Balmy days of Tiger Balm heritage
11 November 2010
China Daily - Hong Kong Edition
The Hong Kong government is attempting to soothe conflicting goals about conservation of the Haw Par Mansion. Doug Meigs reports.
Real estate developers demolished the Tiger Balm Garden in 2004. The adjacent Tiger Balm Mansion (aka, the Haw Par Mansion) has remained vacant for more than a decade, nestled in the shadows of four skyscrapers, including the Legend, a luxury residential complex at Jardine's Lookout.
The government hopes to preserve the mansion through a pilot revitalization scheme that would allow business interests to lease the site for commercial use. Some local stakeholders began protesting the plan after an October 15 rezoning of the site.
David Lai Tai-wai is a district councilor for Jardine's Lookout, an upscale neighborhood in Wan Chai District. Lai is especially vocal in opposing the government's plans. He is leading a Haw Par Mansion redevelopment concern group, and he wants the government to turn the mansion into an Asian heritage museum.
"This is a collective memory of all of Hong Kong, not just for local residents," he said.
His group formed with 50 members the day after the rezoning.
The Haw Par Mansion is open on Saturday and Sunday from 10 am until 4 pm. This weekend will conclude the government's public consultation at the Grade 1 heritage site.
More than 16,000 people have attended so far, said Suzanna Chan Chung-kwan, the Assistant Secretary at the Development Bureau. Attendance spiked last Sunday with a single-day tally of 7,600.
Many visited because they live in the neighborhood, others because the site has important implications for the future course of heritage conservation in Hong Kong.
Some visitors came to revisit fond memories of Tiger Balm Garden's audaciously tacky, multi-colored murals and statues - and they were disappointed. The Tiger Balm Gardens are long gone, buried beneath the Legend's foundation.
Complaints were audible among many passers-by in the mansion's crowded private garden. The small garden lacks the bombastic charm of a mountainside packed with concrete sculptures. Notable examples once included a rabbit marrying a pig, and the 18 levels of hell from Taoist philosophy, complete with a demon cutting the tongue from a liar's mouth and a human fried for eternity in a wok.
The mansion was the family home of Aw Boon-haw, one of the founders of the Tiger Balm brand. He built the mansion in 1935. The structure demonstrates a unique mix of Chinese and Western architectural styles. The interior includes painted-glass windows from Italy, moldings gilded with gold, and reliefs demonstrating a mix of mythological scenes from India and Aw's native home of Burma.
Aw Boon-haw and his brother Boon-par were ethnic Chinese, born in Burma. They inherited their father's herbal medicine business in 1908 and developed "Tiger Balm Ointment," a cure-all mix of oils: camphor, menthol, cajuput, mint and clove.
The Aw brothers began distributing their salve around Southeast Asia, then worldwide, earning a fortune. They moved business headquarters to Singapore in 1926. Aw Boon-haw eventually relocated to Hong Kong, where he was a notable philanthropist. He died in 1954.
The Hong Kong mansion and affiliated Tiger Balm Garden were one of three Tiger Balm mansions and gardens. Other locations are Singapore and Fujian, where the gardens remain intact.
Hong Kong's Tiger Balm Garden was converted into an amusement park called "Haw Par Villa" in 1985. Many of the sculptures were replaced with rides, but the venture hemorrhaged money. The rides were eventually removed and replaced with the old statues. Admission became free, and the site was a popular, kitschy place for families to visit before demolition.
At the mansion last weekend, visitors swarmed over four levels of dusty wood floorboards, past empty cupboards, and paint chips resting in dormant sinks. They found the mansion gradually sinking into decrepitude.
"I think it's really time to put the mansion into reuse," Chan said. "It sure has its own architectural merits, and it's really time to revitalize so the public can go in and see it and use it."
Aw Sian, heir to the Tiger Balm Garden and mansion in Hong Kong, sold the property in 1998 to Li Ka-shing's Cheung Kong Holdings. After negotiating with the government, Cheung Kong passed control of the mansion back to the public.
When Legend construction crews began work, the Antiquities and Monuments Office removed valuable furniture and historical relics from the mansion into storage. They also salvaged many of Tiger Balm Garden's murals and statues, said heritage officer William Lo Wai-kin.
Depending on proposals from potential tenants, Lo said some statues might be returned to the mansion's grounds. However, space is extremely limited, and any sculptural additions must not compromise the historical integrity of the mansion itself. He said statues that could potentially return include the eight concrete Taoist gods and the Buddha.
Because of the overwhelming crowds and fully booked guided tours, Lo has been helping as a tour guide during the open days.
"Most (of the visitors) say, 'where is the Tiger Balm Garden and where is the hell, or the big white pagoda?'" he said, "and I have to repeatedly explain to them that those have been demolished."
Because the name Tiger Balm Gardens still conjures powerful nostalgia in Hong Kong, the adjacent mansion presents an ideal opportunity to capitalize on a beloved brand name.
"I don't know which business will be adopted because this will be a commercial tender," Chan said. "This building will remain in government hands. It will not be sold, it will just be leased out to the tenant."
She said the Development Bureau would not consider any tenants until the tender is made public in subsequent months. She said the government does not currently have any business interests in mind. Comment cards will be evaluated and any necessary revisions will be made to the tender document.
Commercial revitalization of the Haw Par mansion became a topic in 2008, when Chief Executive Donald Tsang proposed that the site be transformed into a wine-trading center during his policy address.
Lai said he and other Wan Chai district councilors met with the Development Bureau in early 2009 to discuss revitalization plans for the mansion and other Wan Chai heritage sites. Lai said his group opposed the proposals for commercial revitalization.
Chan has been liaising among parties concerned with the mansion. She said the anger expressed immediately following the rezoning in October is due to a misunderstanding.
"I understand that the residents and the school are worried, but after explaining to them, I hope the two understand that this is not a big project," she said.
David Lai agrees that there is a misunderstanding. "When I said I didn't want the red wine idea, I didn't mean another business would be better. This should be preserved as a public heritage site," he said.
Once the government finalizes the tender, Chan said the Development Bureau would accept bids from potential tenants. Two factors will be considered: the high bidder and the technical merits of the revitalization proposal. She said bids and proposals will not be made public.
The successful bidder will be required to offer guided tours for the general public, and Chan said the government would keep a vigilant watch over adherence to conservation guidelines.
from a Hong Kong photography forum :