Haw Par Villa:  Haunting Memories

There’s nothing quite like this anywhere else in the world – a wildly bizarre, macabre even theme park devoted to ancient Chinese legends and fables. The park has been described by some as “grotesque”, “gruesome”, and “garish”, a fantasy world borne of a trippy imagination perhaps.

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Many a middle-aged Singaporean would remember a trip as a kid to the then Tiger Balm Gardens during its heydays in the ’70s and ’80s. Few however ever returned to the park, so disturbing were their memories of their childhood visit.

I re-visited the theme park recently, some 30 odd years after my one and only visit to it in the 1970s.

THE LOWDOWN

The original theme park was built as part of a large residence by the wealthy Myanmar-Chinese Aw family in 1937, on a prime hilltop plot of land overlooking the Pasir Panjang harbour. Haw Par Villa, named after the brothers Boon Haw and Boon Par, was a huge circular motif mansion featuring 7 domes with gold-plated ceilings, and was quite the architectural delight of the time. Larger-than-life elder brother Boon Haw was a fan of Chinese culture and history, and decided to build a garden featuring life-sized statues of famous Chinese figures in the grounds of the mansion. He envisioned the park as a way to impart Chinese morality and values. He opened the gardens to the public in 1937, calling it Tiger Balm Gardens after the famous camphor-menthol rub his family made their fortunes on.

Aw Boon Haw villa - Raymond Morris

Haw Par Villa circa late 1930s – colourised photo from Raymond Morris

Although the mansion was a gift by Boon Haw to his beloved younger brother Boon Par, neither of the brothers stayed in Haw Par Villa for long. When the Japanese wrested Singapore from the British during WWII they also forcefully took over the mansion, using it as a strategic lookout to watch over the southern coast. The brothers fled Singapore, and after the war much of the mansion and its gardens were destroyed. Boon Haw did return in the later years, and painstakingly rebuilt the gardens together with Boon Par’s son.

In 1985 the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) bought over the gardens, expanding the park to 5 times its size, adding Disney style rides and making it a ticketed attraction. Over the years however the popularity of the park waned, seeing fewer and fewer visitors as the park fell into disrepair.

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In March of this year the park saw a comeback of sorts, part of a larger campaign by the STB to revive interest in local attractions some of which lay forgotten. The park’s 1,000 statues were repaired and re-painted, and free talks and tours were organised in an event called Reliving Haw Par Villa.

VISITING

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You climb up the slope and enter the iconic grand entranceway. Once inside, you’ll come across a little museum with some history about the Aw brothers, and the mansion that used to stand on the site. There is also a replica of the bizarre tiger-headed car the flamboyant Boon Haw used to drive through small towns in Malaya promoting his brand.

Further ahead however is the star attraction of the park, the infamous Ten Courts of Hell. After entering a cave-like structure, you walk through a sort of “House of Horrors” on a meandering path lined with tableaux depicting the punishments in hell for various sins committed in one’s life time. These range from having your “head and arms chopped off” for murders, robbery and rape, being “thrown into a tree of knives” for cursing, having your “body sawn into two” for wasting food, and your “intestines and organs pulled out” should you demonstrate a lack of filial obedience. All of this is depicted in 3D gruesomeness in the darkish cave. Shudders. If you want to scare your kids into good behaviour as parents of yesteryears did, this might be an effective method, although adults will probably find the tableaux amusing and somewhat comical even. The depictions do provide an insight into traditional Chinese ethics and moral values however – making for a morality theme park if there is such a thing.

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Apart from the Ten Courts of Hell cave the rest of the park is open-air. Statues and more dioramas pepper the sprawling grounds. Unless you are well-versed in Chinese mythology, you will probably find the figurines bizarre and baffling – human-headed animals, or just humanized animals in general. And more gory scenes galore.

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Other tableaux depict scenes and characters from renowned fables Journey to the West, Madam White Snake, and the 8 Immortals.

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LOCATIONkP1060954

262 Pasir Panjang Road
Open daily: 9am – 7pm (admission is free)

The Circle Line MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) goes right by it and you can even alight at the (no surprise) Haw Par Villa station.

HOW MUCH TIME

About an hour and a half to 2 to tour the whole place. If you’re really interested in Chinese mythology however and want to read all the explanatory signs, you’ll need a little more time.

