Of Monsters, Men and Mythologies: The Dioramas of Haw Par Villa

A snarling tiger will greet you when you step out of Haw Par Villa MRT station.

This is Haw Par Villa, known also as the Tiger Balm Gardens. If you walk through its towering gates, past that snarling tiger, an exhilaratingly weird and technicolour trip into Chinese mythology awaits. These aren’t the quaint “Gardens” of the colonial imagination, manifested at the Singapore Botanic Gardens; nor the ‘Garden’ of Lee Kuan Yew’s ‘Garden City’; nor a ‘Garden’ of super-trees that cost a billion taxpayer dollars to build. These ‘Gardens’ are more brilliant paint and plaster than neat, landscaped greenery.

A Rich Man’s Gardens

Haw Par Villa opened in 1937 to the public, the brainchild of Aw Boon Haw, the Burmese-Chinese business tycoon behind the Tiger Balm brand of medicinal products. Known as a colourful and flamboyant personality, Boon Haw had the Villa built as a gift for his brother, Aw Boon Par. The grounds were initially open to the public only on the first three days of the Chinese New Year, then all year round from 1937 thereafter, in keeping with the philanthropic spirit of wealthy Chinese at this time. The vivid – and arguably, lurid – dioramas that Haw Par Villa are so well-known for today were already in place by this time. These dioramas include the graphically memorable Ten Courts of Hell, with sinners creatively boiled, roasted and disembowelled in a myriad ways for their transgressions, and Confucian scenes of filial piety – such as the tableau of Lady Tang breastfeeding her elderly mother-in-law instead of her baby during a famine.[1]

A State’s Vision

Following the decline of the Tiger Balm business empire in the 1970s, the state took control of the Villa in 1985 by invoking the Land Acquisition Act, after nearly a decade of protracted negotiations on how the Gardens would be run after it was to be handed over to the government. However, the pleasure gardens of an overseas Chinese billionaire tycoon do not necessarily conform to what state objectives, especially if it wanted to utilise Haw Par Villa to parade Singapore to outsiders. In the context of a 1980s-Singapore projecting the Asian Values discourse as a way to rationalise its economic success, this meant a disproportionate emphasis on Chinese culture.[2] After smearing Chinese-educated political leaders for years as dangerous “Communists” or “communalists”, and effacing the use of Chinese dialects from official and educational discourses, the avowedly multicultural Singaporean state suddenly needed to demonstrate its Chinese credentials. It needed generic showcases for Chinese culture germane to nation-building objectives.

Under the recommendations of tourism committees formed in 1983, such as the Tourism Task Force, and the Economic Research Associates, Haw Par Villa underwent a radical, ambitious transformation which aimed to make it the “Disneyland of the East”, to sell Chinese culture and folk mythology to tourists. Augmented by high-technology and the expertise of American consultants, the revamped Haw Par Villa: reconfigured, overhauled – and now dominated by a spectacular (and spectacularly incongruous) 60-metre dragon-shaped tunnel – reopened on 2 October 1990. Appropriated by the state for the tourist market, Tiger Balm Gardens became “Dragon World”.[3]

As academics Hong Lysa and Huang Jianli remark sardonically in their lushly detailed historical account of Haw Par Villa, the ambition of Dragon World was as spectacular as the subsequent financial fallout.[4] After nearly 80 million dollars of start-up investments, Dragon World closed about a decade later in 2001, having suffered a loss of nearly 31.5million dollars. Numerous academic works: from fields as diverse as business studies, tourism and cultural geography, have mushroomed in an attempt to rationalise this rejection by market forces, ranging from Dragon World’s incongruous ‘East and West’ melding, to the high entrance fees charged.[5]

A Return to Form?

Under a reconceptualised framework, Haw Par Villa has since been repositioned again, this time with a focus on returning the Gardens back to its original appearance. Since the early 2000s, there has been an emerging emphasis by the Singapore Tourism Board to let the dioramas “tell their own stories”.[6] The success of Haw Par Villa as a visitor site remains to be seen, in the decades to come.

In a Singapore where rich languages and cultural backgrounds – much like our natural landscapes- have been flattened, manicured and trimmed to suit state-dictated national interests, it is an astonishing feat that Haw Par Villa has continued to exist. Eighty years after their inception, the Eight Immortals continue to duel with the Dragon King at his underwater court. The yakshas, resplendent in new coats of paint, happily dismember a hapless adulterer. The great tiger at the gate snarls in contented repose.

Conclusion: Glimpsing Iconic Alternatives

The history of Haw Par Villa shows us that places can be icons of many things, depending on who wields the financial and political power to define. Under different owners, Haw Par Villa has been emblematic of wealthy philanthropy, Chinese folk culture and state policies.

Yet its chaotically exuberant, expressive dioramas are also delightfully iconoclastic outliers to the sanitised, ordered Singapore we are so used to. In the final analysis, it stands as an icon of a past only occasionally glimpsed through the stories of our grandparents; of a different Singapore dominated by other imaginations: other monsters, men and mythologies.

Afterthoughts:

I keep saying I am a historian-in-training, but to date there has been so little I’ve  actually published on this blog that has actually gripped and wrestled with the discipline I pretend to know a little more about.

Haw Par Villa has always fascinated me, because of how ugly and bizarre its statuettes and dioramas were – and why + how i was so discomfited with them. In an age of instant gratification, slick and sexy explosive graphics specially crafted to appeal to sell to sex, the unapologetic hideousness and vivid intensity the tableaus exude an unexpectedly quixotic and nostalgic appeal, like your cute and weird grandma who says the most offensively (and hilariously) racist and sexist things. Here is an article I published in Mnemozine, the flagship publication of the NUS History Society earlier in 2016. 

A more extended essay on representations of folk heroes, deities and spirits in Haw Par Villa, as part of an independent research project is forthcoming. Until then, here is a more abridged, accessible introduction into one of the weirdest theme parks in Singapore. Universal Studios Singapore? Get your thrills and chills and spills looking at how you will be dismembered, boiled up and impaled in the folk Chinese afterlife for stealing, lying to your momma, or cheating in your examinations.  

Featured image by User:Sengkang – Own work, Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1405157

Footnotes

[1] Brandel, Judith, and Tina Turbeville, 1998, Tiger Balm Gardens, Hong Kong: Aw Boon Haw Foundation.

[2] Huang, Jianli, and Lysa Hong, “Conscripting Chinese Diasporic Culture into National Identity: Taming of the Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore” in The Scripting of a National History: Singapore and Its Pasts (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2008), p.215.

[3] Ibid, p.219

[4] Ibid, p. 220

[5] Cultural geographers have examined themes such as the strategies of “Dragon World”, and the issues that come with heritage tourism through geographical lenses, such as in Teo, Peggy, and Brenda S. A. Yeoh, 1997, Remaking local heritage for tourism. Annals of Tourism Research 24 (1): 192-213; see also Yeoh, Brenda S. A., and Peggy Teo. 1996. “From Tiger Balm Gardens To Dragon World: Philanthropy And Profit In The Making Of Singapore’s First Cultural Theme Park”. Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography 78 (1): 27. To date, and to this writer’s knowledge, Hong and Huang’s work on Haw Par Villa remains the only published academic paper about the site written by local historians; even then, this paper tends to embed Haw Par Villa in the context of Singapore’s development as a sovereign nation-state, rather than to examine the Villa on its own, or to read it as an instance, and a text of cultural history.

[6] Hong and Huang, “Taming of the Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore”, p.220

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