“We have to go here. This is a place you simply must see. It’s hilarious!”
Gingerly clicking on the link my colleague had sent me, I wasn’t so sure.
Even as we approached the main gate several weeks later, I still wasn’t so sure. But I was certainly curious enough to give it a look, and the rest of my colleagues were game. Happily, entrance is free - so with plenty of time to kill, we’d nothing to lose …
It turns out he was right. It is so bizarre you really do have to see it to believe it. Initial impressions weren’t great, I have to admit. The prospect of seeing a run-down park filled with oddly artless concrete sculptures wasn’t an altogether edifying one. But seeing is believing, and you really do have to see this place to believe it.
Built in 1937 Haw Par Villa in Singapore was once the family estate of the Aw brothers. Their father, Aw Chu Kin, was the creator of the famous ‘cure-all’ ointment known as Tiger Balm. It’s a kind of cross between Deep Heat and Vicks Vaporub, mildly anaesthetic with a comforting sort of eucalyptus scent (it’s very good for easing muscle aches). Originally the brothers, Boon Haw and Boon Par, after whom the Villa was named, used the fortune they made from Tiger Balm to set up a zoo in the Villa’s grounds (the park was originally one of three set up to promote Tiger Balm, the other two being in Hong Kong [now closed] and Fujian in China). A later change in the licensing laws of the colony compelled the brothers to replace the animals with a bizarre menagerie of statues instead, many of which are arranged in static-theatrical tableaux which range widely across a spectrum spanning the deeply moralistic to the outright surreal. Many of the set-pieces illustrate episodes from Chinese folklore and Taoist mythology, such as the titanic battle of the Eight Immortals. A very dilapidated little hall made up to resemble a winding cave-like tunnel passing through a small cement-rendered mountain houses the ‘Ten Courts of Hell,’ where amateurish dioramas illustrate extremely gory scenes of wicked prostitutes being drowned in the “filthy blood pool”, or where ‘tax dodgers and late rent payers’ are pounded with mallets – it’s not quite Hieronymus Bosch, think rather of the ‘London Dungeon’ meets ‘Bekonscott Model Village.’
It’s disturbingly naff. Hence at this point I still wasn’t sufficiently impressed enough to take any snaps, but emerging into the daylight again things began to alter and shift as we progressed up the hill.
The dioramas began to grow in size, and whilst some were in distinctly neglected crumbling states with peeling paint (it was hard not to think of a forlorn forgotten seaside town, or some other such ruined dystopia, the original for Banksy’s Dismaland perhaps), others had been or were in the process of being patched and tarted up again with fresh licks of paint.
Some of these concrete creations were truly stunning and discombobulating in equal measure. A couple of scenes had me roaring out loud with laughter and that was it – the odd magic of the park had set in. I now had the giggles.
It was like wandering around in our own half-deserted version of Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, a tropical Margate gone hideously wrong … My colleague was right, it was curiously hilarious.
I got my camera out and began snapping ...