To most people, Singapore is a haven for designer shopping and making money. But Haw Par Villa may convince you to abandon your hedonistic ways
With its absurd skyscrapers, sprawling shopping malls and bars packed with braying expats, it’s no surprise that many travellers find Singapore boring.
But if you scratch beneath its slick surface, the Lion City is one of the most interesting and surprising places in Asia.
I lived in Singapore from 2014 to 2015, and used Changi Airport as a jumping off point to visit Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, Japan and Indonesia.
I also took the opportunity to explore every corner of the Little Red Dot, and search for the strange and unusual sights that most tourists miss.
I was fortune to see fascinating religious and cultural festivals staged by Singapore’s Indian, Chinese and Malay communities.
I also left the city centre and travelled to the fringes of the island, where I trekked through national parks and mangroves brimming with wildlife.
I even tried a spot of urban exploration, and crept into abandoned mansions and forgotten wartime bunkers that have gone to ruin in the tropical sun.
But while Singapore has many treasures to discover, its most remarkable sight is Haw Par Villa – an oddball theme park from the 1930s.
But this puzzling place is a world away from the heady delights of Universal Studios or Disneyland, and uses blood, gore and sickening violence to convince sinners to abandon their wicked ways.
Welcome to Haw Par Villa
Haw Par Villa – originally called Tiger Balm Gardens – was founded in 1937 by Aw Boon Haw, a Yangon businessman who relocated from Myanmar to Singapore in 1926.
Along with his brother, Par, Haw invented Tiger Balm, a herbal ointment that’s popular in Southeast Asia and is said to give relief from tension headaches and muscle pain.
Haw created Tiger Balm Gardens as a gift to his brother, and as a fun way to teach young Singaporeans about traditional Chinese values and introduce the concepts of Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism.
The park features over 1,000 statues and 150 enormous dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese mythology, folklore and history.
In the early days, visitors were lead along a circular path that surrounded Par’s mansion, which stood in the centre of the park.
But while the mansion has long since crumbled, Haw’s original statues remain.
The park was an instant hit with Singaporeans, but at the start of World War II it was abandoned and rapidly fell into disrepair.
The park was later taken over by invading Japanese forces, who chose Haw Par Villa as a lookout as it was an excellent vantage point over the Singapore Strait.
After the war, Haw returned to the park and spent the last decade of his life trying to resurrect it.
He worked with local artists to repair and renovate the statues, and commissioned new sculptures to warn visitors of the torture and damnation they’d face in the afterlife if they didn’t behave themselves.
Despite Haw’s best efforts, the park again fell into disrepair after his death, and for decades was an unloved, overgrown wasteland.
Haw Par strikes back
The 1980s saw renewed interest in Singapore’s most unusual attraction.
In 1986 a developer, International Theme Parks, announced it was investing $30 million to modernise Tiger Balm Gardens.
It planned to use animatronics and cutting-edge technology to bring the attractions up to date, and create an “oriental Disneyland” where Western technology meshed with Eastern mythology.
Sadly, the project failed. The planned animatronics proved too expensive, and plans for the rejuvenation of Haw’s vision stalled.
In 1988 the Singapore Tourism Board took control of Tiger Balm Gardens and renamed it Haw Par Villa Dragon World.
The original statues and dioramas were repainted and restored, and at night the site was used as an absurd backdrop for plays, acrobatic displays and puppet shows.
But while locals welcomed the park’s return, the high entrance fee – and competition from other attractions rapidly springing up around Singapore – saw Dragon World losing over $22 million over the next decade.
In March 2001 the Singapore Tourism Board waived the entrance fee to encourage visitors, and the construction of a new train line in 2011 that stops outside the park also saw a resurgence in popularity.
Now renamed Haw Par Villa, the park continues to attract thousands of international and domestic tourists, along with groups of school kids that flock to the park every week to supplement their studies.
Confucianism and confusion
Each of these colourful outdoor displays is brought to life by a cast of thousands, with each character meticulously posed to tell part a story or give visitors advice on how to lead a virtuous life.
But while they’re didactic and worthy, the dioramas are never dull.
If you spend time looking at the complex displays, you’ll spot dozens of kitschy jokes, funny details, and oddly-proportioned characters designed to make visitors smile.
The park was conceived to encourage a wholesome life. But the artists that created Haw Par Villa clearly had a sharp sense of humour, and weren’t afraid to sneak in gags to punctuate the morality.
To Western eyes, Haw Par Villa is also a delight as it’s, well… So. Damned. Weird.
The dioramas and displays based on unfamiliar folk tales are bizarre and puzzling, most notably the statue of an elderly woman on her knees, suckling a young woman’s breast as a young boy cheers in the background.
Animals on parade
Anthropomorphic animals also play a major role in Haw Par Villa.
All major stories and characters from Journey to the West are represented at Haw Par Villa, each scene crawling with troops of colourful monkeys that wear natty costumes, steal fruit and casually wield shotguns.
