Ten Courts of Hell; Chinese folklore exhibit at Haw Par Villa Singapore

Photo by Choo Yut Shing

One of the oldest existing cultures in the world today, Chinese history stretches back across millennia, and is filled with fascinating stories. History buffs looking to journey through the richness of Chinese tradition and religious beliefs should pay a visit to Haw Par Villa, an Asian cultural park that’s a repository of folklore and storied myths.

The origins of Haw Par Villa

Located on a hill in Pasir Panjang, Haw Par Villa was once known as Tiger Balm Gardens. Lovingly built by Myanmar-born businessman Aw Boon Haw for his brother, Aw Boon Par, the park was named after the Tiger Balm medical ointment that the siblings’ father had created.

Following its construction in 1937, the grounds of the villa were opened to the public, reflecting Boon Haw’s deep passion for Chinese culture and mythology. Boon Haw personally supervised the artisans who created many of the parks original fixtures, in the hope that the park’s depiction of traditional virtues would provide moral guidance to the public.

When war broke out, the Aw family fled Singapore for Yangon (then known as Rangoon). The park was used as an observation point by the Japanese army, and it was only in the post-war years that Aw Boon Haw returned to Singapore, and began to rebuild the park.

From the 1940s to the 1970s, many members of the Aw family contributed to the park’s development. This included Boon Par’s son, Aw Cheng Chye, who made various additions to the park’s dioramas. His passion for travel led to the establishment of the park’s International Corners, which pay tribute to the cultures of the many countries he visited.

The space began to take its modern form in 1985, when the Singapore Tourism Board took over the management of the grounds, and began revitalisation work on the space. The park’s dynamic evolution continues to this current day.

Otherworldly experiences

Haw Par Villa is famous for its vivid depictions of the Ten Courts of Hell from Chinese folklore. Many Singaporeans will cheekily reminisce about being brought there as children by their parents, to learn about the exacting nature of traditional Chinese morality.

Besides its trademark attraction, the cultural park is home to over 1,000 statues and 150 dioramas, depicting surreal scenes from legendary works of Chinese literature such as Journey To The West, Madame White Snake, and the stories of the Eight Immortals.

Modern Tours, Ancient Traditions

While personal exploration of Haw Par Villa is rewarding in its own right, those looking to delve deep into the stories of Haw Par Villa should consider taking the tours provided by the park.

Culture lovers should check out ‘Finding Your Tao In Haw Par Villa: The Tiger Balm Garden Story’. The tour weaves the history of the park with the intriguing stories of Chinese folklore and philosophy. Alternatively, bold seekers of knowledge should pay a visit to Haw Par Villa at twilight, with ‘Journeys To Hell - Death And Afterlife in Haw Par Villa’. This tour focuses on the dioramas depicting the infamous Ten Courts of Hell, and will prove to be both riveting and revelatory.

Tickets to the former can be purchased at Haw Par Villa Visitor Centre, while tickets to the latter tour can be booked here.

Visitor discretion and parental guidance are advised for visitors to the “Ten Courts of Hell” due to the graphic nature of the exhibits. Admission to the park is free.