The kitschiness of the sculptures helps offset the horror factor, but I can’t help noting that I’m guilty of some of the crimes they portray. According to the signs, I may be thrown onto a “tree of knives” for cursing. If I waste food (who hasn’t?), my body will be sawed in two. Ouch.
And where might I end up after the 10th court? “Some will be reborn into a life of ease and comfort, while others into sorrow and suffering,” warns the final plaque.
Outside this gory display stand other statues, including a woman nursing her mother-in-law (it’s a show of filial piety); an enormous crab with a woman’s head; smiling, upright tigers holding out crumbling concrete boxes; and, strangely, a miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty. Everything is hushed around me as I sweat in the tropical humidity, the clanks of the port sounding in the distance.
Haw Par Villa, as these gardens are called, is one of the quirkier attractions you’ll find in Singapore, an island city-state better known for its ultra-modern luxury shopping malls and its skytop restaurants. But it provides a glimpse into Singapore’s past and into Chinese culture in a way that the Pradas and Guccis on Orchard Road — Singapore’s amplified version of Fifth Avenue — or the $21 Singapore Slings at the colonial Raffles Hotel can’t.
One of the greatest pleasures I’ve had since moving to Singapore in 2011 has been scouting out sites such as Haw Par Villa in a country that many had warned me would be boring. A variety of friends, relatives and random people I happened to meet in the months before I left the United States had offered up descriptions of a sterile, too-clean and oppressive place (“Don’t chew gum. You’ll get caned!”). And sure, Singapore doesn’t have the chaotic and exhilarating feel of other Southeast Asian cities, such as Bangkok, Hanoi or Kuala Lumpur. But I’ve found that if I look beneath the surface just a bit, there’s a whole host of fascinating stuff going on, in culture and food, shopping and politics.
Like Haw Par Villa. In 1937, Burmese millionaire Aw Boon Haw built a mansion for his quiet younger brother, Aw Boon Par, here. The seven-domed house included a private garden as well as an extensive public park featuring 1,000 statues and 150 dioramas, all constructed with the goal of teaching or reminding visitors of traditional Chinese values. The Aw brothers, who developed Tiger Balm ointment, named the park Tiger Balm Gardens, and thousands flocked to it in its heyday in the 1960s and ’70s.