Thousands of footsteps, small and large, would walk against red brick walkways and cobblestone paths. The smell of freshly opened cola bottles and sticky ice cream sandwiches would fill the humid summer air. Families would wait in line for boating rides, watch performances, and walk amongst hundreds of towering statues. This was Haw Par Villa fifty years ago. Decades before Universal Studios, Adventure Cove water park, and resorts on Sentosa Island, Haw Par Villa was Singapore’s first theme park.
Also known as Tiger Balm gardens, the park was built in 1937 by Aw boon Haw after he made a fortune from the Burmese herbal medicine Tiger Balm. He had always envisioned a theme park where children could learn about Chinese folklore and legends. By building statues and dioramas depicting these legends, he thought it would teach children moral lessons of fidelity, loyalty, and piety, as well as encourage them to be charitable and do community service. His brother, Aw boon Par, also helped with the park’s development, and together they constructed a spacious villa at the top of the hill that overlooked the park. Hence the park was named Haw-Par-Villa.
Although during the park’s peak it had daily performances in an amphitheater and featured a boat ride that went through a dragon shaped cave, it’s most famous for the ‘10 gates of hell’ attraction. Inside a cave structure, the ‘10 gates of hell’ are a gallery of dioramas that depict many gory scenes of torture given to thieves, murders and other convicts in the afterlife. This attraction frightened thousands of children and attracted many parents wanting to teach their kids a lesson, which was exactly what Aw Boon Haw intended.
Over the years, the colorful statues began to fade. Crowds of locals and tourists diminished. After failed efforts by the International Theme Parks company to revamp the park and get more visitors, the park was given up on, and admission has been free since 2001. Ever since Haw Par Villa has been eerily quiet, the memorials of the abandoned park’s founders standing tall and lonely at its heart. Walking through these vestiges of a bygone era, I was inspired to compose a “then and now” view of this intriguing getaway in the middle of Singapore:
Perhaps Haw Par Villa is empty and unpopular today. However, the future of the park is still hopeful. In August 2015, the Singapore Tourism Board appointed a travel company — Journeys — to operate tours around the park for the next three years. The park is currently under construction, as they are redeveloping the Hua Song Museum next door. The Journeys company will also potentially expand the number of heritage tours around the park. For now, the park is still open daily from 9 am to 6 pm, and admission is free, as was always intended by Aw Boon Haw. If you are looking for a piece of truly vintage Singaporean history amidst all of the modernity, this quirky park should shoot to the top of your list!