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Why it is urgent to protect Haw Par Villa

More than just a gruesome display of Chinese folklore, the ageing park is a unique cultural resource and should be designated as a national monument

SINGAPORE - A visit to decades-old Haw Par Villa, home to about 1,000 Technicolor sculptures and dioramas, used to be a rite of passage for many Singaporean children of different races and cultures.

Their parents would walk them through the gory sections of the 10 Courts of Hell to open their eyes to the supposed "retribution" in store if they lied, cheated or showed no respect to their elders.

The statues there, reflecting elements of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian folklore, portrayed gruesome forms of punishment for sinners which included impaling and decapitation.

This strange park, built in 1937 by the Myanmar-Chinese Aw brothers of Tiger Balm ointment fame, still stands today along Pasir Panjang Road, although it is a shadow of its former self.

Visitor numbers for the past two decades are a far cry from its heyday - an estimated 200,000 people visit every year, down from the million or so visitors every year in the 1970s and 1980s.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MIEL

 

The fact is that today, it struggles to find its relevance in modern Singapore.

However, the site, which was handed over to the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) in 1979, is to get another shot at reviving its fortunes.

In August, travel company Journeys was hired by the STB to run the park for the next three years. Journeys plans to refurbish the space with the help of STB.

It then aims to generate income to sustain the park by conducting tours, setting up a gift shop and opening five dining outlets. Journeys also wants to transform the park into a place for art exhibitions, performances, flea markets, and yoga, taiji and wushu sessions.

But the move to revive the park is about more than breathing new life into a fading tourist attraction.

Haw Par Villa is actually a unique Chinese cultural resource - the only one of its kind left in the world after its sister park in Hong Kong was demolished in 1998.

Also, China's cultural revolution between 1966 and 1976 purged from the mainland the depiction of Chinese superstitions still on display here.

Astonishingly, though, Haw Par Villa and its artefacts are without any official heritage protection. This needs to be addressed urgently.

IMPORTANCE OF THE PARK

There are several reasons why the park is important to Singapore, the region and the world.

Firstly, Haw Par Villa is the last of three large local philanthropic gardens built to give outdoor respite to people in congested Singapore, points out architectural historian Lai Chee Kien.

The others were the mid-1800s Balestier-based Nam Sang Hua Yuan, where rare animal and bird species were displayed, and the 1929 Alkaff Lake Gardens off MacPherson Road.

Advocacy group Singapore Heritage Society (SHS) has also categorised the site as a leisure place worth protecting - it was once the go-to venue on weekends for many Singaporean families.

Secondly, Haw Par Villa plays an important role locally and regionally in depicting aspects of overseas Chinese culture.

The park pre-dates Disneyland, which was established in 1955. While Disneyland perpetuates estern tales such as the Brothers Grimm's Snow White, Dr Lai said Haw Par Villa and its sculptures are like real-life 3D comic books through which Chinese culture is shared in a "text-free narrative".

 

Among some of the folklore on display: the stories of the Eight Immortals, Journey To The West and the Legend Of Lady White Snake.

SHS president Chua Ai Lin agreed. Dr Chua said Haw Par Villa is "testimony to a historically specific interpretation of Chinese culture".

She added that the post-war dioramas also represent life and the imagination of Singaporeans in the 1950s.

"Parts of the park showcase different places in the world, reflecting aspirations to travel in a time when most could not afford to," she said.

Thirdly, experts such as architect Lim Huck Chin said that the recreational setting, where Chinese culture, theme-park craft and mythology are portrayed, is unique to the world.

They feel that the park deserves a place in the National Heritage Board's (NHB) Preservation of Sites and Monuments' stock of 70 national monuments, alongside places such as the former Tanjong Pagar Railway Station.

Dr Chua added that Haw Par Villa has the potential to become a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Foreign consultants who were asked by the authorities to identify sites that could make the grade, agreed. They had picked Haw Par Villa among other candidates such as the Botanic Gardens, Civic District, Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the former Ford Factory. Botanic Gardens eventually got the title in July.