And the weird animals don’t stop with Journey to the West. Everywhere you look are oddball beasts, many of which seem to have no purpose other than to unnerve visitors.
Brutish apes trade fruit with each other. Fanged sea lions grin from the sidelines. Pandas that look as if they’ve dropped a pill grin amiably at the crowds exploring the park.
If you’re an animal lover, you’ll be charmed and perplexed in equal measure.
Blood and gore
While you’ll be first struck by Haw Par Villa’s weirdness and eccentricity, its depictions of death, torture and murder will eventually leave you reeling.
Most of the park’s violent scenes are cartoonish and impossible to take seriously, including a sprawling war diorama where soldier rats tend to their dismembered colleagues, or the green cave where a polar bear nibbles on a young boy’s leg.
But the further you walk into the park, the more extreme its exhibits become.
Before long you’re confronted with shocking scenes of knife crime, domestic violence, and severed heads. Lots of severed heads.
But if these savage statues make you feel queasy, hold onto your stomach.
Haw Par Villa’s most notorious exhibit will chill you to the bone.
The Ten Courts of Hell
The Ten Courts of Hell – an indoor, self-contained display on the fringes of Haw Par Villa – is the park’s most popular attraction.
It’s also toe-curlingly gruesome.
A large sign outside tells visitors of a nervous disposition to turn away – and the squeamish would be advised to take this advice.
Based on Chinese folklore, the Ten Courts shows – in unflinching detail – what happens to sinners and miscreants in the afterlife, including dismemberment, disembowelment and other grisly tortures.
The long journey from death to enlightenment sees lost souls working their way through the Ten Courts, where they’re sentenced by underworld judges and punished for their sins.
If you dare, let’s take a whistle-stop tour of the Ten Courts and the extreme punishments meted out for the most innocuous crimes.
But be warned – if you’re upset by blood and gore, some of these pictures will make you wince…
The First Court of Hell
Anyone who’s lived a clean and virtuous life has nothing to worry about. Their deeds are reviewed by the underworld judge, King Qinguang, they’re given a clean bill of health, and are allowed to skip across a silver bridge to paradise.
However, those who cheated, lied or hoarded wealth are in deep trouble.
They’re forced to gaze into the mirror of retribution, where their sins are revealed.
Miscreants are then dragged before King Qinguang, who condemns them to unspeakable tortures.
The punishment sinners face depends on the sins they committed. But no matter what badness you got up to in life, there’s an underworld court where you’ll get what’s coming to you.
The Second Court of Hell
|Inflicting physical injury, robbery||Thrown into a volcanic pit|
|Corruption, stealing, gambling||Frozen in a block of ice|
|Prostitution||Drowned in a pool of blood|
The Third Court of Hell
|Ungratefulness, disrespect for your elders, escaping from prison||Heart cut out|
|Drug users and traffickers, tomb robbers||Tied to a hot copper pillar and grilled|
The Fourth Court of Hell
|Tax and rent dodgers, crooked businessmen||Pounded by a stone mallet|
|Disrespect for your siblings, lack of filial piety||Grounded by a large stone|
The Fifth Court of Hell
|Plotting murder, money lenders with exorbitant rates||Thrown onto a hill of knives|
The Sixth Court of Hell
|Cheating, cursing, kidnapping||Thrown onto a tree of knives|
|Misuse of books, watching porn, wasting food||Body sawn in two|
The Seventh Court of Hell
|Spreading rumours, provoking family strife||Tongue pulled out|
The Eighth Court of Hell
|Causing family problems, cheating in exams||Intestines and organs pulled out|
|Harming people to benefit yourself||Dismemberment|
The Ninth Court of Hell
|Robbery, murder||Head and arms chopped off|
|Neglect of old and young people||Crushed under boulders|
The Tenth Court of Hell
After serving their sentence, sinners are taken to the Tenth Court of Hell where the final judge, King Zhuanlun, releases them.
Having atoned for their sins, miscreants are led to the Pavilion of Forgetfulness, where an old woman – Meh Po – hands them a cup of magical tea.
Drinking this enchanted brew makes prisoners forget their past lives and the torture they endured in the Courts of Hell.
With their minds wiped clean, former jailbirds pass through the Wheel of Reincarnation and are reborn.
But even if your porn addiction condemned you millennia of being chopped in half, you’re not out of the woods yet.
Depending on the life you led, some prisoners are reborn as an animal, others as a human. A handful of the reborn can look forward to a life of ease and comfort, while the rest endure sorrow and suffering.
Even if you’ve passed through the Ten Courts, surviving impossible tortures may not be enough to redeem your transgressions.
The Ten Courts of Hell brings most visits to Haw Par Villa to a close. (It certainly many brings family jaunts to an abrupt finish, as traumatised children cry their eyes out and demand to go home.)
With your mind swimming with visions of death, torture and damnation, it’s time to rejoin the real world.
But if you’ve ever considered cheating in exams, dodging your rent or misusing books, the Ten Courts may make you reassess your life choices.
Check out the full Haw Par Villa photo gallery.