“FINISH your hot tea quickly, cover yourself with a blanket tonight and don’t switch on the fan. Perspire profusely and by tomorrow morning you’ll be as right as rain.”
I can still remember my parents’ words vividly each time I came down with the flu or fever as a child. And strangely though, I’d feel much better the next day.
I’m sure this time-tested remedy was practised by my grandparents too; today, I do the same for my children. For at least three generations, the Ho Yan Hor herbal tea stock in our homes has never been allowed to run out.
The contents in the sachet have always been a source of curiosity for me. So, imagine my delight when a recent visit to Ipoh brought me to the doorsteps of the very place where this miracle concoction was born about 75 years ago.
The displays in the Ho Yan Hor Museum, located on Jalan Bijeh Timah (formerly Treacher Street), tell a wonderful tale of a newly-married young man who set about introducing his cooling herbal tea, or leong char in Cantonese, to the masses.
Ho Kai Cheong grew up in Kati, a small village near Kuala Kangsar in Perak. During his early teenage days, Ho juggled his school work with helping out at his father’s coffee shop. It was during those formative years that the humble beginnings of this trusted herbal tea brand (which literally means Providing Goodness to Everyone), began to take root.
A second generation immigrant living in pre-war Malaya, Ho grew up at a time when aspirins and antibiotics were not readily available to everyone. Instead, he was exposed to the cheap and readily available local herbs which had unique healing properties. The determined young man eventually set his sights on becoming an accomplished herbalist with the aim of helping the less fortunate. He subsequently enrolled himself in a local Chinese medical hall in Perak before heading off to the renowned Canton Wah Lam National Physician’s School in Hong Kong.
Ho graduated in 1941 and returned home just as the Second World War was arriving at Malaya’s doorstep. Life was tough during the Japanese Occupation and the young physician used his newly acquired credentials to help alleviate the sufferings of the sick and elderly, most of the time without receiving any payment at all.
It was also during that trying time that Ho fell in love with Koo Soo Lian. They were married in 1942 with a very simple ceremony to mark the joyous occasion. The couple was blessed with six children — four girls and two boys.
A BUSINESS IS BORN
Tin miners and their workers began turning up for work in droves as soon as the British returned in September 1945. It was around this time that Ho met up with Yew Song Pak, who eventually became his good friend and mentor. The latter knew about Ho’s dream of having his own medical hall so that he could continue helping others and the fact that he didn’t have the financial capability to achieve it.
“Young man, there are big ways for big business and small ways for small business. Likewise, big capital for setting up a medical factory, medium capital for a medical hall and small capital for a medical stall. If you don’t have much capital, then brew your herbal tea and sell it by the roadside. You’ll be helping others that way too,” advised Yew.
Ho used the last remaining $4 in his pocket as working capital. His main target customers were the worn-out workers returning home after a hard day’s work at the tin mines. Unsure of the initial public response, Ho only prepared a small pot of cooling tea brewed from his own formula comprising 26 local herbs. On the first night itself, he was pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming response. Every single drop of his concoction, offered at only 5 cents per glass, was sold out within the first hour.
Within a short time, Ho’s roadside stall became the most prominent among the numerous push carts lining the bustling Treacher Street. He increased production and received a steady stream of thirsty customers every night. Word about his therapeutic herbal tea spread like wildfire and soon patrons from as far away as Kampar and Batu Gajah came calling. By then, Ho was already selling up to 1,200 glasses of tea a night!
Business was so good that in 1947 he came up with another great idea to market his famous herbal tea. He began toying with the idea of selling his famous tea in sachet form. Ho knew that this novel packaging technique would open up new markets for his product. His customers, especially those living further away, could conveniently prepare his herbal tea at home by just adding hot water. To achieve this, Ho needed extra production space. His rented room was no longer sufficient so he negotiated with the landlord and clinched a deal to rent the entire Treacher Street shophouse.
A corner of the museum’s first floor houses a display cabinet filled with various herbal tea packets produced by Ho. The different designs and colours used help to identify the era in which they were produced. Looking at the early ones, it’s not difficult to imagine Ho walking to the coffee shops and medical halls in Ipoh to sell his tea packets at 10 cents a piece.
