15 October 2017

Haw Par Villa – Unusual Singapore Theme Park

In 1937 two brothers from Singapore had a dream – they wanted to help people to learn, remember and pass on traditional Chinese values as expressed through myth, legend and the tenets of Confucianism.  They already had a small venue – the Tiger Balm - but wanted to broaden the appeal to a wider audience.  So was born the idea of extending the place to incorporate a garden in which Chinese legends would come to life.

Let the monkey warn you, however.  If you are of a nervous disposition, perhaps it is time to consider whether you wish to continue on this particular journey.

The brothers' dream of preserving Chinese culture was prescient: only five years later Singapore would fall to the Japanese Imperial Army and up to 25,000 ethnic Chinese were massacred.  Yet the brothers and their garden would persevere.  Situated along the Pasir Panjang Road on the island, the theme park has seen better days but remains quite the experience.

In order to a culture to persist so must its legends and the park contains 150 diaramas and over a thousand statues which show various scenes and characters from Chinese history, legends and folklore.

Disneyland it most certainly isn’t.  Adults, let alone children, must have a strong stomach for violent imagery in order to get from one end of the park to another.  You will not come across Mickey and Pluto giving out balloons in this place, that’s for sure.

Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, the brothers, designed the park along a trail of a dragon, measuring 60 meters.  Along this trail are some amazing sights for both those already immersed in Chinese culture and those wishing to learn more about it. For those with no previous knowledge of the subject it can be bewildering (and perhaps frightening) but there are explanations for the unknowing and unwitting.

Many of the statues and dioramas reflect the art movements of the late thirties, with a strange mix of art deco and surrealism.  Quite what Lady Liberty is doing in the park is anyone’s guess.

The name was changed eventually to reflect the names of the park’s creators and it has been known as Haw Par Villa since 1985 as a homage to them.  This followed the sale of the site by the Aw family to the Singapore Tourist Board in 1979.

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Image Credit Flickr User BeggsAs happens often when projects created by a few are taken over by faceless authorities the park soon went in to decline, ironically by being refurbished.  Many of the original dioramas and statues were taken away to be replaced by more modern attractions such as rides.

One of the original dioramas that have remained is the Ten Stages of Hell exhibit. This part will almost certainly give you the creeps. According to Chinese legends, a spirit must enter ten courts of judgment before they are allowed into heaven. Haw Par Villa has meticulous depictions of these tests.

However, this did not prove to be popular and ticket sales to the park declined.   Renamed to Dragon World, it simply wasn’t the same.  The Tourist Board made entrance to the park free in 1996 as a response to its decline in popularity and built a Chinese Heritage Center in the grounds.

More recently a vintage car has been dressed up to look like a tiger. It is a reproduction of the 'Tiger Car' that the late Aw Boon Haw owned and he must have created quite a stir riding it around Singapore in the thirties. Although the park is not as it must have been in its heyday it is still an unusual place to visit when in Singapore and provides a real alternative to the usual hustle and bustle of the most globalized country in the world.