There is a place that teaches moral values, moral lessons and Chinese classics through the form of sculptures in Singapore. This place is nonetheless Haw Par Villa 虎豹別墅. To many whom have not been to this place and heard that it is a boring place would have been missing out on a good and unique learning experience. The moment anyone mentions Haw Par Villa, the first thing that comes to mind must be “The Ten Courts of Hell”. This is the villa’s best known attraction and likely to be one of a kind in the world. This attraction features gruesome depictions of Hell in Chinese mythology and Buddhism. No one leaves Haw Par Villa without feeling humbled by the hell scenes.
Haw Par Villa was built in 1937 by 2 brothers: Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, hence the name “Haw Par Villa”. During my parents courtship in the old days, this was one of the best and popular attractions in Singapore back then. I am sure many Singaporean parents with similar age would have visited the park more than once. Many old photos kept in my parents’ albums show the same sculptures as you can see them today although some of them have been torn down due to wear and tear. Prior to my recent revisit of this park, originally called the Tiger Balm Gardens, I had been to here twice. The first time was when I was probably 4 or 5 years old when my parents took my brothers and I to this place. The second time was when we had a school excursion and the villa was turned into a theme park. While I may not have much impression of the place when I was 4, I certainly remembered the “Ten Courts of Hell” clearly the next time I went as a teen.
The Ten Courts of Hell
In Chinese ideology associated with Taoism, Buddhism and folk religions, there are ten courts of hell or eighteen levels of hell that serve to punish and renew spirits in preparation for reincarnation. Depending on the severity of the sins, the sinners go through punishment and are tortured in different ways. They are supposed to feel the pain like human beings and at the end of the ordeal, they will drink a potion from Meng Po to forget what they had done in their previous lives and go into reincarnation. Each will be given a new lease of life as a rich person, poor person or beast depending on what that person’s previous life deeds were.
There are quite many gruesome scenes and I was rather afraid my kids will be frightened by them. However, Kel did lots of explanation as we walked through each court of hell. We stopped at each court and read the Chinese signage on what the sins are and what kind of punishment the sinners go through. The sculptures were very well done with detailed facial expressions of pain, suffering and sadness. Some of the sins that yield grisly punishment took me by surprise. Even wrong-doings like evading tax, flouting rules and disrespect to parents had sinners punished in many unforgiving ways. Maybe the word “disrespect” sounds too trivial. I am sure it means disrespect in grossly ways like ill-treat, abuse and heartless treatment of one’s parents. But evading tax and flouting rules surely are common sins. And these are subjected to sufferings that are nothing less than digging the heart out, sawing the body into half, immersing into ice cold pool or hot lava, grinding the body under a crush stone mill, among others. If you are into more horrendous punishment, read here.
There are also some who died a wrong death and these people will get to see how the culprits are punished. All these are explicitly portrayed in the “Ten Courts of Hell”.
The moral stories behind this ghastly depiction serve as a warning against wrong-doings and reminder for good deeds. I do not think that there is anywhere else in the world that tells the mythology of hell in such a lifelike form. Although it looks horrifying, at the end of it all, you know that there is such a thing call retribution and a new lease of life. This place is certainly worth a visit for everyone. We saw many non-Chinese visitors in Haw Par Villa when we were there. As with many places in Singapore, there is always English translation beside the Chinese words. No one will actually get lost in deciphering the meaning behind each scene and story.
Besides the Ten Courts of Hell, there are many other sculptures that portray filial piety stories, good deeds and even scenes from *Journey to the West, Fengshen Bang, The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars, Legend of the White Snake, Romance of the Three Kingdoms; statues of mythological figures such as the Laughing Buddha and Guanyin, and historical personages such as Jiang Ziya, Su Wu and Lin Zexu; the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, and others (*source from wiki).
Walking through and looking at these well-sculpted scenes, I am ever more intrigued by Chinese history and stories. With the kids and my parents, we toured the villa for 2 hours. If you have slowly read through each signage and understand each story, it may probably take you half a day. We did not stay for as long as we would have liked due to the highly humid and hot weather that day.
The kids like the place and they love to have us being their story-tellers when we explained what each scene represents. For my parents, I am glad I took them here to reminisce their old courtship days. They were also happy to revisit this place with their grandchildren after so many years. That’s what Kel and I have been constantly doing: bringing our parents to as many old and new places while they are still healthy and able to walk and travel. Filial piety in full representation right?!
– There is much walking inside the park with steps and slopes, so wear good walking shoes.
– There are no restaurants and if you want a drink and snacks, there are a few vending machines selling can drinks and snacks.
– Toilets are not so baby friendly.
– Insect repellents, hats, and umbrellas are must-haves in hot and sunny Singapore .
– Bring your own water.
Train: Easiest way to get to this place is to take CIRCLE Line and alight at Haw Par Villa station (CC25). Haw Par Villa is just next to it.
Buses: 10, 30, 51, 143, 188, 200, 175, 176, 589
Fees: Free admission
Opening hours: 9am to 7pm daily
For more pictures, you may visit Remember Singapore.
Have you been to Haw Par Villa or a place that promotes moral values somewhere in the world? Tell me about it!!