Mention a theme park to most children and you will see excited faces at the thought of cartoon characters and kiddy rides at Disneyland or Universal Studios. While Universal Studios Singapore in Sentosa only opened recently in 2010, another theme park, Haw Par Villa has long existed off the west coast of Singapore since 1937.
Calling it a different kind of theme park would be a huge understatement. It is a Chinese mythological theme park with a collection of over 1,000 statues and 150 giant dioramas from Chinese folklore and tales. The Ten Courts of Hell, its biggest highlight, would challenge the most composed of souls who bravely walk through the gory scenes of trial and torture.
In its heyday, it was a family affair and thousands packed Haw Par Villa. Today, it is a surreal scene. A first-time visitor will feel like he or she has stepped into a different realm. Other than several visitors and a few caretakers, the only companion one has is the assortment of statues that seem to stare at you in the contentment of stale silence all around.
Originally named Tiger Balm Gardens, it was built by Boon Haw (Tiger) and Boon Par (Leopard), the two sons of Aw Chu Kin, a Burmese Chinese herbalist better known as the inventor of the Tiger Balm ointment. Boon Haw, the older of the two acquired this hillside land off Pasir Panjang Road in 1935 and spent US$1.95 million and two years building Tiger Balm Gardens.
Other than building a place of residence for his younger brother Boon Par, Boon Haw also intended to create a public space of recreation for families to visit and recount Chinese folklore. When it opened in March 1937, crowds poured in. It was an attraction that was one of a kind. During World War II, it was abandoned and the Japanese used its hillside location as a lookout point for ships at sea.
In 1988, Singapore Tourism Board took over the management of Tiger Balm Gardens and renamed it Haw Par Villa Dragon World. With that, the damaged statues were restored and facilities added. There were acrobatic and puppet shows and two water rides – a slow boat through a dragon’s body and the Ten Courts of Hell and a rollercoaster-like flume ride.
However the exorbitant entrance fees of around $15 deterred visitors from returning. Free entry was eventually implemented in 1998. The boat rides and entertainment displays ceased, and most importantly, the crowds diminished. It was renamed back to Tiger Balm Gardens in 2001.
Entry remains free today and visitors have the added convenience of the Haw Par Villa MRT Station, which opened in 2011 at its entrance. The Ten Courts of Hell is a spooky walkthrough experience now. If you are guilty of wasting food or misusing books, you are punished at the Sixth Court of Hell by having your body sawn into two. For cheating in examinations, your intestines and organs are pulled out in the Eighth Court of Hell. No surprises that Haw Par Villa is not a playground for children.
I suggest you bring your next date to Haw Par Villa.