eye of the tiger

words: benjamin meadows-ingram

art: stacey rozich

On September 7, 1986—a hot but mildly humid late-summer afternoon in Tampa Bay—Joe Montana, superstar quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, faked a handoff in the third quarter of a week-one matchup against the hapless Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and rolled to his left. San Francisco wide receiver Dwight Clark, famous for reeling in Montana’s game-tying toss in the closing seconds of the 1981 NFC Championship, fanned out to the right sideline. Montana, looking to Clark, threw across his body and put the ball in the air.

“I felt it go then,” Montana would later tell The New York Times, after a week of speculation about his health culminated in the stunning announcement that he would immediately undergo season-ending surgery for a ruptured disc in his lower back.

“I had some tingling in my leg during training camp,” the then-highest-rated QB in NFL history told the Times. “But now I have tingling in my foot.”

The news hit like a brick, though Bill Walsh, the team’s legendary head coach and the architect of the so-called West Coast Offense, initially played down Montana’s announcement in the press. “Losing  Joe Montana is just a part of the sport,” he told reporters. Later he admitted to feeling a sense of shock when he got word.

Others around the club were a lot less guarded in their public response. “I was devastated,” Clark told the Times, of his initial reaction when Montana broke the news that he wouldn’t be traveling to Los Angeles with the team to take on the Rams in week two. “I thought at first he had to be kidding.”

But Montana, whose reputation as a prankster off the field was only rivaled by his well-earned reputation for toughness on it, wasn’t joking. Even though he’d continued to play after he “felt it go” in Tampa Bay, and ended the day having completed an impressive 32 of 46 passes for 356 yards, and one touchdown in the decisive 17–3 win, Montana left the game with several minutes still on the clock. “It didn’t hurt during the game,” he later told the Times, but back in California the very next day, he could barely move.

In the eight seasons since San Francisco selected him with the 82nd pick in the 1979 NFL Draft, Montana had won as many Super Bowl rings as games he had missed: two. As starting quarterback for Notre Dame, Montana had not only won a NCAA National Championship in 1978, he’d overcome both hypothermia and the flu to return to the fourth quarter of the 1979 Cotton Bowl, leading his Fighting Irish to a dramatic come-from-behind win. At a rangy 6’2” and 190-odd pounds, Montana might look a bit long and thin for football, but he’d always been as tough as a railroad spike. Still, in an interview months after the injury, Montana told Sports Illustrated, “I knew this time it was bad.”

In English, the word pain traces its roots to the name of the Roman spirit of punishment and retribution, Poena. Fittingly, for centuries healers across cultures treated pain accordingly—ascribing suffering to unseen supernatural forces and angry gods, seeking “cures” rooted in the spiritual world, turning to everything from prayer and ritual to magic and animal sacrifice.

And why not? Everyone—since the dawn of mankind—hurts, and nothing motivates like pain. The fight against it is such a fundamental part of the human experience that Freud made it a cornerstone of psychoanalytic theory—his “pleasure principle” posits that man’s instinctive desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain is the underlying motivation of the id, and therefore the primary driver of all human life.

Unsurprisingly, the history of mankind is chock full of attempts to alleviate pain: the application of electric eels to a sore back (ancient Egypt); the use of “pain pipes” to try to suck out the suffering (Native Americans); and trepanation, which requires drilling a hole in the skull of the afflicted. Plants and herbs have long played a central role in pain management, with archaeological evidence suggesting that early humans’ awareness of natural remedies dates back over 60,000 years.

By 5000 B.C., the Sumerians in Mesopotamia had begun documenting their extensive use of medicinal plants such as myrrh (an antiseptic), camphor (from the wood of the camphor laurel; used to treat swelling and sprains), and opium. Early Sanskrit writings detail the widespread use of plants and herbs that would form the foundation of Ayurveda. The ancient Egyptians ingested willow bark to fight fever and pain, a treatment that Hippocrates, the “Father of Modern Medicine,” would later prescribe. It was an effective remedy: willow bark and leaves contain salicylic acid, an active ingredient in aspirin.

But all of those efforts paled in comparison to the Chinese, who as early as 500 B.C. established a complex, comprehensive system of treatment that incorporates acupuncture, exercise, diet, and massage, in addition to the application of well over 1,500 plants, animals, and minerals. Over 100,000 recipes have been formulated to treat everything from hepatitis and broken bones to the common cold. Now known as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), the system is still widely practiced. 


