This morning I went to Singapore’s Haw Par Villa cultural theme park with my friend Audrey, and I’m still having trouble mentally digesting everything we saw. It’s an outdoor art gallery that features more than 1,000 statues and 3-D dioramas depicting various Chinese, Confucian and Taoist myths and religious beliefs.
The park’s main attraction, the 10 Courts of Hell, is why I’m staying up late writing this blog post, delaying the nightmares that will surely come when I fall asleep.
According to Chinese mythology, when sinful people pass away, they are repeatedly tortured in the relevant court of Hell. Haw Par Villa shows visitors exactly what that torture would look like via grotesque dioramas for each court.
Before we entered the cave of dioramas, we walked along a path filled with bloody, severed heads, demon-like statues, and a giant rock depicting a battle between rabbits and squirrels. From what I could tell, the rabbits were winning because quite a few squirrels had been injured.
Thankfully, the wounded squirrels had medics to carry them off the battlefield.
As if the rabbit/squirrel battle wasn’t disturbing enough, we soon came to the Cave of the Courts of Hell. The “gate” to the cave was guarded by Horse-face and Ox-head, the mythological guardians of the underworld.
We entered the cave, and followed a dark, winding path that progressed from the 1st court of Hell to the 10th. Each court listed the specific crime and its relevant punishment. For anyone who either plotted someone’s death or lent someone money with an exorbitant interest rate, they are led to the 5th court of Hell, where they are thrown onto a hill of knives (see photo below).
The 6th court of Hell showed evil-doers’ bodies being sawed into two. Their crime? Misusing books or wasting food. I wondered what was meant by misusing books, as I often use them as drink coasters. I was too horrified to take a photo of this court of Hell.
In the 8th court, anyone who had caused trouble for their parents or cheated on an exam was punished by having their intestines and organs pulled out. This court’s gory diorama would sufficiently scare any child into behaving forevermore—not that I recommend bringing a child to this park. Just don’t. (Even though I read that this theme park was originally built by the founders of Tiger Balm to teach children about these Chinese legends.)
One the most unsettling things about this park was the bizarre dichotomy between the horrific dioramas and the upbeat, 1920s-style music that was piped throughout the park. Listening to a ragtime version of “La Cucaracha” while looking at statues of bloodied, dismembered evil-doers felt so wrong.
After we left the cave of nightmares, we followed the red-brick road to a series of less gruesome but equally disturbing statues. One of them showed a young woman breastfeeding an elderly woman. This statue is based on a Chinese myth about filial piety, but I didn’t snap a picture of it because I didn’t want my kids to ever see it on my phone.
Then we came upon a beautiful five-story pagoda, surrounded by a serene pond filled with green, grimy water. Further along the path of statues, we saw a half-naked pig-man dancing with a mouse-woman, as well as two chicken-headed people dancing.
My favorite part of Haw Par Villa was the Virtues and Vices wall of dioramas, which showed virtuous people going about their daily life on the top and immoral people on the bottom. The level of detail in these sculptures—really, in all of the park’s sculptures, including the gruesome ones—was amazing. The artists are incredibly talented, and it must have taken them a long time to create 1,000+ statues in the park.
Even though much of the art in Haw Par Villa was gruesome, I’m glad I went. I’ve visited museums filled with awe-inspiring Asian art and artifacts in my attempts to learn more about the culture. Haw Par Villa filled in some of the gaps that most museums don’t display. And that’s as good a reason as any to visit this culture theme park.
Have you been to Haw Par Villa or any place like it? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments section below!
Thanks for stopping by!