Anderson originally wrote this pictorial essay on Haw Par Villa for the class “History and Theory of Landscape Architecture” as a student of the National University of Singapore. At the start of the class, students each shared a piece of landscape that they liked; they then reflected on this after a semester of learning.
Dark clouds covered the sky as thunder roared and lightning flashed across. It felt like an omen for where I was about to go. It was a Wednesday afternoon, and I was on my way to Haw Par Villa. Earlier in the day, I bought tickets for Hell’s Museum, the newest attraction in the park. The sky rumbled once more, and the first drop of rain fell. Not a minute after, heavy rain started to pour. The rain reduced to a drizzle when I alighted the bus at the nearby MRT station. With a cap sheltering myself from the rain, I climbed up the ramp into Haw Par Villa.
Chinese mythologies and grotesque sculptures of hellish demons come into mind when we talk about Haw Par Villa. After all, that is possibly what scarred most visitors after they visited the park. However, there is so much more to Haw Par Villa than myths and sculptures. The richness of the park’s culture and history intrigued me to talk about the park early in the semester. Now, as the semester is coming to an end, I am looking at this park again, but with renewed interest and expanded thoughts.
There were two main reasons why I picked this park for reflection. First, I found it interesting that it is a site of many cultures and influences. Besides the obvious Chinese-themed ornaments, one can also see traces of art-deco architecture, religious dioramas, and various sculptures from other countries. This, as I later found out, indirectly coincides with the concept of a palimpsest. In The Land as Palimpsest,” André Corboz uses palimpsest as an analogy for land since the land is “charged with traces and with past readings.” (Corboz, 1983) In the same sense, I posit that Haw Par Villa is a palimpsest, filled with remnants that mark the changes undergone by the park.
Secondly, I was intrigued by the change of hands in the park. As fate would have it, I chose the concept of “contested space” for another assignment in this module, in which I also questioned the idea of ownership. With this expanded notion of ownership, I now further explore how this change of ownership affects the park and what this means for its future.
A History of Home, Culture and Park
Let’s take a trip down memory lane as we explore the history of Haw Par Villa. Initially, Haw Par Villa referred to the villa Aw Boon Haw built for his brother, Aw Boon Par. The gardens were built on terraces below the villa, which were known as the Tiger Balm Gardens. Boon Haw commissioned sculptors to build exhibits based on legends and myths from Buddhism, Taoism, and Chinese mythology. After the war, he demolished the villa but added more sculptures, including the current Buddha statue that sits above a pagoda. After his death, Boon Haw’s nephew took over and added his own touches to the gardens, creating International Corners that exhibited sculptures representing different cultures of the world. In the 80s, the state acquired the site and leased it to International Theme Parks Ltd to be developed as a theme park. However, the company pulled out in 2001 because the park operated at a loss. By this time, the entire park was known plainly as Haw Par Villa. The state then hired Orient Management to operate it as a free-entry park. In 2015, Orient Management appointed Journeys, a heritage-tours travel company to manage and reopen the park as a museum. (Lim, 2016)
The rich history of the site, coupled with the vision of Boon Haw, demonstrates the cultural palimpsest of the site. With each change of hand, parts of the park were dismantled and replaced, while new elements were added to other parts. These created a wonderful, yet bizarre aesthetic to the park. Traditional Chinese archs are juxtaposed against art-deco architecture, while sculptures like Sumo and the Tower of Liberty sit beside sculptures of deities and demons. In the article “Urban Landscape as Palimpsest,” the authors write that urban palimpsest, in regard to history and culture, emphasizes historical remnants, rituals, traditions, folklore, and other forms of built heritage. (Vâlceanu, Kosa, & Tamîrjan, 2014) This is clearly exemplified in Haw Par Villa.
Herrington briefly explained in “Landscape Theory in Design” that a palimpsest offers the understanding of landscape design as an element that displays multiple temporal and spatial events and artefacts. (Herrington, 2017) Vâlceanu et al. also wrote that the analysis of urban landscape as palimpsest require preserving the local identity and combining old elements with new ones, which led to a conclusion that regeneration and urban renewal project need to account for it history and aim to preserve the heritage. (Vâlceanu, Kosa, & Tamîrjan, 2014) Understanding the palimpsest of a site would help us, as landscape architects, better evaluate a site’s historical values and thus enrich our design process.
