Saving Haw Par Villa from (certain) Death

16 11 2017

The unique, quirky and once immensely popular Singaporean attraction, Haw Par Villa, is probably best remembered for the journey it offers its visitors into hell. Its representation of the path to rebirth imagined by the Chinese in its Ten Courts of Hell is gory and uninhibited. With a full suite of the gruesome range of punishments that is thought to be meted out for earthly misdeeds, the experience is certainly one that is not easily forgotten.

Haw Par Villa in its heyday. It drew visitors from all walks of life and of all races. It was especially popular as a destination for an outing during Chinese New Year.

Hell aside, Haw Par Villa is a garden of many delights, which quite sadly seems to have well been forgotten in an age in which attention has shifted to air-conditioned malls and modern attractions. The crowds that Haw Par Villa once drew has reduced to a trickle; a trickle in which inquisitive tourists, and migrant workers who lack welcoming spaces in which to spend to their days off, far outnumber the locals.

The garden attracts hardly a crowd these days.

Haw Par Villa seems to have embarked on its own journey to damnation. Death, it appears, will soon arrive at hell’s doorstep. A museum, a showcase of rituals associated with death in various cultures, now threatens to swallow hell up. Visitors, for the price of a ticket, can come face to face with death and even have the experience of being put in a coffin. The Ten Courts of Hell, it seems, will become a part of that paid death experience.

Death comes to Haw Par Villa.

I had a peek at an exhibition put up of what is to be expected, sans the coffin that was promised. On the basis of what has been put up, it is hard to see how death could aid Haw Par Villa’s cause. Death, as we know, is quite a taboo subject in this part of the world. It is bad enough that Haw Par is already remembered more for its garish version of hell, an added association with death, serves not just to distract from its value and purpose, but may further erode the already negative image many have of Haw Par Villa.

Wielding justice without his hand, Qinguang the god of the underworld at the first court of hell.

Developed by Mr Aw Boon Haw and spread over the sprawling grounds of a magnificent seven-domed villa by the sea he had built in 1937 for his younger brother Boon Par, it was not Mr Aw’s intention to have hell or for that matter, death, celebrated in the garden. Mr Aw had the grounds decorated with figurines and tableaux with scenes from Chinese folklore and the Chinese classics. Displays also contained messages related to traditional values and moral standards and had Buddhist or Taoist themes. Even if it was a private garden, this was done with the public in mind as Mr Aw had planned to have the garden opened to the public to whom the illustrations could provide moral guidance. Mr Aw made a huge effort to ensure the illustrations were accurate in their depiction, personally supervising artisans involved. This also required Mr Aw to retell the stories associated with the scenes being created to his artisans.

The villa’s swimming pool and changing room, 1941 (source: Private George Aspinall via Australian War Memorial, public domain, copyright expired).

The changing room of the swimming pool c.1950 (Harrison Forman Collection).

The changing room displaced.

There have been several deviations from Mr Aw’s original garden. Boon Par had passed on in 1944 in Rangoon and with the house damaged, Mr Aw had it demolished in the early 1950s. With his initial plan to replace the villa with a “grand palace”, modelled along the lines of the Beijing’s Imperial Palace, as well as a subsequent proposal for a 200 feet high pagoda, rejected by local authorities, Mr Aw set out instead to expand the range of tableaux. It was also in the 1950s, that a purge against “yellow culture”, resulted in the modification and dressing up of several nude figurines.

The gardens, which was opened to the public, was popular with both locals and visitors alike. Here, Australian nurses are seen visiting it in September 1941 (source: Australian War Memorial, public domain, copyright expired).

Australian nurses visiting Haw Par Villa (with the villa seen in the background) in September 1941 (source: Australian War Memorial, public domain, copyright expired).

Boon Par’s son Cheng Chye introduced several displays that broke with the garden’s theme and its Chinese flavour after his uncle’s death in 1954. An avid traveller, Cheng Chye put up International Corners to mark his overseas trips, which contributed to the garden’s quirkiness, even if it altered its character. Judging from the numerous photographs found online, the figurines Cheng Chye introduced, were popular spots to have photographs taken at.

Yours truly mimicking the tiki at the New Zealand (International) corner in 1976. The tiki was removed during the remaking of the gardens into a theme park in the late 1980s.

The biggest change came to the garden in the late 1980s. Haw Par Villa, which had lost its lustre by this time, had come into the hands of the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, STPB (the current day Singapore Tourism Board, STB). At a cost of some S$80 million, a partnership formed by F&N and Times Publishing, turned the garden into the Haw Par Villa Dragon World. The theme park featured a water ride into a Ten Courts Of Hell that was swallowed by a dragon. The conversion resulted in several of the garden’s displays removed, including several of the International Corners. Haw Par Villa Dragon World, which opened in 1990, ran at a loss for most of its operational period and closed 11 years later in 2001.

The dragon that swallowed hell up – during its theme park days.

It would seem that Haw Par Villa has not recovered since, even the attempt to revive interest with a relaunch of it in 2014 as part of STB’s Tourism50 initiative. That promised much, but very little seems to have been delivered thus far. A contract, that if my memory serves me right was worth something to the order of $7 million, was awarded to a local operator in August 2015 for the running of the park and its rejuvenation. This, based  on a 15 October 2015 op-ed by Melody Zaccheus in the Straits Times, should have included the opening of five dining outlets and the transformation of the park into a place for art exhibitions, performances, flea markets, and yoga, taiji and wushu sessions. More than two years into this, little except that is for sketchy mentions of intent and promises for an application for UNESCO Heritage listing to be submitted, seems to have been done.

