Experience Haw Par Villa through free audio tours by celebrities

Singer Joanna Dong at Haw Par Villa, with playwright, actor and director Jonathan Lim, who came up with the idea for audio tours. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
The tours are pre-recorded, and participants listen to the audio tours while walking Haw Par Villa's grounds on their own. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - Singer Joanna Dong has blown hot and cold in her affection towards Haw Par Villa since she was first taken there as a child.

Then, she forged vivid memories of it from visiting the park with her family and learning about Chinese mythology through its colourful and fantastical sculptures and dioramas.

Later in her life, as an undergraduate about two decades ago, Ms Dong wrote a paper on the now 85-year-old park's years as Dragon World, critiquing its failed "Disneyfication" that saw operators rack up massive losses over about a decade from 1990. Her paper scored an A+.

Now 40 and having established herself as an artiste, the singer - one of four celebrities guiding audio tours of the park as part of this year's Singapore HeritageFest - said her sentiments towards the Pasir Panjang landmark has taken a turn for the better.

"Time and experience is a peculiar lens," she added. "Now that I have spent more than 15 years working in the arts and entertainment scene, I look upon Haw Par Villa with great endearment."

Haw Par Villa was built in 1937 by businessman and philanthropist Aw Boon Haw for his brother Boon Par - the duo are of Tiger Balm ointment fame.

While the park's sculptures may not represent the pinnacle of Chinese craftsmanship, she added, Haw Par Villa will not be easy to replicate now, making it "uniquely ours as Singaporeans, regardless of whether we enjoy the aesthetic or not".

She added that the park serves as a vessel for Singaporeans' collective memory, and said: "I can hardly think of another sightseeing attraction that my grandmother, my mother and myself would all have visited in our youth."

The audio tours were the brainchild of playwright, actor and director Jonathan Lim, who feels the park has been forgotten by the public since its post-Dragon World reopening in the 2000s, when it returned to being a public park.

In 2015, tour operator Journeys was appointed by the Singapore Tourism Board to manage the park, and it was reopened after a nine-month closure for upgrading last July. Admission to most of the park is free, although its 10 courts of hell exhibits have been incorporated into Hell's Museum, which has an entrance fee.

Like Ms Dong, Mr Lim said he also has fond memories of visiting Haw Par Villa as a child, but did not enjoy Dragon World.

"Then as I grew, I found myself missing the imaginative playground of Haw Par Villa," the 47-year-old added. "So I found my way back to the post-Dragon World park and fell in love all over again - even in its lonely, untended state."

Having seen visitors without a guide leave the park confused and underwhelmed, Mr Lim said he has come to believe that Haw Par Villa is meant to be experienced with storytelling.

"The park's tableaux were created to trigger questions, and the answers were the tales," he said, adding that the audio tours do not aim to be authoritative or definitive in their depictions of Chinese folklore such as Journey To The West.

Besides Ms Dong, the three other tours will be led by Ms Koh Chieng Mun - who was once a performer in Dragon World, as well as musician Dick Lee and actress Yeo Yann Yann.

Each of the tours is pre-recorded, and tour participants are meant to listen to the audio tours while walking Haw Par Villa's grounds on their own.

"Each artiste picks 10 statues that fascinate them most, and explains why they're drawn to them," said Mr Lim, who added that the tours were designed to be deeply personal and quirky, "like visiting the place with a very interesting friend who won't stop sharing".

Singer Joanna Dong says she now looks upon Haw Par Villa with great endearment. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

He hopes the tours will kick off a series of more community-driven projects that can bring the park back to life.

Together with his friends, Mr Lim has started a group called #hawparviva, which he hopes will generate more projects that will allow audiences to rediscover the park, like the audio tours.

"We know that if we forget about places in Singapore, we can easily lose them to development," he said. "So if Haw Par Villa has any place in our hearts and our culture, we've got to show it."

The four audio tours will be uploaded progressively at this website from May 7.

Separately, an exhibition and two paid programmes run by Journeys are also part of the festival offerings, as well as a photo essay by former interns of the Singapore Heritage Society, featuring Mr Dongnan Zheng, a former sound technician at Dragon World. Details of these can be found at the Singapore HeritageFest's website

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.