(Before I get fully started, please be aware that the photos below do have graphic representations of violence)
Yesterday, I travelled through the 10 courts of hell and survived to tell the tale. Welcome to Haw Par Villa, probably one of my absolute highlights from my trip so far! The cultural park is one of the most fascinating places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting.
Situated in Pasir Panjang, the parks origin story starts with Tiger Balm. What is Tiger Balm? Tiger Balm is an ointment you can buy in most countries that is rubbed onto sore joints and muscles to relieve pain. Two brothers, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, inherited and grew their fathers apothecary shop, which led to the eventual success of Tiger Balm. The park was a built in 1937 as a gift from Boon Haw to Boon Par, and was originally called Tiger Balm Gardens. The brothers had a deep appreciation of Chinese mythology and lore, and created the gardens around a lavish villa they would live in. Boon Haw’s personal motto was “That which is derived from society, should be returned to society”, the park became part of that vision.
So what are you seeing in the photos below? It’s a combination of things: Chinese mythology, folk law, Confucian philosophy and a surprising number of turtles. The park contains over 1,000 statues, many of which are organised into dioramas that explore a certain park of the topic. Quite a few of the dioramas explain the scene (the panels for the Journey to the West were my favourites), but some are just left to the imagination to those who are unaware of the origin stories. The section covering the Ten Courts of Hell had very good signage, and I am disappointed that I am probably going to at least a couple of levels unless I up my game slightly. Apparently the park was used in the past by parents to educate children on why good behaviour is important.
What a wonderful cultural landscape! So many parks are pleasant to view, with a lovely wander through some flowering plants and probably a gazebo somewhere. A place to relax. Not this park, this park will invade your brain with stories, histories and a curiosity to work out exactly why those duck people sculptures are looking so angry. It’s colourful and loud and completely in your face. It shoves Chinese culture right into your personal space and leaves you with the impression that there is so much more to explore. This place is absolutely something to celebrate - if not from a place of faith, then from awe at incredible story building. Even from a place outside of faith, I can see how it can also be seen as a place of reflection. In particular, the area where you can try laying down in a coffin, certain makes you consider your own mortality. It has a rich history of how it was constructed and developed over the years, which is also well worth diving into.
It’s interesting that cultural or theme parks have not made it into many heritage lists so far. I think that people see them as being frivolous or designed to only make money, but these places do reflect culture and society. Places like Disney World, are deeply ingrained into our perception of what it is to be in a state of wonder or disconnected from reality and placed into stories. Are we just too serious and grown up to consider these places special?
Or maybe it’s simply that these parks may not want that heritage status anyway. After all, a heritage listing can seriously restrict a places ability to adapt and change, which is exactly what stories do. Imagine the way that the story of the Journey to the West has changed. From the original writings, to the Monkey Magic of my childhood to the newly created New Zealand version from last year. Stories should be adaptable to include new generations of participants.
It’s sad to see so many of the sculptural pieces of Haw Par Villa suffering from the ravage of weather and years. If I were much braver, and able to work in Singapore, I would absolutely choose this as a location of infinite opportunity for development. If you are visiting Singapore, you should pop it onto your list of places to visit. Key tips - make sure you have a couple of spare dollar coins in your pocket to feed the many turtles and the EFTPOS facilities weren’t great when I was there (but the staff were lovely). They also run tours which I would have loved to experience
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.