A view of the “Signature Pond” c.1950 (Harrison Forman Collection).

Drowning in sorrow – thin crowds and a now submerged Signature Pond .

Describing the garden as a “unique Chinese cultural resource”, “the only one of its kind left in the world”, the writer opined that urgent attention was needed with regards to its conservation. Little also seems to have moved in this respect since then. A heritage survey would have been conducted based on what was also mentioned. It would be interesting to see what, if anything, that could tell us about the park’s potential for conservation.

A display that has since been censored. A depiction of the Spider Spirits who attempted to impede the progress of the Monk Xuanzang in the story Journey to the West by trying to entice him through their transformation into beautiful maidens (source: G. Bertschinger on Flickr, Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0).

The spider spirits were modified to appear less provocative and clothed in response to a movement against “yellow culture” in the 1950s.

The urgency to have Haw Par Villa conserved is certainly there with the development of the Greater Southern Waterfront looming over the horizon. That may not be due for some time yet, but this being Singapore, the planning effort for that would surely be carried out well in advance. Haw Par Villa, if it isn’t already in it, has to be part of that plan.

A Datuk Kong, who has quite clearly been resettled.

The park’s value from a heritage perspective, is not just in the lessons in Chinese values and culture it offers, but also for it as a showcase of a well forgotten side Chinese culture. Brought in by our less refined Chinese immigrant forefathers, it serves to remind us as well as tie us to a less refined side of a culture than isn’t necessary the same as the Chinese culture that is pervasive today. The garden is also a monument to the legacy of Mr Aw Boon Haw, who besides putting Singapore on the map with Tiger Balm, made significant contributions to society and was well regarded as a philanthropist. The park, built at a time when the municipality lacked public recreational spaces, is a reminder of this.

An ad for UTA French Airlines in 1965 suggesting a stopover in Singapore for its attractions, one of which was the “fantastic presentation of Chinese mythology at Haw Par Villa”.

The challenge in preserving Haw Par Villa for our future generations is in the revival and the subsequent maintenance of interest and relevance. In a letter written to the press on 31 Oct 2017, Mr Toh Cheng Seong expressed concern on the Death Museum and at the same time, provided several useful ideas. Rather than going on their own, STB and its operator will do well to seek input from the likes of Mr Toh, members of the wider community – young and old alike, and subject experts. For the attraction’s dying ambers to be rekindled, it has to be in the hearts and minds of all of us in Singapore. Any attempt to move ahead with none of us in mind will surely see the last of the 20,000 lights that Haw Par Villa once had a reputation for, extinguished.

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New journeys to the west

20 03 2014

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.

The gory Haw Par Villa - a one time favourite outing destination.

The gory Haw Par Villa – a one time favourite outing destination.

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.

A journey to the west.

A journey to the west.

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.

Riding not the tiger but the leopard in 1976.

Riding not the tiger but the leopard in 1976 – Singapore residents are encourage to relive Haw Par Villa’s past.

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.

Haw Par Villa, a hidden treasure.

Haw Par Villa, a hidden treasure.

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!

Reliving Haw Par Villa through food.

Reliving Haw Par Villa through food.

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.

The popular cure-all balm being marketed at Reliving Haw Par Villa - must have cured Singapore of the long dry spell.

The popular cure-all balm being marketed at Reliving Haw Par Villa – must have cured Singapore of the long dry spell.

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.

The Tourism50 Postcards.

The Tourism50 Postcards.

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.

The rain did deter not visitors over the first weekend.

The rain did deter not visitors over the first weekend.

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

Singapore's most photographed archway in the rain.

Singapore’s most photographed archway in the rain.


Haw Par Villa over the years
JeromeLim 277A3840
 
 
Haw Par Villa did once feature in the lives of many of us in a Singapore. A place to head over to for a school excursion or a family outing, it must, judging from the many photographs of it over the years, possibly have been one of the most photographed attractions in Singapore in days well before the modern icons of tourist Singapore were created.
Once by the sea, Haw Par Villa has seen the shoreline gradually being moved away over the years. The Pasir Panjang terminal is now seen on more recently reclaimed land.

Once by the sea, Haw Par Villa has seen the shoreline gradually being moved away over the years. The Pasir Panjang terminal is now seen on more recently reclaimed land where the sea once was.

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.

A photograph from a visit in November 1976.

A photograph from a visit in November 1976.

Stupa-shaped memorials to the Aws are now seen in the grounds.

Stupa-shaped memorials to the Aws are now seen in the grounds.

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.

Spider spirits who have seen their levels of modesty adjusted through the years.

Spider spirits who have seen their levels of modesty adjusted through the years.

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.

Dioramas high on messages of morals and Confucian ethics are found ih the gardens,

Dioramas high on messages of morals and Confucian ethics are found in the gardens.

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.

Hell freezing over. The second court in which being hell is frozen for sins such as robbery and corruption.

Hell freezing over. The second court of hell in which hell is frozen for sins such as robbery and corruption.

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.

Steps to a lost villa. The terrace where the villa that Aw Boon Haw built for his brother once stood.

Steps to a lost villa. The terrace where the villa that Aw Boon Haw built for his brother once stood.

The entrance archway leading to what had been Boon Par's villa.

The entrance archway leading to what had been Boon Par’s villa.

The archway seen in 1976.

The archway seen in 1976.

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.

The tiki at the New Zealand corner in 1976.

The tiki at the New Zealand corner in 1976.

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. 

A graphic journey through the Chinese interpretation of purgatory in the journey to reincarnation.

A graphic journey through the Chinese interpretation of purgatory in the 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.

JeromeLim 277A2413


 







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