One of the first journal entries I ever wrote as a child, was of a trip with my mother to Haw Par Villa. I was four-years old in 1991 and Haw Par Villa was one of the most popular theme parks in Singapore. It was the Resorts World of the 1980s – a place where kids would visit and return to school with stories to overwhelm their friends the next day.
Aside from the slow boat ride entering the Dragon’s Mouth through a 60-metre long trail to visit the dioramas of the “Ten Courts of Hell”, there was also a rollercoaster-flume ride that could possibly be the most adrenaline-pumping ride of that time. Visitors would sit in a flume that meanders past “mountains” and through “rivers”, climaxing at a huge drop at the end where the flume finally splashes into a pool of water. What’s also unforgettable is the amphitheater which hosts regular performances of mystical Chinese legends adapted into English. “The play was about mother-earth and her children of the different elements. They tried to find harmony with each other for peace in the universe,” the four-year-old me noted in my journal. I could still remember running down the theatre stairs, trying to steal a touch of the performers’ costume.
Still vivid in my mind was also the long queue for visitors to have their photographs taken dressed in fancy ancient Chinese costumes. I pestered my mother to let me have a photo taken in a princess costume. My frugal mother found two-dollars too costly during that time, and a staged photograph was too impractical for keep-sake. “It would be better if we took the photographs ourselves,” she responded. I agreed and left Haw Par Villa more than satisfied. Who knew more than twenty-four years later, my mother’s words proved right! As we took out photographs from my family photo album for Singapore Snaps, wonderful memories of my childhood came pouring back.
Like a wild card, the Singapore Snaps team had found hundreds of photographs that other families took at Haw Par Villa over the years. Seeing how this collection of photographs document and depict the park through time, these photographs are definitely one of the best tokens from the theme park in its heyday.
Though its dioramas portray mainly Chinese legends and folklore relating to Confucian values, Singaporeans from different heritages visited Haw Par Villa. It was a place for families and friends to gather and spend quality time with each other. There is no doubt Haw Par Villa captured our imaginations, and is a surrealistic yet fantastical escape from the city life.
Despite all the past celebratory moments Singaporeans had partaken at Haw Par Villa, this iconic attraction today, has been forgotten and even misunderstood. “Haw Par Villa, Singapore: the theme park made in hell” titles an article on “The Guardian”, a British newspaper. It highlights the bizarre and gruesomeness of the subjects depicted by the dioramas. A lot of which, are taken out of context. In reference to the sculpture where a young lady is breast-feeding an elderly, through unknowing eyes it might look shockingly pornographic. But what was meant to be conveyed through this act is filial piety. In medicine scarcity situations, breast milk has nutrients which strengthen the immune system, and for the young to provide this to the elderly is a commendable act of filial piety. Of course, filial piety means different matters in this day and age, and between the Eastern and Western cultures. But what needs to be highlighted is that these images sit in large and complex discourse of Chinese, or even more specifically diasporic Chinese, beliefs. Beyond being artefacts to gawk at, Haw Par Villa is an expression of a desire to impart values.
In the personal histories of its creators Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, Haw Par Villa is also a manifestation of love and brotherhood. It is apt that the park’s program is currently under the custody of Latent Spaces, a contemporary art group fronted by twin brothers, Chun Kai Qun and Chun Kai Feng. Can Haw Par Villa continue to give new meaning to Singaporeans and its visitors beyond its histories? Rejuvenating it as another theme park will seem challenging, Art will perhaps be its future.
Written by Samantha Tio
Edited by Tan Wei Keong