Over this past weekend, Penang buddy A and I headed down to Haw Par Villa, also known as the Tiger Balm Gardens as part of Tourism50, an initiative by the Singapore Tourism Board to re-introduce Singapore to some of its heritage. A had never been here before, but this is a place I visited on school excursions in the past – it was once slated to be a popular theme park, but low visitorship reduced the park to its current mostly intact, somewhat shabby state.
If Haw Par sounds vaguely familiar to you, that is the collective name to refer to Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, two brothers responsible for the creation of Tiger Balm, this miraculous muscle rub many Asians grew up with used to sooth aching muscles.
You can read their history more thoroughly here and here, but the short version is that these two brothers were really successful hawking their Tiger Balm products and became really rich, and brother Boon Haw built brother Boon Par Haw Par Villa as a gift. Generous man that he was, he opened the extensive surrounding grounds to the public as well and decided to make it an educational experience for them, by commissioning various statues, frescoes and dioramas that depicted Chinese cultural and Buddhist virtues.
What they might not have mentioned though, is that the brothers had really odd taste to boot. While I wander around and take in the bizarreness, I wonder what the public might have thought, back in the day. I’m not kidding when I say bizarre or eccentric – take a look at some of my photos and tell me if you don’t think the brothers must have been some strange people to be around.
I mean, how bizarre can it really be? (The answer to that: EXTREMELY)
A large part of the sculptures around the park are either fables about having good morals or historical representations.
One of the most popular and memorable parts of the park is the Ten Courts of Hell. I remember this as a boat ride, floating slowly down a dark tunnel and being rather excited about it. Now it’s a path where you can walk along and linger as long as you want, I really wonder what I was thinking as a child because of a lot of what they show is definitely higher than PG rated~
The Ten Courts of hell depict retribution and reincarnation as the Buddhists believe, so you get judged in the first court, with the other 9 courts for various punishments based on your infringements, anywhere from being flash frozen, to being disemboweled or cut into 2.
Rather educational overall if you’re not versed in Chinese culture, but the real highlights of Haw Par Villa for me were the rather random animal statues and representation throughout the park. In the portion that once used to be the main gardens for Haw Par Villa are several rather inexplicable sections that were influenced by animals from around the world. Observe:
All in all, Haw Par Villa makes for a pretty interesting walk-through – particularly for those of us who’ve been there before. For the rest of you visitors to Singapore, it’s a pretty unusual side of Singapore you don’t see much of nowadays, part kitsch and part bizarre, if you’re the sort who enjoys the more obscure, this is somewhere you should visit!
Haw Par Villa
9am – 7pm Daily (10 Courts of Hell closes at 6pm)
Admission is Free
I took about 2 hours to circle the park without a tour, it’s a little hilly so be prepared to walk a bit. Also, no air-conditioning so consider a paper fan or a hat to stay cool – there are benches here and there to sit down.
I recommend taking the train as it’s the most straightforward way to get there.
Train: Alight at Haw Par Villa MRT (Circle Line, yellow) and proceed to Exit A ( CC25 )
Alight at Haw Par Villa Station or Opposite Haw Par Villa Station