Friday, 11 July 2014

Haw Par Villa and Ten Courts of Hell

Falling in Love with a Snake.   Go to Hell.  Monkey Business.

 The Villas of 2 City-States 
When you visit Singapore and want to see or do something that you do back home, there're plenty of these places to choose from - the world-class zoo, 2 aquariums, botanic gardens, museums, Universal Studios, etc. But if you want to see something weird, wacky and wonderful, something that's uniquely Singapore, in fact, one and only in the world, Haw Par Villa should be your destination.

Actually there were 2 Haw Par Villas (aka Tiger Balm Gardens 虎豹別墅) - one in Singapore, and the other in Hong Kong. I stayed in HK in early 2010 for a few months in Wanchai (灣仔). In fact, it was an area within walking distance to the Tiger Balm Garden (or Haw Par Mansion as it was also called in HK). So naturally, I wanted to visit there, and only to find out that it had been permanently shut down. The place was replaced by residential high-rises.

The first time I was there was in the late 1980s. I'll try to dig out old snapshots (in rare hardcopy) that I took there and post it here (yes, I'm showing my age).

Haw Par Villa, Hong Kong 1999
Haw Par Villa (Tiger Balms Mansion), Hong Kong 1999

I think there're 3 reasons why this Singapore Haw Par Villa survives while its HK counterpart didn't : location, location, location. Before I went to visit there I had a bad feeling that the Tiger place couldn't still around in Wanchai after 3+ decades of economic leaping by this Asian Tiger. After all, HK's property is the most expensive in Asia (surpassing Tokyo, Paris or New York's housing prices).

Wanchai is a HK district sandwiching between the gleaming supertall skyscrapers filled CBD and Causeway Bay, the HK upmarket mega-shopping mecca. This is no place for this old-school, past its used-by date of a relic. So the Villa was leveled in 2004. You could still see pieces of it in a museum, where they belonged.

As I'm an old sentimental fool, the only other time I was so depressed was when I lost my wisdom tooth. It decidedly marked an end of a nostalgic era for me (the Garden, not the tooth). I felt like checking myself into a museum, said to the receptionist, "please give a glass case. Preferably one with a view of people".

There I stand in my glass case in the "20th Century Hall" of the museum for all to see. At my feet is the sign, "Homo Oldtimericus Ridiculous". Right next to me on a glass shelf are some exhibits that this extinct species once used: paper photographs, calculator, 5¼-inch floppy disk and an Apple II computer. Hey, don't forget the Tiger Balm. All the curious things that would make school attendees jaw dropped (or pressing their incredulous faces against the glass) today.

Apple II computer. It's an 8-bit computer. At least, it's not a 2-bit computer.
This screen has 80 character across. So they look like Lego characters.
Source: Wikipedia (Rama)

I decided to leave the museum. I can't really sleep standing up. Ok, I'll owe up. The glass case adds 10 pounds (sorry kg) and I don't want to look like a Loxodonta Elephantidae.

The retirement of HK Haw Par Villa leaves the the Singapore counterpart the only one of its kind in the world. It's saved by its respectable distance from Singapore CBD. What's more, the entrance is free. The media in the West sometimes called it the Disneyland of the East. It's hardly that.

Entrance gate to Haw Par Villa, Singapore
Main gate to Haw Par Villa

 Gaudy Gaudi Theme Park 
It's basically a theme park - or more accurately outdoor museum - for many facets of Chinese culture from mythology, religion, folklores to even historical figures and unique Chinese wild life. And then to mix it all up, it includes things like Thai dancer, Sumo wrestlers, miniature Statue of Liberty into the mix just to confuse the visitors a little bit more than they already have.

The sculptures in this place ain't quite the works of Spanish architect Gaudi, some would think they're gaudy (due to its colour). So let's call its artistic style Gaudy Gaudi. To those who love it, they're Goody Goodies.

Sumo wrestlers, Haw Par Villa, Singapore
Sumo wrestlers with Tiger Balms products in the middle

Tiger Balm products, Haw Par Villa, Singapore
Various Tiger balm products. These balms build this place.

Legend of  the White Snake (白蛇傳) takes up a large section just behind the entrance.

This is a well known folklore that are made into numerous adaptations of operas, movies, and comics. It deserves a place here.

Scene from Legend of the White Snake
Scene from Legend of the White Snake
This is the scene of Xu Xian (許仙) - the Chinese dude - chance meeting with Madam White Snake (the Lady in Red), and her younger 'sister' (in blue) on the Broken Bridge in Hangzhou.

Three Stars of Fu Lu Shou, gods of happines, prosperity and longevity
Three Stars of Fu Lu Shou 福祿壽
gods of Happiness, Prosperity, Longevity
Pagoda with Shayamuni Buddha on top
(click any photo to enlarge)

Confucius with his trademarked palm holding gesture

 Crime and Punishment: Chinese Style 
If you find most of the exhibits you have seen made you scratching your head, wait until you see the Ten Courts of Hell.

