Haw Par Villa: great and amusing for the adults, slightly more traumatising for the children. We take a hike in this oddball of a place.
Attractions in Singapore are aplenty from architectural gems to heritage monuments but if you like something offbeat and slightly less touristy, Haw Par Villa is your kind of place. Away from the crowds of Chinatown or Orchard Road, this technicolour park sits on the West Coast of Singapore and known for its statues and dioramas depicting scenes from legends and myths that combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Chinese history and mythology – the most famous being the 10 Courts of Hell. Think Disneyland but a little bit heavier on the morals and conscience aspect.
The villa was originally built in 1937 on the sprawling grounds of a magnificent villa by the sea by entrepreneur and philanthropist Aw Boon Haw (whose name means ‘Gentle Tiger’). He’s perhaps best known for introducing the topical ointment Tiger Balm to the world, for his younger brother, Aw Boon Par (‘Gentle Leopard’). After the death of his younger brother, Boon Haw demolished the villa. Their names are the first you’ll see when you walk in the gates of the park – flanked with statues of a tiger and leopard.
The version we see today is a deviated version of the original garden. After demolishing the house the whole site was eventually passed on to the Singapore Tourism Board, which expanded the park, added rides and made it a ticketed attraction for the first time. But interest for the place decreased and the tourists waned and once again it fell to disrepair.
Even after the makeover, there are still remnants of the old grounds, which are fenced and out of bounds for visitors. With an MRT station of its own next to it, the park still pulls its share of tourists and curious sorts today.
A nightmare to remember
If you find yourself at this park, it’s probably because of things you’ve heard and pictures you might have seen of the terrifying, yet campy 10 Courts of Hell. Got a unruly and undisciplined child you need to scare? That gentle reading of Dante’s Inferno won’t do. Well known for being the place many Singaporean children got dragged to to scare them out of being naughty and even thinking of doing something naughty, the 10 Courts of Hell exhibit is the main attraction of the park.
“I was brought here by my aunt as a punishment. So imagine walking through the Gates of Hell as a kid whose only crime was being hella cute with a hint of mischievousness. Needless to say, it was a unique way of learning a lesson (or two).”
Cam Khalid, Lifestyle Writer
“My family’s idea of a family day out was… Haw Par Villa. I was five when I first visited Haw Par Villa – there were entry fees and all! As a kid, I couldn’t really register what Haw Par Villa was and felt very confused at the giant statues and how weird they were and all the things happening in the Courts of Hell. It wasn’t fear, just a lot of confusion for me!”
Darissa Lee, Photographer
“It’s been 20 years since I went to Haw Par Villa and I remember how meh I was about the Courts of Hell and everything else in the park. I mean, I get why some parents might use it as an opportunity to discipline a kid but it really is such a strange park…”
Jacp Fong, Account Director
As an adult making my first visit to this outlandish theme park of sorts, I was fascinated with the macabre and camp factor of the exhibit. There’s a place in hell for everyone, basically – it’s very specific – from tax evaders and exam cheaters to tomb raiders (sorry Lara Croft) and ‘money lenders who charge exorbitant rates’ (all the banks, watch out). While my moral conscience was still intact, I admit that the end of the tunnel was a welcoming sight.
Moving on from hell…
And when it’s not focused on the gruesome ways you’ll suffer in hell, the other statues and fixtures in the park are worth checking out too. From vices and virtues of Buddhism to various animals (koalas, seals, rats and snakes) with strange expressions, and even mermaids (which are actually part of Chinese mythology from 4 BC!), it was an enlightening experience to stroll around the park.
Maybe just don’t go on your own, and in the scorching heat. Even for someone who has never been before, I felt nostalgic for a place I never got to experience in its time, in its glory days.
Haw Par Villa, 262 Pasir Panjang Rd, Singapore 118628
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