Haw Par Villa (Tiger Balm Gardens)

Singapore Infopedia

by Lim, Irene


Haw Par Villa (虎豹別墅; Hu bao bieshu), also known as the Tiger Balm Gardens, is named after brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par. It is an oriental-style theme park located on the grounds of a hillside villa of the same name that was located along Pasir Panjang Road in the southwestern part of Singapore. The villa was originally built in 1937 by businessman Aw Boon Haw, famous for the Tiger Balm brand of topical ointment, for his younger brother Aw Boon Par. The park is known for its statues depicting scenes from Chinese folklore. The garden grounds were acquired by the government in the late 1980s and subsequently leased out to various private companies for development and management as a commercial theme park and subsequently public park.

The garden builder
Aw Boon Haw (胡文虎; Hu Wenhu) was born in Rangoon, Burma (now Yangon, Myanmar), in 1882. His father, Aw Chi Kim, was a Hakka herbalist from the county of Yongding in Fujian, China. He had fled to Rangoon in the 1860s and settled there, marrying a local Teochew woman, Lee Kim Pek. His livelihood came from operating a small herbal shop Eng Aun Tong (“Hall of Everlasting Peace”). After his father’s death in 1908, Boon Haw and his younger brother Aw Boon Par (胡文豹; Hu Wenbao) perfected the formula for a topical ointment that they marketed as Tiger Balm. Boon Par took charge of production and developed other Tiger brand products, while Boon Haw packaged and marketed them. By 1918, the Aw family had become the richest family in Rangoon.1

In 1932, Boon Haw built a house for his second wife, Tan Kyi Kyi, in Hong Kong. Behind the house, he built an elaborate garden that could be appreciated much like a Chinese landscape painting from the rooftop. Kwek Hoon Sua, a craftsman well versed in Chinese folklore, was hired from Swatow, Guangdong, China, to build the garden. Kwek brought along his brother, Kwek Choon Sua, and together they oversaw a team of apprentices in building the garden. These same two craftsmen subsequently travelled to Singapore to build the Tiger Balm Gardens.2

Singapore’s Haw Par Villa
Built in 1937, the Tiger Balm Gardens in Singapore was the second such garden commissioned by Aw. It was initially a simple garden with some rock structures and was only developed further after Aw had completed the garden in Hong Kong. Besides the Kwek brothers, a father-and-son pair of Tan See Hua and Tan Seng Hua, as well as a Mr Liu, made up the original team that materialised Boon Haw’s wishes for his garden in terms of the sculptures, tableaux and grottos.3

Boon Haw did not work with blueprints, preferring to personally inspect the sculptors’ work and instructing them on any changes and new additions he wanted to be made. He did so each time he visited Singapore, which was usually every few months with each stay lasting about one to two months. The garden inspection was a daily routine that took place in the early morning and would last for about two hours. Boon Haw’s inspection was meticulous and he would point out the changes he wanted to be made to the sculptures right down to the colours used.4

Unlike the garden in Hong Kong which scaled a vertical plane, the one in Singapore was built on a series of ascending terraces with Boon Haw’s private villa occupying the uppermost fourth tier. On the ground level were the garage and parking areas. The second tier contained a large fish pond that served as the family’s aquarium and was stocked with fish and tortoises until the onset of the Japanese Occupation (1942–45). On the third tier were the family’s large lawn, tennis courts and a swimming pool. The first three tiers of the garden, though private property, was opened to the public as Boon Haw wanted the garden to be an advertisement for Tiger Balm products.5

The garden contained gateways, ponds and pavilions whose forms and elements were drawn from Chinese architectural traditions. Its larger-than-life exhibits were scenes taken from legends and myths with syncretic elements of Buddhism, Taoism, Chinese history and mythology. These exhibits were meant to educate visitors about the values and beliefs that were highly regarded in Chinese culture such as filial and familial piety, resisting temptation and evil-doing, loyalty and fidelity, as well as community service, charity, and judgement in one’s afterlife. The exhibits included elaborate reconstructions such as the Virtues and Vices Tableaux (美德和恶习; Meide he exi), Courts of Hell (十八层地狱; Shibaceng diyu), Monkey Mountain (花果山; Huaguoshan), Journey to the West (西游记; Xiyouji) and the Eight Immortals’ Crossing the Sea (八仙过海; Baxian guohai). The garden was also filled with sculpted plants and animals that convey symbolic Chinese cultural meanings, such as the lotus for purity and the carp for success. In addition, there was a zoo where animals were initially allowed to roam freely, but were later kept in cages. The animals became a safety concern for visitors, especially since animals such as snakes were said to have escaped from their cages. Consequently, the live animals were removed and replaced with animal statues.6

Later additions
Boon Par enjoyed the estate prepared for him by his older brother for a brief few years. On the eve of the Japanese Occupation of Singapore in 1942, he moved to Rangoon, and died there in 1944.7 After the war, Boon Haw returned to Singapore from Hong Kong and rebuilt much of the garden. He also added more sculptures in spaces that once served as the family recreational areas such as the swimming pool, tennis courts and lawns. After Boon Haw’s death in 1954, his nephew Aw Cheng Chye added to the garden. He built the so-called “International Corners” that were filled with sculptures representing the cultures of the world. These sculptures included a Sumo wrestler, a Thai dancer and a replica of the Statue of Liberty. He also added replicas of Tiger Brand products.8

Commercial theme park
After Aw Cheng Chye’s death in 1971, no major changes were made to the garden by the Aw family.9 In 1985, the Singapore government acquired the villa through the Land Acquisition Act. The Aw family then donated the statues in the garden to the nation on the condition that the name of Haw Par and the family memorials located within the garden grounds be retained.10 The Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (now known as the Singapore Tourism Board, or STB) took over the management of the villa grounds and leased it to International Theme Parks Ltd (ITP) to develop as a theme park in 1988. The park was subsequently closed for redevelopment and reopened in 1990 as Haw Par Villa Dragon World.11