Entrance of the Ten Courts of Hell, Haw Par Villa, Singapore
Gate of Hell: entrance to the Ten Courts of Hell

Ox Head guarding Ten Courts of Hell, Haw Par Villa, Singapore
Ox Head
Horse Face guarding Ten Courts of Hell, Haw Par Villa, Singapore
Horse Face

Warning: The rest of this article contains deliciously disgusting graphic images that would make your stomach churn or give you nightmares, or if you're unlucky, both. Don't say I didn't warn you. So enjoy!

Guarding the gate to the Ten Courts of Hell are Ox-Head (牛頭) and Horse-Face (馬面).

While they're a couple of mean-looking guardians of the Underworld (or Hell), in many stories, they also go to snatch spirits just when people die. In that sense, they're more like police escorts than security guards. When they do the role of escorting human souls to the afterlife, they're acting more like psychopomps, which known by different names and takes different forms in different cultures.

For example, in Western cultures - naturally they appear in many Hollywood movies - these psychopomps take the form of a Grim Reaper.

For the Hindus, the psychopomps could be either a person or an animal or something else. As usual, Hindu mythology is complex.

Once you get inside this Gate of Hell, you will be presented with 10 exhibits showing the journey of the soul of the dead from just entering Hell, the judgement and punishments in the 10 courts, and the preparation for reincarnation.

Each of the 10 Courts will be presided by an Underworld Judge, each punishment will be meted out clearly to fit the crime.

Take the example of the 6th Court,

Crime and Punishment in the 6th Court, Haw Par Villa, Singapore
Crime and Punishment in the 6th Court.
Read them well, especially for the readers of Playboy magazine...
 (click to enlarge)

So next time when you're thinking of buying a copy of Playboy or Penthouse (who does that any more?), keep the following photo in mind. Not so attractive heh?

Body being sawn off in the 6th Court, Haw Par Villa, Singapore
Body being sawn off in the 6th Court
(click to enlarge to have a much closer look at the nice statues)

Regarding the misuse of books (my interpretation), remember that next time you break the spine of a book, your spine would be severed when you're down there.

Since every crime and punishment is so clearly laid out, I guess it's okay to look at online porn as long as you don't possess them. I interpret the rule literally to get around this legal loophole. As the dead is spiritual, the rule is therefore interpreted in the spirit of the law.

Don't say I didn't warn you. You may thank me in Hell.

When you curse, cheat or abduct people, you will be stabbed in the back by being thrown into the Trees of Knives, like this. Not too pretty, right?

Being thrown into the Tree of Knives in the 6th Court, Haw Par Villa, Singapore
Being thrown into the Tree of Knives in the 6th Court
(click to enlarge to look it more closely)
Being pierced by the Tree of Knives in the 6th Court, Haw Par Villa, Singapore
How's hanging ? Sipping your own blood much ? Care for some Panadol ?

Want to see another Court? I thought you never ask. Let's look at what they're busy with in 4th Court. First, let's peruse the Crime and Punishment tablet.

Crime and Punishment book
Ok, got it. Let's get on with it.

Punishments of the 4th Court, Haw Par Villa, Singapore
Being pounded by a stone mallet, and grounded into pulp

I won't spoil all the fun by telling you all the Crimes and Punishments in a Chinese Hell. Let's have fun finding out when you're in Haw Par Villa (or when we're down there). After all, the journey of discovery is half the fun.

Are these very graphic depictions R-rated? Would only adults be allowed in here? It would defeat the purpose, according to the creator, who wanted to scare kids stiff. I know you Catholic boys and girls can relate to all these? I don't mean Chinese Hell, they have their equally colourful Hell.

I've been here a few times (yeah, I've morbid taste), I often seen local parents who brought their young kids to see these. They would point out casually or matter-of-factly to their kids, "you see, this guy's tongue got pulled out because he's making everyone in the family miserable". Y'all hear that, kids? It says nothing about playing with matches, so gets crazy with it.

Tongue being pulled out as a punishment in the 7th Court, Haw Par Villa, Singapore
Tongue being pulled out

Having said that, few locals visit this place. I've never seen more than 50 people there any one time, and it isn't a small place and it's free admission. They used to charge expensive fares, the Singapore Tourism Board stop charging fees since 1998.

The place was created to teach traditional Chinese values. It isn't hard to see that these traditional thinking are out-of-date. This isn't surprising when you considered that this place was conceived back in the 1930s.

Few Chinese-speaking Singaporean still subscribe to the all-important Chinese value of filial piety (I bet most English readers don't even know the term). Actually there're less Singaporean Mandarin speakers than foreigners think, and even fewer Chinese readers. It often puts a smile on my face when Western expats ask if they need to learn Mandarin if they're going to live and work in Singapore. Most Singaporean are multilingual, with English literacy the highest among them comparing to the other 3 official languages. So my advice to the European expats, if you thinking of working in Singapore, learn English!

