Tiger Balm Gardens
On 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 betterlike 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.)
So, 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 AsiaAdrin 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 interestingand unforgettablethe day would turn out to be.
Tiger 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.
For 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 centerpiece of it alland everyone's first choice as the most stunning and unforgettable attraction in the whole menagerieis 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 sadisticfar 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
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 fascinatingbecause 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:
- "The 10 Courts of Hell and other Myths at the Singapore Haw Par Villa," by Jehpin Liew
- "10 Reasons to Enter The Courts of Hell: Revisiting Haw Par Villa 28 Years Later"
- "Haw Par Villa: Land of Ancient Chinese Mythology"
- The Myths of Haw Par Villa (extensive, sometimes disturbing site with an excellent section on "The Ten Courts of Hell")