Haw Par Villa, Singapore’s strangest ‘theme park’
Haw Par Villa, Singapore’s strangest ‘theme park’
Haw Par Villa was one of those places you visited when you were young, got scarred and never wanted to visit again.
Entrance to Haw Par Villa
Somehow, Haw Par Villa has crept its way into many must-do lists, alongside cutting-edge architecture such as Marina Bay Sands, for people visiting Singapore, much to the surprise of locals. I recently had the opportunity to re-visit this nightmare from my childhood and it was definitely interesting to see the park with a more mature perspective.
History of Haw Par Villa
Previously known as Tiger Balm Gardens, Haw Par Villa was built by Aw Boon Haw for his younger brother, Aw Boon Par. They are also the family behind the tiger balm ointment.
The location was chosen for its excellent Feng Shui, which was typical of businessmen then (and probably now still). Aw Boon Haw had a deep interest in Chinese culture and mythology and commissioned hundreds of sculptures and dioramas exalting values and virtues over the years.
The brothers then opened up the gardens to the public, hoping to influence the public to act and behave with good morals. Such places of leisure were pretty rare then, so needless to say, the public flocked to the gardens! This also served as an excellent opportunity for product placement and brand recall, cementing the tiger balm brand as a household name.
Unfortunately, during World War II, the gardens were used as a base by the Japanese soldiers for its excellent vantage point. After the war, locals associated the area with the war and went on to loot and damage the villa. In 1985, the Singapore government exercised the Land Acquisition Act and the Aw family decided to donate the sculptures and dioramas on the condition that the name of the villa and the family memorials were maintained.
Several years later, the park was transformed into a theme park with a Chinese mythology flair. The attempt failed gloriously and the theme park closed down in a decade. Now, Haw Par Villa operates as a cultural park and admission is free.
Virtues & Values in Haw Par Villa
Once you enter the park, you will be treated to a plenitude of sculptures. One of the first sculptures you will see is the statue of Lin Ze Xu. Lin Ze Xu was hailed as a hero for his efforts to halt the import of opium into China and this was one of the many heroic acts that the elder brother revered.
Other dioramas express the abhorrence of laziness, gambling, ungratefulness and other vices. Some of them are pretty morbid; like the one in the bottom centre, where a dead child laid sprawled on the slope with a bloodied head while his father gambled obliviously beneath the slope. I appreciated more of the historical value behind these dioramas rather than the educational value.
Some of the sculptures are just downright bizarre, such as this:
Lady Tang breastfeeding her mother-in-law
This gave me a WTF moment
I did some googling and found out that this actually depicts a chapter from the “24 examples of Filial Piety” which was compiled in Yuan Dynasty.
In the time of the Tang Dynasty, an official named Cui Nanshan, had an elderly great-grandmother. She had lost all her teeth, thus she could not chew even soft rice. Eating was a big problem. Mr. Cui’s grandmother, the Lady Tang, realized the difficulty her mother-in-law had in chewing food, and thus came upon a solution to keep her alive and in good health. The Lady Tang would…feed her mother-in-law breast milk from her own body. The elderly matron …, thanks to her daughter-in-law, …stayed strong and healthy.
Not too sure if it was the dark humour of some craftsmen or a genuine mistake, but this seems more like a father-in-law being sculpted instead of a mother-in-law.
Dioramas of Chinese fables
Haw Par Villa also houses many dioramas depicting popular Chinese fables.
For example, we have Journey to the West, one of the four great classical novels in Chinese literature. The novel is a fictional account of Xuan Zang’s, a Buddhist monk, pilgrimage to India to collect the holy scriptures.
Others include Madame White Snake, The Creations of the Gods and the Eight Immortals. Pretty nostalgic for me, considering I spent a significant part of my childhood watching remakes after remakes of these fables.
Haw Par Villa’s ten courts of hell
The highlight of Haw Par Villa has got to be the ten courts of hell, which is an eerie series of sculptures depicting the tortures meted out in the underworld.
Before you step into the ten courts of hell, you will be given a preview of the gore ahead…
Ten Courts of Hell
Severed heads greet you as you step into the area.
And then the actual ten courts of hell, housed in a grim, narrow cave:
When Haw Par Villa was still a theme park, one of the attractions was a boat ride that snaked through the different courts.
Many were scarred.
Every now and then, we also came across replicas of famous international landmarks or symbols, such as this mini Statue of Liberty. We were told that these were added by the son of one of the Aw brothers, who would commission a new one every time he visited another country to promote tiger balm products.
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Should you visit Haw Par Villa?
For travellers interested in Chinese culture and history, Haw Par Villa definitely has a lot to offer! The sculptures are surprisingly well-maintained and detailed. I’d also recommend doing a tour to fully understand the history and culture behind all the eclectic sculptures and dioramas. But if Haw Par Villa is not your thing, you can check out this one-day itinerary for Singapore.
There are two types of tours:
- A 60 minutes tour, daily at 930 AM ($10 per adult)
- An after-dark tour, from 630 to 830 PM every Friday ($20 per adult)
More information can be found here.
Getting to Haw Par Villa
The easiest way would be by train. Haw Par Villa is just next to the Haw Par Villa train station which is served by the circle line. It takes about 40 minutes from City Hall.