You may have heard of the two “Tiger Balm Kings” (Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par) that is, the two ethnic Chinese from Burma who went on to create an economic empire in colonial Singapore selling that now-famous balm, but did you know that there was a female counterpart based in French Indochina?
Her name was Daw Pyu, but she also came to be known by the name of the balm she created and sold, Mac Phsu.
I had never heard of her until I read about her recently in an article in Tạp chí Nghiên cứu và Phát triển by Dr. Nguyễn Đức Hiệp. Dr. Nguyễn Đức Hiệp is an atmospheric scientist in Australia, but he clearly has an interest in history, and has written several articles that can be found on the Internet (here).
In “Saigon in the Late Nineteenth – Early Twentieth Centuries: The Story of Burmese Prince Myingun’s Exile in Saigon,” Dr. Hiệp writes about a Burmese prince, Myingun Min, who rebelled against the throne in the 1860s and then went into exile, eventually ending up in Saigon.
While Myingun’s story is interesting, I explored some of the links that Dr. Hiệp’s article is based on (as the article is based largely on material readily available on the Internet) and found that I was much more intrigued by his daughter’s life.
There is a great account of her written by the famous Burmese writer/scholar/statesman, Maung Maung, than can be found online (here), but I went and looked up its original incarnation a 1955 issue of the journal The Guardian (I’ve attached a scan of the entire article below).
Myingun had more than one wife, and numerous children. Daw Pyu was his daughter and a somewhat peripheral member of the prince’s extended family, but she ultimately became very prosperous.
In what follows I will generally quote directly from Maung Maung’s article, although at times I input some of my own comments. So much of the wording below is Maung Maung’s, not mine (his writing style is nice).
Maung Maung met Daw Pyu on a visit to Cambodia. He notes that she was widely known throughout Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos as “Mac Phsu” or “Madame Mac Phsu” the queen of the Mac Phsu balm empire. He then goes on to talk about her life.
Daw Pyu’s mother wanted her to marry a Burman, and there not being all that many young eligible Burmans in French Indochina at the time, she married Daw Pyu off to an old, unprincipled Burman adventurer. Together they had a daughter, but the marriage did not last, and Daw Pyu decided to go off on her own.
According to Maung Maung, she was often on the brink of starvation. She worked as a domestic servant. She slaved as a cook in hotels. She sold things in the open market. There were Burman traders in Saigon and Phnom Penh, but from them she received no sympathy, no support. She was alone in the wide big world, with a young daughter to look after.
She married many men, just for the fun of it, and took many more without bothering to go through the formality of marrying. Men, she found, were dispensable; they were necessary sometimes, but not always.
Thus when one husband left her for a younger thing, she did not mind; instead she adopted the offspring of that union as her own children.
Maung Maung says that he found her home to be full of children of all ages and colors and features: children that her ex-husband got by another woman, children of her daughter’s daughters, children got by her daughter’s husband by his extra wives. . . It was a home full of happy children, an empire of love and kindness, and Daw Pyu was the queen.
Daw Pyu’s daughter eventually married, and together with this son-in-law, the three began building Daw Pyu’s balm business.
“Daw Pyu’s balm” became famous in Indochina almost overnight. Rubbed into the skin the balm soothes pain and bronchial trouble, headaches and body-aches, malaria and what-have-you.
And the peasants in Indochina, living along creeks or in swampy valleys were always afflicted, and Daw Pyu’s balm was their salvation.
Day Pyu drinks – her preference is for Old Scotch – and gambles heavily. In Vietnam and Cambodia, gambling is the spice of life. People gamble about everything. One popular form of gambling, for example, is predicting rain.
If rain fell at the stipulated hour, the better on rain at that hour won. If not, he lost, and so on. So big was that gambling that rain-watching became a profession.
Men would be hired to station themselves on housetops and watch the skies for rainclouds. They could pass on the message of oncoming rain, and the betting would take a new turn and there would be frantic buying and selling of betting tickets.
Some rain-watchers lose their lives, falling off the roofs after hours of strain.
Daw Pyu has lost a fortune in gambling, and will no doubt lose much more. “It is much wiser spending on drinks really,” she would say after each heavy loss, “for a good strong drink stimulates you and makes you happy.”
But Daw Pyu is also devoutly religious, and when the Sangayana (a meeting to discuss religious doctrine) in Rangoon was opened, she left Phnom Penh and flew over to attend. And the story of her farewell to Phnom Penh is famous in Cambodia and Vietnam.
The eminent Cambodian sangha (Buddhist monks) were to go in the same plane with her, but she carried her bottle of Ye Olde Scotch with her, just in case.
The story goes that she climbed the steps of the plane with a sad backward look to her daughters and granddaughters, their husbands and the tens of little boys and girls, all her own in some way or other. Tears were in her eyes, but she went up bravely, the bottle of Old Scotch consoling her, giving her courage.
“My visit to Burma and the Sangayana purified me,” she said, “and I’m glad I went.”
And I’m glad that I now know about Daw Pyu. What an amazing woman!!
(The color photograph with the Mac Phsu advertisements comes from the Donald Jellema Collection at the Vietnam Center and Archive.)