Weird Singapore: Haw Par Villa

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by Jethro Wegener

When it comes to taking someone on a date, Haw Par Villa may not be on everyone’s list of top romantic sites.

As gory as it looks, it’s also got romance written all over: picture the pagoda of Madame White Snake, which tells the story of how a female snake demon and a human fell in love… until he was literally scared to death when he saw her real form. Or imagine the conversations involving infidelity as you tour the “10 Courts of Hell”.

What’s more, it’s proudly advertised as the world’s only eclectic Chinese mythological park of its kind (its sister establishment in Hong Kong was demolished in 1998), and conveniently has its own MRT station, so there’s no reason not to visit.

Faded Beauty

Nowadays, stepping into Haw Paw Villa is like moving back in time. With gaudy statues, neon paint and dusty surfaces (the entire park is looked after by an 82 year old craftsman and his middle-aged apprentice), it is in many ways more haunting now than it was in its heyday. The creepy imagery and sense of loneliness will give any visitor the heebie jeebies.

However, the park is due for an upgrade soon. Local tour operator Journeys has been appointed to renovate the park in order to draw in the crowds again. With flea markets, guided tours, gift shops and even a gourmet restaurant on the way, Haw Par Villa is soon going to be dragged into the modern age.

Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on your opinion, but urban explorers will lament the loss of its current haunting beauty.

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About Haw Par Villa

Built in 1937 by one of the sons of the inventor of Tiger Balm as a gift to his brother, the USD1.95 million dollar project was originally called Tiger Balm Gardens. Created as a love letter to Chinese culture, the park was a huge success when it first opened and drew large crowds. However, it was subsequently damaged when the Japanese used it as an observation post during the war.

After the war ended, the park was fixed up and again opened as a tourist attraction under the care of the son of one of the brothers. Later, when the family could no longer continue running the park, it was taken over by the Singapore Tourism Board and renamed Haw Par Villa in 1988.

New rides were added (such as a slow boat ride through the park’s now demolished dragon), shows were conducted, and the statues were restored to their former glory. The park’s most famous (or, as some might say, infamous) attraction is the 10 Courts of Hell. With graphic depictions (in statue form) of the violence suffered by the departed who committed sins in life, including people being thrown on spikes and people being beaten to death, it served to scare many young children straight.

Although the park started pulling in scores of people, the high admission fee (S$15) meant that people quickly stopped coming. From about a million visitors a year, to barely over 200,000, the park had lost about S$30 million by 1998. In response, the rides were closed and the park became a free-to-enter public park till today.

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