TAKE NOTE

  • The park is set on a slope, not wheelchair friendly at all.
  • The carpark charges $5 per entry.
  • The Hua Song Museum, off the side near the carpark, is now closed.

TIDBITS

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  • Boon Haw’s name means “gentle tiger”, and Boon Par’s means “gentle leopard”. The brothers were originally from Myanmar (formerly known as Burma).
  • The original Haw Par Villa mansion was designed by architect Ho Kwong Yew, one of the leading architects of Singapore’s Modern Movement in the 1930s.
  • There was also a Tiger Balm Gardens Aw Boon Haw had set up in Hong Kong. Equally garish, this was demolished in 2004 however. Another Tiger Balm Gardens exists in Fujian province, China.
  • Aw Boon Par’s daughter, Datin Aw Cheng Hu (Datin is a Malaysian honorific title) died quietly in an HDB flat (government housing) in 2010. She was also the widow of the founder of Chung Khiaw Bank, which is part of today’s United Overseas Bank (UOB).
  • Lee May Chu, great grand-daughter of Aw Boon Par, wrote a controversial expose about the family’s fall from riches, Escape from Paradise.
Haw Par Villa

A Mannish Woman in a Bikini Reading her iPad?

USEFUL LINKS

Singapore’s Black-and-White Houses: Colonial Splendour with a Dash of History

Alexandra Park Black and White BungalowsTucked away in little-known genteel housing enclaves around Singapore lie throwbacks to the country’s colonial past. Back in the late 1800s to early 1900s, Singapore’s British rulers built lavish villas, called bungalows, all over the island to house their high-ranking officials and civil servants. Today, a mere 500 or so out of the thousands of the grand mansions built still remain, the rest casualties of urban development.

Affectionately called “Black-and-White” bungalows because of their predominant use of dark timbre beams and white-washed walls, these charming holdovers from Singapore’s colonial past are now accorded conservation protection by the URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority). While the interior of the house can be modernised, the general architecture and exterior including all doors and windows must be restored and retained. The houses can also only be painted in black and white.

The Black-and-Whites are now mostly owned and managed by the State and are leased primarily to expatriates, ironically many from the UK who are keen to experience colonial-style living. These expat residents adore the charm and feel of these century-old houses, although not many may realize that each and every one of these Black-and-Whites has a history indelibly tied to the war years.

THE LOWDOWN

The Black-and-White bungalows are 2-storey villas boasting sprawling gardens on large plots of land. Architecturally distinct, their style has been described as “Tropical Tudorbethan”, with shades of influence from the Arts and Crafts and Art Deco design styles of the time.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

The bungalows incorporate local and tropical design elements into otherwise very stately British homes. Many of the houses are built on elevated foundations, a nod to the indigenous Malay style of houses built on stilts. The ground floor is open and spacious, while the main living quarters are on the upper floor. The reason is practical – to isolate the living space from wild critters, as well as ensure the house is above any flood waters.

Large verandahs feature prominently in the front and sides, and the bungalows were capped with broad overhanging sloping roofs, all of which served to prevent direct sunlight from entering and thus heating up the house. The pitched roofs also channel rainwater from the frequent tropical showers away. In addition to the high ceilings, the bungalows feature plenty of balconies, open spaces and louvred windows to amplify cross-flow breezes, an important consideration given Singapore’s tropical climate – in the days before air-conditioning.

Most of the bungalows had a main house, accompanied by a separate structure which served as the servants’ quarters.

At Alexandra Par - pic by Expat Living

Alexandra Park Black-and-White – pic by Expat Living

The Black-and-White bungalows are today located mainly in the south-central areas of Singapore, in tony areas such as Nassim Road, Goodwood Hill, Dempsey Road, Rochester Park, Adam Park and Alexandra Park, to outlying areas in the north such as Seletar, Sembawang and Changi where troops used to be stationed.

Fewer than 100 of the mansions are privately owned, with the majority now owned by the government and managed by the Singapore Land Authority (SLA) and its appointed real estate firms such as DTZ. Interested residents may bid to lease specific properties, at rates which range from under S$5000 a month to S$25,000 or more for a lavish property.

