Last week a friend and I did a trip to Haw Par Villa, a theme park about Chinese mythology and legends, told through very detailed sculptures and dioramas. People tell me this park used to be really popular about 30 years ago, but nowadays it is quite run down, attracting only few visitors even with free admission. After a visit there I can say with confidence that this is the most bizarre place in all of Singapore, and definitely a good place to learn more about traditional Chinese folklore and values.
Left and center: One of my favourite stories I learned of in Haw Par Villa is that of Monkey God and Pigsy, who are protecting the monk Tripitaka on his quest to India, as told in the classical novel “Journey to the West”. Right: The tortoise is a character in the Legend of the White Snake.
Some historical information first: Haw Par Villa was built in 1937 by brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, who made a fortune as the inventors of the popular ointment Tiger Balm. Their goal was to create something “unique, like nothing anybody has seen”. Well, I would say the park definitely lives up to that.
Among the many grotesque things you can see in Haw Par Villa, the most disturbing and gruesome is by far the Ten Courts of Hell. Taoist and buddhist views of Hell are quite complex, so here’s a simplified version: there are 18 levels of hell and within those there are 10 courts. You can kind of imagine it like a prison, because a king sends the deceased to different courts depending on what crimes they committed in their life to receive a punishment. After serving a sentence, the prisoner can then be reborn.
In the First Court of Hell, the deceased are judged based on the deeds in their past lives. They can either move on to paradise or are sent to the Mirror of Retribution and on to the appropriate Court of Hell.
In each Court of Hell, certain punishments are carried out for certain crimes. For example, the Second Court of Hell receives, among others, conmen and robbers, who are thrown into a volcanic pit as their punishment. To me, all punishments in the different courts seem equally cruel. Some of the more curious wrong deeds include cheating in examinations, which might lead you to the Eighth Court of Hell to get your intestines pulled out, and wasting food or “misusing” books (whatever that means) could easily result in your body being sawed in half.
Either way, this definitely isn’t a place you want to end up in! Thankfully, after having served your sentence, you can move on to the Tenth Court of Hell to receive final judgement from King Zhuanglun. Don’t forget to grab a cup of magic tea on your way out, which makes you forget your past life. Then you can go through the Wheel of Reincarnation and get reborn either as a human or an animal depending on how you led your previous life.
I was definitely happy when I could exit the Ten Courts of Hell in Haw Par Villa, but I would recommend the park to everyone visiting Singapore!