It was in 2002. I was 5 years old and my parents had promised me a family outing to a theme park. I imagined a Disneyland-worthy fantasy – you know, catchy tunes and magical characters – to be greeted by a nightmarish creature wiggling an impossibly long crimson tongue as I entered the “gates of hell.” I would suffer the same fate as the person the creature was dragging, I was told, if I ever misbehaved.
This was my first excursion to the Ten Courts of Hell, a tunnel of spooky dioramas found in Singapore’s Haw Par Villa featuring Taoist and Buddhist interpretations of hellish punishments.
Bare-breasted sinners pummeled by demons, severed body parts, and people sizzling in oil woks terrorized an entire generation of Singaporean children in the ’70s and’ 80s. When these children grew up to be parents (like the mine), they unleashed the same horror on their children with well-meaning family trips to glimpse hell and give moral lessons along the way.
A few weeks ago, I decided it was finally time to revisit the scenes from my childhood nightmares, about 20 years after my first trip. How bad could it be? I thought when I arrived.
I was leisurely until I saw creepy pandas near the entrance, peeking out from a cave. The more I looked at their keen eyes, the more I understood why Haw Par Villa has kept its stronghold in urban legends – one particularly popular legend claims that sculptures come to life at night.
Opened in 1937 by Chinese Burmese tycoon Aw Boon Haw, Haw Par Villa was meant to be a dream home for his brother Aw Boon Par. For several years, the villa served as the residence of the Aw family (also known for producing the iconic Tiger Balm medicinal ointment), until WWII saw them flee Singapore. The land, including the statues and gardens which were later donated by the Aws, now belongs to the state.
During its 84-year history, the land has served as a family villa, a vantage point for Japanese troops during the war, and a hotspot for public vandals. In the 90s it was even transformed into a largely unsuccessful theme park with rides that were eventually closed in 2001.
But the trippy sculptures and dioramas (now over 1,000) remain icons of the bizarre attraction. The park continues to host a small but steady stream of nostalgic old people, daredevils intrigued by urban legends, and artistic types embarking on folklore-themed photoshoots. Today, the park is home to the all-new Hell’s Museum, which showcases traditions surrounding death and beliefs about the afterlife, with an emphasis on local Chinese rituals.
The Ten Courts of Hell, the infamous Hell’s Torture Tunnel, is now part of the Hell’s Museum exhibit.
According to Chinese mythology, which is inspired by Buddhism, people attend the courts of the afterlife when they die. In these courts, each supervised by a king, the dead are condemned to extremely brutal punishments for their mortal sins.
These sinners are then tortured repeatedly through the 18 Levels of Hell (another well-known concept in Chinese folklore) until they are sent for reincarnation. How long you spend in hell depends on the severity of your sins.
For example, those who neglected the old and the young would be crushed by a rock. During this time, the punishment for sins like theft, murder and rape is to have your head and arms cut off.
Sins also become eerily specific: planning someone’s death to steal their money, or charging an unreasonably high interest rate on loans, will throw you over a hill of knives.
It turns out that the fascination with uncensored moral teachings theme parks runs a common thread among Asian cultures. From an infernal garden in Thailand to a Buddhist Hell Water Park in South Korea, sculptures representing what awaits sinners in the afterlife are presumably intended to frighten park enthusiasts and lead them to a virtuous life.
Coming out of the hellish tunnel of negative reinforcement, Haw Par Villa also presents sculptures that embody positive values, however graphic they may be. In an ancient Chinese tale intended to illustrate the height of filial piety, a woman breastfeeds her sick mother-in-law every day because she has no teeth and cannot chew her food. This story is portrayed in a vivid sculptural representation that disturbs without context.
Even with the most intense sculptures out of the way, walking around the rest of the park still wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. Every corner of the sprawling villa features surreal sculptures that gave me goosebumps even in broad daylight.
Equally breathtaking are the living residents of Haw Par Villa. I came across several ponds clogged with algae where turtles languished in the stifling sunlight, a rather pitiful sight. Although I have to admit, the mossy green waters really heightened the abandoned glamor of the place.
Exploring Haw Par Villa is rarely the first choice for leisure in Singapore, where many glitzy activities compete for the attention of locals and tourists alike. Plus, for many like me who were traumatized there as a child, the sculptures are reminiscent of childhood nightmares that we have since tried to suppress and forget.
But as we grapple with rapid changes in our cultural heritage, it’s nice to see Singaporeans still appreciating the theme park as an important part of local history.
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