People often say that Singapore is sterile – modern and efficient and sadly, boring. For anyone looking for alternative things to do in Singapore, skip the popular Chinese heritage enclave of Chinatown and head down to Haw Par Villa instead to get a bizarre look at Chinese culture.
This Chinese culture theme park was slated to be one of Singapore’s major tourist attractions back in the day, though these days it is more of a nostalgic curiosity and is somewhat shabby and mostly forgotten. Haw Par Villa is still home to some of the weirdest sculptures I’ve seen though, and worth a visit if you like quirky attractions without a crowd (and also… free!).
Haw Par Villa’s History
Haw Par Villa 虎豹別墅 is also known as the Tiger Balm Gardens – it was built in the 1930s by two brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par who are much more famous for the creation of Tiger Balm, the miraculous muscle rub many Asians grew up with.
History buffs can read a more detailed history in Singapore’s e-library, but the short version is that these two brothers became really successful and rich from hawking Tiger Balm, and brother Boon Haw built Haw Par Villa as a gift for his brother Boon Par. While the estate was considered private property, the brothers opened up the gardens to the public, in part to educate them about important Chinese cultural values and ethics, but also as an advertisement for the Tiger Balm.
I had all but forgotten about the existence of Haw Par Villa until the Singapore Tourism Board started promoting it during the SG50 celebrations as a new heritage spot. My memories of Haw Par Villa are very nostalgia, rooted in school excursions in the 90s when the park was in its prime. But even at that tender age, I was struck with the feeling that this park was a little bizarre, and revisiting it as an adult proved that I wasn’t wrong and made me wonder what my school teachers must have thought back in the day, shepherding us around this really eccentric park.
Exploring the weirdly wonderful Haw Par Villa
Nowadays you can sign up for a tour with a guide to tell you more about Haw Par Villa, which I think will be quite enlightening if you are new to Chinese history and folklore, but there is a certain fun in just wandering around all clueless because of the oddities in every corner.
Haw Par Villa isn’t very big – you can easily explore it in 1-2 hours depending on how fascinated you are by the weird statues all around and how many pictures you try to take. It is pretty hilly in some spots, prepare for a little stair and slope climbing. And of course, Singapore’s legendary humid weather means you need to be prepared to sweat it out a little even if you are standing still.
Dioramas of Chinese fables and stories
All around the park are various dioramas that depict scenes from Buddhism, Taoism, Chinese history and mythology. The idea that the brothers had back then apparently was to use these statues to educate the poorer and less literate folk who might not have been able to read about these stories in books, and thus impart these important values to make them better people through an alternative method of storytelling.
The stories depicted in the dioramas are a whole mishmash from across history, from famous stories like Journey to the West and the 8 Immortals Crossing the Sea, to more moralistic tales that tell of filial piety, honesty and loyalty. Some of the dioramas are very elaborate, consisting of hundreds of mini statues; Others are larger than life and strangely fantastical. You have to wonder about creative license though – I enjoy just taking a closer look at the the statues to see if I can find any really trippy ones of which there are many. The weirdest ones to me are the half-human half-animal depictions as well as the humanised animal ones.
The 10 Courts of Hell
The most famous section of Haw Par Villa that any one who has ever visited it back in the day is the 10 Courts of Hell, an idea rooted in the Buddhist belief that you reap what you sow. Basically the belief is that all your sins in life are punishable in death, and the worst your sin, the more epically gory your torture will be. Whether or not you believe in it, just know that this was a pretty effective way for adults to scare naive children into good behaviour, and a back-of-the-mind reminder for others to keep on the straight and narrow.
In my youth, this tunnel used to have water and the entire journey was a slow boat ride where people would pile into little rickety boats and float down this dark tunnel, lined on both sides with scenes from hell. These days you have to walk, which actually gives you more chance to linger and gawk at these gory scenes up close.
The tunnel takes you through the journey of death and reincarnation – you start from the time of death and judgement where y our sins are weighed against a feather, and then through the 10 levels of punishment and suffering, and finally just before you exit is the last court of hell that determines what you get reincarnated as. There are lots of helpful little informational panels around to tell you which level of hell you are in and what type of punishment you are witnessing.
The International bits
Chinese history and mythology aside, some of the statues that you can see in the park are distinctly non-Chinese. Examples of this weirdness: the giant gorilla statues, the oddly purple koala and kangaroo, and even some sumo wrestlers and panda bears which tells you what nationalities they were targeting back then.
It turns out that in the 1950s after the wars and both brothers had passed on, their nephew Aw Cheng Chye decided that he wanted to add to the garden. Unlike his uncles, his additions were of a more international flavour and involved sculptures of cultures from around the world. Also in the 1980s, the tourism board had a vision to redevelop the park into an ‘Oriental Disneyland’ of sorts, which… you can see that didn’t quite work out.
But what it ultimately lead to is the fact that a lot of these statues are just… plain bizarre. Seriously, you have to question how they came up with some of these things because you definitely couldn’t be sober or sane for some of these statues.
Ultimately, Haw Par Villa makes for a pretty interesting walk-through whether it’s new to you or you have fond nostalgic memories like I do. This bizarre combination of kitsch and culture makes for a rather unusual sight to see that most tourists wouldn’t associate in Singapore, so if you are bored of the fancy polished attractions, consider making a trip to Haw Par Villa for some strangeness.
The place is a little rundown but still in decent shape, though I think the shabbiness adds to the character of the place. Haw Par Villa is often used as an alternative event venue from everything including music concerts and escape games, so keep a lookout on their website for more news.
How to get to Haw Par Villa
Open 9am – 10pm Daily (10 Courts of Hell closes at 9.30pm)
Park admission is Free, but if you drive, parking your car costs S$5
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 MRT 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
Haw Par Villa is located at 262 Pasir Panjang Road, Singapore 118628
The location is right along West Coast Highway, opposite the port area at Pasir Panjang Terminal so not that much to explore in the immediate vicinity. However, you are close to several parks like West Coast Park, Labrador Nature Reserve that used to be a British battlement, and Hort Park which has some nice fine dining options and connects you to the Southern Ridges for a nature trail with a view.
Don’t just visit the Merlion on your next Singapore trip – check out alternative things to do in Singapore beyond the touristy sights.