A Walk to Remember: Haw Par Villa

It’s sad to see beautiful things fade into oblivion. Such is the fate of Haw Par Villa.

Built in 1937 as a gift from one Aw brother to another, the site used to be a popular spot for many families to be on any other weekend. What Haw Par Villa is to many people back in the day is the Universal Studios (Singapore) to the people today.

I made a trip down to Haw Par Villa on Friday. If it weren’t for the fact that I was doing a project on it, I wouldn’t have visited the place at all. It was just so out of the way (at Pasir Panjang) and quite frankly, I didn’t even know it was still open. As I arrived at the entrance, I felt a strong sense of nostalgia. Had I been here before when I was young? I simply could not remember, but everything feels vaguely familiar.

It was 9 in the morning and the place was empty. The only people there were the cleaners who kept shooting curious stares at us. As I made my way up, I felt like I had stepped into a forgotten world completely different from the one I’m used to seeing everyday – You know, the hustle and bustle of city life and the cold concrete high-rise buildings and skyscrapers just didn’t fit in here. It almost seemed like I had stepped into a whole new world (A NEW FANTASTIC POINT OF VIEW~NO ONE TO TELL US, NO! OR WHERE TO G–) as described in books and films, only with less colour. Singapore’s sun has been harsh to them, but it was almost as if they are still struggling to hold out for as long as they are allowed a place here to stay.

Big Buddha overlooking the now deserted Haw Par Villa

“Wow, it’s so… so quiet here,” my project group mate noted. I nodded in agreement; Perhaps the statues residing here has seen the worst of days and there is nothing left to say. To city people like us, this kind of silence is a bit disconcerting. Strangely, my project group mates and I barely talked throughout the time we were there. It wasn’t that there weren’t much to be said, but rather, it felt like we were interrupting the peace and quiet if we broke the silence.

You can’t tell from afar but if you looked closely, pieces of these statues were falling off. Their smiles were cracking, colour fading under the sun.

Laughing Buddha’s ironic smile at the desolate state that Haw Par Villa has become

Ponds are filled with algae that have grown probably knee-high. Spiders have set up residence in some corners but have long abandoned them too, probably to set up new ones in other places I reckon. Well, at least the red-eared sliders are here to stay.

Though it’s been reduced to such a state, somehow it still fits with the theme of the place. I don’t think I can describe the feeling exactly in words. You’d have to experience it for yourself to fully understand. Back in those days, it was vibrant and glorious. It shone brightly and splendidly. But when it’s left like this, Haw Par Villa seemed like a forgotten paradise. The place is a beautiful mess.

Finally, we made it to the Ten Courts of Hell which Haw Par Villa is widely known for its gruesome displays of what the Chinese believe is a place all souls have to go to receive judgment for the things they did when they were alive. A cleaner who noticed us can’t help but to let out a cynical smile and muttered under his breath, “Huh. First visitors.” He then proceeded to enter the scary exhibit without batting an eye. I, on the other hand, was shaking in my pants.

“Oh my god, for some strange reason, the hairs on my legs and arms are standing, you know!” My project group mate exclaimed.

Nevertheless, we still sucked it up and braved the ten courts of hell like a soldier.

The Chinese believe that when one dies, their soul will be taken to Hell where they would be judged according to how they have lived their life. If they have done more good than bad, they would be allowed redemption to Heaven. However, if they have committed too many sins, they would be judged and taken to the respective Courts for their punishment. Once that is over, they would be given another shot at Heaven. But of course, you would have to prove that you’re worth a spot in heaven first. So they are to be reincarnated again as a ‘test’ to see if they have truly repented.
Your heart gets cut out if you lack filial piety; Quite an appropriate punishment if you ask me.

I left the place with a sunken heart. I can’t help but to think: Ah, so this is what it’s like to feel abandoned, to be left behind. This was a place which used to be so packed that there were hardly any space to run around in. I peered out of Haw Par Villa and could see cars zooming by against the backdrop of all these high-rise buildings, probably filled with drones working hard for a living in this fast-paced society. Would any of them have thought to visit this place of heritage again?

…Would they remember?

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