Once a place in Singapore that drew in the crowds, the gory, somewhat gaudy but mystical gardens that a tiger built, Haw Par Villa or Tiger Balm Gardens, has worn the look of another discarded icon of the past. It would have been a place that would have featured in many a childhood outing in simpler days. I for one, have an abundance of snapshots taken from times when I was held in my parents arms to the latter stages of my childhood. It really was such a shame to see an attraction that had once captured the imagination of local residents and tourists alike, suffer from neglect as our attention turned towards the new-age attractions of a Singapore we were not.
It is certainly a welcome sign to see that an attempt is now being made by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to revive interest in the fascinating world that Aw Boon Haw, the “Tiger Balm King” had built around a villa erected for his brother Boon Par, especially in a way that is very much in keeping to the spirit of what Boon Haw had wished for, expressing just prior to his death in 1954 – that the gardens should be kept open to the public to enter for free.
Getting Singapore residents to reconnect with its attractions of the past is what the STB – the custodian of the grounds since the Singapore government’s acquisition of it in 1985, aims to do as it celebrates its fiftieth year of promoting tourism, starting with Haw Par Villa. The effort sees a three-phased approach that will attempt to get us in Singapore to Reminisce, Rediscover, Celebrate.
Through the effort, Tourism50, STB hopes to raise awareness and appreciation of past as well as more recent tourism developments, and more importantly, encourage interest and participation. And as part of the series of events STB has planned for Tourism50, Haw Par Villa will host two weekends of activities, Reliving Haw Par Villa. The first on the weekend of 15/16 March, drawing the crowds – the very welcome downpour not at all dampening the spirits.
The weekend activities – there is one more weekend to look forward to on 22 and 23 March 2014, include free guided tours from 9.30 am to 4 pm (registration is required at the Tour Registration booth). The tours will be conducted by local heritage tour specialist, Journeys, in both English and Mandarin. The will also be cultural performances such as storytelling, skits, puppet shows and acrobatic displays, to look forward to, as well as a vintage flea market and most importantly, food! On the subject of food – do keep a look out for the to-die-for Durian Creme Brulee, for which I would return to hell (one of the attractions Haw Par Villa is very well known for is the Ten Courts of Hell) many times over!
The activities do go on throughout the day with the first at 11 am and the last starting at 5 pm. Admission as is in more recent times is free. It does pay to be early though as the first 1,000 visitors each day can look forward to a Tourism50 goodie bag. If you do intend to visit, do note that car park will be closed during the event and getting there by public transport is probably the best option.
Besides the goodies in the bag, do also keep a look out for the Tourism50 postcards. Designed by local freelance illustrator and Architecture student Richard Li, the postcards feature icons of the past like Haw Par Villa, Sentosa Monorail and Raffles Hotel. Besides being made available at the event, you will also find the cards at the ZoCard racks, in all community libraries, at the Singapore Visitors Centre, the Chinatown Heritage Centre, all Sentosa ticketing counters and at the Singapore Tourism Board (Tourism Court) from 15 March 2014.
Local residents who mail the postcards to their friends and loved ones will get to enter a Lucky Draw that offers a top prize of a 2D1N Grand Hotel Suite Staycation at Raffles Hotel Singapore (includes Limousine Transfer + Breakfast & Dinner for 2). Other prizes on offer include 50 Sentosa Islander Family Membership (1 year), and 50 paris of FORMULA 1 SINGAPORE GRAND PRIX Walkabout Tickets.
More information on Tourism50, activities, on Haw Par Villa, the event at Haw Par Villa and also the lucky draw can be found at www.xinmsn.com/rediscoversg and at lifestyle.xin.msn.com/en/rediscoversg/reliving-haw-par-villa
Haw Par Villa over the years
For me, it was one of the places from which I do possess an abundance of photographs taken through my childhood and a place I did enjoy that occasional visit to. This, in spite of it being the source of more than a few nightmares, that is, until the time a dragon gobbled it up.
The dragon, Haw Par Villa Dragon World, was a vain and rather costly attempt by the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB), which in its current incarnation is the STB, to turn the previously free to visit gardens, into a theme park. The theme park had been an attempt to revive interest in an attraction for which time seemed to have left well behind – it was literally crumbling in the face of its huge maintenance costs, following the acquisition of it in 1985 by the Singapore government.
Some S$80 million was expanded during a two year makeover that took place from 1988 to 1990. That saw the gardens being refurbished and several displays removed. Rides were also installed, including what some of my younger friends tell me was a memorable water ride in their childhood, for the wrong reasons, into the horrifying ten courts of hell. Reopened as Haw Par Villa Dragon World in 1990, it did not live up to its promise and as soon as the novelty wore off, visitor numbers fell and huge running losses were incurred. It eventually closed in 2001 and with its closure, there were fears that the dying embers of an attraction that certainly was like none on the island, was soon to be extinguished.
It was nice to see that the park not only was kept open by the STB, but also that admission to it was kept free in keeping with what Aw Boon Haw had wished. It does now draw a steady stream of visitors although not in anyway near the visitor numbers of its heyday when it would be packed with local residents especially on public holidays. It was initially on certain public holidays that Aw Boon Haw had opened what was really the private grounds of a villa that offered a magnificent view of the nearby sea in Pasir Panjang, which he had built for his younger brother Boon Par.
The actual villa, a model of which can be seen at Haw Par Villa today, was erected in 1937. Boon Haw filled the sprawling grounds with figurines and dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese mythology such as the 8 Immortals and the Journey to the West, along with many that offered lessons in Confucian values. The gardens were said to be badly damaged during the Japanese occupation during which time Boon Par passed away in Rangoon in 1944. Boon Haw was said to have demolished the villa out of anguish when he returned after the war.
Boon Haw did however restore the gardens to it former glory adding to it over the years until his death in 1954. Following his death, new flavours were added to the grounds by his nephew, Aw Cheng Chye, creating “international corners” within the gardens. In the corners, Cheng Chye erected figurines associated with countries he had travelled, adding them through the 1960s until his death in 1971. While some of these are still around such as the Statue of Liberty and the Sumo Wrestlers all seemingly a curious addition to the largely Chinese themed gardens, several did get gobbled up by the dragon. One that did get removed was one of my favourites – a 4.5 metre Maori tiki (with two accompanying kiwis) at what had been a New Zealand corner that was installed in January 1966.
One part of Haw Par Villa that will be difficult for any visitor to forget is the Ten (previously eighteen) Courts of Hell. It was through the Ten Courts – stages through the Chinese interpretation of purgatory in the process of reincarnation, living souls were taken on a slow boat to see its many gruesome scenes, then tucked away in belly of the theme park’s dragon. It was seeing it on foot during the pre-dragon world visits that must have been the source of many of my nightmares, the scenes all very graphic in depicting the many horrible punishments that awaited the souls of sinners in their journey to reincarnation.
It is perhaps a journey of reincarnation that Haw Par Villa is itself embarked on, one in which it has been punished for sins not entirely of its doing. It would certainly be wonderful if the journey is one in which we will see the return of what has for too long, been a lost and wandering soul.