VISITING

Alexandra Park is a wonderful example of a colonial residential estate. My friend and I visited it early one morning and had a most pleasant walk touring the estate.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

The estate is off Alexandra Road, a busy road which was constructed in 1864 and named after Queen Alexandra (1844-1925), the wife of King-Emperor Edward VII (1841-1910). The leafy winding roads within the estate appropriately sport names like Canterbury Road, Winchester Road and Cornwall Road, lending a very British air to the area. Stately Black-and-Whites dot the landscape, some hidden behind lush foliage. With the rolling hills and forest greenery of Hort Park nearby and Kent Ridge Park in the distance, you’ll find it pretty hard to believe you’re in Singapore.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

According to historian and author Julian Davison in his book “Black and White: The Singapore House 1898-1941”, the oldest house in the estate is 6 Russels Road, also known as the Plantation House, and was built just after the turn of the century in 1900. The next oldest houses are at 5 and 7 Royal Road, with the latter also known as Bukit Damai and was once the residence of a commanding officer. The stately mansion is now home to a retired British oil man, Neil Franks and his family. Winchester Place, a large building on Winchester Road which used to be the officers’ mess and is now also a private residence, was built some time before 1910.

Most of the houses in the estate were built between 1935 and 1940 however, by the Far East Land, Air and Sea Forces to accommodate their military personnel. Prior to the bungalows being built the area had been home to a pepper plantation. Incidentally, further up Alexandra Road is Alexandra Hospital which used to be the British Military Hospital. When the hospital opened in 1940 some hospital staff were also housed at Alexandra Park.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

On the tranquil walk my friend and I took through the winding estate, quite a few of the houses seemed to be unoccupied, although most showed signs of an idyllic expat lifestyle. The tree-lined lanes made for a lovely neighbourhood, with the nearby green forests a bird sanctuary as well. We heard and saw a multitude of birds, and even came across a bird watcher with his telescopic lens trained on one of the houses, or rather a bird perched on a tree in the compound of the house. Well we hope he was watching the bird.

We also saw this interesting little fella, a Fir Tussock Moth caterpillar. In the background you can hear the cicadas.


Other discoveries we chanced upon were 3 majestic mature trees protected under NParks’ (National Parks Board) Heritage Tree Scheme – the Penaga Laut at the junction of Canterbury and Berkshire Roads; a Bodhi tree further along Canterbury Road and the Common Pulai on Royal Road.

Heritage Tree: Penaga Laut

Heritage Tree: Penaga Laut

During the war years from 1942 – 1945, the Japanese troops took over these Black-and-White bungalows all over Singapore. In other Black-and-White estates such as Adam Park, there is evidence that the Japanese used the houses as Prisoner-of-War (POW) camps. Given the houses’ past, it is no wonder then that locals, especially the older set, are generally not keen on living in these Black-and-Whites and are more than happy for this to remain the preserve of expat society.

LOCATION

Here are where the Black-and-Whites are concentrated around Singapore now.

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Black-and-White Bungalows around Singapore – graphic from Honeycombers Singapore

Here’s a map of the Alexandra Park enclave.

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

HOW MUCH TIME

About an hour and a half to 2 for a leisurely stroll around the lovely Alexandra Park estate.

TAKE NOTE

There is no parking along the residential roads, so best to park in the Hort Park carpark when you enter the neighbourhood. This is where you can also use the bathroom and have a drink from the water cooler.

TIDBITS

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

  • There are 4 old clay tennis courts on Winchester Road in Alexandra Park, believed to be the only clay courts in Singapore. Built in the 1930s for the British residents, the courts have over the years been leased by different organisations, most recently the Clay Court Tennis Academy. The courts unfortunately appear to be disused now.
  • Alexandra Hospital, the ex-British Military Hospital, has a gruesome bit of history. In 1942 during the war when the Japanese forces occupied Singapore, some 200 staff and war patients were brutally massacred by the Japanese troops who stormed the hospital one day, in retaliation against Allied forces who had fired at the Japanese from the hospital grounds. Staff at the hospital now swear that the hospital is haunted.

