On my brief, 4-day summer vacation at the beginning of August, I met up with Soon Yon. Soon Yon is a top-notch human being/ incredible artist extraordinaire/Korean expat living and working in Singapore as a video editor. We both share a similar enthusiasm for traditional Asian arts and culture. It was her idea to bring me to Haw Par Villa, a Chinese cultural amusement park that was conceived by brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par in 1937. Part-novelty, part-method of scaring wayward kids straight, the villa features bright, dazzling diorama scenes rooted in Chinese spiritual traditions like Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. When told there was a Hell museum, I was eager to see it first hand. The entire park did not disappoint.
Haw Par Villa used to be known as ‘Tiger Balm Gardens”. If you don’t know, the Aw Brothers invented Tiger Balm ointment. Soon Yon and I are greeted by a colorful tiger family enthusiastically holding stone boxes of the stuff. I’m a pretty cynical person when I see advertisements placed within my view, but I honestly believe these brothers created something that still benefits people today. It eases people’s pain and helps them get on with their lives. In my mind, it’s Kwan Yin and Buddha approved!
Our first stop was the Ten Courts of Hell. Horse-faced and ox-headed creatures guard the entrance. As a freshly dead spirit, these beasts are the first beings come upon in their soul migration. Daoism and Buddhism differ in their maps of hell. Each tradition has variations of deities that act as judges for the soul. The Aw Brothers did not hold back with the imagery in their hell! They were going for maximum impact in their depiction of what would happen to a lost soul.
As I walk through the park, Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights comes to mind. My parents used to have a framed poster of it hanging about the couch when I was young. I was simultaneously creeped-out and awestruck by the surreal, geometric images. Later, I would be dumbstruck again to find out that Bosch was making trippy, psychedelic-like paintings in the early 16th-century; work that seemed to scream the 1970’s in my mind. Anyways, the park held my imagination captive the same way Bosch’s most famous painting did. The park is laid out with different scenes like Bosch’s triptychs, some just as weird and vivid as the Dutch painter’s, except with scenes depicting modern (mid-20th century) scenarios.
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It was a delight to visit Haw Par Villa. Intense scenes of hell dominate the landscape, but Buddhas and Bodhisattvas serve as guides to the path out of hell. There are plenty of life-affirming moments here if you look for them. A mother and baby terrapin swim together in a small terrapin sized reconstruction of Haw Par Villa. Another terapin sunbathes on a rock in front of Kwan Yin. Flora grows in the lap of the Buddha on the five-story pagoda. Finding moments of peace in hell is possible.