I find scent to be the most evocative of the senses. The nose might as well be connected by a superhighway directly to the temporal lobe, where all our luscious memories are stashed away. The merest whiff of some long-forgotten fragrance is all it takes to transport me to another time and place. I once walked past a woman who smelled like the shampoo I used in grade twelve, and whoosh, there I was, back in the halls of St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School.
Figuratively speaking, of course.
In the same way the scent of Gauloises reminds me of Caen, inhaling the distinctive, spicy bouquet of Tiger Balm instantly takes me back to Singapore. This mentholated ointment is a Singaporean institution, used to ease aches and pains caused by everything from sprains to arthritis to pulled muscles.
Every single trip my daughters made to the nurse’s office at school resulted in an application of Tiger Balm — it was even massaged into their temples when they had a headache. We got into the habit of using it at home, and made sure to slip a few jars into our suitcases when we left Singapore. (We needn’t have bothered; it’s sold in over a hundred countries around the world, including Canada.)
The Tiger Balm dynasty was built by a poor Chinese herbalist living in Burma late in the 19th century. He created an ointment similar to the essential oil-based salve the Chinese emperors once used. The secret recipe was passed on to his sons, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, after his death.
The brand’s enduring association with Singapore came about when the Aw brothers established a manufacturing operation on the island. Strongly rooted in the traditional Chinese values of their father, they turned to philanthropy in a big way after the runaway success of their humble balm made them stinking rich. In 1937, they built a theme park called Tiger Balm Gardens as a means of passing on those values… and, one suspects, as a branding exercise for their famous product.
Today the park, renamed Haw Par Villa, is a shadow of its former self. Visiting it is a trippy experience, one I’ll write about some day. But for the moment I’m too busy kneading Tiger Balm into my sore neck and imagining I’m in a tropical Paradise.
Where does your nose take you?