Singapore’s most fascinating tourist attraction or the Courts of Hell? We find out!
I remember the first time my parents brought me to Haw Par Villa when I was six years old. Boy, was I petrified! As our little shaky wooden boat travelled down the river and into the dragon’s gaping mouth (in the 90s, a river ran through it rather than a walkway), I thought we were going to see animatronic dragons. Alas, the sights that awaited proved to be a lot more terrifying. I witnessed little clay humans being tortured by demons in a thousand different ways, for a thousand different sins. That visit left me with bed-wetting nightmares for two weeks, mostly of a human-headed crab clipping my toes off with its giant pincers.
For most of my peers and I, Haw Par Villa was less of a tourist attraction and more a theme park of cautionary tales. Do not steal, do not lie and, for heaven’s sake, do not lust after women. Those lessons were drilled into our minds and, even today, I still remember the human-headed crab (I still don’t like crabs).
However, times have certainly changed. With its 60-metre long dragon demolished, admission charges abolished and visitor numbers diminished, Haw Par Villa is now a fascinating place to visit. Read on to find out the five things you never knew about Haw Par Villa, and how its history really revolved around a family’s love.
1. From Tiger Balm to Haw Par Villa
When you have a splitting headache or a sore knee cap, what do you turn to? A bottle of Tiger Balm, of course! This handy bottle of ointment has been taking care of our ailments since it was invented in the 1870s. However, did you know that the men behind Tiger Balm were the ones responsible for Haw Par Villa? Herbalist Aw Chu Kin, also the inventor of Tiger Balm, had three sons: Aw Boon Leng (the Dragon), Aw Boon Haw (the Tiger) and Aw Boon Par (the Leopard). Of the three, Boon Haw and Boon Par were the closest. In fact, Boon Haw loved his younger brother Boon Par so much that, in 1935, he acquired a hill-side property along Pasir Panjang Road and spent US$1.95 million to build, for his brother, what was known as the Tiger Balm Gardens. Later, Tiger Balm Gardens was renamed Haw Par Villa after the two brothers’ names.
2. The Real Haw Par Villa
For Boon Haw, building a theme park for his brother wasn’t nearly enough. Before the rest of Tiger Balm Gardens was conceived, Boon Haw enlisted the help of Ho Kwong Yew, one of the leading architects of the Modern Movement in Singapore. Ho chose to build the villa at the highest point of the hill, allowing for a panoramic view of the sea. The villa housed a total of six rooms, including a central hall, two bedrooms, a drawing room, a dressing room and a dining room. As Ho typically favoured the use of reinforced concrete, which allowed for dramatic architectural curves and shapes, the villa also featured six encircling domes and a central dome. Back in the 1930s, the villa at Tiger Balm Gardens was considered one of the most beautiful mansions ever built in Singapore.
3. The Legendary Tiger Cars
To facilitate transport from the top of the hill, the Aw Brothers had special “Tiger Cars” built. The first Tiger Car, a German NSU, was made in 1927, with a tiger head covering the radiator and two fangs protruding from the tiger’s jaws. The second Tiger Car, a Humber, was built in 1932, and had two red bulbs built into the tiger’s eyes. This second Tiger Car even has the number plate of 8989, which vaguely sounds like “Long Prosperity” in Hokkien. Incidentally, the Tiger Cars also became effective marketing materials for the Tiger Balm brand and can still be found in the original garage in Haw Par Villa today.
4. The Japanese Watch Tower
Even though Boon Haw’s Tiger Balm Gardens was completed in 1937, Boon Par, the younger brother, did not live there for long. Shortly after the villa’s completion, World War II erupted throughout East Asia While Boon Haw fled to Hong Kong, Boon Par chose instead to go back to his hometown in Burma. When the Japanese successfully conquered Singapore in 1942, the Japanese soldiers used the villa as a watch tower to keep a close surveillance over ships at sea. Later, when the Japanese surrendered and left Singapore for good, the villa was damaged by residents staying nearby out of hatred for their captors. When Boon Haw returned to Singapore from Hong Kong, he was greeted by an abandoned villa and the news of his dead brother in Burma. Instead of repairing the villa, Boon Haw decided to remove the damaged remains once and for all.
5. The Hauntings of Haw Par Villa remain today
After the war, Aw Cheong Yeow, Boon Haw’s nephew, took over operations at the theme park. While Cheong Yeow tried his best to maintain his uncle’s vision by building even more folklore-inspired sculptures, Haw Par Villa could not stand the test of time. By the late 90s, the exorbitant entrance fees caused visitor numbers to plummet and the attraction incurred over S$30 million in losses. The drop in visitations, along with the infamous Ten Courts of Hell attraction, gave rise to even more legends and ghost stories. It was once rumoured that Haw Par Villa was the location of the gates to Hell. Security guards today continue to speak of how the place comes alive at night, and that the statues are actually dead humans covered in wax. As they perform their duties around the park, guards continue to leave offerings, such as food and cigarettes, in front of certain statues to seek protection.
Beyond the strange and sometimes grotesque collection of statues and sculptures, it is important to note that Haw Par Villa was built out of a brother’s love—it was Boon Haw’s way of reminding Boon Par of his Chinese roots and the importance of family. That’s why, when you visit Haw Par Villa today, you will notice the circular motif being used prominently, which symbolises harmony and family. More than just an extravagant gift, perhaps Haw Par Villa is also a reminder to all visitors that, at the heart of it all, the family is all that matters.