Lately I’ve been prattling on with this baloney about seeing and tasting and touching and sniffing things to make sure all your opinions are based on fact. With this baloney in mind, decease I dragged my poor unsuspecting parents along to a tack-ridden kitsch fest to rival the late Liberace on his best day in Vegas.
Haw Par Villa
The Lonely Planet guidebook sent me there. The words ‘grotesque statuary’, ‘gory comeuppance’, and ‘10 courts of hell’ leapt off the page at me. Made me all a-tingle. And only $5 entry. How could I resist such a tourist mecca? And there was a story to go with it—the Tiger Balm fortune story. Next time you go rub a bit o’ balm into your corked thigh, you can think of this place.
Two quick observations
1) The $5 entry fee has evaporated. It may have been used in the past to actually maintain the joint, so the absence of it perhaps gives some clue to Haw Par’s run-downedness.
2) If you want to make your parents look completely aghast for a couple of hours, take them here. I’m sure if the place had been in full working order, it might have been a better experience for them. But it’s run down. The water isn’t running through the channels and paint is flecking off statues all over the shop. But still. As I said to them in my wise and all-knowing manner, “You have to see the bad in life—it makes the good look better.”
Quick history lesson
To cut a long story to bits, the Tiger Balm brothers Aw—represented in the gardens as a tiger and leopard respectively, least I think it’s a leopard—mixed in some herbal-type junk with another pain-relieving ointment and improved the recipe. This made a balm, which then made a mint. Absolute bucket loads of dough. Mucho dinero. I mean, these guys were more loaded than Oliver Reed on the Apsel show.
They moved from Rangoon to Singapore in 1926 and the Haw Par Villa opened to the public in 1931. And that’s the story. The place used to be really popular. In fact, in the 80s it attracted about one-third of all visitors to Singapore. So what the hell happened? This is still a mystery to me.
Things to see
I could hardly contain myself. Had barely made it 30 metres inside the entrance and had already used half the memory stick in my camera. But when I got to the 10 Courts of Hell, I hit pay dirt.
It’s in a giant dragon body. Its maw wide open, inviting you in for a rip-roaring, gastric time. Two dudes, a horse head and an ox head, guard the mouth. Then you’re in. Hell baby, it’s a trip in Chinese mythology.
Before the place hit financial difficulties, the trip through this section used to be on a water flume. I know, had to look that up myself.
Flume /flum/: US. an artificial channel or trough for conducting water, as one in which logs, etc., are transported.
Basically, a boaty thing in a channel. So, you’d tour the gore, and at the end be spat out of the dragon’s, well… back passage, in a watery sort of ‘ta-dah!’. Now that’s reincarnation! But the water’s gone where the entry fee went, and now you have to walk in the dry channel. Which is no biggie.
It’s a bit dark. And kind of…well, creepy actually.
When you first check into Hotel Hell, you get judged on what you’ve done in your previous life. They’re heavy on the ‘reap what you sow’ concept here. You progress through the 10 courts, being punished or rewarded until you get to the end. Then you throw down a magic potion to make you forget your previous life, and are reincarnated accordingly. Simple. Each court is ruled by a ‘Yama’ or King who is big on dishin’ out the hurtin’. And some of it is mighty hurtin’. Check it out.
When we got reincarnated at the back end of the dragon as Aussie tourists, we decided to stop at the only place where there seemed to be any activity at all. The cafeteria. Had some water. Paid ten cents to use the little girls room, though I believe some in my party neglected on principle to pay. See you in the 10 courts, you know who you are!
Mum thought we’d seen all there was to see, but we wandered over a bridge, (spanning some very green murky water) and started climbing. That’s where the real retina hurt was. There were big mythological scenes, sweating with vibrant colours, though in need of a touch up. There was a scene with the Monkey god. I loved Monkey when I was a kiddie. Though Michael always got to be Monkey—I had to be Pigsy ’cause we had a rake…. But no matter. Walking a bit higher still we came to the official Tiger Balm Gardens where you can sit, contemplate, look at the view and marvel at the joint.
Around one edge was this weird ’storybook-come-to-life-in-diorama-form’ kind of thing, which told stories about modern day life and the consequences of your actions. My favourite was this rather gruesome one about gambling.
It goes like this…. This dude was gambling all the time. One day his wife sends out their son to find the useless bum, and while he’s out looking for dad, a car squishes the poor kiddie on the road. All while the bum is in the gambling den. Thus it is seen. Don’t gamble or your kiddie will get squished by an auto, and who wins then? No one baby, no one.
Over in another corner of the garden was a pack of gorillas, and a bit further on, some emus and kangaroos. Not real. Statues of course. Huge. I don’t really know why they were there, but I cajoled Mum and Dad into posing with an ape. They obliged, though they must think I’m nuts.
You can also pose sitting on a tiger or leopard (representing the brothers as I said), but there was a queue for that. And by ‘queue’ I mean no queue—someone was just sitting on the tiger already, and leopards are a bit boring by comparison. I’m a leopard snob. Oh, and I had an attack of the shies.
It was hot and we’d pretty much exhausted our time. So we left. Passed by the Statue of Liberty—didn’t realise it was part of Chinese mythology. Went and jumped on the 143 bus. The best bus in Singapore. I don’t know about the parents, but I loved Haw Par. The garishness was trific. I won’t be going again though. I don’t think so. Though I didn’t take a photo of the person with the rooster head… I kind of regret that.
Toodle-Noo. Here endeth the missive.
Note: In the dictionary, the word Flume comes directly before Flummery. It’s nice when a harmless wander through a dictionary reminds you of your Nan’s place. Oh, and Flummery is followed by Flummox, which is what this Noos might have done to you. Hope not.
Second Note to the interested: Haw Par is gradually being restored. They’re just not closing the place while they do it, which explains why some statues seem in better nick than others. They all look glorious in the pics, but that’s just the camera I think.
©Janeen McCrae 2002