Haw Par Villa: ‘an Asian version of Alice in Wonderland’

Haw Par Villa is an eclectic Asian culture park of over 1,000 sculptures and 150 dioramas set on an 8.5 hectares hillside. It was built in 1937 by Aw Boon Haw, for his homesick brother, Aw Boon Par.  

The Aw brothers had made their fortune perfecting their father’s formula for the tropical ointment, Tiger Balm and were the equivalent of today’s Crazy Rich Asians. 

The Aw brothers - Aw Boon Par (left) Aw Boon Haw (right) courtesy of Journey Pte Ltd / Singapore History Consultants

Originally, Haw Par Villa covered four terraces. The top terrace comprised of a substantial private villa, (Boon Par’s home); the third, lawns, tennis courts and a swimming pool; the second, a large fishpond and the first, a garage and parking area. Colourful pavilions, sculptures and dioramas depicting scenes from Chinese culture, literature, history and elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, were liberally scattered around. These three lower tiers formed Tiger Balm Gardens. There was also a zoo in which the animals, initially, roamed free. 

In the 1930s, Singapore was a British colony, and its many parks and open spaces were either exclusively for Europeans or built with them in mind. There were few free public spaces for Asians to enjoy. The philanthropically minded Aw brothers responded by opening Tiger Balm Gardens to everyone, (regardless of race), for free.  In one masterstroke, they created a unique and exciting landmark which gave the largely illiterate local population a lesson in traditional Chinese values, culture and religion whilst also advertising Tiger Balm ointment. It was immensely popular. 

The villa at Haw Par Villa sometime between 1937-41 courtesy of Journey Pte Ltd / Singapore History Consultants

However in 1942, Singapore fell to the Imperial Japanese Army. Boon Haw was in Hong Kong at the time, but Boon Par fled to Rangoon, leaving the villa to the Japanese until 1945. Sadly Boon Par died in Rangoon in 1944 and when Boon Haw returned a year later, he demolished the villa and replaced the family recreational areas with more sculptures and dioramas in a notably darker tone. Indeed, it was in this period that the Ten Courts of Hell was built; a long dark tunnel with gruesome scenes of punishments visited on criminals and those breaching social norms.  

Boon Haw died in 1954 and his nephew, Cheng Chye, took over. He added international corners and oversaw its golden age of 1,000,000 visitors a year. Cheng Chye died in 1971 and in 1985, the Singapore government acquired the site.  

Haw Par Villa was closed and re-opened as Haw Par Villa Dragon World, a fee-paying theme park. It incurred heavy losses and relinquished its management rights in 2001. A second operator moved in and opened a multi-million-dollar museum which also proved commercially unviable. In 2015, Journeys Pte Ltd, an award-winning heritage company, was awarded the contract to operate and manage the park.  

I spoke to Eisen Teo, Senior Researcher at Singapore History Consultants Pte Ltd, an associate company of Journeys Pte Ltd, and Chief Curator of Hell's Museum at Haw Par Villa.  

Eisen Teo, Senior Researcher at Singapore History Consultants Pte Ltd. Image courtesy of Eisen Teo

What have been the most challenging aspects of operating and managing the site?  
Journeys Pte Ltd, runs the park on a revenue tender. Hence, we pay rent for the privilege of managing the park, with the intention of making it relevant to a modern audience, so as to work towards its eventual conservation. The challenge is to continuously create programmes, some of which must generate revenue to cover the costs of running the park.  

A scene from Journey to the West, one of the four great Chinese novels

The Covid-19 pandemic killed the physical tours and programmes which kept the park alive and buzzing, and/or generated income. These two years have been very tough for us, but with the recent significant relaxation of Covid-19 measures, and the return of international travel, we are hopeful that visitor numbers will recover. This will contribute to the park achieving sustainability and recognition of its important heritage status.  

The park sprawls over 8.5 hectares, so it is significantly more challenging than running a museum, which is usually far smaller. Facilities management is an important aspect of keeping the place in order.   
What is your future vision for Haw Par Villa?  
We hope the authorities will see the heritage value in Haw Par Villa and give it conservation status. We also believe Haw Par Villa is worthy of becoming Singapore’s second UNESCO World Heritage Site.  


Meanwhile, despite having achieved much already, there is still much to be done. The park needs to regain its popularity with Singaporeans, and we are getting there. When we took over in 2015, monthly visitor numbers were just 7,000. This month, (May 2022), is projected to top 35,000.  

Why is there an Australian and New Zealand section? 
In the 1960s, Aw Cheng Chye travelled around the world for both personal leisure and to promote Tiger Balm. At the time, the furthest most Singaporeans had travelled, was within the region or China and India. Hence, Cheng Chye came up with the idea of constructing “International Corners” to bring the world to Singaporeans and market Tiger Balm at the same time. The sections were dedicated to countries such as the United States, Italy, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, and of course, Australia and New Zealand. To maximise publicity, he would launch each corner with great fanfare, inviting the media and VIPs such as ministers.  

Original New Zealand International Corner in the 1970s-80s before it was dismantled for Dragon World. The Maori did not survive but the kiwis did. Courtesy of Journey Pte Ltd/Singapore History Consultants

During the Dragon World era, (1990 to 2001), the theme park focused heavily on Chinese culture. Hence, the International Corners were dismantled and many sculptures were placed in storage. After its closure these sculptures were replaced but in random locations. The Australian and New Zealand elements, such as kangaroos, koalas, and kiwis, were clustered next to the site of the former villa, where they have silently stood guard to this day.   
How have people responded to the Tiger Car?  
Visitors absolutely adore it.  

A replica of the original 1925 Buick Tiger car. Image: Supplied

We’ve developed The Tiger Car Story, a 45-minute show-and-tell programme introducing visitors to the 1925 Buick that recreates Aw Boon Haw’s famous Tiger Car. The workshop includes a talk and allows visitors to get up close and personal with the car, watch the engine run, and sit inside.  It’s a great Instagrammable spot in Haw Par Villa!  
The Tiger Car is a great way of sharing the villa’s heritage and the larger-than-life Aw family.  

- Asia Media Centre