One of Singapore’s most bizarre attractions, Haw Par Villa is a world lost in time. With statues and tableau that draw on Chinese folklore, legends and mythology, it is a one-of-a-kind park that is firmly off the beaten path.
Built in 1937, the 80-year-old Haw Par Villa was originally the home of the Aw brothers in Singapore. The Burmese brothers had originally made its fortune from the Tiger Balm medicated ointment and the hillside villa was a gift from elder brother Boon Haw to younger sibling, Boon Par.
The landscaped park is decorated with statues that portray scenes from well-known oriental tales. Many of these convey Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist values such as filial piety, respect and loyalty. It was the theme park of its day and offered a form of edutainment before the term was coined.
Examples of stories portrayed in stone at Haw Par Villa include Madame White Snake, a story of good and evil, the Eight Immortals and the folktale Journey to the West.
In an age without television or the Internet, these statues and dioramas conveyed traditional Chinese values and morals to those visiting Haw Par Villa.
Layers of Legends
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Haw Par Villa is divided into four levels cut into the hillside.
The first is where the infamous Ten Courts of Hell can be found. Built as a warning to live a virtuous life, it is filled with disturbing dioramas illustrating the judgments in hell awaiting liars, cheaters, murderers and other unsavoury characters.
It is definitely PG rated and not suitable for young children. Even the route to the Ten Courts of Hell is lined with miniature dismembered heads.
Consider yourself warned.
Thankfully, you can bypass the Ten Courts of Hell and head up to the majority of sculptures are located on the tiers and above.
At Haw Par Villa, a unique feature is that visitors can walk among the sculptures. There is no need for trick eye party tricks here. At some of the dioramas, you can follow little pathways that meander among the sculptures.
At the Eight Immortals diorama, visitors can even explore an underground grotto with multiple exits and entry points.
Sculptures at Haw Par Villa can get a bit graphic, gruesome and grotesque. They are designed to shock in order to capture visitors’ attention.
Remember that inside Haw Par Villa, also known as Tiger Balm Gardens, you are stepping back in time to the 1940s and 1950s and this may not agree with modern sensibilities.
The 1,000 plus sculptures are also under constantly exposed to the elements and many show the passage of time. Over the years, refurbishment efforts have been made but in some respects, the weathered look adds to Haw Par Villa’s surrealistic mystic and authenticity.
In an era before the Singapore Zoo, Haw Par Villa even had its own private zoo. These animals were eventually taken away and replaced by their statue counterparts that can seen across the park – as if the live animals were petrified.
Legacy of the Aw Brothers
You may be wondering where is the actual villa building?
It not longer stands on the grounds that bear its name.
With the outbreak of World War 2, the Aw brothers fled Singapore and abandoned the six-room villa. It was used by the Japanese during the occupation years.
After the war, when Boon Haw returned to Singapore from Hong Kong, he was greeted by a damaged villa and news that his brother had died in 1944 in Burma. He was so anguished that he had the hilltop villa demolished, leaving a void in its place.
Even though the grand villa had only existed for 8 years from 1937 to 1945, it name still lives on to this day.
A pond in the shape of the Aw family name still stands at the top. Incidentally, Haw means Tiger in Chinese while Par stands for Leopard. This is why you will find sculptures of Tigers and Leopards throughout the park.
Around the grounds of Haw Par Villa are memorials to the Aw’s in the form of stupa-shaped monuments. There are four in total. The smallest is for Boon Haw’s son, two medium-sized ones are for Boon Haw and Boon Par while the largest is a monument to the Haw Brother’s parents and is built as the tallest as a mark of respect.
In its heyday, Haw Par Villa had a common place in the lives of Singaporeans and it was Boon Haw’s wish that the public could visit the gardens for free.
It was not uncommon to go on a primary school excursion or family day out to Haw Par Villa. These probably led to some nightmares amongst children growing up in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nowadays, there are far fewer visitors to Haw Par Villa, just the curious few tourists or the odd Singaporeans searching for nostalgia. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most intriguing, bizarre and slightly scary places to visit around Singapore.
Haw Par Villa (Tiger Balm Gardens)
Address: 262 Pasir Panjang Road, Singapore 118628
Opening Hours: 9 am to 7 pm, Daily. Last admission at 6 pm
Admission Cost: Free