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.

kP1060917

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.

Haw Pa Villa Mansion

Haw Pa Villa Mansion 1940

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.

VISITING

kCIMG2121

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.

kP1060915

kCIMG2138

K2128

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.

kP1060938

kCIMG2127

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

kP1060959

kP1060939

kP1060945

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

kP1060929

  • 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.

Black.white_.enclaves_ Honeycombers

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

Singapore City Gallery: (Scale) Model City

There’s something strangely compelling about miniature items, especially intricately detailed Lilliputian-sized scale models of cities. The fact that these painstakingly assembled cityscapes are actually real, functioning architectural models makes us drawn even more to these amazing works of art. Taking months and years to build, these “toy towns” are adored by kids, but often times more so by grown-ups.

Singapore City Gallery

THE LOWDOWN

The Urban Redevelopment Authority’s (URA) Singapore City Gallery houses 3 architectural models. The flagship model is the Central Area Model, a 110 square metre (1184 sq ft) large 1:400 scale replica (1cm = 400cm) of Singapore’s downtown. The centre’s oldest model but also the most detailed and interesting, you can delight in viewing close-ups of Singapore’s skyscrapers and downtown areas in the exquisitely colourful model.

Singapore City Gallery

There is also a much smaller 1:1000 model of Singapore’s City Centre, crafted in plain balsa wood. The 3rd architectural model housed in the gallery is a flat, expansive Islandwide Model of Singapore capturing a macro-perspective of the terrain and almost every building on the island.

Singapore City Gallery

These architectural models are fascinating to “explore” for anyone living in Singapore, or anyone with an interest in the country’s landscape and development – property investors for instance.

The Central Area Model in fact also ranks among the largest scale model cities in the world. In Shanghai, a 1:500 scale model projecting what the downtown area of China’s second largest city would look like by 2020 measures just over 100 sq m (1000 sq ft), and is on display at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Hall.

Shanghai City Model

Shanghai City Model – Photo from Stuckincustoms.com

Also in China, the centerpiece of the Beijing Planning Exhibition Halls is a massive 1:750 scale 302 sq m large (3250 sq ft) extraordinarily detailed scale model of Beijing’s metropolitan areas. The replica buildings have been overlaid over aerial photographs of the city in some places, and new buildings depicting Beijing as envisioned in 2020 are also included.

Beijing City Model

Beijing City Model

The largest city scale model however is one of New York City. Built for the 1964 World’s Fair, the Panorama of the City of New York is a massive 867.2 sq m (9,335 sq ft) model built to a scale of 1:1200. The model, housed in the Queens Museum, has been updated over time and now contains every single one of the 895,000 of the buildings constructed before 1992.

Panorama of the City of New York

Panorama of the City of New York

Although not among the largest models, the one of Tokyo is surely the coolest. A wonderfully intricate 1:1000 scale model of Minato-Ku in Tokyo, the model was crafted over 14 months and was designed to showcase potential sites for Tokyo’s bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, which it incidentally lost to London. Check out this project called “Tokyo City Symphony” which uses light to map 3D projections onto the miniature city model. You can even create your own version of the light show.

VISITING

Apart from the miniature scale models, the Singapore City Gallery also boasts a full-scale gallery dedicated to showcasing Singapore’s urban development.

Singapore City Gallery

Singapore has undergone a stunning transformation in the past 50 years, with the most pronounced changes taking place in the last 10-15 years alone. Although many middle-aged Singaporeans now seek a slowing down of this frenetic pace of change and are even hankering for some things to return to the way they were in the “good old days”, there is no denying that Singapore’s rapid development reflected in the dramatically changing urban landscape has been nothing short of remarkable.

To understand Singapore’s urban planning challenges, goals and strategies towards conservation, greenery etc one really needs to visit the URA’s showpiece gallery. Opened in 1999 and set over 3 floors, the gallery has 10 themed areas chock full of audiovisual and interactive exhibits, designed to take the audience through Singapore’s urban planning journey. There are interesting infographic displays with a wealth of information, such as one explaining Singapore’s strategy to reclaim space underground now that above ground space is already at a premium. From pedestrian malls and walkways, MRT tunnels and underground water and sewerage networks to ammunition storage facilities more than 100m below ground, there is actually a lot going on underneath our feet.

Singapore City Gallery

Singapore City Gallery

There is also an exhibition area on the ground floor just within the entrance. When I visited the gallery a couple of months ago the Draft Master Plan 2013 exhibition was being held. Very interesting stuff that.

LOCATION

Singapore City GalleryThe URA Centre
45 Maxwell Road

Open: Monday to Saturday 9.00am to 5.00pm
Closed on Sundays and Public Holidays.

HOW MUCH TIME

About an hour or even 2, depending on how much interest you have in Singapore’s urban planning.

TAKE NOTE

  • There is a canned “light and sound show” over the main Central Area Model every hour from 10am – 4pm. The narrative is in English, although there are also 4 Mandarin Chinese versions at 9.30am, 11.30am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm. Lasting all of approximately 2-3 minutes, the show introduces the areas of Singapore with spotlights highlighting the area on the scale model. I found it very underwhelming frankly.
  • The acclaimed Maxwell Food Centre is just across the road, so consider planning your visit to the Singapore City Gallery with lunch or dinner, or just teatime at the food centre.

TIDBITS

  • There is a “National Cycling Plan” in place for Singapore, with the aim of building 700 km of a pan-island cycling network (from the current 280km) to encourage cycling for recreational purposes, as well as provide an earth-friendly alternative mode of transportation. The expanded cycling network will bring the current 4km of cycling tracks per 100,000 population up to 12km.
  • Denmark tops the list of countries with the highest cycling tracks per capita at 80km per 100,000 population.
  • The decision to reclaim land off the waterfront of Singapore’s city to form the Marina Bay area was made way back in the 1970s. Land reclamation started soon after, and by 1992 more than 700 ha of new land had been reclaimed.
  • Singapore’s first land reclamation project was conducted by our founder Sir Stamford Raffles, in 1819. Swampy land off the main harbour was reclaimed to form what we know as Boat Quay today.
  • In the 1960s the land area of Singapore was approximately 580 km square. Singapore has since grown by more than 20%, or 17,000 football fields in size.
Singapore City Gallery

Old map of Singapore on display

USEFUL LINKS