18 July 2005

Monday Menagerie VII

PyroManiac devotes Monday space to esoteric and offbeat things, in the hope that these will supply learning experiences for us all.

Tiger Balm Gardens

Tiger BalmOn my first trip to Asia in the early 1980s, I encountered Tiger Balm for the first time. I love the stuff. It's an herbal ointment with almost magical properties.

My mom always thought Vicks® VapoRub® was the perfect remedy for everything. Tiger Balm is way better—like Vicks® on steroids. And the Tiger Balm fragrance is ten times better, too. (Regular and extra-strength Tiger Balm are different. They are even different colors. I recommend you try them both. They both beat the aroma of Vicks®, and any kind of Tiger Balm also renders Ben-Gay® totally unnecessary.)

Tiger BalmSo, anyway, ever since that first trip to Asia, I have always kept a supply of Tiger Balm on hand.

When I visited Singapore again a year later, I stayed with some friends whom I had met on that first trip to Asia—Adrin and Jennifer. (They are already famous at my website because they are the ones who introduced me to Durian.) Naturally, when they offered to take me to a local tourist attraction called "Tiger Balm Gardens," I was instantly intrigued. I had no idea how supremely interesting—and unforgettable—the day would turn out to be.

The Aw brothersTiger Balm Gardens was one of Singapore's earliest postwar tourist attractions. It was originally the site of a mansion (Haw Par Villa) built in 1937 and owned by brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, founders of the company that manufactures Tiger Balm. Boon Par died in Rangoon during World War II, and Boon Haw demolished the mansion after the war. But Boon Haw maintained the gardens, opening the grounds to the public for family picnics and as a free gathering place. From the earliest days, various snake charmers, jugglers, charlatans, and street vendors made it a picturesque place to visit.

Tiger Balm GardensFor the rest of his life, Boon Haw continued making improvements on the place, adding a massive, colorful dragon statue and other brightly colored figurines made of glazed earthenware, picturing familiar scenes from Chinese folklore, Confucian tradition, and beloved children's tales. His aim was to teach Confucian values to children in a vivid and memorable way.

The Confucian concept of hell

The Ten Courts of HellThe centerpiece of it all—and everyone's first choice as the most stunning and unforgettable attraction in the whole menagerie—is a section known as "The Ten Courts of Hell."

It's a graphic and disturbing depiction of the many horrifying tortures that make up the complex concept of hell in the Confucian tradition.

"Hell" is really a misnomer. The tortures in Confucian hell are not everlasting punishments; they are actually an intricate system of purgatory where the souls of sinners are prepared for the next incarnation by being subjected to a series of judgments that determine the degree of a person's guilt and the extent and the duration of the punishment.

Here is where several generations of Singaporean parents have brought their children to scare them straight. Some of the depictions of torture in "The Ten Courts of Hell" are horrifically detailed and sadistic—far too graphic to post at PyroManiac. If the attraction were a movie, it would earn at least an R rating. I was left shaken by it, and (having been employed for a couple of years as night watchman in a morgue) I assure you, it takes a lot to rattle me.

Gallery of horror

Nonetheless, here are a few selected images that I hope will give you the flavor of Boon Haw's hell without offending anyone too badly:

Someone who forgot to return a library book is sawn in half with a big razor

People who lacked filial piety are crushed between two massive stones, while another guy nearby is flogged with a flesh-tearing whip

A troublesome relative is disemboweled by a giant thing that looks like an Oral-B® PowerHead® toothbrush

Drug users are tied and fried on a red-hot copper pillar

A rumor-monger has his tongue cut out with a razor by a Smurf

People who cheated or cursed are thrown onto a tree-branch where knife-blades have sprouted

Confucian eschatology

I have tried to cobble together from the literature a basic explanation of the concept of hell depicted at Tiger Balm Gardens. I don't know if what follows is the canonical Confucian doctrine of hell, or simply Aw Boon Haw's individual version of it. In any case, here is how I understand the images and explanations of the Courts of Hell at Haw Par Villa. If someone with expertise in this area notices any details I have got wrong, please leave a comment.

