Though there are many reasons I love and enjoy Singapore, without a doubt my favorite spot on the island is a little theme park (of sorts) called Haw Par Villa. Also known as the Tiger Balm Gardens, the park was built by a pair of brothers who had found their fortune inventing and selling, you guessed it, Tiger Balm.
Haw Par Villa originally opened in 1937 and has over 1000 statues and 150 giant dioramas that depict various Chinese stories, myths and legends. It has been renovated several times over the years, but despite the occasional surges in popularity that accompany the updates, mostly the park seems to languish in various states of disrepair and neglect, and now only survives as a historical oddity run by the government. The bonus for you is that it is now free admission!
Whenever a local hears me talking about it, their reaction is always utter surprise that I’ve even heard of it. It is a local curiosity that people might visit once as a kid and never think about it again. To me, of course, this only makes me love it more. It is even easier to visit these days as there is an MRT station right outside the entrance. (The Haw Par Villa Station, naturally.)
During my first visits back in 1997, at least a few of the displays had signs that told you the story that was going on. Most of these signs have now vanished however. I assume Chinese tourists would be able to identify the stories more readily (like I would be able to at an American Fairy Tale Town), but as a foreigner it is impossible to say what is going on most of the time. Which makes for an enjoyable afternoon.
There are mermaids and sumo wrestlers and giant faces with real hair beards. There are gods and mythical creatures and even a mini Statue of Liberty. Most of the animals depicted have been anthropomorphized and are wearing clothes and holding cameras and shooting guns. Oh yes, some of the animals are in fierce battles, holding pistols and knives and swords. The war scenes do not shy away from the gore either, with many of the beasts dead or dying bearing battle scars and wounds that are more than a little disturbing. (Gratefully there are also animal medics with first aid kits on the scene.)
One of the weirdest fables (to me) is the story (and statue) of the young mother who is praised for breastfeeding her elderly and ailing father in law, while letting her newborn babe starve nearby. They really aren’t kidding when they say you should respect your elders. You’ll understand if I don’t post THAT photo.
But without a doubt, the crown jewel of the park is its depiction of The Ten Courts of Hell, where statues of people are receiving the punishments they had earned by living a sinful life. (Hint: the punishments are worse than just being really really sad that you are in Hell.) Back in 1997, you entered Hell by walking into the mouth of a giant dragon, which was awesome. Photos revealed that at some point it was actually a water ride that you would ride through. Nowadays the dragon is gone (boo!) and it is now a gray stone entrance guarded by a couple of scary looking beasts. But Hell itself is still the same, grotesque place I remember.
Be warned, the reason Hell is so memorable is because it is a no-holds-barred warning against living anything but an exemplary life. There is even a parental warning posted at the entrance. The rewards for the virtuous are glossed over, depicted solely by crossing a gold or silver bridge into paradise. Apparently heaven is boring. But the punishments for sins are depicted in gruesome detail, with a generous use of red paint for blood. Whether your sin is “driving someone to their death” or “disobedience to one’s siblings” or “refusing to pay your rent”, you quickly learn there is a gory punishment in store for you. The displays are old and dusty and amateurishly awkward, but all this only adds to its educational and kitschy appeal.
For example, I learned that thieves and gamblers will be frozen into blocks of ice. Those who gossip or “sow discord among family members” will get their tongues pulled out. On the other hand, if you “cause trouble” for your family members (a disturbingly vague category in my opinion), you’ll get your intestines and organs pulled out. Interestingly, that same punishment is doled out to those who “cheat during examinations”. And yes, they actually have figurines depicting people getting their organs pulled out of their bodies by demons.
After suffering punishment for your sins, you will be given a nice cup of magic tea that will erase your memory of your former life. You will then be reincarnated to try again. Of course, depending on the life you had led, you might come back as nobility, common man, quadruped, fowl, fish, or insect.
I don’t know how common the practice is, but I have heard before that people who believe in this type of reincarnation sometimes go out of their way to kill insects and other lesser animals, not because they need to, but because they are trying to be nice and order to help that soul end their current torment and move up to the next level quicker. But if those souls reverted to being an insect because they were a horrible person, I’m not so sure I want to help them along. If you knew that cockroach running across the floor held the soul of Hitler, or of a killer clown, would you really be so quick to kill it? Sorry dude, but maybe I want you to have a long, long life eating poop and pus so you can learn your dang lesson and please be nice to others the next time around, ok?
On our way out, we took a few silly photos with the statues. Because of course we did. So would you. If you ever make it to Singapore, don’t miss Haw Par Villa!
What is your favorite kitschy place you like to go? Tell me in the comments below!