Singapore: Theme park of the damned

By Graham Reid

A ghoulish museum in the heart of Singapore creeps Graham Reid out.

The Ten Courts of Hell at Haw Par Villa is a theme park of the damned and condemned, where plaster statuary shows gruesome scenes of disembowelment and torture. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Sengkang
The Ten Courts of Hell at Haw Par Villa is a theme park of the damned and condemned, where plaster statuary shows gruesome scenes of disembowelment and torture. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user Sengkang

As travellers or tourists we often go a long way to see the beautiful, the breathtaking and sometimes the just plain bizarre.

No trip to Tucumcari in New Mexico is complete without a peek at the museum with its collection of barbed wire or in Rome a quiet wander around the crypt of Chiesa di Santa Maria della Concezione where the altars, candleholders and wall sculpture are made from the bones of Capuchin monks.

And even in clean, orderly and controlled Singapore, the bizarre isn't hard to find ... especially if you want to amble around Hell for an hour.

The Ten Courts of Hell at Haw Par Villa, formerly the popular Tiger Balm Gardens, is a theme park of the damned and condemned, where plaster statuary shows gruesome scenes of disembowelment, characters being sawn in half and others undergoing various multi-coloured abuses.

Through the gates manned by huge and menacing figures of horse and ox-face guardians, you can find the virtuous being sent straight to heaven.

But it is the kitsch figurines dripping in bright red blood, their eyes wide and bodies being abused that are the real attractions.

This isn't for children - although plenty of Singaporean kids go and it might interest the aspiring pre-teen Goth in your family - but its echoes of the damned or tortured in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch, Goya and Michelangelo it makes for an interesting cultural comparison.

When it comes to ways of impaling, frying, torturing or eviscerating sinners, the Ten Courts of Hell gives even Bosch's imagination a run for its money.

The prospect of being tied to a huge metal oven stoked by a powerful fire could just make you mend your ways. Maybe it might make the kids pay attention when you next ask them to clean up their bedroom.

Some of this is oddly hilarious - the rats acting as medics carrying a wounded fellow on a stretcher I didn't get at all - but the most ghoulish enjoyment is to be had where figures writhe in the "Filthy Blood Pond", shiver in the ice or are being pushed into lava by demon-faced torturers.

It is an odd place indeed and hard to take too seriously - for some reason, near the large and garish Buddha there is a human-sized replica of the Statue of Liberty.

There's also a small statuary piece announcing the virtues of filial piety where a woman is breast-feeding an old woman (or man?) with the words "Madam Tang said to her age mother-in-law, 'Mother, you must drink milk since you no longer have any teeth to chew food!'"

Bizarre and slightly creepy - and much better than a museum of barbed wire.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies up to three times daily from Auckland.

Further information: Haw Par Villa, at 262 Pasir Panjang Rd, Singapore, is open daily. Admission is free.

- NZ Herald

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