Hidden in plain sight, atop a hill in Singapore’s Pasar Panjang, quietly sits a gateway to the Taoist Underworld. Spread over 7.9 acres, this “amusement” park is brimming with intriguing and gory scenes depicting a fusion of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucius folklore.
The result is a collision of whimsy and terror that can never be unseen.
In its prime, the nearly 80-year-old park was a popular site for school excursions thanks to its vivid commentary on morality and retribution, and the free entry. Consequently, it is responsible for scarring generations of Singaporeans with over 1000 lurid and downright terrifying statues including a human crab, a lustful pig and a grandmother suckling the breast of a younger woman.
The most infamous tableau, however, is the graphic depiction of the pathway to reincarnation through the jaws of Hell itself. Ancient Chinese legend tells of the 10 Courts of Hell, all of which an evildoer must pass through to atone for his or her sins before being reincarnated.
While flinging someone into a volcanic pit is unlikely to be your first thought when asked how to punish someone for domestic violence, it is easy to accept that such a deed cannot go unpunished. Some of the other ‘crimes,’ however, are a little harder to stomach.
Ungratefulness will get your heart cut out; disobeying your siblings will see you ground to dust under a large boulder… Misuse a book at your own peril – this calls for having your body sawn in two.
Fortunately, there is an end to this Hadean nightmare. In the 10th court an old lady wipes the memory of the newly atoned with a cup of magic tea, allowing reincarnation to begin. It seems, however, that not everyone is destined to live happily ever after – you could be reincarnated as a fossil; it would seem that some evil deeds can never be fully repented.
Ironically, a park so fixated on anguish and suffering was made a reality by an herbal heat rub created to do just the opposite.
In the 1920s, two brothers used a clever marketing scheme to turn a soothing ointment into a very lucrative ‘It’ item, beginning the Tiger Balm empire that remains unrivalled to this day. In 1937, the eldest, Aw Boon Haw, whose name not coincidentally translates to ‘Gentle Tiger,’ diverted some of his earnings into the creation of Haw Par Villa.
For years it was a cultural hub, yet in 1985 ownership was passed between several different organizations and, after suffering huge losses following an $80-million conversion into Haw Par Villa Dragon World in 1990, it slowly fell into disrepair.
The park has remained largely abandoned. The statues, somewhat faded yet retaining a striking quality, have created an eerie, disturbing and incredible experience that is not to be missed. The new owner, a heritage-tours travel company called Journeys, is well aware of this fact and seeks to firmly place Haw Par Villa back into the commercial spotlight. Already, in May, the park was transformed into the backdrop for an escape game that attracted 200 people – the first of many initiatives planned to reintroduce Haw Par Villa to the world.
Edited by Sarah Huntington