Months before Joe Montana rolled left and threw right in Tampa Bay, Kenneth Yeung was in Austin, Texas, setting up at a small trade show for college athletic trainers. Yeung was in his late 30s and new to the American sports market—his core business was herbal tea. But he was ambitious, and his fledgling distribution company, Prince of Peace, had recently picked up a new product that Yeung thought might work with this particular trade-show crowd: a topical pain reliever with a storied history, a unique pedigree, and a powerful name. Tiger Balm. 

For Yeung, who immigrated to San Francisco from his native Guangdong province in Southeast China in 1969, there was nothing new about his product. “As someone who grew up in Asia, we all know about Tiger Balm,” says Yeung, who is now in his late 60s. “It’s almost like a household item.”

But in the US in 1986, that was hardly the case. Tiger Balm’s retail presence in the States, if it had a presence at all, was limited to shops scattered around the country’s few vibrant Chinese communities, and brand awareness outside of Chinatown was low. An earlier attempt by Tiger Balm’s Singapore-based parent company to expand Tiger Balm’s reach into the mainstream American market had ended in disappointment, brought down by a failed endorsement deal with tennis star Billie Jean King and persistent infighting among the various Chinese distributors hired to help service the Chinese-American market.

In Yeung and Prince of Peace, Tiger Balm was hoping for a better match. Yeung had developed an appreciation for TCM while working part-time in a Chinese herb and medicine shop, and his years in proximity to the San Francisco hippie movement had given him a strong sense of how the business might grow—at that time, the alternative-health market was a loose collection of mom-and-pop shops, hardly the $30 billion-plus global business that it is today. He launched Prince of Peace in 1985 to sell Chinese herbal teas to this emerging consumer base, cobbling together a national distribution network of health-food shops and local-Chinatown stores. In 1986, he sat down to talk Tiger Balm.

“They interviewed a lot of people,” Yeung says. “Even though I was a young company, because I was able to speak English, and I knew the health industry and the Chinese market extremely well, they [gave] the business to me.”

Yeung and Prince of Peace became the exclusive distributor of Tiger Balm in the US, but the deal came with a condition. “We had this agreement,” Yeung explains.

“With the profit that we make [in the US], I have to invest with them to crack open the American market.”

In an effort to hold up his end of the bargain, Yeung headed to Austin that summer to try and convince the country’s college athletic trainers that they should give Tiger Balm a try.

“It was actually a very small [conference],” Yeung says, and there were only a few booths set up. “Someone came to my table and said, ‘Oh, Tiger Balm. Our team uses Tiger Balm.’ I said, ‘Great. Which college are you with?’ He said, ‘I’m from San Francisco, and I’m a trainer with the 49ers.’”

The tagline on a box of Tiger Balm: Ultra is: “Works where it hurts.” The back of the box promises “temporary relief of minor aches and pains of muscles and joints associated with simple backache, arthritis, bruises, and sprains.” It lists Tiger Balm’s active ingredients as camphor and menthol, both in equal measure (11 percent) and as topical analgesics. Inactive ingredients include cajuput oil, cassia oil, clove oil, dementholized mint oil, and paraffin petrolatum. Also printed on the box: “Tiger Balm has been used for nearly 100 years and sold throughout the world.”

In the beginning, a century ago, there was Aw Chu Kin, a Burmese-Chinese herbalist who, legend has it, cooked up the original recipe for Tiger Balm while working out of his Rangoon apothecary, Hall of Everlasting Peace. Upon his death in 1908, Aw Chu Kin left his business to his sons, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par. 


Working out of their mother’s kitchen, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par (whose names mean “Cultured Tiger” and “Cultured Leopard,” respectively) refined their father’s recipe, creating a new product they called Ban Kim Ewe, or Ten Thousand Golden Oils. The brothers deemed it a cure-all. Then, in a stroke of marketing genius, Boon Haw took inspiration from his own name and drew up a powerful brand identity: a leaping tiger. The new trademark, which could transcend language and culture, evoked one of the most mythical creatures in TCM. Tiger bones, whiskers, eyes—even penises—had been coveted in China for their supposed curative powers for centuries. Despite never claiming to incorporate actual tiger parts, Tiger Balm suddenly seemed to put that potency in the palm of your hand. 

It’s hard to overstate the impact of Tiger Balm on Southeast Asia. Starting in the late 1930s, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par began building Tiger Balm-branded gardens, villas, and castles throughout the region. By the time they were done, there were no less than 26 castles and three sprawling gardens throughout Hong Kong, Singapore, and Fujian. Completed decades before Disneyland, the Tiger Balm Gardens were intended as tourist destinations, public spaces, and marketing and teaching tools, and though the one in Hong Kong was eventually demolished in 2004, versions of the gardens in Singapore and Fujian are still open to the public today.

