We’ll always have Tiger Balm

We'll always have Tiger Balm

Tiger Balm: the famous Singaporean cure-all.

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?


About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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3 Responses to We’ll always have Tiger Balm

  1. Judy says:

    I was introduced to Tiger Balm by my mother-in-law, who also brought it back from Singapore when she repatriated in the 1960’s. She continues to use it and although I can’t say I became a fan, I do know what you mean about the evocative power of smells. What takes me back, though, is music – Russian ballads for our time in Azerbaijan and Middle Eastern pop for Egypt and the UAE. Long live MP3 players 🙂

  2. bookjunkie says:

    Strangely I have never used tiger balm although I know it’s very popular. I prefer Axe Oil (probably similar ingredients) which I swear by. Maybe it’s because I prefer the liquid form rather than a sticky vicks vapor rub type (which my sister love having rubbed on her chest as a kid).

    Axe oil somehow magically cures my headaches and tummy pains within a few hours. Panadol totally doesn’t work on me.

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