I recently paid a visit to the deliciously creepy Haw Par Villa. I visited in the week with my friend Laura and we were the only people there, apart from a couple of older ladies who were also visiting, and a man sweeping up leaves. The weird silence coupled with the odd tableaux that greeted us left a slightly eerie feeling, and I think we were both a bit glad that we hadn’t visited on our own!
Haw Par Villa has been described as a theme park in the past – apparently there did used to be a roller coaster here, but it has long been removed. It is probably best known as somewhere where Singaporean parents would take their children to frighten them into behaving themselves, and also to instil some moral understanding into their little ones.
Originally called the ‘Tiger Balm Gardens’, Haw Par Villa was built by brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par in 1937 as a venue for teaching traditional Chinese values such as respect, filial piety, hard work and self-restraint. The brothers were also responsible for Tiger Balm – a bit of a lifesaver in these tropical climes, as it can be used for anything from stopping the itching of mosquito bites, to providing relief from headaches. I know I am a bit lost without my little pot of the stuff! Haw Par Villa was built by the brothers as they believed that they should contribute something back to the greater good of society – a bit like our modern-day corporate social responsibility agenda I suppose!
The most famous part of Haw Par Villa is probably the depictions in the 10 Courts of Hell. This section is inside and illustrates the Chinese folk belief in ‘diyu’. Each court of hell depicts a judge and poor unfortunates who have committed a crime, and therefore are sentenced to a gruesome punishment, such as being dismembered, boiled in oil, crushed with rocks or decapitated. There is light at the end of the tunnel though, as you can be reborn once you have been punished. Depending on your crime, you could be reborn as a human, animal or vegetable etc! A bit like karma.
Gruesome though it was, this was probably my favourite part of the park. The rest of the dioramas are interesting to look at, but the signs are either non-existent or very worn making it impossible to really tell what is being depicted. However, some of the scenes are slightly comical because of the expressions on the faces, or show figures stealing chickens or some such thing. Other things are just plain weird, and leave you wondering what on earth is going on.
Some of the scenes depict Chinese stories that have a moral at the end, a bit like a fable. The one below tells a story of a man who saved a whale, and in return, when the ship he was travelling on sunk, the whale saved him from a watery grave.
The ground are set around a pretty pagoda and a little pond which had lots of terrapins swimming around in it. Although it is all a little bit unloved at the moment, you can tell that the grounds must have been quite impressive at one point, set up a hill with lots of colourful pillars and fencing.
I really enjoyed my visit to Haw Par Villa. It was a glimpse back into old Singapore, when moral lessons were much more visible, and perhaps old traditional stories and values were held in greater respect than perhaps they are now. It is a weird and wonderful place to visit, and I feel a little sad that it is a bit neglected at the moment. I left wondering how much longer it would last, and when a real estate company will snap up the land. You can easily reach Haw Par Villa as there is an MRT station right outside the entrance, and there is no fee to get in. If you’d like a look into historic Singapore then it’s definitely worth a visit.
You can find more photos of my trip to Haw Par Villa over on Flickr.