REASONS TO ACT QUICKLY

Despite being government-owned under STB's wing, Haw Par Villa has yet to be conserved under the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) or preserved under the National Heritage Board's (NHB) Preservation of Sites and Monuments division.

STB's role, after all, is to champion the development of Singapore's tourism sector and undertake the marketing and promotion of Singapore as a tourism destination - not necessarily to seek the protection of historic or cultural attractions for posterity, even if they qualify.

However, basic protection, even in the form of conservation by the URA, should be accorded to Haw Par Villa. This is urgent for several reasons.

Firstly, without protection, the 8.45ha park is at risk of development in land-scarce Singapore.

While it is under no direct threat at the moment, it is located in an economically critical area, on the cusp of change near the Pasir Panjang Port. The terminal there is undergoing a $3.5 billion expansion project where 15 mega berths will be added.

Secondly, the park has been subjected to the experimentation, and whims and fancies of its various operators.

Its chequered history, where some culturally significant statues were moved into storage, for instance, holds several lessons. One is for the need to develop standards for its usage, management and maintenance. Otherwise, this rich Chinese cultural resource is at risk of being lost or destroyed.

Mr Lim, the architect, believes Journeys' proposal should only serve as an interim measure while more detailed and better-informed studies are carried out to help plan the site's longer-term future.

SHS exco member Yeo Kang Shua said that a heritage impact assessment should first be conducted to identify the historically significant elements of the park.

He said the park can be divided into several phases of development: pre-war, of which most structures have been largely destroyed; post-war; and its non-historical theme park elements.

Time is also running out as the park's last artisan and painter, Teochew-speaking Teo Veoh Seng, is already 81-years-old.

He is the only one here trained by a master craftsman who had worked at Haw Par Villa's sister park, the now-defunct Hong Kong Tiger Balm Garden.

He is a largely untapped repository of information with the skills to tackle the restoration and conservation of the site's statues.

WHAT CAN BE DONE

Haw Par Villa falling through the cracks is the result of a gap in existing heritage legislation and the lack of a holistic programme to actively and comprehensively evaluate heritage and cultural resources for protection.

But this could be addressed by the NHB's ongoing nationwide heritage survey.

Launched in May, the survey will identify buildings, structures, sites and landscape features of architectural, historical or cultural interest. Haw Par Villa will be one such site covered, said NHB's spokesman.

The spokesman said also told The Straits Times will be working with NHB closely for the survey and is studying the longer-term plans for Haw Par Villa, "taking into consideration the heritage value of the site".

STB attractions, dining and retail director Ranita Sundramoorthy added that its priorities have always been to ensure that the activities and developments at Haw Par Villa are in support of its unique heritage, and to keep the park as a free-access public attraction for all to enjoy.

She said that the board recognises the importance of increasing the awareness and appreciation of Haw Par Villa and its heritage for the longer term.

Following the production of the NHB inventory, the next step would be to use the information to officially protect important sites at the national or international level, said heritage conservation expert Johannes Widodo.

NHB's heritage survey can only do so much. The data gleaned must be translated into concrete plans and policies that will enable Singapore's heritage custodians to meaningfully protect gems like the strangely unique Haw Par Villa.

Architect Mr Lim agreed. He said Haw Par Villa gives the authorities the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to heritage preservation.

Even as the heritage bodies negotiate Haw Par Villa's protection status and discuss its future, proper studies should be conducted to extract its cultural and historical significance so that they can be communicated to the current generation of Singaporeans and the ones to come.

Getting to the heart of Haw Par Villa and understanding why it was so beloved will help this generation of Singaporeans, and those to come, realise that it is so much more than a theme park past its prime.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2015, with the headline 'Why it is urgent to protect Haw Par Villa'. Print Edition | Subscribe