Sunday, April 05, 2015

Haw Par Villa (aka Tiger Balm Gardens 虎豹別墅) and the Ten Courts of Hell (地狱) - Reminiscing My Childhood Days With the Kids and the Parents

Like kids who were born in the 1970s or early 80s, i held fond memories of Haw Par Villa. Back then, public transportation wasn't as convenient and my dad would only drive us there on special occasions like Chinese New Year.

Things have changed of course. Both parents are obviously getting older now and this time, i am the filial son who drove them there, together with the two brats.

Over the past twenty years, the not-your-usual theme park went through a transformation to make it more marketable to the newer generation (who is obsessed with the internet); the strategy failed when admission was charged but thankfully, admission is now free for everyone.

The change continued even the entrance fee was removed; the iconic dragon built to justify the fee was removed, leaving the words "Haw Par Villa" lonely and resigned. 

With close to a thousand statues, the place would require young, spirited kids to liven up the place and i must say it was a good choice to bring along the kids who loved posing with the motionless characters depicting Chinese myths and legends. 

Not every statue is related to Chinese culture though; the above was bigger than life performer of the traditional Thai dance. 

Notice the difference in poses across two generations; presenting to you the grandchild and the grandparent. One was mischievous and innocent while the other reflected a mature, dignified demeanour.

I am wondering if i should share the history of the villa here since many of us are aware of the story of the haw par brothers who made their fortune by selling the world famous tiger balm ointment. 

Basically, it was built by an elder brother (Boon Haw) for his younger brother (Boon Par) as a residence in 1937. I am unsure if it was open to the public then but i thought it would be weird to have so many statues and three dimensional scenes (known as dioramas) showcasing Chinese legends with some espousing traditional Chinese values.

The scale is huge for a residence although it might be considered small in the context of gardens that served as tourist spots. There were even underground passages to scare the hell out of unknowing visitors.

Tadpoles in one of the dirty ponds. Frankly, it was time consuming and costly to maintain the park, especially when there wasn't any capital inflow to even out the expenditure. 

Disregarding the lack of likeness to the ferocious tigers, these four creatures would have evoked tales of haunting for the security guards who manned the park after dark. Yes, Haw Par Villa does have its fair share of ghost stories. 

Rest assured, the human 'qi' prevails in daytime. I would have loved to pay it a visit at night if the opportunity arises, specifically to the ten courts of hell which i would cover shortly.

In the meantime, please continue to be entertained by the pictures of the kids, specifically Jovyn with her exaggerated expression. Jerald is usually quite inactive when faced under intense sunlight. Haha.

This scared the wits out of Jovyn! I admit i was exactly like her when i was her age!

Dad had to step in by acting bravely in front of the man-eating beast. Well, this didn't soothe her and the scaredy cat insisted on leaving the area as soon as possible. 

Surprisingly, she wasn't scared when she encountered this water lizard. Kaoz, fearful of a dead statue and display nonchalance towards an alive reptile! 

Memorial plaque for the father of Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par. Not if there was any significance to the dates; it was put up on the 44th year, 4th month and 4th day of the Minguo calendar. 

There were ten areas of attractions even though my understanding is that some, like the Hua Song museum, is not longer in operation.

As the characters Haw and Par mean Tiger and Leopard respectively, there were a number of displays on both animals. This time right, both kids gamely sat on the leopard. 

Feeling more confident, Jovyn asked to have a picture taken of her on the tiger! I think this was a ritual most children who have been to Haw Par Villa would go through, including us when we were kids. 

Nine-dragon screen which was a far cry from the one in Beijing; there were nine of them alright but the splendour i have encountered here was hardly similar.

Face mask was one of the easy ways for kids to masquerade as one of the characters from Chinese operas and this humongous one (over two meters) portray one of China's famous generals; Guan Yu! Don't you think it looks extremely life like; the eyes, the teeth etc? 

Guanyin Bodhisattva; Singapore's infamous weather of frequent thunderstorms, hot weather has contributed to the moss and discolouration; so don't complain too much when you don't pay a single cent to enter. 

Jiang Ziya, an ancient military strategist who was famed for fishing without a hook. This area was fondly remembered as it was once surrounded by fishes in the water! I could even squeeze into the pagoda then!

The dioramas of "Virtues and Vices"; very interesting and worth a read for those who would like to know more about some of the childhood stories passed down from our forefathers in China. 

Hyperactive Joyvn was not that patient for Chinese fables and preferred to act out the hopping of a kangaroo. Ugly kangaroos by the way; the real ones are much cuter.

Cute woah!

Dad with the ape! I have not been spending much time with him on weekends; shall make it a point to do so when i am back from Kota Kinabalu. Remember, always treasure your love ones when they are alive. 

A couple of statues have included technology that was in existence then. If you look closure, you would have noticed the rat holding on to a phone. Further upgrades would likely see the likes of mobile phones and tablets.

This gave Jovyn a good scare. Wahahhaha. We had to explain to her that the piglets were drinking the "milk milk" from their mummy.

Want to guess which legend is this? It's the flower fruit mountain of the Monkey King! This reminded me of Ipoh's Lin Sen Tong temple which was also renowned for its display of statues. 

Jerald smiling cheerfully because he finally had shade! 

