Tiger Balm’s poor old lady

From Today Magazine

By Jose Raymond

They were once one of Singapore’s richest and most famous families, worth several hundreds of millions.

The family mansion at 178, Pasir Panjang Road – home to the family behind the Tiger Balm empire – was a well-known landmark, as familiar as the Haw Par Villa Park which it once owned.

The family was so wealthy, it was said that one servant was employed just to polish the family silver.

Very few knew what went on behind those gates ...

But the family secrets of how the family fell from grace have now been given a public airing by Ms Lee May Chu (picture, right), the great-granddaughter of Mr Aw Boon Par, one of the founding members of the empire, in a book, Escape from Paradise.

Mr Aw Boon Par and his brother, Mr Aw Boon Haw, were the Tiger Balm kings, having brought the business to Singapore from Myanmar in the 1920s.

The controversial book — it was published in October last year and taken off the shelves of booksellers after three months — covers how the fortunes of the family collapsed.

A classic riches to rags story.

Today, the matriarch of the clan, Datin Aw Cheng Hu, 88, the daughter of Mr Aw Boon Par, lives in a spartanly-furnished rented HDB flat.

When Today traced her to her humble dwelling last week, Datin Aw was lying in bed, about to start on her evening meal – a bowl of porridge.

How did the decline come about? Ms Lee said: “The day the business landed in the hands of others was the day we lost everything.”

She was referring to the fateful year of 1971, when corporate raider Slater Walker Securities (SWS) took control of the Aw family company – listed Haw Par Brothers International – which also controlled Chung Khiaw Bank and newspapers, including the Sin Chew Jit Poh.

Government pressure reportedly forced SWS to sell back the newspaper interests to Mr Aw Cheng Chye, who was the head of the family business.

The brother of Datin Aw, he died four months later.

He was 48.

SWS later sold its stake in Chung Khiaw Bank to United Overseas Bank, the current owners of the Tiger balm brand.

In her book, Ms Lee, 45, who now lives in Arizona, US, and is married to American writer John Harding, recounts the intrigues and the twists that brought the family from its grand life in a palatial double-storey bungalow (after they had moved from the Pasir Panjang mansion) to a rented HDB apartment.

The bungalow in Ford Road was named Casa Emma after Datin Aw, who married Mr Lee Chee Shan, the founding managing director of the Chung Khiaw Bank in 1950.

Six years after Mr Lee’s death at the age of 77 in 1986, Datin Aw moved to a condominium in Hazel Park where she lived for 10 years.

Six months ago, she moved to the $800-a-month four-room HDB flat in Sengkang, where she lives with her youngest daughter, Jenny, and a maid.

The living room was simply furnished — a sofa and a dining table.

Outside the flat lay two pairs of slippers in stark contrast to Casa Emma, which was adorned by two large marble lions and two enormous elephant tusks.

But there were some items in the Sengkang flat which showed traces of the family’s former wealth.

A stuffed Sumatran tiger (it is to be donated to a temple), a bust of Jackie Lee (Mdm Aw’s eldest son), a Ching dynasty rosewood screen, 13th century Yuan Dynasty oxblood vases and a 100-year-old grandfather’s clock.

The items looked forlorn, wrapped in plastic, waiting for buyers.

But Mdm Aw said she had no regrets.

She said: “In life, sometimes you are up and sometimes you are down. At this point of my life, I am down. But I pray every day and I know that I will be all right.” But please no photographs, she said.

Jenny, 52, who stays with her, was more vocal. “My mother was too generous. She gave away money to anyone,” she said.

Generosity was an Aw family trait. Over the years, the Aw family donated over US$100 million ($180 million) to build schools and hospitals in China.

But Mr Aw Boon Haw’s daughter, Sally Aw Sian, once the head of Sing Tao Holdings in Hong Kong, has had to sell most of the family stake in businesses in Hong Kong, including the Tiger Balm Gardens, to avoid bankruptcy.

Veteran journalist Seah Chiang Nee, who used to work for one of the papers held by the Aw family before, said that it was rather sad for the family to have lost their wealth completely. “It was like a case of the second and third generation not being able to hold on to the family wealth.”

The family woes continued.

Datin Aw’s eldest son, Jackie, (the father of Ms Lee), once an heir to the Tiger Balm fortune, is now a fugitive in the US.

He was declared a bankrupt in 1996 after he failed to pay ex-wife Mabel Wee more than $1 million in settlement.

He is wanted by the Singapore police in connection with the sale of his Holland Road property, the Ministry of Law confirmed, in response to queries by Today.

Ms Lee said: “The warrant for my father’s arrest, the bankruptcy notice on the front gate of our house at 69, Holland Road was so shameful. My father, the grandson of the Tiger Balm king ... a bankrupt and a fugitive.”

The family tragedy did not end there. Her younger brother, Mr Lee Lam San, who was disowned by family when he was 15, committed suicide in 1987.

The Tiger Balm saga seems to have run its course.

Ms Lee’s book was removed from bookshops because of legal complications.

It is also no longer on the shelves of the National Library.

A library spokesman said it “was removed as part of our regular culling exercise. We review our titles and replace them with items ... current, and more in demand by our readers.”

Can it be that the story of the decline of an empire is without appeal, even if there are lessons to be learned from such a tragedy.