A few days ago I visited Haw Par Villa with my friends Mike, Kandice and Kristin. At first, I was a little afraid what might be up the hill; a wall of plaster buddhas and mountain scapes painted in garish colors greeted me as I got off of the MRT.
Despite my initial hestitancy, I was really inspired by the place, and have been thinking about it since my visit there.
The Haw Par brothers are an early 20th century Singaporean entrepreneurial success story; they developed and soldTiger Balm (which I have been using to treat mosquito bites and muscle aches, by the way). With their riches they explored different marketing tools to further their product, including creating Tiger Cars and martial arts demonstrations.
As they amassed their wealth, the brothers wanted to express themselves artistically and to give back to their community. Beginning in the 1950s they created what is now known as Haw Par Villa on the land where their mansion once stood, a public “theme” park dedicated to the preservation of Chinese cultural traditions.
It is truly awe inspiring.
Two of the most compelling parts of Haw Par Villa were “The Gates of Hell” and a circular monument of of storytellng. The monument was divided into sections, with each section a carved diorama depicting a different Chinese legend, folk story, or fable.
At Haw Par Villa, visitors can walk through “The Gates of Hell.” As you walk into the cave, you visit the mirror of the self, where you can “see” what you looked like in a past life. As you continue through the cave, you experience different levels of hell, depicted in gruesome dioramas (ie figurines being sliced in half, boiled in oil, etc.). At each level of hell there is a sign which tells you what crime constitutes which punishment.
After you are punished for your sins, you are cleansed of them (depicted by another diorama), and they are forgotten. Your soul then travels to a different body (animal or human) to make another life journey.
I was most freaked out by the “boiling in oil” diorama; there was a bridge over the pit of oil, so you are actually stepping over those being punished below you.
As you cross the bridge and look up, family members of the punished are standing and watching the punishment, a reminder that your sins affect other people as well.
I noticed that many of the most heinous punishments were awarded (not quite the right word, is it?) for being disrespectful, for crimes against the family, elders, or members of the community. Selfishness seemed to be the most base sin, and punished in several levels of hell.
I mentioned what I had noticed to my pal Mike and he agreed with my assertion, explaining that one of the major diffferences between the “East” and the “West” was the emphasis on family and community. It is important culturally in the “East” to hold the family and the community in higher regard than the self. It is, as he said (and this is a term I’ve heard a lot in the last few weeks) an important part of “Asian Values.”
Mike, Kandice, and other friends have told me that they had visited Haw Par Villa as a child and were terrified by “The Gates of Hell.” Even when we were there last weekend, we could hear children talking about how they “would never” commit the crimes depicted there for fear of hurting their families. Please note: I did say “hurting their families,” not, hurting themselves.
One of the other poignant pieces of Chinese cultural transmission at Haw Par Villa came in a large circular “building?” further down the trail from “The Gates of Hell.” Many different dioramas were carved into the building, each depicting a tale, fable, or story from a Chinese oral tradition. There were no plaques on or around the building, so it was difficult for me, a Westerner unfamiliar with this canon, to understand what the dioramas represented. Mike explained that the dioramas served as storytelling prompts for the older generation bringing their children or grandchildren to Haw Par Villa. The prompts were used to spark the memory if the story, and storytelling amongst the generations. I loved this! I loved the function of this as a storytelling tool, used to bring generations together and as a form of cultural preservation without compromising the oral tradition.
There are so many cultural markers in Singapore depicting the importance of family and community. I am excited to begin an intergenerational drama project here. It seems to be the perfect place for me to explore my research question.
And other questions also arise; I wonder how the intergenerational connections this project inspires will differ in a Singaporean context from the project I recently completed in Seattle.