USEFUL LINKS

Alexandra Park Black and White Bungalows

1. Singapore Land Authority’s (SLA) State Property Information Online (SPIO): Bid to rent a Black-and-White bungalow.
2. Gereldene’s Tours: Septuagenarian historian Geraldine Lowe-Ismail conducts popular Singapore heritage tours, including tours of Black-and-White houses.
3. URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) overview of a conservation Black-and-White bungalow
4. Magazine article on Singapore’s Black-and-Whites
5. Expat Living: Interview with Singapore war historian Jonathan Cooper on unearthing the history of Singapore’s Black-and-Whites
6. Expat Living: Index of articles on Singapore’s Black-and-Whites

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve: Crocodile Spotting

Although the main attraction of the acclaimed wetland reserve is its birds – more than 260 local and migratory bird species have been recorded at Sungei Buloh, of late it is another type of wildlife that has been stealing the limelight at the reserve.

Sungei Buloh Wetland ReserveEver since a newspaper reported in December 2013 that a group of young schoolchildren on a field trip came within 20m of a 3m long crocodile across a footpath, other visitors have been visiting the reserve in search of crocodiles too.

On a trip to the wetland reserve just last month, I too secretly hoped to be able to spot a croc. As luck would have it, my friend and I saw not one but 2 of these magnificent creatures, and thankfully both were in the water at a more than safe distance away.

THE LOWDOWN

The coastal areas of Singapore were largely swamp land in the 1800s, with mangroves especially abundant in the north and west coasts. As Singapore developed rapidly over the years however the island became increasingly urbanized, and much of the coastal areas were redeveloped.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

In 1986 a group of nature-loving bird enthusiasts realised the importance of the swamp area around the Sungei Buloh river as a migratory bird stopping ground, and petitioned the government to protect the site, which had been zoned as an agro-technology park. The government surprisingly acquiesced, and the Sungei Buloh Nature Park was created in 1989 as a bird sanctuary and nature haven. The park was officially opened in December 1993.

Sungei Buloh Wetland ReserveIn 2001 the park was accorded nature reserve status, and with an enlarged area was renamed the Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve in 2002. The reserve went on to become Singapore’s first ASEAN (Association for South East Asian Nations) Heritage Park in 2003, and is now one of thirty-three parks in the region recognised as an important nature conservation site (Bukit Timah Nature Reserve is Singapore’s other contribution to the ASEAN Heritage Park list). The Sungei Buloh reserve is also one of only two conserved mangrove swamps in Singapore today, with the much smaller Pasir Ris Mangrove Swamp being the other.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

The 130 hectare reserve in the far north-west is a rare piece of wild Singapore preserved. Bursting with flora indigenous to the wetlands in the region (approximately 250 native and naturalized mangrove species have been recorded), the reserve is also replete with wildlife.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

East Asian-Australasian Flyaway

Most importantly and prominently are the birds, for which the wetlands were primarily conserved for. The reserve’s annual bird census has recorded up to 5000 birds in a month at the reserve, although in recent years the numbers have declined significantly. Birds on the East Asian-Australasian flyaway use the mangroves as an important refuelling stop, on their travels from Australia all the way up north to Russia. At low tides the mudflats teem with life, from shellfish, worms and snakes, to mud-skippers, crabs and mud-lobsters, much of it rich pickings for the weary birds.

On land all manner of insects, as well as squirrels and monitor lizards roam freely, while the occasional wild boar and even otters have been spotted in the reserve.

The recent star however has been the estuarine or saltwater crocodile. These seemingly menacing reptiles have added a dash of dangerous excitement to the reserve for visitors. Although crocodiles have long been reported at the reserve, the numbers that have taken up residence in the reserve have risen from 2 in 2008 to about 10-12 today, heightening interest in the wetland reserve’s newest “attraction”.

Sungei Buloh Wetland ReserveVISITING

I visited the reserve early in the morning (8 am) when there was hardly anyone around, and the air was cool and pleasant for a walk in the reserve’s secondary forest. Plenty of birds were already up and about and were singing up a storm, creating quite the din. The tide was out though so the landscape was just brown and muddy, not altogether attractive.

The entire trail throughout the reserve is about 7km long, however you can choose to do shorter sections of the trail. We covered most of the park trails, however some of it frankly wasn’t very interesting. There is a prawn pond at the far end of the trail for instance as the area had once been used for prawn farming, however this turned out really to be just another murky pond.

