Haw Par Villa, Singapore: Hell on earth as a tourist attraction

Haw Par Villa – a theme park that includes graphic displays of torture and debauchery – is a most un-Singaporean place, and perfect for Halloween. Paul Chai visits hell on earth.

Crazy half-crab people, graphic eviscerations and an elderly lady feeding at the breast of a young woman are just a few of the thousand-odd statues on display at Haw Park Villa in Singapore – not bad for a town that bans chewing gum and jails jaywalkers.

Inspired by the more violent and obscure parts of Chinese folklore this awesome oddity – perfect for a visit in the lead up to Halloween – was created in 1937 by two brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par who were better known for creating the medicinal rub, Tiger Balm, in their mother's kitchen in Myanmar before moving the fast-growing business to Singapore's west coast. The brothers, who have phallic tributes as part of the theme park, lived at this address, but the actual villa is now long gone. When they weren't curing sore muscles with their now-world-famous balm, Haw and Par could be seen hooning around Singapore in their famous Tiger Car, an old jalopy with a tiger's head mounted on the front.

Thankfully the tiger's head was not real and a replica of the car now stands guard over the most infamous section of the park: the Ten Courts of Hell. Inside, evildoers (which back then could be as simple as tax dodging) are impaled on spikes, sawn in half by macabre afterlife lumberjacks and squashed by boulders. The stages bear such colourful names as the Filthy Blood Pond and the Mirror of Retribution, then, at the end of your celestial trials, a kindly man by the name of Meng Po gives you the Tea of Forgetfulness, so you can put all the bloody torture behind you, climb back on that dharma wheel and give that life thing another go (hopefully with some wiser choices this time round).

The Ten Courts used to be a popular day out for local families who would take the kids to learn a bit of moral fortitude. A Singaporean friend remembers when the Ten Courts was housed in the belly of a giant dragon and you used to ride a boat past the devilish dioramas. Now the dragon has decayed and you enter an ominous dark cave, I left my kids outside and decided to continue to threaten them with a no-show from Santa, rather than evisceration.

I am not alone. My friend admits that he has not been to Haw Par Villa since he was a child and he was amused to see it appear on my Facebook feed. The park, which once ranked up along with the Singapore Zoo as a must-see attraction, now has roped-off sections and its future is uncertain.

So go see it now, as it's not all death and destruction. Haw Par Villa has a section of the Journey to the West, better known to Australians as the cheesy TV series Monkey, where the Monkey God, priest Tripitaka, sea spirit Sandy and animal spirit Pigsy set out to find some Buddhist scriptures. There is the Vices and Virtues section where dioramas point out good and bad behaviour. And there is the odd Australian section where koalas cavort in trees and nearby a toad with a cane rides an ostrich (well, no one said it was educational).

The Pond of Legacy is a series of small ponds filled with real turtles as well as being peopled by statues of giant crabs with human heads, which among all the oddities on show really seem to appeal to my four-year-old who insists on a picture with his new clawed compadre.

The kids may not have learned to fear eternal damnation but they have a ball running around in this whimsical Chinese folklore book brought to life. I, for one, hope that crowds continue to visit and the gates of this particularly colourful and inventive hell remain open.

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TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

yoursingapore.com

GETTING THERE

Major airlines Singapore Airlines (singaporeair.com), Qantas (qantas.com), Emirates (emirates.com) and British Airways (britishairways.com) all fly to Singapore from Melbourne and Sydney. For low-cost carriers, Scoot (flyscoot.com) flies from Sydney to Singapore and Jetstar (jetstar.com) flies from Melbourne to Singapore. 

Haw Par Villa

262 Pasir Panjang Road, Singapore 118628

STAYING THERE

Hotel Clover

Doubles from S$280 with breakfast at this good mid-range option set in the Arab Quarter with a foyer referencing it's former life as a textile house.

769 North Bridge Road; hotelclover.com.sg