Chop Wah On, better known as Shake Hand Brand, is a century-old business that operates out of a Chinatown shophouse.
I met the third-generation family running the company at their three-storey shophouse which sits in a beautiful shade of Tiffany blue along Upper Cross Street.
As I walked in, the shelves, painted in the same shade, displayed their well-known medicated oils and balms like crocodile oil, eucalyptus balm and more. They were neatly organised behind a clear glass shelf door; some were packaged in shiny gold boxes labelled with Chinese characters which, unfortunately, I could not quite understand.
The owners and some of their staff, all in their 70s, welcomed us with a warm smile at the counters. In the corner, a cashier was engrossed in her work, tapping away on a calculator and jotting furiously in a book.
After some introductions, we were invited up to their air-conditioned office on the second floor of the shophouse via a narrow staircase.
There, sleeves of bulky files sat neatly on shelves, labelled: Changi Airport, Guardian and so on. I later learned that these are the outlets or stores that carry Chop Wah On's products.
Minus the air-conditioning and the odd smartphones lying around, the shop wouldn't look out of place in a scene from the 70s or even the 60s.
“Our century-old company has all the while been in Chinatown. So, the shop is downstairs and we lived upstairs. We’ve always been involved (in the business),” Tong Kok Kong, one of the directors at Chop Wah On, said.
Tong, 76, is the second eldest in the family and he takes a lot of pride in running the company – one that had kept his family and previous generations “warm”.
A typical day at work would see him doing anything from the finances to sales to researching and developing new products to even opening the shop in the morning.
There aren't defined roles or titles among the current four owners of the company — Tong, his two brothers, and his sister. All of them are part of Chop Wah On's board of directors.
Up to today, the four still run Chop Wah On and make its products based on tried and tested approaches they learnt as kids growing up with the business.
Learnt the ropes when they were kids
Tong and his siblings were thrown into the family business since they were very young. “Since we were babies,” Tong joked.
Tong recalled days when he and his siblings would wake up and proceed downstairs to watch their parents and grandparents packaging medicated oils and balms and selling them to customers.
They were roped in to help buy bottles, fill them with products, and even sell them to customers.
Even at a young age, this wasn’t a problem because they grew up watching older family members do it every day. And so did the generation before him.
The brand was founded in 1916 by Tong’s grandfather who emigrated here from Nanhai in Guangdong, China.
With his knowledge and experience as a herbalist, he made red flower oil, eucalyptus oil and citronella oil to help ease the illnesses, injuries, and poor health of his fellow immigrants.
Many immigrants — seafarers and samsui women — brought these medicated oils back to their families and friends in China, and over the years, Chop Wah On built its reputation as the place for traditional remedies.
The third generation of business owner still believes that their brand, with its traditional oil and balms, can (and will) thrive in today’s world if people give it a try.
Faith in the products
In some ways, the siblings' faith in their products is almost mystical.
According to Tong, Chop Wah On's various medicated oils have “infused into the environment”, meaning that the family and staff have been using their products every day, without having to apply them, by virtue of working in and living so close to the shop.
“It treats you before it touches you,” he said confidently, while introducing different products' aromatic and therapeutic properties, and their ability to soothe sore muscles, painful joints, and tired nerves. (If you're looking for something to treat those pesky mosquito bites, give their house brand citronella oil a try. Tong claimed that neither he nor his siblings have ever gotten bitten by mosquitos)
And perhaps after years of marinating in the oil-infused atmosphere of the shophouse, Tong is a strong proponent of using Chop Wah On's medicated oils in “good times and in bad times".
To him, they are essential products that shouldn't be used only when one has issues. And so in response to the question on whether there is a Chop Wah On product that Tong uses when he has aches or pains, his response was: “Frankly, there isn’t one."
One of the key ingredients in some of their products is crocodile oil, which has been used by the company for about 60 years now.
“Our father gave us the opportunity to know about crocodile oil, the goodness of it and the medical uses for it…It helps with skin problems, eczema, and is very moisturising to the skin.”
How did their father, Tong Seng Mun, know so much about crocodiles? Well, he used to run, among other things, an animal trading business and a zoo called the Singapore Miniature Zoo at West Coast Road where — believe it or not — he had a pet tiger named Margaret.
The Tong siblings aren't the only ones who have effusive praise for Chop Wah On's medicated oils.
Midway through our conversation, Tong's younger brother, Tong Kok Wing, 71, brought over a big red book with the words “GUEST BOOK” in quaint gold lettering.
And in it were hundreds of testimonials from satisfied customers.
One, dated January 14, 2020, read:
“I have used several types of medication for my aches in the past years. None was of much help. Now I use the Shake Hand Brand’s Eucalypthol Balm. It works best for me.”
A photo of the customer holding the bottle of the product accompanied the handwritten note.
Some customers in the book come from as far as the U.S, UK and even countries in Africa.
Chop Wah On doesn't market its products much online. So how did these foreigners come to know of the brand?
“Word of mouth,” Tong said simply.
Satisfied customers and fans of Chop Wah On's products will tell their friends and families about it — a time-tested formula that continues to bring them newer and younger customers.
Over the years, the family’s faith in their products has steadily rubbed off on their customers who, having experienced the “goodness” for themselves, have gone on to form a loyal customer base which, unfortunately, does not seem to be growing for now.
Go to where the young people are
When I asked which demographic their customers belong to, Tong said:
“They are intergenerational customers, from grandfather to father to a child to grandchild.”
Or at least it used to be.
Gone are the days when traditional medicated oils were sought out as mainstream remedies. With the ubiquity of western medication, younger people in Singapore are getting less and less exposed to traditional oils and balms.
“They’re missing the gems in their backyard,” Tong remarked.
Eldest brother Tong Kok Wai, 78, couldn’t help overhearing our conversation from across the room and interjected: “Can I add?”
He said that he is disappointed that Singapore youths don’t know much about the traditional products in their own country. Kok Wai believes that locals think these products are just for old people.
In contrast, the brothers say that the shop often sees youths from China, Hong Kong, and Malaysia looking to buy their products. They’ve even had young customers from the U.S. and Australia.
Despite traditional ointments dwindling in popularity, the Tong sibling still choose to sell them. Why?
“This is our foundation, we must maintain our foundation so that we will not collapse.”
But that doesn't mean they aren’t looking for opportunities to expand and improve on what they’re pretty good at.
Kok Wing referenced the saying “If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain” to explain how the siblings plan to adapt their business to the younger crowd.
"We have to go to the mountains," he said, acknowledging that since the younger crowd won't come to them, they have to find a way to attract them to use and consume their products. And they have been trying.
During their tenure as directors at Chop Wah On, the Tong siblings expanded their line of products to include an updated skincare series which includes facial masks, lip balms, and creams that contain traditional ingredients like crocodile oil and nutmeg — a “traditional solution” in a modern medium.
And while there isn't a solid plan just yet, the Tongs plan to open a cafe to attract younger customers, while keeping their century-old business name Chop Wah On. The idea, said Tong, is to present the brand as one that's not just for old people.
Defining your own success
In today's context, it's too easy (and perhaps a little callous) to disregard Chop Wah On as a business that hasn't been successful in moving on with the times. But success means different things to different people.
Tong's mother used to tell her children that Chop Wah On is a “small business that keeps the family warm”.
“It becomes a magnet or union for the family… Not only about how much money we make,” said Tong.
He also let on that his philosophy in doing business is to “keep it interesting for yourself”. He does this by engaging his passion in researching new products, which is how their most recent product came about.
Tong had noticed that people in China were curing aches and pains by stinging themselves with bees. His observation led to research on the benefits of bee venom and ultimately resulted in the ointment "Honey Bee Apitherapy”.
Succession is also something that keeps him on his toes and it is arguably one of the biggest challenges that the Tong siblings currently face.
As a member of the third generation of Tongs, Tong feels that it is his responsibility to make the company even better than before and fit for the next generation to take over eventually.
Unlike him and his sibling, their kids (the fourth generation) didn't spend their childhood helping out at the shop. So, they don't have as strong a connection to the business as their parents do.
Tong is actively seeking ideas from his children, hoping to learn more about the generation that will take over one day and what interests them. That's one of the reasons why he’s thinking of opening a cafe — to make it interesting and attractive for his progeny to carry on.
For now though, it remains to be seen how Tong and his siblings will tackle this challenge to continue the century-long legacy started by their grandfather.
Lessons on Leadership is a new Mothership series about the inspiring stories of Singapore’s business leaders and entrepreneurs, as well as the lessons and values we can learn from their lived experiences.
Quotes were edited for clarity. Top photo by Alfie Kwa.
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