Haw Par Villa – or why Chinese culture sometimes boggles me

Haw Par Villa - Signage
The impressive signage at the main entrance to Haw Par VIlla – it’s pretty hard to miss!

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.

Haw Par Villa - Entrance
Walk further inside and you’ll see this archway

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.

Haw Par Villa - Tiger Gate
Opening the Tiger Gate! That Chinese character is ‘Hu’ or Haw, which is what Boon Haw was named for – Cultured/Gentle Tiger! (His bro Boon Par is Cultured Leonard)
Haw Par Villa - Car
Talk about out of the box – the brothers used to drive this car around to sell their wares! It’s a completely tricked out classic car, and roars if you press the horn apparently!

I mean, how bizarre can it really be? (The answer to that: EXTREMELY)

Haw Par Villa - Panda
Should have been quite clear that this park was gonna be a little hinky when I saw these Joker-mouthed pandas near the entrance…

A large part of the sculptures around the park are either fables about having good morals or historical representations.

Haw Par Villa - Turtle Ship
This depicts the story of a boy who set a turtle free from being sold to the market. When the boy became a man, the ship he was travelling in started to sink (observe the man eating sharks), but his faithful turtle came along to rescue him – something about earning good karma i think.
Haw Par Villa - Battle
This is one of the historical ones. Yawn.
Haw Par Villa - Kick
This cracks me up because the guy totally kicked the other dude in his crotch! The story behind this one goes that the Emperor found out his officials were mistreating his long-lost poor brother, so his decree was that they would be executed if his brother was found to have lost a single gram. The officials in blue here are trying to weigh the brother, who is apparently rather overweight in this diorama.

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~

Haw Par Villa - 10courtsofhell
Scary… not! Rather gruesome and macabre… completely.

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.

Haw Par Villa - 10courts punishment
yeah i mean, what~ that is a guy getting sawed in two
Haw Par Villa - 10courts torture
In this other one, people are getting CRUSHED.

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:

Haw Par Villa - Ape
This scary chimp is the biggest of the lot! He also looks rather distressed. There were several country themes, including an Australian section (with kangaroos and koalas), and this African ape one.
Haw Par Villa - Bao Gong
Look out for the giant heads! This one is a Hell God, and has rather scraggly facial hair. Not all the sculptures come with description, so sometimes it’s easier to make up your own stories
Haw Par Villa - Crab Lady
I can’t even begin to fathom what the point of this woman-headed crab is supposed to mean
Haw Par Villa - Crickets
2 giant crickets fight, egged on by rather gangster-y animals. You can admire the shipyards of Pasir Panjang in the distance.
Haw Par Villa - giraffe
The giraffe takes on the goat, with a leg-sized ant. Why are they fighting? Who knows?
Haw Par Villa - Mermaid
These mermaids perplexed me as much as the lady head crab. And yes, that is a rather acrobatic mermaid right there
Haw Par Villa - Ostrich Turtle
Another favourite is this anthromorphic turtle astride an ostrich. Observe the toad with a walking stick behind.

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 - blue circle

Tourist Information:

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.

Getting There
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 )
Bus: 10,30,51,143,175,176,188,200
Alight at Haw Par Villa Station or Opposite Haw Par Villa Station

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4 comments to Haw Par Villa – or why Chinese culture sometimes boggles me

  1. Awesome blog! Really funny and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. I’ll be visiting Singapore for the first time this April, I’ll see if I could fit this in my itinerary.

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