I've little chance in brushing up my Mandarin in Singapore, I get only 20% of the time in using Mandarin because I insist. I could very well have used English 100% of the time.

Too bad, I say, they really have little chance of using - hence learning - Mandarin in their everyday lives (although their kids can), This is why the high-profile billionaire investor Jim Rogers wants to live in Singapore. He still can't speak Mandarin after living in Singapore all these years, but his daughters can. In fact, one of his daughter speaks Mandarin better than just about all Singaporean as she won nationwide Mandarin-speaking contest 2 years in a row. See what I mean? A foreigner can speak Mandarin better than the locals.

Having said what I said about Singaporean's Mandarin literacy. For the educated middle-class Singaporean baby-boomers, their Mandarin literacy is lower than the current generation for the precisely same reason why Jim Rogers can't speak Chinese while his daughters can: the emergence of China in the last 3 decades. Note that I'm very careful in using the word "Mandarin", and not "Chinese" in this and the last 2 paragraphs. Chinese speaking doesn't always equate to Mandarin speaking.

One of the stories of the 24 Paragons of filial piety, Haw Par Villa, Singapore
One of the stories of the 24 Paragons of filial piety

This diorama shows one of the very dated classic stories of the 24 Paragons or Exemplars of Filial Piety. The story of She Breastfed Her Mother-In-Law. So the daughter-in-law puts her mother-in-law above her child (as far as her breast milk is concerned). Today such thing only appear in the Jerry Springer Show.

Drinking of tea to wipe the memories of the previous life
Granny Meng is standing in the Pavilion in yellow robe

There's light at the end of the the tunnel shaped Ten Courts of Hell. After the deserved punishment, the soul is given the Tea of Forgetfulness (迷魂湯) to drink from an old lady called Meng Po or Granny Meng. Afterwards, he or she will forget everything in his or her life, and ready for the next life with a clean slate (who wants to remember all that torture?) The tea works far better than and much cheaper than that electronic gadget in Men in Black. Some people didn't drink and so they remember their previous lives.

After the tea, one's soul is sent away to be reborn and the cycles begins again.  Yep, there's a happy ending.

If you aren't religious, you could see the whole hellish thing as a metaphor for dream. Those tortures are the nightmares that haunt your conscience. You wake up, and the dreams are fading away, and another day starts anew.

Life is but an endless cycles of all different time frames: some are measured in seconds, other in decades, and ultimately in our whole life times.

Six paths to the Wheel of Reincarnation or Samsara
Six paths to the Wheel of Reincarnation or Samsara
Note that the 6 paths contain people as well as animals

 Monkey Around on the Way to the West 
Of course, you can't introduce visitors to Chinese culture without showing the Monkey, or his other names, Monkey King, Monkey God, the Great Sage Equal of Heaven or Sun Wukong (孫悟空). But one section isn't doing justice for him, so there're 2 sections built to illustrate his illustrious life. One section depicts the scene from the Chinese classic Journey to the West where he accompanies his master Tang Sanzhuang in the trek or odyssey to India, and the other depicts his life in Mount Huaguo (花果山 or Flowers and Fruit Mountain).

A scene from Journey to the West of Sun Wukong fighting Red Boy, Haw Par Villa, Singapore
A scene from Journey to the West of Sun Wukong fighting Red Boy (紅孩兒)
Red Boy also known as Boy Sage King (聖嬰大王)

Monkey King rules over his domain atop Mount Huagou, Haw Par Villa, Singapore
Monkey King rules over his Simian domain atop Mount Huagou

With the few visitors and no entrance fees, I was concerning that this place won't last long. But it appears that not only most of the dioramas and sculptures are looked in good condition. In fact, I saw that worker was doing maintenance work on the exhibits.

The modern Singaporean would find the traditional Chinese cultural values too old-fashion, but for the old-fashion, the many provocative statues here would make them blushed. Maybe the sculptor was trained in Prague? These 2 conflicting signals seem anachronistic and oxymoronic. What were the park creator thinking? These contradictions make this place unique and I found myself irresistibly drawn to it like malware worm to ebook. Crunch, crunch, yummy in my tummy.

It's great to see this unique past preserved. This is an extinct museum, the last of its kind. I hate to see it go.

How long do you need to spend in this park? It depends. If you want to take photos of every statue, and pore over them with a microscope like me, you need no more than 4 hours. If you just come and have a casual look, you don't need more than 2 hours (or less). If you take your 8 year-old child and need to frighten them with traditional moral tales in R-rated graphic dioramas, it probably takes a bit longer.

If you like to feast your eyes with a colourful, shocking, eclectic collection of the exotic, bewildering, imaginative by-gone traditional Chinese cultural images, this is a must-see.

For those who are interested a great deal about Chinese Hell (or Hell in general) like myself could read more about it on my article about my hellish encounter with loan $hark.

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