There are viewing hideouts around the trail for you to sit quietly and observe the birds and other wildlife, as well as an 18 metre high lookout tower called the Aerie in the centre of the reserve. Not having any birdwatching equipment, we found it hard to spot many interesting birds with the naked eye. We did catch a glimpse of what might have been an Osprey or Grey Eagle perched high on a branch in the distance though, thanks to a birdwatcher’s telescope.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

About the crocodile sightings, as soon as we entered the reserve we spotted a submerged croc off the main bridge in the shallow water, although this one appeared to have had its tail nipped. Some 3 hours later as we crossed the main bridge again to leave, this time when the tide had come in, we saw a bunch of school kids excitedly pointing to something in the water and realised it was another croc floating among the mangroves. There was also a photographer with some serious equipment training his lens on the croc, which didn’t seem to be moving at all however. Here’s a pic of a less restful croc taken at the reserves recently though.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Be sure not to mistake the Malayan Water Monitor for a croc though. The reserve is full of these monitor lizards, known to grow to as large as 2 metres long. When the sun came out and it got warmer towards late morning, more of these cold-blooded reptiles crawled out to soak up the warmth from the sun. As you walk along the trails you’ll probably encounter a few monitor lizards along the path, and if you hear rustling in the bushes there’s a high chance it will be one of these giant pre-historic looking lizards. Beware these carnivorous creatures, they swallow their prey whole!

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

The wetland reserve is undergoing a transformation at the moment, so construction works are taking place and some areas were closed (the theatrette, and parts of the boardwalk trail). According to the Sungei Buloh Masterplan unveiled in 2008, the authorities are upgrading the wetland reserve to make it much more than just a nature park. Instead it aims for the reserve to be a premier wetland hub, with a state-of-the-art education and research facility. There were plans mooted to include guest accommodation even, for students and researchers to conduct studies in the reserve.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

The wetland reserve will be much larger, and will include the newly upgraded Kranji trail on the east side, and the Lim Chu Kang coastal area on the west side. In the news recently in fact was the announcement that 5 developers have expressed interest in the project to develop the historic Cashin house on the pier to be linked to the Sungei Buloh trails.

According to the masterplan, the current Sungei Buloh reserve will be considered a core conservation area with reduced access by the public to protect the sensitive ecosystem, while the new Kranji area will be earmarked as the recreational area. The intent of the overall plan seems to be to do much more with the wetland reserve, after all ecotourism is all the rage now – and there is money to be made from this. The new bigger and better phase one enhancements of the wetland reserve is scheduled to open in the last quarter of 2014.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Aerial View – Pic courtesy of Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Do visit the wetland reserve now while entrance is free. Once the upgrades are completed an entrance fee will be charged. Singapore’s Night Safari, our popular nocturnal zoo which sees 1.1 million visitors annually, charges about US$30 per adult entrance ticket. Do the math and you’ll understand why the Singapore Government is shelling out big bucks to enhance the reserve and turn it into a major attraction.

Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve

Grey Heron

LOCATION

301 Neo Tiew Crescent

This is a remote road in a remote corner of Singapore, deep in the heart of Singapore’s farm area.

Open:
7.30am to 7.00pm – Monday to Saturday
7.00am to 7.00pm – Sundays & Public Holidays

HOW MUCH TIME

About 3 – 4 hours to walk to the end of the park and back, at a pretty leisurely pace.

TAKE NOTE

  • There are no toilets along the trail, so be sure to visit the loo at the main visitor centre before you set off. The trail map provided did indicate a toilet along the trail however we could not locate it, possibly because of the current construction and redevelopment works at the reserve.
  • The lone cafe is currently closed so bring your own refreshments. There is a vending machine and a water fountain in the visitor centre though.
  • Mosquito repellent – absolutely necessary.
  • There are free guided tours organised every Saturday at 9.30am, as well as pre-booked guided tours available for S$6. The tours are fairly short though (1 hour), so you might want to just explore the reserve on your own.

Sungei Buloh Wetland ReserveTIDBITS

  • Singapore is ranked 6th out of 100 countries for mangrove diversity. Our mangrove forests contain half of the world’s recognised native mangrove species.
  • Monitor lizards are considered a delicacy in some cultures. The Filipinos eat it fried (tastes like fried chicken), the Indonesians make it into a curry, and I’ve read that Foochows and other Chinese traditionally drink monitor lizard soup to improve their skin. Yums.

USEFUL LINKS

* Thanks to Miin and her new Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera for some of these awesome pics!