Whose Land Is It Anyway?
Looking back at the history of the site, we can see that the park has changed hands several times. It went from the private ownership by the Aw family to state ownership when the state acquired it in 1985. (Lim, 2016) What we are seeing here is the nationalisation of Haw Par Villa, where the state would acquire the land from landowners. (Ogilvy, 1890)
We can also analyse another factor, the accessibility to the public, which is closely tied to ownership. Boon Haw made the Tiger Balm Gardens a public, free-entry park since the beginning, during a time when users had limited options for recreation. It remained public until it was redeveloped into a commercial theme park, charging visitors for entry. (Lim, 2016) When paid-entry failed, the subsequent management companies converted the site back to a public park with selected areas commercialized to ensure income to cover operation costs.
There is an interesting phenomenon when we observe the relationship between these two factors: ownership and accessibility to public. Interestingly, the park remained public when it was under the ownership of private citizens and only became commercialized when it became state-owned. This goes against the common sense of what we typically understand of private and public owned spaces.
Hell’s Museum is the new museum launched just last year in 2021. New might not be the best word to describe it because it is a revamped museum that was closed down in 2012. The museum is the first space in Singapore aimed at encouraging discussion about death and the afterlife. (Carissa, 2021) I experienced it for the first time when I visited it recently.
To my surprise, I found the museum an enjoyable experience, and the gardens well-maintained. With this newfound outlook, I realised that the delegation of park management to private ownership could be beneficial.
From a geographical standpoint, I see this as a case of symbiotic collaboration, where state boards and private sectors, or sometimes civic organizations, can collaborate and use their respective skills and powers for change. Shaun SK Teo mentioned that, in China, municipalities would consider professionals as viable partners for collaboration to solve developmental issues. (Teo, 2021) In our case, Journeys, a heritage specialist, brings in valuable expertise in exhibiting the site’s built heritage to appeal to the public. Observing the recent popularity surge in Haw Par Villa, I think this relationship has certainly helped to revitalize the park.
Understanding the park’s palimpsest has allowed me to further understand the nuances in value present in historical and cultural landscapes. On the other hand, seeing the park through the lens of urban geography also allows me to understand how this collaboration between state and society can ensure the success of a park. These two key ideas offer a way to tackle the increased complexity of design requirements in the built environment.
Anderson Wong is fascinated by the intersections between landscape design and other disciplines including urban geography, history, culture, and digital technology. He is also a freelance 3D artist, working in the field of architectural visualization.
Edited by Dr. Ervine Lin and Ruen Qing Wong
Carissa, S. (2021, October 27). Take A Trip To Hell’s Museum: Singapore’s First Museum Dedicated To Death And The Afterlife. Retrieved from Little Day Out: https://www.littledayout.com/hell-museum-singapore-haw-par-villa-death-afterlife/
Corboz, A. (1983). The Land as Palimpsest. Diogenes (English ed.), 12-23.
Haw Par Villa. (2022). Park Map. Retrieved from Haw Par Villa: https://www.hawparvilla.sg/plan-your-visit/#park_map
Herrington, S. (2017). Material Matters. In S. Herrington, Landscape Theory in Design (pp. 112-152). London and New York: Routledge.
Lim, I. (2016, February 29). Haw Par Villa (Tiger Balm Gardens). Retrieved from Singapore Infopedia: https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_560_2004-12-14.html
Ogilvy, A. J. (1890). Land nationalisation: By A. J. Ogilvy. Manchester: Co-Operative Printing Society Limited, 1890.
Teo, S. S. (2021). Shared projects and symbiotic collaborations: Shenzhen and London in comparative conversation. Urban Studies. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/00420980211048675
Vâlceanu, D., Kosa, R., & Tamîrjan, D. (2014). URBAN LANDSCAPE AS PALIMPSEST. Urbanism.Arhitectura.Constructii, 5(4), 17-26. Retrieved from http://libproxy1.nus.edu.sg/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/urban-landscape-as-palimpsest/docview/1525467689/se-2