The Colorful and Sometimes Tragic World of Haw Par Villa
A detail from one of the dioramas at Haw Par Villa depicting the consequences of poor choices and bad behavior.
As usual, it has been a long interlude since my last post. Even during this seemingly endless pandemic, my life has been busy with a multitude of activities, obligations, distractions, and of course an ample amount of procrastination.
The other day I was going through my large collection of digital images that I made during my thirteen years living in Singapore. I came across a series of strange and bizarre images that I made during visits to an historic and unique theme park called Haw Par Villa, or Tiger Balm Garden. It’s located along Pasir Panjang Road on the southern side of the island of Singapore.
The park contains over 1,000 statues and 150 giant dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese mythology, folklore, legends, and history, as well as illustrations of various aspects of Confucianism. The park was the brainchild of Burmese-Chinese brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, the developers of Tiger Balm, who had moved their successful business venture from Burma to Singapore in 1926. The brothers built the park in 1937, importing artisans from China to create the statues and dioramas from concrete and plaster. In the 1950s and 1960s, before the advent of television and shopping malls, the park was a popular recreational destination for Singaporean families. Many Singaporean adults have memories of visiting the park as a child and learning about Chinese folk history and morality. During the years of Singapore’s rapid modernization and transition from a traditional Asian port city to a cosmopolitan international hub of commerce, banking and technology, the park became somewhat anachronistic amidst the glittering 21st century high rises, shopping arcades and malls.
I started going there in the early 2000’s. At that time, it seemed to be stuck in an equilibrium between the present and the past. Parts of it were a bit shabby and run down, while other parts were fairly well maintained. Even on the weekends the park was rarely busy. At that time, admission was free, which made it popular with the local low-wage foreign workers, groups of Philippine maids and South Asian construction workers. Most other foreign visitors and locals seemed to prefer nearby Sentosa Island with its beaches, restaurants, amusements and even a Universal Studios theme park. My attraction to Haw Par Villa was its combination of peaceful tropical garden ambience, the history of the place, the incredible visual imagination on display in the large colorfully-painted statues and murals, and the stories told in the three-dimensional narratives displayed along its winding paths on the side of a hill.
It was the color and the content of the stories that attracted me. One portion of the park depicts the famous Chinese folk classics such as Journey to the West and the Eight Immortals. In addition, it has a series of dioramas depicting the universal concepts of good and evil. often in a graphic and gory way. It is said that the Aw Boon brothers created it as a way to impart a moral education to the people of Singapore back in the day.
Over the number of times I visited there, I shot both digital color and analog black and white images. I’ll present them over a series of posts I hope to complete in the next few weeks.
The following are my interpretations of some of the tableaus presented in the morality dioramas at Haw Par Villa
Have fun - but maybe not too much?
By all means, watch out for those wolves in sheep's clothing.
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