There are not many things in life, or in Singapore, that are free. Fortunately, however, Singapore’s most bizarre attraction does not cost anything. Haw Par Villa (originally called Tiger Balm Gardens) was built in 1937 by the brothers who invented Tiger Balm. Haw Par Villa is frequently described as a theme park (and it did have some rides in the 1990s), but a more appropriate description would be a sculpture park. A very odd sculpture park. The statues depict scenes from Chinese folklore and legends that are supposed to teach Chinese values and morals. The most interesting – and most gruesome part of the park – is the 10 Courts of Hell. However, you have to pay to enter Hell; it will set you back one Singaporean dollar. (About US $0.72).
Before you enter Hell, you see a set of statues that appear to be rabbits and rats fighting each other, with some guinea pigs thrown in for good measure. You have no idea what this is about, nor what it is supposed to mean. This is not an unusual feeling at Haw Par Villa; sometimes there are descriptions explaining the scenes, sometimes there are not; sometimes the descriptions leave you just as confused as those without descriptions. It’s almost like going to a modern art museum and wondering what the artist was trying to say.
We asked the attendant of the nearby shop for an explanation and he excitedly led us back to the diorama, where he told us that the rabbits and rats were in a war. “This one kill, you see?” He was very friendly and eager to help, but we still had no idea why they were fighting or what we were supposed to learn. Fortunately, the shop had a book that shed some light.
Once upon a time, two white rabbits were happily married. One day, a black rat came along and seduced the wife. The rabbit and his compatriots were outraged and declared war on the rats. The book claims it’s unclear which side the guinea pigs were on, but there’s a picture of a guinea pig consoling a rat, and I think guinea pigs look more related to rats than rabbits, so I assume they’re evil. Apparently (according to the book), the lesson to learn from this is that bad things happen when strangers interfere. (Or, alternatively, thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife/thou shalt not commit adultery?)
Once you enter the gates of hell, you walk by dioramas depicting each court of hell, with descriptions of crimes and their associated punishments. I’m not sure I necessarily see the association between a crime and its punishment or the relation between some of the crimes that are grouped together. Here are a few examples:
|Ungratefulness, Disrespect to elders, Escape from Prison||Heart cut-out|
|Plotted another’s death for property or money, Money lenders with exorbitant interest rates||Thrown onto a hill of knives|
|Cheating, Cursing, Abducting People||Thrown onto a tree of knives|
|Misuse of Books, Wasting Food, Possession of Porn||Body sawn into two|
And here are two examples of the accompanying sculptures:
Hell is only one small part of Haw Par Villa – there are lots of other (less gruesome) statues that I also found interesting and perplexing. So, I highly recommend a visit to Haw Par Villa if you wind up in Singapore – not only is it (almost) free, but it’s definitely a unique experience.