Leaving his wife to manage his stall in the evenings, Ho, who was known as the “cycling herbal tea entrepreneur”, began venturing out of his comfort zone to sell his products. Travelling the length of Malaya, he visited places like Kuala Lumpur, Melaka, Penang and even Changloon, a small town north of Alor Star, near the Thai border.
Just a year later, in 1948, Ho had saved enough money to buy his first car — a Morris Minor Tourer. Determined not to rest on his laurels, he continued working tirelessly to seek new methods to further promote his brand name.
Three years later, he bought a Fordson van to ease product delivery. A firm believer in the power of advertising, Ho exploited the vehicle to its full potential by plastering its sides with catchy slogans and colourful images of his product. He also fitted the van with loudspeakers, and extended his promotional efforts by bringing in renowned Hong Kong opera singers to perform at his charity concerts and trade exhibitions.
MALAYAN HOUSEHOLD NAME
While scrutinising the various vintage photographs on display, I bumped into Scotsman Ian Anderson who’s directly involved with the museum itself. Anderson retired as a Royal Naval Commander in 1985 after 30 years of service. He first arrived in Malaya in 1961 when serving in Singapore. Today, he’s a permanent resident of this country and considers Ipoh home.
“I was so fascinated with Ipoh’s interesting history that I started writing books about it. Later, I came up with a website completely dedicated to this amazing city and its surrounding Kinta hinterland,” shares Anderson, while stealing a glance at his watch, telling me that he still has some time to spend with me before his invited guests arrive.
The Scotsman obviously knows a lot about this place because he was the one who managed the restoration of the museum building at the initial stages. He proudly gestures to the well planned display area around us and says: “I built all these to tell the story of a truly wonderful man. It took me 10 months to complete the job and I can say that the experience was both fulfilling as well as memorable.”
Pointing to a large photograph of the herbalist posing with his workers drying herbs in a narrow side street, Anderson tells me that as the business began expanding at an exponential pace, Ho knew that the narrow confines of his Treacher Street premises could no longer support future growth. In 1954, Ho built his first factory on a three acre (1.21 hectares) plot of land which he bought in Jalan Kuala Kangsar.
Despite the increase in production capacity at the new factory, Ho made sure that the preparation method of his herbal tea remained the same. He remained steadfast in his principles and ensured that his team of 25 workers prepared the herbal mixture the same way he had prepared the initial batch back in 1945.
However, Ho was aware that his traditional preparation technique, the very same one practised by Chinese physicians through the centuries, was too meticulous and labour intensive. The shrewd businessman in him knew that he couldn’t continue doing things the old way if the company were to expand further.
THE NEXT GENERATION
By the time we reach the section where Ho decided to send his eldest son, David, to pursue a pharmacy degree in New Zealand back in the 1970s, Anderson’s time with me is up. Before parting ways, he reminds me to try a cup of herbal tea while on the way out. “We use the original recipe and brew the mixture the traditional way here. Give it a try. It’ll taste better than the ones you’ve had before,” he says, eyes twinkling.
The last few remaining displays show David graduating with a Masters degree and his two year stint in the UK as a research pharmacist before returning home. Under his father’s watchful eyes, David began modernising the manufacturing process. He introduced machines to process the herbs speedily without compromising on quality and brought in professionals to provide fresh impetus on ways to spur the company to greater heights.
At first, Ho had reservations when his son began making large investments. It was only when the restructuring exercise began bearing fruit several years later did he accept David’s new ideas. He finally passed the reins of the company to his son in 1990. Ho Kai Cheong passed away on Jan 11, 2007 at the ripe old age of 97. Aside from his cooling brew, Ho is also remembered as a generous person who regularly gave back to society as his business flourished.
The museum has done a great job of offering visitors a glimpse into a slice of Ipoh’s rich history. It tells a truly poignant tale of how Ho Yan Hor grew from its humble beginnings to become the global pharmaceutical company we know today as Hovid.
As I walk down the stairs, the fragrant smell of freshly brewed herbal tea starts to tickle my olfactory receptors. This is a once in a lifetime chance to taste Ho Kai Cheong’s herbal tea in its original form. And best of all? I’m trying it in the same premises where Ho Yan Hor first started.