Standing on enlarged premises, the S$80-million theme park provided amusement by reducing the density of sculptural exhibits and adding an amphitheatre, three indoor theatres and a boat ride through the Courts of Hell exhibit that was situated in the gut of a 60-metre-long dragon structure.12 Despite charging an admission fee, ITP incurred heavy losses in operating the park and gave up its management rights in 2001.13

Public park
Following the departure of ITP, there was public debate on whether commercialising what had been a free public park into a theme park led to the decline in visitorship. By this time, the park is known simply as Haw Par Villa.14 STB thereafter hired Orient Management to operate Haw Par Villa as a free park – what it was originally meant to be. Stripped of its theme park amusements, in 2005 the S$7.5-million Hua Song Museum, which was dedicated to the Chinese diaspora, opened in the park.15 However, the museum closed down in 2012 as it did not prove to be commercially viable.16

In March 2014, the STB organised a festival, Reliving Haw Par Villa, over two weekends as part of its 50th-anniversary celebrations. The event, which included free guided tours and puppet shows, attracted over 12,000 people and encouraged the organisers that Haw Par Villa could be revitalised.17 In the following months, arts groups were invited to use the Haw Par Villa grounds for their exhibitions and workshops. Under the curatorial platform known as Latent Spaces, artists Chun Kai Qun, Chun Kai Feng and Elizabeth Gan staged exhibitions and ran their gallery in the park’s unused spaces.18

In August 2015, STB appointed heritage-tours travel company, Journeys, to operate and manage the park on a three-year contract. The company has plans to increase the number of in-park tours and introduce learning journeys in the park for schoolchildren. A redevelopment of the Hua Song Museum is also in the works.19


Irene Lim

1. Judith Brandel and Tina Turbeville, Tiger Balm Gardens: A Chinese Billionaire’s Fantasy Environments (Hong Kong: Aw Boon Haw Foundation, 1998), 20–22. (Call no.: RSING 959.57 BRA-[HIS])
2. Brandel and Turbeville, Chinese Billionaire’s Fantasy Environments, 42, 58–59, 84.
3. Teoh Veoh Seng, oral history interview by Jesley Chua Chee Huan, 9 May 2002, transcript and MP3 audio, 30:51, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 002647 – 3), 43–44; Brandel and Turbeville, Chinese Billionaire’s Fantasy Environments, 108.
4. Teoh Veoh Seng, oral history interview by Jesley Chua Chee Huan, 9 May 2002, transcript and MP3 audio, 30:51, National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 002647 – 5), 87, 96–97.
5. Brandel and Turbeville, Chinese Billionaire’s Fantasy Environments, 109–10.
6. Brandel and Turbeville, Chinese Billionaire’s Fantasy Environments, 110, 111–2, 126–31, 135, 137, 138–41.
7. Sylvia Toh Paik Choo, ed., Legend from a Jar: The Story of Haw Par: Haw Par Brothers International Limited’s 25th Anniversary Commemorative Book (Singapore: Haw Par Brothers International, 1994), 20–21. (Call no. RSING 338.8809 HAW)
8. Brandel and Turbeville, Chinese Billionaire’s Fantasy Environments, 108, 112–3.
9. Brandel and Turbeville, Chinese Billionaire’s Fantasy Environments, 108–9; Stellar Danker, Four Who Touch Up a Villa,” Straits Times, 23 January 1984, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Haw Par Villa Acquired,” Straits Times, 10 February 1985, 16; “The Saga Behind the Villa,” Straits Times, 20 September 1990, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Brandel and Turbeville, Chinese Billionaire’s Fantasy Environments, 109; Old Themes, New Style,” Straits Times, 20 September 1990, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Brandel and Turbeville, Chinese Billionaire’s Fantasy Environments, 194–5; Take a Slow Boat to Hell at Haw Par Villa,” Straits Times, 22 September 1990, 21. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Koh Boon Pin, “Haw Par Villa to Go Back to STB?” Straits Times, 18 March 2000, 48; Ginnie Teo, “Picture Yourself in Hell,” Straits Times, 2 May 2004, 15. (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Balm for Ailing Gardens?” Straits Times, 3 September 2000, 53. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Lim Wei Chean, “New Life for Haw Par Villa?” Straits Times, 20 October 2008, 30 (From NewspaperSG); “New Museum on Chinese Heritage Opens in Singapore,” Xinhua News Agency, 28 December 2005. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
16. “Singapore Tourism Board: Story of Chinese Migrants Lives On,” Singapore Government News, 24 March 2012. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
17. Kash Cheong, “STB Festival Revitalises Iconic Haw Par Villa,” Straits Times, 24 March 2014, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
18. Deepika Shetty, “Swinging Chandeliers and Popsicles at Art Stage 2015,” Straits Times, 17 October 2014, 2–3; Rachel Loi, “Resurrection,” Business Times, 7 November 2014, 27. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “STB Appoints Journeys to Run Haw Par Villa,” Channel NewsAsia, 22 August 2015.

Further resources
Sherman Cochran, Chinese Medicine Men: Consumer Culture in China and Southeast Asia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006). (Call no. R 306.30951 COC)

Sin Yee Theng and Nicolai Volland, “Aw Boon Haw, the Tiger from Nanyang: Social Entrepreneurship, Transnational Journalism, and Public Culture,” The Business of Culture: Culture Entrepreneurs in China and Southeast Asia, 1900–65, ed. Christopher Rea and Nicolai Volland (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015), 121–49. (Call no. RSEA 330.951 BUS)

The information in this article is valid as of 29 February 2016 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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