Tiger balm. Chinese folklore. Decaying statues. What’s not to love about Haw Par Villa in Singapore? (Maybe the ghosts?)
Warning, this blog contains what could be some disturbing pictures for younger readers. No joke. Don’t let the references to Disneyland fool you. There are no sweet, happy endings at Haw Par Villa, only moral lessons featured often in very graphic, violent stories. Oh, and there are ghosts. You’ve been warned.
Welcome to Haw Par Villa – A Little Bit Violent, A Little Bit Sexist, A LOT of Weird
There are so many ways to describe Haw Par Villa.
Imagine a type of Disneyland built by two Chinese immigrants channeling Tim Burton then abandoned 50 years ago.
If you prefer architecture or art, I could describe it as reminiscent of Antoni Gaudí and Salvador Dalí with a touch of Stephen King.
However I choose to mentally draw that picture, the bottom line is that Haw Par Villa was the weirdest place I’ve ever set foot. Luckily, I really like weird.
Honestly, I couldn’t love this place more. Despite the sticky heat and glaring sun, I didn’t want to leave. I could have wandered around Haw Par Villa all day.
At this Singapore park, life-sized, paint-chipped statues depict ancient stories that have not been sugar-coated by a Disney-like marketing machine, but rather celebrated in their original, oftentimes violent, glory. It’s a place where moral lessons are locked inside mythical creatures and unflinching gore made of ceramics and clay.
The stories are likely familiar to anyone who grew up with Chinese folklore, which I did not. But, most folktales, regardless of origin, pedal in weird and fantastical. The oddness of the tales wasn’t the most surprising part of Haw Par Villa, it was the level of attention paid to the strangest, and oftentimes most disconcerting details, such as the bunching of the fabric as a boy clutched his mother’s skirt or the gruesome lines of blood dripping from the neck of a woman being murdered.
I’m frankly surprised no one has tried to make a horror movie in this place yet. The cheerful colors war with the violence of the stories. And don’t get me started on the misogyny. The women in every story and depiction fall into essentially three categories – perfect mother, temptress or corrupt/angry shrew.
Take the story of the Battle of Yellow River, a subset of the Saga of the Immortals, for example. As told by the story plaques at Haw Par Villa, three sisters (who, by the way, don’t even get names whereas all the men do) want to avenge their brother’s death during a battle to overthrow the King. (Note: the brother’s name is given in full and he dies right at the beginning of the story!) Yes, murder is not nice, but the nameless sisters have a sort of noble reason, or unlike the people in the rest of the story, at least a reason.
With their magical flying scissors, enchanted pearl and black windbag (not sure what that last one is), the sisters succeed in their vengeful endeavor and find they’re pretty good at fighting battles and winning. So, they decide to keep doing it. As the story continues, instead of being called just “the sisters” they become the “wicked sisters” or the “evil sisters” or just plain “witches” because (gasp) they want to take some power for themselves. How dare they try to take power from men! They must be wicked. (I am sure I am butchering the meaning of this Taoist story, but please note I am learning this from brief descriptions on plaques and from that standpoint the story is super sexist!)
In the end, the sisters die by the hands of the story’s “hero,” who I’m really not sure why he’s so heroic in the first place. But, the diorama was very elaborate and kind of beautiful despite the sexist violence.
The Unusual Origins of Haw Par Villa
So who would create a place like this, you ask? Well, this is where tiger balm enters the story. Many may be familiar with what my best friend calls “Bengay on steroids.” The topical cream has been a worldwide bestseller for over 100 years.
Developed by Aw Chu Kin in China in the late 1800s, his two sons, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, brought the Tiger Balm business to Singapore and made it an international success. Aw Boon Haw gave it the name Tiger Balm and Haw Par Villa is formerly known as the Tiger Balm Gardens.
Wanting to use their wealth to give back to the community, the brothers undertook to preserve their Chinese heritage by creating life-sized scenes of Chinese folklore. Boon Haw seems to have been the “mastermind” of the concept and personally supervised the artisans who created many of the parks original fixtures.
Haw Par Villa opened to the public in 1937 and, other than a brief stint during World War II where the Japanese used it as a lookout, the Aw family managed it until the Singapore Tourism board took over in the 1980s.
Haw Par Villa Today
If you asked a Singapore native what to visit on a trip to the beautiful, verdant city-state of Singapore, Haw Par Villa probably wouldn’t make the list. One night our taxi driver was flat out shocked my friend and I went to the strange park. However, it might have been my favorite part of Singapore. It’s not just that it’s unique. There is a sense of devotion and love for these stories beneath the fading paint, an ode to history and culture with all its warts in diorama form.
Think of it as the gardens of Versailles, but made of statues and life-sized dioramas. A mansion once stood at the top of the hill. From that center point, now just an imprint of the foundation, the dioramas and statues spiral outward down twisting walking paths where visitors meander and gawk at a towering statue of Confucius amidst a sort of Planet of the Apes scene or a man being eaten by a shark after he falls off a sinking ship.
Other bright spots include a monkey-headed God, a hero slaying a dragon, or, my favorite, a pig-man pinching the cheek of a mouse-headed woman in a nightcap.
Also, lots and lots and lots of incredibly ornate and beautiful dragons.
And so many mer-people! Mermaids. Half-clam, half-human. Half-turtle, half-human. Half-fish, half-human. It was endless mer-people! (And they were awesome.)
Most of the time a plaque provided the background story of each scene. But sometimes, no plaque existed and then my imagination took over, like the grassy area featuring giant monkey statues and next to fake Koala bears in trees. I’m not sure of the meaning there other than random whimsy or perhaps an untold story of an unusual island filled with talking creatures?
The Haunting of Haw Par Villa
Thanks to a lovely person who commented on my Instagram post about Haw Par Villa, I’ve come to learn it’s supposedly haunted. If only I’d known when I was there!! Upon searching, I found out there are many ghost stories associated with the park, which is apparently one of the most haunted places in Singapore!
In one of my favorite stories, journalists in Singapore stayed overnight at the attraction to test the ghost theory. Honestly, the place is borderline terrifying during the day (in a really great way). I can’t imagine staying there at night! (Part of me REALLY wants to do that and the other part is shaking its head and saying, No, no, no, no, no.)
The journalist tested two myths regarding Haw Par Villa. The first is the classic concept of statues coming alive at night. The other claims a display called The 10 Courts of Hell, which depicts the torture and punishment one is forced to go through to make up for a sinful life, will suck people to hell.
My friend and I did not get to see the 10 Courts of Hell and, therefore, could not test the getting sucked to hell theory. At the entrance of Haw Par Villa, typed white sheets of paper pointed the way to the 10 Courts of Hell. Although we followed the makeshift directionals, we never found the place. In retrospect, that seems a little weird all on its own.
After learning of the ghostly connection to that hellish spot (and later finding pictures of the dioramas), I’m not heartbroken. They’re really scary! See above. They put the other violent depictions we saw at Haw Par Villa to shame. All right, I’m a little heartbroken. I feel like somehow I missed the weirdest part of the weirdest place on earth!
In all seriousness, despite the strangeness of it, I learned a lot about Chinese folklore and ancient stories. As a writer, I love stories in any form (even sexist violent ones 🙂 ). And, I am extra lucky, because right after I left Singapore the park closed down until February for renovations. I hope they don’t renovate away the chipped, worn, perfectly imperfect oddness of it all. That would truly be a shame. If you’re ever in Singapore, I highly recommend this weird gem of a park.
Let’s chat. Anyone want to fight my pick for the weirdest place on earth with an example of their own?