The Forgotten Theme Park of Haw Par Villa

The Forgotten Theme Park of Haw Par Villa

Mention a theme park to most children and you will see excited faces at the thought of cartoon characters and kiddy rides at Disneyland or Universal Studios. While Universal Studios Singapore in Sentosa only opened recently in 2010, another theme park, Haw Par Villa has long existed off the west coast of Singapore since 1937.

Calling it a different kind of theme park would be a huge understatement. It is a Chinese mythological theme park with a collection of over 1,000 statues and 150 giant dioramas from Chinese folklore and tales. The Ten Courts of Hell, its biggest highlight, would challenge the most composed of souls who bravely walk through the gory scenes of trial and torture.

Those of us who have been to Haw Par Villa would be familiar with this gateway.

Those of us who have been to Haw Par Villa would be familiar with this iconic gateway.

There are over one thousand statues of characters from Chinese mythological tales, legends, and folklore at Haw Par Villa.

There are over one thousand statues of characters from Chinese mythological tales, legends, and folklore at Haw Par Villa.

The two friendly guardians of hell, Ox-head and Horse-face, greet visitors at the entrance of the Ten Courts of Hell.

The two friendly guardians of hell, Ox-head and Horse-face, greet visitors at the entrance of the Ten Courts of Hell.

In its heyday, it was a family affair and thousands packed Haw Par Villa. Today, it is a surreal scene. A first-time visitor will feel like he or she has stepped into a different realm. Other than several visitors and a few caretakers, the only companion one has is the assortment of statues that seem to stare at you in the contentment of stale silence all around.

Originally named Tiger Balm Gardens, it was built by Boon Haw (Tiger) and Boon Par (Leopard), the two sons of Aw Chu Kin, a Burmese Chinese herbalist better known as the inventor of the Tiger Balm ointment. Boon Haw, the older of the two acquired this hillside land off Pasir Panjang Road in 1935 and spent US$1.95 million and two years building Tiger Balm Gardens.

Boon Haw was known for his flashy tiger cars, which typified his flair for promoting his Tiger Balm business.

Boon Haw was known for his flashy tiger cars, which typified his flair for promoting his Tiger Balm business.

A memorial for Aw Hoe, the eldest son of Boon Haw who passed away in 1951.

A memorial for Aw Hoe, the eldest son of Boon Haw who passed away in 1951.

One can expect lots of product placement in Tiger Balm Gardens.

One can expect lots of product placement in Tiger Balm Gardens.

Other than building a place of residence for his younger brother Boon Par, Boon Haw also intended to create a public space of recreation for families to visit and recount Chinese folklore. When it opened in March 1937, crowds poured in. It was an attraction that was one of a kind. During World War II, it was abandoned and the Japanese used its hillside location as a lookout point for ships at sea.

In 1988, Singapore Tourism Board took over the management of Tiger Balm Gardens and renamed it Haw Par Villa Dragon World. With that, the damaged statues were restored and facilities added. There were acrobatic and puppet shows and two water rides – a slow boat through a dragon’s body and the Ten Courts of Hell and a rollercoaster-like flume ride.

A popular Chinese tale of eight immortals, who each carry a different tool to fight evil.

A popular Chinese tale of eight immortals, who each carry a different tool to fight evil.

Or you can just monkey around in the gardens.

Or you can just monkey about in the gardens.

However the exorbitant entrance fees of around $15 deterred visitors from returning. Free entry was eventually implemented in 1998. The boat rides and entertainment displays ceased, and most importantly, the crowds diminished. It was renamed back to Tiger Balm Gardens in 2001.

Entry remains free today and visitors have the added convenience of the Haw Par Villa MRT Station, which opened in 2011 at its entrance. The Ten Courts of Hell is a spooky walkthrough experience now. If you are guilty of wasting food or misusing books, you are punished at the Sixth Court of Hell by having your body sawn into two. For cheating in examinations, your intestines and organs are pulled out in the Eighth Court of Hell. No surprises that Haw Par Villa is not a playground for children.

There is a king or judge in charge of each court of hell. Here, sinners await trial.

There is a king or judge in charge of each court of hell. Here, sinners await trial.

Just one of many graphic scenes of punishment in the Ten Courts of Hell.

Just one of many graphic scenes of punishment in the Ten Courts of Hell.

Haw Par Villa does see the occasional tourist who is keen to explore sights off the beaten track. Among the many moral and cultural lessons in Haw Par Villa, these painted Chinese characters tell us that it is never too late to repent.

Haw Par Villa does see the occasional tourist who is keen to explore sights off the beaten track. Among the many moral and cultural lessons in Haw Par Villa, these painted Chinese characters tell us that it is never too late to repent.

I suggest you bring your next date to Haw Par Villa.

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