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, endless 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 2014-15, 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 Singapore and search for the unusual and unique sights that most tourists miss.
As Singapore is home to large Indian, Chinese and Malay communities, there are colourful religious and cultural festivals throughout the year.
These celebrations often begin in the ornate temples that squat incongruously amongst Singapore’s tower blocks, and are decked in intricate, retina-tickling statues that bring important religious tales to life.
During these events ancient customs spill onto the streets of the the ambitious city-state, where time-honoured traditions and the march of modernity have learned to live side-by-side.
Getting out of the city centre and travelling to the fringes of the island is also rewarding as you can explore national parks brimming with wildlife and trawl through overgrown Chinese and Muslim graveyards.
If you’re brave, you can even try a spot of urban exploration in abandoned mansions and housing estates that have been allowed to go to ruin in the tropical sun.
Although Singapore has world-class museums, public spaces and arts centres, one of its most remarkable sights is a theme park from the 1930s.
But this puzzling place is a world away from the heady delights of Universal Studios or the Magic Kingdom, and uses blood, gore and sickening violence to convince sinners to abandon their wicked ways.
Welcome to Haw Par Villa
Haw Par Villa – originally 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 the site as a lookout as it was an excellent vantage point over the Singapore Strait.
After the war ended, Haw returned to the park and spent the last 10 years 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 efforts, the park 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 oddball 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 the island – saw Dragon World losing over $22 million over the next decade.
In March 2001 the Singapore Tourism Board decided to waive 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 giggling school groups that flock to the park every week to supplement their studies.
Confucianism and confusion
Haw Par Villa’s most impressive displays are its sprawling dioramas that depict scenes from Chinese folk tales such as Fengshen Bang, Legend of the White Snake and Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
Each of these colourful outdoor displays is brought to life by a cast of thousands, with each character meticoulsly posed to tell part a story or give visitors advice on how to lead a virtuous life.
But the displays aren’t po-faced or dull. If you spend time looking at the complex dioramas, you’ll spot dozens of kitschy jokes, funny scenes and oddly-proportioned characters designed to make visitors smile.
The park may have been conceived as a way to encourage a wholesome life, but the artists that created it had a sharp sense of humour and weren’t afraid to sneak in gags to punctuate the pedagogy.
To Western eyes, Haw Par Villa is also a delight as it’s, well… so damned weird.
The dioramas and displays dedicated to 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.
The most notable animal statues are based on Journey to the West, a Chinese legend that will be familiar to Westerners who grew up watching dubbed episodes of the 1970s TV series, Monkey.
All the major stories and characters from Journey to the West are represented at Haw Par Villa, each scene crawling with troops of colorful 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 confuse – or 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 measures.
Blood and gore
As you explore Haw Park Villa you’ll not only be struck its oddball eccentricity – the graphic violence will also leave you reeling.
Many of the park’s most savage scenes are ridiculous, cartoonish and impossible to take seriously, including an enormous war display where soldier rats tend to their dismembered colleagues, or the green wall where a polar bear snacks on a young boy’s leg.
But the further you walk into the park, the more violent the exhibits become. Before long visitors are confronted by no-holds-barred scenes of knife crime and rows of severed heads in a macabre display.
But if these savage statues make you feel queasy, Haw Par Villa’s most notorious attraction 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. 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 whistlestop 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, these pictures will make you wince…
The First Court of Hell
Anyone who lived a clean and virtuous life has nothing to worry about. Their life is reviewed by the underworld judge, King Qinguang, they’re given a clean bill of health, and are allowed to skip across the 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 torture.
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 Reincarnaton and are reborn.
But even if your porn addiction condemned you millennia of being vertically sawn 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 torture 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 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 will make you reassess your life choices.
Check out the full Haw Par Villa photo gallery.