168 – The Monching Visits Singapore: Haw Par Villa

I’m sure that most of you have used Tiger Balm at some point to relieve a headache or a fatigued limb. This legendary medication traces its beginnings to Aw Chu Kin, an herbalist who concocted Tiger Balm based on an existing formulation used in the imperial court of China. However, his sons Aw Boon Haw (Gentle Tiger) and Aw Boon Par (Gentle Leopard) were responsible for making Tiger Balm a household name. In fact, the elder Boon Haw lent his name to the eponymous liniment.

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More than promoting Tiger Balm’s ubiquity, the Aw brothers were known for their philanthropy – mainly through the building of schools, playgrounds, and parks. Among these structures are the Tiger Balm Gardens in Hong Kong, Fujian (China), and Singapore which were built for two reasons: directly as a way to impart Chinese traditional values to visitors, and as a subtle method of promoting Tiger Balm. I’ll be featuring the third Tiger Balm Garden that we visited during our Singapore trip, now commonly called Haw Par Villa.

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The Aw brothers purchased the land in 1935, some seven years after moving their business (the Eng Aun Tong / Hall of Everlasting Peace apothecary) from Burma. A large mansion originally stood at the topmost section of the garden, which provided a view of the harbor, but this was demolished after only a few years. Haw Par Villa is located along Pasir Panjang Road, with a dedicated station on the Circle Line (CC25) just right outside its front gate.

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Compared to most places in Singapore, the villa does not have a large amount of foot traffic. During our visit, we saw only three or four Caucasian tourists roaming around and an Indian family sitting on one of the benches. It operates from 9:00 in the morning up until 7:00 in the evening, with last entry at 6:00. However, the Ten Courts of Hell section (more on that below) closes at 6:00, with the last entry for the section at 5:45. The park has free entrance.

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Haw Par Villa’s statues feature various personalities in Chinese culture and mythology in larger-than-life depictions. There are also dioramas of scenes from Chinese classical literature, such as Journey To The West, Legend Of The White Snake, Water Margin, and The Twenty-Four Filial Exemplars.


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Larger-than-life figures from Chinese mythology dot the villa in various locations. There is the philosopher Confucius, whose teachings are compiled in the Analects named after him. The monk Budai (Hotei in Japanese) can also be found with his rotund figure and joyful countenance. The mad monk Ji Gong is depicted seating with legs crossed, emaciated and his ribs visible.

At the center of a fountain stands the Duke Jiang, patiently waiting for fish to come to his line on their own accord. Finally, overlooking the entire Haw Par Villa compound is the Bodhisattva of Mercy Guan Yin, comfortably seated on her lotus throne.


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Arguably the centerpiece of Haw Par Villa, the Ten Courts of Hell exhibit showcases what happens in the Underworld and the fate of people sent there upon death. It depicts the Chinese version of Hell in gory and gruesome detail—and for one simple reason: do good in life if you wish to avoid such a fate when you pass away. The attraction used to be set on the back of a Chinese dragon, but this has been demolished and replaced with grey walls. This portion of the villa closes at 6:00 in the evening, with last entry at 5:45. You will see heads of unfortunate souls, a few deities of the Underworld, and a reminder (in Chinese) that regret always comes after every sin at the entrance.

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Statues of Ox-Head and Horse-Face (Gozu and Mezu in Japanese) guard the exhibit’s entrance with their menacing weapons—and even more menacing looks. The tour begins with souls appearing before an otherworldly judge; virtuous ones are sent to a “stairway to heaven,” while evildoers are told to move along the “highway to hell”. There are ten levels with an array of punishments, depending on the type and gravity of misdeeds committed. An erring soul can be drowned in a pool of blood, thrown onto a hill of knives, hung from a tree of blades, sliced in half, ground to bits in a pestle, have arms and legs amputated, tied to a hot copper pillar and roasted, and more—all shown in graphic detail.

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The last court is a respite at the end of it all. After the final judge determines that sufficient punishment has been meted out in the previous nine hells, the souls are assigned their next reincarnation based on the law of karma. Before they return to Earth, the newly reborn souls drink a cup of the Tea of Forgetting (from Old Lady Meng) so they do not remember their previous lives and their time in the Underworld. The exhibit concludes with daylight greeting a visitor once again after passing through the darkness of the Ten Courts.


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Chinese culture puts a high emphasis on family, and Haw Par Villa is no exception to this. Memorial pillars were built within the garden as a way for people to remember the Aw brothers and their family when they are gone. There are a total of four memorials in the garden.

The tallest one in the park is dedicated to Aw Chu Kin and his wife Lee Kim Peck. Two other memorials are dedicated to Boon Haw and Boon Par, respectively. Meanwhile, the shortest memorial (near the Ten Courts of Hell) area is dedicated to Aw Hoe—Aw Boon Haw’s eldest son who eventually fell out of favor with his father.

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Since its opening in 1935, Haw Par Villa has mainly served as a venue promoting Chinese culture. Many who visited the park have had pictures with some of the displays, and left with a heightened appreciation of the classics. Although it doesn’t get much visitors nowadays compared to Singapore’s other attractions, I encourage you to visit and be transported to a different side of the Lion City—and a different era. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the sights, just like how the Aw brothers felt while enjoying a delightful afternoon in the garden.

And I hereby conclude the Singapore series with this post. See you next month!


9 thoughts on “168 – The Monching Visits Singapore: Haw Par Villa

  1. Wow. This is a good place to bring kids to. If I was still a kid, I can see my mom bringing me to such place and telling me stories of what will happen if I do this, or do that, etc.

    But my adult mind is making me crave for cake. Looking at the sculptures reminded me of those cake toppers found in kiddie birthday cakes.

    • Or, maybe a parent would bring a child here as a sort of punitive exercise – threatening to leave them there. The giant statues of Haw Par would easily inspire dread in an erring youngster.

      And yes, the bright (almost kitschy to some) colors of the park’s statues are reminiscent of cake decorations – but maybe that’s where their appeal lies. Kudos to them for restoring most of the installations to how they looked like during the park’s 1930s heyday! 😀

      (On a side note, some sections of the park were closed for restoration work when we visited – management was trying to repaint the other statues.)

  2. Pingback: 165 – The Monching Visits Singapore (Day 1) | The Monching's Guide

    • Spot on! 🙂 When the Aw brothers built the gardens in the 1930s, they wanted visitors to have a worthwhile experience seeing icons of Chinese mythology and legends come to life. More than 80 years later, I believe the park still serves its purpose. 🙂

      Good thing the park has a dedicated station on the Circle Line (CC25). Perfect for a short visit before heading to HarbourFront / VivoCity / Sentosa!

  3. Pingback: 260 – On Lion City Parks | The Monching's Guide

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