When I was very young, I loved poring over my parents’ photo album. It was glossy and black, with a fierce looking tiger on the cover. I always handled it gingerly because it was irreplaceable: a cherished souvenir my dad had picked up when he was stationed in “The Far East” with the Royal Navy.
After admiring the cover, I immediately flipped to my favourite shots of him in a place called Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore. The black and white photos were hand-tinted, the unreality of their muted colouring only adding to the Twilight Zone appeal. There, in the foreground, was a young man bearing a vague resemblance to the father I adored, but with a boyish grin and a curly quiff spilling over his forehead. It was the background that enthralled me, though. An exotic pagoda emblazoned with Chinese characters stood behind him, while in the distance, slightly out of focus, I could just about make out some enormous fantastical creatures (dragons, perhaps?) rising up into the sky. In another shot, he was standing beside a statue of a jolly, rotund fellow I later discovered was the Laughing Buddha.
When I arrived in Singapore with my family many years later, I was surprised that Tiger Balm Gardens wasn’t being aggressively promoted as a tourist destination. I discovered that the park had been renamed Haw Par Villa, after Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, brothers who had made their fortune from the Tiger Balm ointment invented by their father. (You can learn about the origins of both the ointment and the theme park in the post We’ll always have Tiger Balm.)
The short version: The Aw brothers built Tiger Balm Gardens in 1937 in order to promote their brand and pass on Confucian values to a new generation of Singaporeans. The park was populated by roughly a thousand statues depicting various characters of Chinese myth and Confucianism (such as the Laughing Buddha that so captured my imagination as a child). Everything was larger than life, including the oversized dioramas that portrayed key stories of Chinese folklore.
The heyday of Tiger Balm Gardens came to an abrupt end with the Japanese occupation during WWII. The park was commandeered by the Japanese army and used as a naval lookout site. After the war, it never regained its former glory. It was sold to the Singapore Tourism Board, and was reinvented as an amusement park under its new name in 1990. By the time we arrived, one hot and sunny afternoon in 2003, it had fallen into a depressing state of disrepair and neglect.
My first impression was that the Aw brothers must have been inhaling something stronger than Tiger Balm when they thought it up — it looked like the result of a bad acid trip. My rudimentary Chinese wasn’t up to the task of deciphering the signs beside the exhibits, and only a few English signs were to be found. It was a shame, because a little explanation would have gone a long way!
Despite not fully comprehending the weird and wonderful sights before us, we had an awesome time. At one point, Elder Daughter noted that, “it’s all death and sex, sex and death.” To which Younger Daughter replied, “There’s actually not much sex. But there sure is a lot of blood.” Special mention goes to the Ten Trials of Hell, where sinners are tortured in gory and imaginative ways. Our favourite was “The Pond of Dirty Blood,” although “The Boiling Wok” also deserved a round of applause.
If it seems like I’m not making any sense — yeah, that’s my point. Stripped of any semblance of context by virtue of the language barrier, the exhibits became ours to interpret however we saw fit. It wasn’t perhaps what the Aw brothers had intended, but it was an interesting way to spend an afternoon. Even so, as we wandered through the rundown park, I had a pang of regret for a bygone era I never even knew. It was hard to let go of the idealized version of Tiger Balm Gardens I’d been carrying around all this time.
What made it special was following in my dad’s footsteps fifty years after he’d first laid eyes on the trippiest theme park ever. Happy Father’s Day to the man who put me on a plane when I was three years old, and has been supportive of my wanderings ever since. Love ya, Dad!