As a product, Tiger Balm’s premise was nothing new—mixing medicinal plants and herbs with oils and fats to create topical salves is an ancient practice. But where the Aw Boon brothers excelled was in the pitch. Armed with a strong brand, a shrewd marketer’s instinct, and a flair for showmanship, Boon Haw in particular began aggressively expanding Tiger Balm’s reach from Rangoon into Singapore, Hong Kong, and beyond. In addition to the castles and gardens, he held poster contests and threw parades; commissioned custom-built, tiger-shaped cars and trucks that he had shipped in from Germany as promotional vehicles; and rubbed elbows with world leaders, including the Republic of China’s Chiang Kai-Shek and Tojo Hideki, the Prime Minister of Japan.


But Boon Haw didn’t stop there. In a move echoing the American patent-medicine tycoons of the 1800s, he launched 11 newspapers, including Xingzhou Daily, which would quickly become Southeast Asia’s best-selling Chinese newspaper. And like his American counterparts, who fundamentally shifted the relationship between advertising and the media, Boon Haw didn’t get into the newspaper business to deliver the news—he got into the news business to deliver even more Tiger Balm ads to drum up more demand. It worked.

In Austin, Kenneth Yeung was developing his own marketing strategy. And he couldn’t believe his luck—somehow, deep in the heart of Texas, he’d managed to meet San Francisco 49ers’ head trainer, Lindsy McLean.

Even better, McLean didn’t need an introduction to Tiger Balm; what he needed was more of it. McLean’s major complaint to Yeung wasn’t that Tiger Balm didn’t work, or that it smelled to high hell, it was that it was so damn difficult to get enough to go around. McLean explained that making the trip to Chinatown to secure enough Tiger Balm for the whole team was inconvenient—he had to visit multiple shops because the containers were so small. That was an easy fix for Yeung—he offered to send McLean and the 49ers as much Tiger Balm as they might need.

Yeung asked McLean if he might be able to do something for him in return—get the San Francisco 49ers to endorse Tiger Balm. McLean explained that NFL rules prohibited teams from making endorsements, so Yeung rephrased the question. Would Bill Walsh or Joe Montana would be willing to endorse the product? McLean laughed. “Oh, you can try,” Yeung remembers him saying. “But I don’t think so.”

Yeung wasn’t easily deterred. Back in the Bay Area, he put several boxes of Tiger Balm in the mail to McLean—including a separate package specifically addressed to Montana. He followed up and asked McLean if he might get an introduction to Larry Muno, Montana’s longtime agent. When Muno actually called back, Yeung went to make his pitch.

In his office, Muno got straight to the point: Montana’s going endorsement rate was nothing short of a cool million and Diet Pepsi had just ponied up. What did Yeung have in mind? Yeung said he was hoping Montana might be willing to do some radio, TV, and print ads, but that as a small company, there was no way he could pay that much. It wasn’t much of an offer, but Muno mulled it over. “It depends first of all on if Joe likes the product,” Muno said. “I’ll let Joe try your product first.”

After the meeting, the weeks turned into months, and still no word from Muno. Then, in the first game of the 1986 NFL season, Montana injured his back.

The early word out of San Francisco that September was that Montana’s injury wasn’t so bad. The team was concerned about its franchise quarterback, of course, but remained cautiously optimistic that with enough rest, Montana might be able to go against the Rams in week two. Montana spent most of the week resting up, but as the days went by it became clear that he was seriously hurt. On Friday, September 13, the team revised Montana’s status from “questionable” to “doubtful (back/knee)” and announced that backup quarterback Jeff Kemp would get the start against the Rams.

Going into game day, reports surfaced that Montana hadn’t traveled with the team to Anaheim. After the game, which San Francisco lost 16–13 when LA won on a chip shot field goal as the clock wound down, the 49ers confirmed the worst: Montana would undergo season-ending surgery to repair a ruptured disc at St. Mary’s Hospital in San Francisco the very next day.

Speaking to the press following the announcement, team physician Robert Gamburd said, “We’ll have to wait to see about whether he’ll ever play again.”

Said Rams quarterback Steve Bartkowski after hearing the news, “I just want to go home and pray for my guy. It makes me want to cry.”

Bartkowski wasn’t alone. Joe Montana was a transcendent sports figure in the mid-’80s, especially in the Bay Area, and the atmosphere around his surgery and recovery were befitting a head of state. National and local press alike gave the news front-page treatment, going deep on everything from the impact of Montana’s loss on the team to the details of the surgical procedure itself. Local TV stations took to broadcasting “get well soon” messages from concerned fans; St. Mary’s Hospital even set up a Joe Montana Hotline, with daily updates on Montana’s condition. Within six days of the surgery, the Hotline had received over 10,000 calls.

a couple of weeks later, Muno gave Yeung a call. “Young man, your God must have answered your prayers,” Muno said, when Yeung went to visit him a second time. “Joe’s quite happy with the effectiveness of your product and he’s willing to endorse the product. He knows you don’t have that much money, but the minimum, the very minimum he’s willing to do it for, is $50,000. Let’s talk details.”

