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. This Chinese culture themed park was slated to be one of Singapore’s major tourist attractions, though these days it is more of a nostalgic curiousity 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!).
A bit of history about Haw Par Villa
Haw Par Villa 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 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 mostly nostalgia – 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 reinforced that thought and made me wonder what my school teachers must have thought back in the day, shepherding us around a really eccentric park.
Exploring the weirdly wonderful Haw Par Villa
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 the garden. It is pretty hilly in some spots, prepare for a little stair and slope climbing. Be prepared to sweat it out a little as well.
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 apparently was to educate the poorer and less literate folk who might not have been able to read about these stories, and thus learn these important values to make them better people. It’s a whole mishmash of stuff, from the more famous stories like Journey to the West and the 8 immortals crossing the sea, to more moralistic tales of filial piety, honesty and loyalty.
The depictions are very elaborate – some consisting of hundreds of mini statues, while others are larger than life. My favourite thing to do is observe the statues and see if I can find any really trippy ones. My favourites are the half-human half-animal depictions.
The 10 Courts of Hell
The most famous section of Haw Par Villa has to be the 10 Courts of Hell, which i s based on the Buddhist belief that you reap what you sow – all your sins in life are punishable in death, and in very epic gory ways to boot. if anyone grew up with nightmares of Haw Par Villa, it would usually be of these scenes of suffering. They are what adults used to scare naive children into good behaviour.
This used to be a 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 gives you more chance to linger and study these gory scenes up close. There are lots of little informational panels around to tell you what type of hell exactly you are experiencing at that moment. The tunnel takes you from the time of death and judgement, to the punishment and suffering, and finally the last court of hell determines what you get reincarnated as.
If you are visiting in the late afternoon, start here first as the 10 Courts of Hell closes an hour before the actual park does. The signs estimate you will take about 20 minutes to explore this area. There are some statues at the end of the tunnel, but you will need to backtrack to the entrance to see the rest of the park.
The international flavour
Some of the statues in the park are distinctly non-Chinese. For example, the giant gorillas or the oddly purple koala and kangaroo, and even sumo wrestlers and panda bears.
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.
It also means that a lot of these statues are just… plain bizarre. Who comes up with some of these things honestly.
All in all, 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 in Singapore. 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.
While visiting in 2017, I saw signs of some construction works happening at what was once known as the Hua Song Museum dedicated to the Chinese diaspora (it closed in 2012), but it is not known whether that museum will reopen or if something new will take its place.
How to get to Haw Par Villa
9am – 7pm Daily (10 Courts of Hell closes at 6pm)
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 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
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. The arts lovers can head to the Gillman Barracks, home to art galleries in former British barracks, and the tourist island of Sentosa and the cable cars from Mount faber are also a short drive away.
Head this way for ideas on alternative things to do in Singapore beyond the touristy sights.