Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am

Hakka tycoon Aw Boon Haw was one of the most colourful overseas Chinese personalities of the 20th century. Better remembered in Hong Kong by the Cantonese name Wu Man-fu, Aw was born in Burma, in 1882. His father invented the famed Tiger Balm universal remedy, which Aw and his brother, Aw Boon Par, marketed to the Chinese diaspora.

Innovative marketing strategies helped; cars painted in stripes with a snarling tiger's head mounted on the radiator and a triumphant roar instead of a horn brought forth the crowds. Free samples and regular advertisements in Aw-owned newspapers also worked their magic; the Aw fortune included the Tiger Standard (now The Standard) and the Sing Tao stable of Chinese-language publications.

But the culmination - or lowest ebb, depending on your viewpoint - of the Aw brothers' marketing ploys was the construction of Chinese mythological theme parks in Hong Kong and Singapore, which showcased various traditional legends. The Eighteen Levels of Hell terrified naughty children but as the statues illustrated, even in the midst of gory eternal torment, a judicious smear of Tiger Balm offered temporary relief. When poverty was widespread and recreational opportunities limited in Hong Kong, the Tiger Balm Garden, in Tai Hang, provided a popular - and free - family day out, which remains a warmly remembered experience for thousands.

Aw lived in the mansion adjoining the gardens when in Hong Kong; after his death in 1954 he was buried on a slope just behind, although his remains were removed in the 1970s.

According to Sally Aw Sian, Aw Boon Haw's adopted daughter, she offered to give the house and gardens to the Hong Kong Tourism Association many years ago but it turned down the offer. She eventually sold it for redevelopment. Hong Kong's toothless Antiquities and Monuments Office declined to declare the gardens a monument and - according to insiders - only negotiated with the proposed developer to keep the mansion; apparently the developers were prepared to concede rather more.

And so the famed Tiger Pagoda, Hong Kong's tallest structure when it was built in the early 30s, was demolished almost without comment in 2002, along with the rest of the gardens, over which The Legend housing estate now stands. The increasingly dilapidated mansion, which can be seen from Tai Hang Road, survives but is empty and off limits to the public.

Singapore has held on to its Tiger Balm Gardens, which are at Pasir Panjang and have become a popular tourist attraction, particularly with mainland visitors. The Hong Kong version was lost by the same senior government officials who now loudly trumpet their own personal, long-term concern for local heritage - from Sir Donald downwards.

It's amazing the inconvenient facts that Hong Kong's 'collective memory' chooses not to remember.