Scripture indicates that a degree of knowledge about God ("even his eternal power and Godhead") is innate in every human heart, and those who suppress that knowledge in unrighteousness are utterly without excuse (Romans 1:18-20). I believe something in every healthy human conscience tells us that "every one of us shall give account of himself to God" (Romans 14:12). And that's why I find the Confucian doctrine of hell fascinating—because it is a reminder that the concept of hell itself seems to be an essential element of our intrinsic understanding of justice.

Unfortunately, in this case, it is a corrupted and superstitious idea of hell:

First Court of Hell
The first court involves a preliminary judgment where the "good" are separated from evildoers. Those deemed virtuous may pass over the golden bridge to paradise. (Incidentally, the bliss of heaven is not eternal in Confucian eschatology, either; it is merely a temporary respite before the next reincarnation.) The guilty are forced to repent at "the mirror of retribution"; then they are taken to the appropriate courts of hell.
Second Court of Hell
  • petty theft and pilfering
  • inflicting physical pain
  • gambling
  • prostitution
  • grifting
  • thrown into a volcanic pit
  • frozen into blocks of ice
  • drowned in pools of blood
Third Court of Hell
  • ingratitude
  • disrespect
  • drug addiction
  • trafficking in illegal goods
  • tied to a red hot copper pillar and grilled
  • heart cut out
Fourth Court of Hell
  • dodging taxes
  • business fraud
  • lack of filial piety
  • pounded by stone mallet
  • body ground between two large stones
Fifth Court of Hell
  • money lending
  • plotting against others for their property
  • thrown onto a hill of knives
Sixth Court of Hell
  • pornography
  • cheating
  • swearing
  • wasting food
  • misuse of books
  • body sawn in half
  • thrown onto a tree of knives
Seventh Court of Hell
  • rumor-mongering
  • rape
  • suicide
  • tongue pulled out
  • thrown into a wok of boiling oil
Eighth Court of Hell
  • causing family discord
  • cheating in school
  • harming others
  • body dismembered
  • intestines pulled out
Ninth Court of Hell
  • robbery
  • neglect of old or young
  • limbs and head chopped off
  • crushed under boulders
Tenth Court of Hell
After suffering whatever punishments were suited to their sins, penitents are subjected to final judgment and cleared of any further guilt. They are then brought to "The Pavilion of Forgetfulness," where they drink a magic tea that wipes away every memory of their past lives. Next, they arrive at The Wheel of Reincarnation, where, depending on how they lived their previous lives, they are reincarnated in various human or animal forms. Whether you return as a mollusk or a monarch depends on the life you lived before.

So, it seems, even the tortures of hell don't fully atone for sin.

See also:


James Spurgeon said...

Hey, we've got Tiger Balm at the house. I bought it to use on my seven-year-old sons neck when he had a 'crick' in it. It's the only stuff I could find that didn't have a warning on it about not using it on children. If it's that good, I may use it myself.

Breuss Wane said...

Uh... I don't think I"ll ever *enjoy* Tiger Balm the same way again.

(Been using Tiger Balm since the early 90's when I was introduced to the good stuff by my sweet wife).

Cliff K said...

Note to self: Beware of Smurf's!

Jason E. Robertson said...

I always thought going to court would be like going to hell.

ThirstyDavid said...

You're saying you spared us the really rough stuff? Yikes!

David Kjos

Jeremy Weaver said...

I used to watch Boon Haw's other brother, Hee, in my younger years.

Paul Schafer said...

Can you buy Tiger Balm here in the States? Where? And how much?

Breuss Wane said...

Where else? That purveyor of all things Far Eastern: Wal-Mart. :-) (or Rite-Aid, or Walgreens, etc)

Breuss Wane said...

Amazon.com has it for a small pittance:

Brought to you by those nice oxymorons at "Prince of Peace Enterprises". :-)

John Haller said...

Are you using this blog to clean out the files on your computer?

Bhedr said...

