A Brief History of Singapore Medical Oil & Balm Business

Singapore is arguably  the origin of some of the world’s  most famous medicated oils and balms. Names like Tiger Balm, Axe Brand Oil and Chop Wah On’s Shake Hand Brand range of medicated oils and balms are much sought after by many especially  in China, Hong Kong and  other countries with a significant Chinese population. Before Covid-19, every year more than a million tourists from China, Hong Kong etc came to Singapore to purchase medicated oils and balms for their families and friends back home.

Tiger Balm was first founded in Rangoon, Myanmar, by Herbalist Mr. Aw Chu Kin while Axe Brand said its founder, Mr. Leung Yun Chee was given the formula for its Axe Oil by German physician, Dr. Schmediler. As for Chop Wah On, its founder, Herbalist Mr Tong Chee Leong  emigrated to Singapore in the 1900’s and was saddened to see so many of his fellow emigrants suffering from aches, pains, cuts, insect bites, wounds etc with little or no medical attention. He blended 3 medicated  oils , namely Red Flower Oil 红花油,Eucalyptus Embrocation 白树油 and Citronella Oil 香茅油 using the various essential oils which he found were available in Singapore. Red Flower Oil was  for sprains, bruises and bodily discomfort  while Eucalyptus Embrocation was used as  an antiseptic, for insect bites and flu-like symptoms. As the beddings of many emigrants were infested with bed bugs, Eucalyptus Embrocation was used to exterminate the bed bugs.   As for Citronella Oil, it was excellent as a mosquito repellent and as a massage and foot reflexology oil.

 In 1916, Mr. Tong Chee Leong  founded Chop Wah On華安药行 at No. 67, Pagoda Street to sell his products in the shop premises on the ground floor and to house his family on the upper floors. Chop Wah On is now at No. 34, Upper Cross Street, Singapore 058340.

The three products met the needs and wants of the emigrant populace and were in high demand. Emigrants and “Ma Chie / 妈姐 who returned to China often brought home these 3 products for their families and friends. Seamen who traversed China and Singapore often bought these 3 products from Chop Wah On  for re-sale in China.

The 3 companies adopted different strategies to promote  their products. Tiger Balm famously had a vehicle with a tiger painted on it to promote Tiger Balm traversing the various states in Peninsula Malaya. Axe Brand started a newspaper and used it to advertise its products. Tiger Balm and Axe Brand oil  probably adopted a “push” strategy with mass marketing and were pushed through to customers by being available in many medical halls.  They did not have any  retail outlet of their own. They also focused largely on their original products with perhaps some adaptations.

On the other hand, Chop Wah On adopted a “pull strategy” promoting its products through its own retail outlet in Chinatown through word-of-mouth and personal selling. It also expanded its product range over the years. At present it has 28 products, some of which are classified as “cosmetics”. Its Shake Hand Brand Crocodile Oil and Shake Hand Brand Bee Apitherapy are its ace products with Eucalypthol Balm and Huo Luo Oil as its main stayers.

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