Haw Par Villa – Tales from the Crypt
Being a fan of Stephen King and horror fictions, I was extremely intrigued about this place. I had read in several articles and blogs about this bizarre theme park of Singapore. I decided to check this place on 6th Feb, two days before the Chinese New Year starts. We reached this place at 4 pm noon by bus. They also have an MRT (Haw Par Villa MRT – Circle line) station right next to the theme park. My first impression when I looked at the entrance was, this was not going to be same as rest of the theme parks. The area looked deserted and uninviting.
The first thing you notice when you enter and turn towards right is the model of Haw Par House, the real villa. There is more to the history of Haw Par Villa which is also called Tiger Balm Gardens.
History of Haw Par Villa: Remember the handy ointment we used when we had splitting headaches or sore knee caps? Recognize the advertisement which states “Works where it Hurts!”? Does this image look familiar?
That’s right. I never knew one day I would walk into a theme park built by makers of Tiger Balm. Tiger Balm was developed during 1870s in Rangoon, Burma by Aw Chu Kin. He had three sons, eldest of whom, Boon Leng (Gentle Dragon) died young. His other two sons were Aw Boon Haw (Gentle Tiger) and Aw Boon Par (Gentle Leopard). On his death bed, he asked his sons to perfect the trade of the product. By 1920 the sons made the tiger balm ointment product very successful. The product was named after Aw Boon Haw. Later they moved their business to Singapore. Boon Haw was very fond of his brother. He hired a brilliant architect to design a house that would complement the gardens which were to feature thousands of statues depicting Chinese legends and mythology (the present Tiger Balm Gardens). A new mansion was built on the hill in Pasir Pajang surrounded by the gardens. But Boon Par couldn’t enjoy the stay in mansion for long. Few years later, the second world war broke out. To escape the Japanese invasion Boon Par fled to his native Burma where he died two years later, while Boon Haw went to Hong Kong. The Japanese used the park as an outpost to keep an eye on ships at the sea. After the war, Boon Haw returned and repaired the damage and gave it to Boon Par’s son. Tiger Balm Gardens was later renamed as Haw Par Villa in the memory of Boon brothers.
One can see the model of the house which was built by Boon Haw and the legendary tiger car used by Boon brothers. The look of the car was so hilarious. Hope it growls when you honk it ! It just showed how they preferred to live larger than life. There were statues holding their products, unfortunately not for sale. These were the only cute looking animals I found in the whole theme park.
Next to this was the memorial of Boon Haw’s eldest son Aw Hoe who had a fall out with his father and chose not to continue his legacy of selling Tiger Balm products. When you walk ahead you see memorials of Boon Brothers and their father.
As we move further ahead you encounter scary looking animals. I never thought pandas which were so adorable and cute in real life could be portrayed in this fashion. Joker faced pandas, attacking postures of monkeys and frightening devilish face masks gave an eerie feel to the atmosphere.
The park is divided into segments each narrating stories based on Chinese Mythology.
Eight Immortals: Each of these saints (immortals) carry different tools to give life and fight evil. Each of them come from different fraternities of life to represent wealth, poverty, old age, youth, male and female.
Virtues and Vices: “The art of giving is the reward itself”. Importance of hard work, generosity, knowing right and wrong, religious piety, loyalty, humility and value of friendship is represented in various stories. Stories and mythology tales to avoid vices like gambling, drugs, theft and laziness are seen next to it.
Next to this was a story about great tortoise. A kind man felt sorry for a tortoise, which was being carried to the market. So he bought it and set it free in the sea. Years later, while travelling, his ship started sinking and most of the passengers were either drowned or were the victims of man eating sharks. Suddenly, this grateful tortoise comes for his rescue and frees him. Something about Good Karma.
Next segment shows Eighteen Luo Han also called Pindola who possess supernatural powers and can ride dragon and control wild animals. They are considered guardians of Buddhism. The other photo narrates a famous tale of friendship. When the bear came, the boy ran for his life leaving his friend alone in danger. The boy chose to lie down and pretend dead. Bear leaves the place as it does not eat dead creatures. The moral story of false friendship is beautifully narrated here.
Famous legendary / mythological characters like Laughing Buddha, Monkey King, Confucius and Gautama Buddha stood tall in their own spaces.
People were gathered near the Fu Lu Shou Statues, the three gods in Chinese Mythology representing happiness, prosperity and longevity. Fu is supposed to bring good luck and is shown as a wise scholar holding a scroll in his arms. During Chinese New Year, one usually sees the word Fu hung upside down to represent happiness is descending on the whole family (Fu Dao). Lu symbolizes wealth, hence is often seen as a court officer dressed in expensive looking robes. Shou on the other hand is seen as an old man with a bald head, carrying a wooden staff and a longevity peach. There was a small bell beside them. People kept on gonging it loud so that it reaches the ears of all the three for fulfilling their wishes.
There were other mythological tales of Battle of Yellow River, Madam White Snake, Pigsty falling for lust and how monkey king saves him, Journey to the west : a tale of monk and his three disciples travelling to the west to obtain Buddhist scriptures during Tang dynasty.
What amused me is the colors and graphics given to these statues. Though the theme park was not well maintained, it still didn’t lose its flair to tell these amazing stories. We saved the best for the last. The dreaded Ten Courts of Hell ! It was a separate section immediate right to the entrance of the theme park. It is guarded by an ox head and horse faced creatures representing executors and also symbolically representing neither of the worlds. There are in total ten courts of hell each representing the type of punishment of different types of crime committed. The first court represents hearing from the king Yama himself.
As we proceed ahead to each of the successive courts the punishment as well as visuals becomes more and more gruesome like culprits thrown into volcanic pit, prostitutes thrown into the pool of blood and drowned, robbers tied to red hot copper pillar and grilled, murderers thrown into hill of knives, lack of obedience led to pulling out of intestines and sawing the body into pieces. The visuals were gross and it reminded me of Indian horror movie directors Ramsay brothers. Their movies were meant to be scary but ultimately it turns out to be humorous and gross. Ten courts of hell was similar to those movies – spooky houses, seductive ladies clad in negligees, creepy looking monsters, sticky fluids and too much of gore to create an impact. Being a Quentin Tarantino fan, I decided to shoot the violence in black and white.
In the end, those who are punished are made to drink a cup of tea which helps them to forget their past lives. The sinners leave the ten courts of hell via one of the six paths of wheel of reincarnation called Samsara
Ten courts of hell is definitely not for weak hearts or for young children. This was definitely a unique experience as I have never been to a theme park which details so much of Chinese mythology and legendary tales. I wish it would have been maintained properly. There are few statues without labels and stories which made me puzzle on what it actually meant. But the trip was definitely worth it. I hope that the readers after reading a long blog post like this won’t need a tiger balm for their splitting headaches 🙂
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