,000 statues and 150 giant dioramas. Three monolithic, white memorials pierce the sky in remembrance of the two brothers and their parents.

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Possibly the most memorable part of the park is the Ten Courts of Hell, it is a great opportunity to instill fear into small children. The Ten Courts of Hell features gruesome depictions of Hell found in Chinese mythology and Buddhism. Customized tortures are devised for specific crimes in each level of hell. After your punishment, you drink a magical tea and are reincarnated. This circle of life is known as samsara: birth, life, and death (reincarnation).

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The gates of Hell

List of crimes and corresponding tortures

List of crimes and corresponding tortures

Let the punishment begin!!

Let the punishment begin!!

So consider getting off the beaten path and learning about the history of Tiger Balm and its founders. Check out The Original Singapore Walking Tours.

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