Date Traveled, January 2012
Haw Par Villa, also known as the Tiger Balm gardens, is a place that I have difficulty categorizing. I am still not certain if it is a surreal masterpiece intended to mess with your head or just so horribly bad that it is good.
The Tiger Balm gardens are an old Singapore attraction. They were built by the Aw Boon brothers, Haw and Par, the makers of the famous brand Tiger balm in the 1930s. The site was apparently intended to showcase stories and tales from Chinese and Buddhist mythology, and of course the Tiger balm as well. Perhaps it was a novelty a generation or two ago...but all I could see was garish nightmares all over the place. Colorful and gaudy sculptors and creepy statues are available at every turn ready to shock the daylights out of you. It is like walking through the gangrenous insides of some giant monster. After a point you sort of become numbed to it and lose the initial shock effect and just feel the surrealness of the whole thing, wondering what the heck this is all about. Psychedelic is probably what describes the experience best.
Place is full of garish designs like this
Blending in with the scenes
The entrance to the ten hells
This is harsh!
Statue of Liberty...
I suppose it is appropriate that the highlight of the Haw Par Villa is quite literally a journey to hell, or more specifically the ten hells of Buddhism. You enter the hells past a couple of funky anthropomorphic horse and bull guardians. There is detailed description of the crimes you commit in this life that will send you to each specific hell alongside brutally gruesome sculpturing depicting the punishments in those hells which I did not feel like photographing then but now wish I did. If you really are interested there are youtube videos and pictures of the place but be warned, they are graphic. Some of the crimes have unreasonable punishments! Causing trouble to parents or cheating in exams gets your intestines pulled out!!! Seriously? Anyhow, after a weird walk around the park, we came across the statue of liberty beside a murky pond where the turtles living in them looked like they were sad to be there. The statue there made no sense but nothing did there so I suppose that's OK. As you leave you are greeted by two Sumo wrestlers paying homage to a bottle of tiger balm. I tried to read something deep in what that meant but failed.
We caught a cab outside the villa to head back and the cab driver was quite shocked to hear we had just visited the Tiger Balm gardens. He exclaimed in his Singaporean accent about how he remembers going there some 30 years ago and did not know people still visited the place. He said it was something families did decades ago but not anymore. Clearly out of touch with the times, but worth preserving, you will not have too many places have this effect on your mind.
Homage to Tiger balm. Now go buy some.