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