Children as young as six or seven have been brought here on school field trips for decades. It was evident that the most memorable attraction was the 10 Courts of Hell, a portrayal of the Buddhist afterlife in which individuals are judged for their actions on Earth and subsequently sentenced to rebirth as an animal or another human.
The vivid sculptures portray hypothetical punishments in the afterlife, such as bodies on pitchforks, mutilated heads screaming bloody tears, and demons with wild eyes devouring internal organs.
Generations of Singaporeans were permanently traumatized or at least reminded of what may happen if they defied their parents and lacked sufficient filial piety due to the horrifying exhibit.
Now, eight decades later, the 10 Courts is officially recognized as the major attraction in the complex’s new Hell’s Museum; it has been crowned the star of the show.
However, its transition from an exhibit to a separate museum was not simple.
“Whenever you mentioned Haw Par Villa, people only wanted to discuss the 10 Courts,” explains Jeyadurai, the historian responsible for the museum’s new reinvention.
Ayadurai is the director of Singapore History Consultants (SHC), a non-governmental organization that has taken over the maintenance of historic sites and renovated them for a new generation. Previously, the business oversaw the transformation of the World War II bunker and military command post Battlebox into a tourist attraction.
Initially, Ayadurai and his colleagues intended to establish the ambitious Rise of Asia Museum (ROAM), which focuses on the history and might of Asia, on the site. This project is still ongoing, but he chose the path of least resistance when Covid shut down the world and delayed development efforts everywhere.
People obtained their desires. Hell’s Museum launched as a standalone attraction within the Haw Par complex in October 2021.
Haw Par Villa was constructed in the 1930s by Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, Burmese-born brothers who invented Tiger Balm, the widespread Asian painkiller containing camphor-scented wax.
Local folklore has it that Boon Haw’s automobile got a flat tire while driving along Singapore’s Tajong Pagar Road one day. While he waited for it to be repaired, he fell in love with the location and purchased the land.
There, he constructed an elaborate Art Deco villa with Chinese-style gardens. He decorated the gardens with over a thousand sculptures, many of which depicting Chinese folklore figures and scenes.
During World War II, both brothers were stranded overseas, and the home was taken over by the occupying Japanese. Boon Par died without ever seeing the house again, and Boon Haw ordered its destruction following the conclusion of the war.
Even though Haw Par Villa no longer exists, the villa’s name lives on. The brothers’ descendants no longer hold Tiger Balm, and the gardens were transferred to the Singaporean government.
Singapore is incredibly varied for a tiny nation. Subway announcements are made in Mandarin, English, Malay, and Tamil, reflecting the island’s many ethnic communities.
Ayadurai grew up in Singapore in a Tamil-Ceylonese family and attended graduate school in the United Kingdom. He visited Haw Par for the first time as an adult, unlike most Singaporeans, and was surprised by how many aspects of Buddhist doctrine were comparable to those of other religions he had studied.
“What we’ve done today is compartmentalize everyone into their own framework, as if they were mutually exclusive, rather than considering how they could have affected one another,” he argues.
He was aware that the 10 Courts of Hell was Haw Par Villa’s most popular attraction. This inspired him to utilize the 10 Courts as a Trojan horse to get people discussing death, the afterlife, and other profound ideas.
“We wanted to remove the taboo (of death) and also take a fresh look at the 10 Courts,” he continues.
However, not everyone was delighted to attend hell.
Jerome Lim, a history enthusiast who blogs about Singapore at The Long and Winding Road, concurs that Haw Par Villa was overdue for a facelift. Nevertheless, he finds it unfortunate that hell has become the focal point of the new museum.
It is unfortunate that the focus is on hell, he says. “(Haw Par Villa) is essentially about highlighting Chinese ideals, Chinese classics, and providing an introduction to Chinese culture.”
Both Ayadurai and Eisen Teo, a curator at Hell’s Museum, note that the villa has always contained non-Chinese components. The Haw brothers desired for their gardens to serve as a tool for Singaporeans who lacked the means or opportunity to travel abroad to learn about different cultures. In addition to a miniature Statue of Liberty, there is also a statue of the Buddhist deity Guanyin.
Ayadurai expects that the rebuilt Hell’s Museum will reveal similarities between Chinese and non-Chinese belief systems.
For the museum’s opening, he commissioned the local Mexican community to construct a Dia De Los Muertos altar, which was put alongside a Buddhist altar for the Hungry Ghost festival to demonstrate the similarities between the two.
Using comedy to build community is one method. Hell’s Museum manages to be irreverent and humorous without crossing the line into disrespect. Even the Frequently Asked Questions section on its website helps set the tone. A sample: “To ensure the safety of our exhibits, we regret that pets are not permitted within the Hell’s Museum complex. Finally, all animals go to heaven!”
Ayadurai’s mission is to educate visitors about how many faiths see life and death, while also providing a pleasurable location to visit.
So far, it has been successful. On TripAdvisor, Hell’s Museum is presently regarded as the eleventh best attraction in Singapore.
“History always has present importance,” he asserts.
“Our goal is to have an impact on everyone who passes through that door, influencing them to view the world differently and ideally more positively. Sharing knowledge fosters appreciation, which fosters comprehension.”