- by Tai Tong Ah
An interview of Mr Yeoh Liew Kung, the late founder of Tai Tong Ah Company, published in 1995 offered some interesting vignettes about life in Singapore in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Mr Yeoh became the principal erhu player (二胡头手) of a Teochew wayang (street opera) troupe as a teenager. His wife Madam Soon Soo Keow was an actress playing leading male (小生) roles. Like many immigrants from China in those days of widespread poverty, the couple worked hard to make ends meet. Mr Yeoh experimented with a herbal concoction to treat minor wounds and skin diseases on the side and found that it was extremely effective. So he began producing them at home in small bottles to give to friends and wayang colleagues who could not afford to see a doctor. Soon, the entrepreneur in him saw the potential to create a small business. He set up a booth next to the wayang stage so he could sell his product during breaks and make some extra income. And that was how Herbal Oil (青草油) was started all those years ago!
Life for the Yeohs was hard but satisfying. They produced bottles of Herbal Oil whenever they had time, and sold them whenever an opportunity arises while continuing to perform at the wayang in the evenings. All these while raising a growing brood of children (eight by the ‘50s!). As the business grew, Mr Yeoh was able to hire a sales team, with each salesperson paid a ‘princely sum’ of $2 per day but with a 30% sales commission upside. Those were the days of the door-to-door salesmen roaming the streets of Chinatown. In addition, the Yeohs themselves do their own selling in their small van, equipped with a loudspeaker, extolling the virtues of Herbal Oil in open-air markets and public spaces.
From humble beginnings in a street opera and a noble wish to help the less fortunate, Mr Yeoh Liew Kung founded a business that has lasted more than three generations.