Compared this to the first photograph of this post. After more than twenty years, nothing seemed to have changed; people still like to fondle the tummy of the Mi-Le Buddha. 

Eight immortals creating a scene at the Dragon King's underwater palace.

The manager of the Sumo and she had to act out her authority; she didn't need much practice as she was a terror and an authority figure at home and, i heard, in school. 

Posing with the harmless owls and giving the sheep a hard time. Their age was just right; any older and the statues might have a higher chance of giving way. 

I am hesitant to bring the kids along for the "Ten Courts of Hell" as the graphical displays were way more explicit, gory and bloody; kid you not, they had resulted in nightmares among children and even adults in the past. 

But, it's free entry. Not too long ago, i had to pay S$1 a person to enter! Anyway, we decided to bring the brats along since i could always leave if they feel even a slight tinge of fear.

Explanation of the ten courts of hell - there was even a notice for visitors to exercise discretion / parental guidance. Incidentally, the dark enclosure was also rumoured to be the gateway to hell during the Chinese Ghost month. 

Main passage was peaceful and non-eventful with subtle hints (display of skulls etc) that more was to come for those who dare to venture further. 

Still remember this guardian of hell!? Read more on my posting here about the trip i made to the cemetery during the 7th month and chanced upon the possession by Tua Ya Peh.  

Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva (地藏王菩薩) - this monk was said to be enlightened and should have achieved Nirvana but he made a vow to empty hell before he would accept the Buddha status; a noble yet futile effort.

Entering the air-conditioned chamber of hell under the watchful eyes of the Ox-head and Horse-face guards; notable beings tasked to bring all souls to hell. 

The concept Chinese has on hell is very different from the Western description. We believe that a person's soul would be brought to the first court of hell for judgment to determine if he / she has enough merits to ascend to heaven or cultivate enough sins to be punished in hell.

Only those with exemplary merits are exempted from judgment as they could automatically have a choice between the golden or silver bridge. Read here for the differences. 

I honestly thought going through the different courts taught us great lessons on how we should behave as humans and the fear of the likelihood of going through some of the procedures when we die may not necessarily be a bad thing.

Sins of corruption, stealing and gambling would entail a punishment of being enduring frostbite and eventually frozen and going through the cycle again and again till the end of your sentence, which could last a few years to a few centuries depending on the severity of your sins. 

There might be ten courts but altogether there were eighteen levels of hell with the last level reserved for the baddest ass similar to life imprisonment for the living; albeit insufferable given you would never be reincarnated and would have to endure the torturing punishments till the end of eternity. 

The hell guards would have no sympathy for your cries; you sow the seeds, you shall "enjoy" the fruits of it. In this case, i found the penalty to be excessive. To be sawn into half just because you waste food and own pornographic!? I sincerely hope there are updates to the laws in hell; must advance with times mah. 

Blatant liar? Be prepared to have your tongue sliced off! 

Commit robbery, murder or rape? Have your head and arms chopped off! For the rapists, another dismemberment is necessary; the cutting of their manhood! Do it only after you show those bastards pornographic materials. 

They were not shaken; just hungry. 

The exhibits outside the enclosure were in my opinion, unexciting although some spoke of virtues. For example, the photograph before the one above was allowing the famished mother in law to drink the breast milk of her daughter in law during a famine. 

This one was just a typical scene of a farming family; younger Singaporeans would not be able to draw reference as most, if not all, have never gone through the kampong / farming life.

Impressive structure with minimal description on what each scene means; pity as it could be educational for both kids and adults. 

An out of bounds temple at the end of the track; i would love to look further as i could discover more on who was being honoured. As i mentioned previously, this theme park was a hotbed for paranormal activities, many of which were said to be shared by security guards.

There was even a cordoned off area somewhere where you could find abandoned statues said to be so eerie looking; it is a guarantee that you would feel a chill down your spine.

Support beams for an amphitheatre that was no longer in use. Back when fees were charged, there were performances on acrobatics. 

The long enclosure housing the ten courts of hell used to be the "body" of the iconic dragon in the past and was part of a water ride that made it hard for us to view the punishments slowly. Point is, it is so much better now! 

Kids trying their luck at the wishing bell.

They were exhausted by the end of our one hour walk as it was noon when we arrived. Recommended timing to check out the Oriental styled theme park would be 4 pm as it closes at 7 pm. 

After the insightful visit, you may dine at Ju Shin Jung (opposite Haw Par Villa) for a wondrous Korean barbecue meal! By the way, gluttony is a sin too! 


262 Pasir Panjang Road
[Exit from Haw Par Villa MRT Station]

As above

Operating Hours
9am to 7pm (daily)
10 Courts of Hell closed at 6pm

Attraction Map
As above

Additional Information
A photograph only captures a moment yet this moment can only show you so much. Do pay Haw Par Villa a visit if you have the time. Before the government decides to cut its losses and shut it down for good. 


  1. Your niece is soo cute!

    Brought my 9yo boy there last year and he loved it! Glad he enjoyed it like we used to and yes back then in the early 90s, it was the place to go! I still remembered the Q to take the water rides was soo damm long!

    Will plan another one soon as he's been pestering us!


    1. Haha she is a very spoilt brat! Good to hear you have brought your boy there; better treasure the bonding time before he reaches puberty!