I’m standing atop one of Singapore’s rare hills, looking out over the Singapore Strait and a busy port below. I’m surrounded by a series of endearingly dilapidated sculptures — made a bit fresher by a relatively recent coat of paint — depicting scenes from Chinese mythology.
I wander through an exhibit called the Ten Courts of Hell, which represents the Buddhist belief that a person has to be punished for his life’s misdeeds before he can be reincarnated. I stare, a little open-mouthed, at dioramas showing prostitutes being boiled alive in blood and robbers getting their heads and arms chopped off in graphic detail.
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.
The brothers fled Singapore during the Japanese occupation in World War II, Boon Par to their native Burma and Boon Haw to Hong Kong, from which he managed the Tiger Balm business. The Japanese occupied the mansion and used its hilly location to watch for ships in the Strait. Boon Par died during the war, and when Boon Haw returned to Singapore in 1945, he found only the shell of a building. Singaporeans anguished by the treatment they’d received at the hands of the Japanese had vandalized it, and some say that Boon Haw, devastated by his brother’s death, couldn’t bear to restore the house and had it leveled. He died in 1954. The Aw family continued to manage the gardens until 1985, when it donated the site to the state.
Today, the public gardens receive a scant number of visitors. On the summer afternoon when I visited, the place was almost deserted. Without the throngs that used to gather before and after the war, it has an eerie feel. You might even expect to spy Boon Haw’s ghost trudging gloomily among the statues, a sensation that the group Singapore Paranormal Investigators must have picked up on when it decided to inspect the site for ghosts. Although it didn’t find anything, its Web site reports that an elderly caretaker told them a creepy story about a statue that seemingly came to life after he dreamt about it.
But even if it lacks crowds of tourists — or maybe because it does — Haw Par Villa is worth a look. Not just for its take on Chinese mythology, but also because it’s one of the rare places in Singapore that hasn’t been knocked down in the pursuit of development. Although the government makes a point of protecting certain structures in the interest of heritage preservation, many monuments from Singaporeans’ childhoods, such as the old national library, have been replaced by shinier versions. “Oh, who doesn’t remember a trip to Haw Par Villa and getting scared out of [their] wits in the dungeons of hell?” wrote one Singaporean blogger.
While the Chinese make up 70 percent of Singapore’s population, Malays and Indians also represent significant numbers — about 13 and 9 percent, respectively. Faeza Abdurazak, a researcher at the National University of Singapore, has been my best guide to the tastiness that is Malay food. She introduced me to Hjh Maimunah Restaurant, which has a branch in an old shophouse near Arab Street, where one of Singapore’s most important mosques, the Masjid Sultan, and the Malay Heritage Center are located. “Hjh Maimunah sells the food that the Malays hold dear,” Faeza says.
The line at Hjh Maimunah can spill out into the street, but it moves quickly as patrons order by choosing from mounds of dishes displayed in long glass cases. Humming fans cool the front area, which smells of the food mixed with the incense being sold next door at Fragrance of Makkah Trading.
One day, Faeza and I went to lunch and ordered heaping platefuls of rice with such dishes as ayam masak lemak, or chicken in creamy coconut, and sambal tempe, which I tasted for the first time off her plate and declared one of the most delicious things ever: thin slices of tempeh — a soybean product similar to tofu — fried with dried anchovies and peanuts in a sweet and spicy chili-based sauce. Its crispness is particularly pleasing. “I like to eat it as a snack in front of the television,” Faeza told me, as she bought more to take back for a colleague. Our two lunches, complete with a lime juice and a teh tarik, a sweet milk-based tea similar to chai, came to about $10.
A 15-minute-or-so walk away in the Little India neighborhood is what some have called “Wal-Mart on crack.” And in fact, rumor has it that entrepreneur Mutaq Ahmad patterned his Mustafa Center after Wal-Mart as he expanded it in the 1980s and ’90s. But I find this six-story, 24-hour shopping mall much more interesting than Wal-Mart. The Center sells absolutely everything, from digital cameras and saris to what seems like dozens of varieties of bok choy in its supermarket. (Ahmad even sold cars for a while in the 2000s.) The place is jampacked at almost any hour, and the crowds come from all over Asia and beyond.
One recent evening, I ventured to the Center to stock up on toiletries, gifts for an upcoming visit to the States and ant traps (the tiny ants in my apartment enjoy the cats’ food a little too much). Neon signs on money-changing establishments flash outside the Center, and smells of curry from a dozen nearby restaurants waft through the heavy air. Once you’re inside, your senses are assaulted even further: Bright lights shine down on displays of glittering watches, and the murmurs from hundreds of fellow shoppers reach your ears.
Aside from the humdrum essentials I’d come for, I found a beautiful raw-silk scarf in a shade of deep purple for a friend for about $12 in the fabric and sari section. I also mused over lovely Indonesian batik sarongs but left them for another time. In the men’s clothing section, I rifled through pajamas in the style of Pakistani kurtas for my father, but none looked like the right size. Instead, I bought him a silly Singapore T-shirt that shows the “fines of Singapore,” such as $1,000 penalties for littering or urinating in elevators. Maybe he’ll wear it around the house.
Just down from the Center off Serangoon Road, a vibrant thoroughfare of shops selling gold, fragrant flower garlands and waving-cat souvenirs, is my favorite Indian restaurant in the city. Lagnaa has two floors, the first with standard tables and chairs and graffiti covering the walls and the second with low tables and floor pillows, where shoes are not allowed. On our latest visit, my husband, Brian, and I sat upstairs as usual and began with a bucket of a selection of Indian beers, with names such as Kingfisher and Flying Horse.
That night Brian wanted to chip away at Lagnaa’s “chili challenge,” a kind of game he had become consumed with. Customers order dishes based on a spiciness scale of 1 to 10. I can only handle a 3, and Lagnaa’s hostess had told me that 3 is also the chef’s limit. Brian had made it to a 5, which meant that a clothespin with his name on it was added to a line strung against the wall on the first floor. Tonight he wanted to go for a 6.
He ordered chicken masala, which came to our table with six curry leaves in it, to denote its spiciness. While I savored my favorite (and tame) dish — butter paneer — with yogurt rice and garlic naan, he ate the fiery masala, his nose and eyes running the entire time. When he finished, the hostess came by to make sure that he’d eaten every last bite. “She’s tough,” he said to me, spooning the last morsel into his mouth.
Only one person has achieved a 9 — an Aussie from Sydney who claims that he’ll fly back to Singapore and take on anyone who tries to best him with a 10. Brian recently moved back to the States for his job, and I’ll follow in the coming weeks. But I don’t think we’ll need much of an excuse to come back and visit; after all, the chili challenge waits to be conquered.
Kirk edits scholarly publications for the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore.