Spice up, not dilute Haw Par Villa's wild character

It is imperative to respect and enhance the eccentric vision of Haw Par Villa's founders, the late Aw brothers, in any attempt to preserve the park (Peep into Haw Par Villa's death museum; Oct 28).

The park was built in 1937 by Tiger Balm tycoon Aw Boon Haw, originally as a home.

He subsequently added statues and dioramas from popular Chinese folklore, as he wanted it to be a venue for Chinese culture to be remembered.

Unfortunately, since Haw Par Villa was handed over to the authorities in 1979, its originality has been tainted by an abject lack of vision in preserving its heritage.

Not much appears to have improved since.

Instead of breathing new life to the park, the ill-conceived decision by Journeys - the vendor appointed by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) to revive it - to add a museum showcasing the death rituals of the different cultures and faiths is a cultural subversion of the Aw brothers' unique vision. It may just sound the park's death knell.

Its plans for a Rise of Asia Museum about successful business dynasties from the region are not much better.

How do these so-called new attractions reinforce Haw Par Villa's outstanding grotesque and bizarre features - attributes which prompted renowned design publisher Taschen to include it in a pocket guide on parks which exude uniquely idiosyncratic styles?

Haw Par Villa has good potential to be redeveloped and expanded as Singapore's equivalent of the mystical Xanadu from the classic movie Citizen Kane, including hospitality and lifestyle facilities.

Its wild and quirky character should be spiced up, not diluted with bland and artificial additives.

It was meant to showcase certain aspects of Chinese culture, and should continue to do so with a sense of dark humour.

After all, it is the only Tiger Balm garden left standing in the world today.

A second one in Hong Kong was demolished for residential development over a decade ago, and a planned third in Fujian province was not completed during the Aw brothers' lifetime.

Seen in this light, can the STB and Journeys explore the possibility of a joint-cultural project with the Hong Kong government to incorporate and reconstruct key aspects of their now demolished Tiger Balm Gardens - such as its statues and murals?

This can be part of Haw Par Villa's expansion into the Kent Ridge Park precinct for the future transformation of Pasir Panjang.

Toh Cheng Seong

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 31, 2017, with the headline Spice up, not dilute Haw Par Villa's wild character. Subscribe