“It was like a miracle,” Yeung says today.

Defying all odds—and even the advice of his doctors—Montana returned to the field in week 10 of the 1986 season, less than two months after he’d gone under the knife. His performance that day at Candlestick Park—completing 13 of 19 passes, as the 49ers trounced the St. Louis Cardinals 43–17—capped an incredible comeback that no one could have predicted when the news of Montana’s injury and impending surgery first broke. While the Cardinals were certainly no contenders, watching Montana hit Jerry Rice on bomb after bomb, everyone wondered how he could be playing at such a high level.

As it turned out, after Montana shook off his own doubts about his future potential, the answer boiled down to this: commit to a three-hour-a-day rehabilitation and weight-training regimen, toss footballs through a soccer goal at a local park, and, apparently, apply Tiger Balm everywhere it hurt. 


“We all know that Tiger Balm was not going to cure his ruptured disc,” says Yeung. “But somehow it helped him be able to move around better, and he was able to recover sooner.”

With Montana a Tiger Balm believer, suddenly the marking plan wrote itself—Give Joe Montana $50,000 and Let Him Go To Work.

Over the course of the coming weeks, Montana did just that, righting a 49ers ship that had listed in his absence, and leading the team to a 10–6 regular-season record and the top of the NFC West. San Francisco’s 1986 season would end in the playoffs just like it began—with Montana in serious pain, knocked out of the game in the closing seconds of the first half following a monster hit by New York Giants’ defensive end Jim Burt. But the legend of Montana’s comeback season was secure. At the end of the 1986 campaign, the NFL named Montana—long known as the Comeback Kid for his spectacular fourth-quarter play—the Comeback Player of the Year. 

Montana only added to his legacy in the years to come, leading the 49ers to back-to-back titles. In Super Bowl XXIII, he orchestrated a game-winning 92-yard drive, scoring in the closing minutes of the fourth quarter; in Super Bowl XXIV, his dominant performance earned him both his fourth Super Bowl ring and his third Super Bowl MVP. And Tiger Balm was there every step of the way, even popping up in one of Montana’s most notorious gags: “Joe was the ultimate prankster,” Jerry Rice said, in his 2010 Hall of Fame speech. “He put Tiger Balm in jocks!”

As Montana etched his name into the history books, Prince of Peace got to work, running radio spots and print ads that drove home the association between Montana’s incredible comeback and the powerful, pungent pain reliever with the cool packaging and the exotic name. When the 49ers mounted another playoff run, Yeung printed up 20,000 posters of “Super Joe” mid-strike, with Montana’s signature and handwritten endorsement—“Go for the Balm!”—and headed to San Francisco’s bustling Financial District to hand them out. The free posters were a hit—it was a savvy marketing move that would have made Aw Boon Haw proud.

“It was all timing—Montana was Comeback Player of the Year, and when he started talking about how good Tiger Balm was for him, people believed [him]. It was a godsend endorsement, honestly,” Yeung says. “It was such an excellent match.”

Today, Tiger Balm is available in major drugstores and supermarket chains nationwide. Prince of Peace continues to be the exclusive distributor of Tiger Balm in the US, which recently became the biggest market for Tiger Balm in the world.

Joe Montana was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000 and retired in 2004. In February 2016, he handled the coin toss at midfield for Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco. In an interview with USA Today in the days leading up to the game, the 59-year-old Montana talked extensively about the physical toll his career in football had taken on his body, including multiple knee and neck surgeries, nerve damage in one of his eyes, and arthritis in his hands that keeps him up at night. “Unfortunately,” he said, “most of us leave this game with things that linger.”

The interview brought to mind another infamous hit Montana took during his playing career. With the 49ers up 13–12 over the New York Giants in the fourth quarter of the 1990 NFC Championship Game, and on the doorstep of a third-straight Super Bowl appearance, Giants defensive lineman Leonard Marshall blindsided Montana as he scrambled out of the pocket, knocking Montana out of the game with a concussion, bruised rib, and broken hand. Relaying Montana’s self-assessment from the bench after the hit, CBS announcer Pat Summerall confirmed that Montana wouldn’t be returning to the game. “The report from the 49ers sideline is,” Summerall told his TV audience, “‘everything hurts.’”