Hey Phil,

You've actually brought back some memories I'd forgotten all about. Used to be an MK in Hong Kong with ABWE(GARBC)

Thanks. i enjoyed that.
Not the gore so much; but thanks for the education. I'll have to talk with my dad some. He used to have some of this stuff with his display while we were on furlough. He also had a wooden pillow as I remember. Thats supposed to do wonders for your back.

Patrick said...

The only people I know that use Tiger Balm are either old or athletic. I guess that explains it (I'm young, fat and uncoordinated).

BTW...I don't get queasy that often but I'm feeling a little sick to my stomache. Well done Phil!

Brian said...

you think tiger balm is the good stuff, you should try virgin coconut oil, that stuff is amazing for all sorts of things


Valerie (Kyriosity) said...

Yes, yes, that's all very interesting, but the important question is, to what level are spammers and computer virus creators sent?

MTG said...

I found Tiger Balm in Bangkok. I am relieved that I am NOT the only one who like it. Interesting museum though.....

puritanicoal said...

General Kurtz: (In a fading whisper) The horror...the horror...

Rebecca said...

Not only is the Tiger Balm theology a bit...shall we say "off"...but BioFreeze is a MUCH better product. At least that's my opinion.

Tom said...

I've been using Tiger Balm since 1984 when I was running Track and Cross Country in high school. You gotta love the smell of it. Best stuff I know of. Got mine at Costco.

thebloke said...

I once sat and listened to a lecture where a very sincere Catholic nun who wanted to demonstrate her acceptance of other cultures by teaching on the "Hindu Trinity".

When during the Q&A I questioned her use of overtly Christian terms to explain Hindu teachings, and suggested that it is neither helpful nor accurate to impose one's cultural understanding upon another even if the attempt to do so was to try to bridge the gap in cross-cultural understanding. While cross-cultural dialog does sometimes involve using metaphors and ideas from one culture to show similarities and differences, it almost reeks of cultural imperialism to use one's religious and cultural motifs and superimpose that on another culture thus changing its entire meaning. When I did that, I remember that the entire lecture hall seemed to groan, seemingly at how "narrow minded" I was. The nun was visibly annoyed and insisted that there was a doctrine of Trinity in Hinduism. I sat down, realizing that I was going no where with that crowd.

I might be doing the same here by sticking my neck out and object to your use of an overtly Christian doctrine (eschatalogy) in your description of Confucianism. Let me state a disclaimer that I am not a Confucian scholar but as an amateur student of the religions of China, India and Japan for quite a number of years, I think I can say that in Confucianism, there is no such thing as an eschatalogy.

Further, I don't think it is helpful to try to make a theology or systematic teaching of eschatology of Confucianism from Haw Par Villa. That is like trying to teach the Doctrine of Christian Joy from an observation of Disneyland. The images in Haw Par Villa are so mixed and confused that you cannot build a theology of anything out of it. Worse yet, to try to show the weakness of another religion or its teachings by images found in this obviously grotesque public display of someone's wild imaginations (or perhaps if I might try to impose a psychoanalysis on the benefactors of the park - someone's need for asuage of his own guilt) is not that helpful, especially if we desire to engage people in discussions about our faith and learn from one another in our respective spiritual walks.

My new Blog URL: http://intheouter.net./

Habitans in Sicco said...

Yo, bloke:

"Eshatology" is defined by the Oxford English dictionary as:

The branch of theology that deals with the four last things (death, judgement, heaven, and hell) and the final destiny of the soul and of humankind

"Eschatology," simly put, is the study of last things. It is hardly the excusive domain of Christian theology. Every religion has it, same as every religion has some notion of theology proper.

And if you thought Phil's article was an apologetic piece--an attempt "to show the weakness of another religion or its teachings by images found in this obviously grotesque public display of someone's wild imaginations (or perhaps ... a psychoanalysis on the benefactors of the park)"--then you must have been reading a different piece than I was.

It looked to me like one of Phil's typical Monday posts: just an introduction to something interesting.

Lighten up.

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