I visited Singapore's Haw Par Villas recently. It had been over a decade since my last visit. During that time, the Haw Par Villas have dropped off from most tourist guidebooks covering Singapore. An unfortunate development as the 'Tiger Balm Gardens' (another name for the same park) is a unique mix of Chinese culture and serene natural surroundings.
The Tiger Balm Gardens were built by a wealthy Chinese businessman, Aw Boon Haw, for his brother, Aw Boon Par in 1937. The brothers, with roots in Rangoon, Burma, are famous for developing the famous pain relieving ointment called 'Tiger Balm.'
The Tiger Balm Gardens contain a blend of Chinese morality tales told through visual imagery such as statues and picturesque gardens with the occasional stream. Haw Par's 'Ten Courts of Hell' arrangement, which depicts traditional gruesome Chinese punishments for a variety of sins, is particularly remarkable. The display gives insights into Chinese cultural traditions that still play an important role among many modern Singaporeans.
Since 1988, Haw Par Villas have been managed by the government's Singapore Tourist Board (STB). After spending a large amount to renovate the gardens into a more contemporary theme park, complete with rides and shows, the STB turned Haw Par Villas into a commercial enterprise with entrance fees. Originally, the gardens were free to the general public.
By all accounts, the efforts to commercialize operations failed with the park suffering significant losses in ten years of operations.
In March 2001, the STB restored the name 'Tiger Balm Gardens' and granted the public access free of charge – as the Aw brothers had envisaged.
Today, the place looks run down. Paint is peeling, descriptive signs were often missing or provided limited information and I could not locate any cafes or rest areas where coffee or refreshments were served. (Maybe I did not walk around enough?)
The entire experience is not up to the 'Singapore Standard.'
Surely, the STB can devise a plan not only to put the Haw Par Villas back on Singapore's tourist trail but improve upon the generally neglected atmosphere surrounding the gardens. At the very least, leasing out certain areas for coffee shops, curio shops at rates commensurate with visitor numbers might help generating funds for the garden's upkeep.
The Tiger Balm Gardens make a fine change from the casinos and Marina Bay Sands. And how about creating a dedicated website for the Tiger Balm Gardens? While researching this article, I could not locate a dedicated official Tiger Balm Gardens website. (Again, maybe I did not search hard enough.)
In a city always scraping around to create history, we have a duty to take better care of that history which is available to us, such as the Tiger Balm Gardens.