Haw Par Villa, the Family Playground

20190824_114202.jpgThis last artisan at Haw Par Villa, Mr Teo Veoh Seng, 76, repairing and maintaining its figurines.  ST Photo:  Lau Fook Kong.

By Nicholas Yong

[Source:  The Straits Times, 17 April 2011]

Senior systems specialist Teo Mui Kiang, 44, has fond memories of a childhood spent at Haw Par Villa.

She says: “I used to run around the park with my siblings and cousins.  There was a cave where we could play hid and seek and open fields where we could play catching.”

Even the iconic 10 Court of Hell held no fear for her and her playmates:  “We were used to it.  It was just another part of our playground.”

Ms Teo and her seven siblings have a unique connection with Haw Par Villa – her grandfather, granduncle, father and uncles served the owner, ointment tycoon Aw Boon Haw, as servants and workers.

The extended family of more than 40 lived in two houses just behind the park.  Ms Teo’s parents moved out in the 1970s while the rest of the family remained for some years longer.

Her father, Mr Teo Veoh Seng, 76, is the last of the six artisans who created the original statues depicting scenes from Chinese legends and folkloare, which were meant to impart Confucian values.

More than six decades on, Mr Teo is still five days a week, patiently repairing and maintaining the statues with handmade tools such as chisels and scrapers.

Trained by a master craftsman who had worked at Haw Par Villa’s now defunct Hong Kong sister park Tiger Balm Garden, which was sold and demolished in 1998, he started work at the Villa in 1948 at the age of 13.

As an apprentice, his task was to lay the foundations for the statues, which were made of materials such as wire mesh, cement and sand, before the more experienced craftsmen refined the design.

A typical 2m-high statue would take a team of four to five men about a month to complete.

“I was the youngest among them.  When I was in my 20s, they were already in their 40s,” recall Mr Teo in Teochew.

“Now, I am the only one left.”

Built in 1937 by Mr Aw Boon Haw, Haw Par Villa housed a residence for his younger brother Boon Par and a free public park filled with statues.

It was one of three parks in Asia built by the Aw brothers, with another counter-part in Yongding county, in the Chinese province in Fujian.

Mr Teo recalls Boon Haw, who was based in Hong Kong, as a kind and generous boss.  He allowed the family to build a house and rear livestock on the land while paying a nominal rent, as well as to supplement their income by operating food and drinks stalls in the park.

Mr Teo’s eldest daughter, Ms Tay Chew Buay, 54, adds:  “Mr Aw Boon Haw came back once a year to pay his respects to his ancestors and the children would all queue up to get hongbao from him.”

In its heyday in the 1980s, Haw Par Villa attracted more than a million visitors a year.  Today, it receives only about 250,000 to 300,000 annually.

Mr Teo says:  “In the old days, there were not many attractions in Singapore, so Haw Par Villa was a must-see.  Now there are more places for people to visit, such as Sentosa.”

The Chinese New Year was an especially busy time for the Teos, when tourists and locals alike flocked to the park.  While others were out visiting or enjoying themselves, everyone would chip in at the family stalls.

Brought over by STB in 1985, Haw Par Villa was given an $80-million facelift, expanded to five times its original size and turned into a ticketed theme park.  But it failed to take off and is now a free attraction, open daily from 9am to 7pm.

When Lifestyle visited the park on a weekday afternoon, there were only about 15 visitors, all of them tourists.  Many of the iconic statues were chipped and peeling and the small food court there had been closed for at least a year.

When asked if it was a pity that so few come to visit these days, Mr Teo says with a shrug:  “It can’t be helped.  Young people especially don’t know about history or the things of the past.  They don’t know how to appreciate the figurines.”

One thing is for sure:  If Haw Par Villa ever closes down, he will just quietly retire.

While the park has changed greatly from its original incarnation, the memories of the Teo family have not.

Ms Tay says: “I go back every now and then to reminisce if I happen to be passing by.  It is a place where I forget my troubles.”

20190824_114834.jpgMr Teo Veoh Seng’s (fifth from right in the last row) extended family in the 1960s, many of whom worked at Haw Par Villa.  Photo:  Courtesy of Teo Mui Kiang

The saga behind the Villa

[Source:  The Straits Times, 20 September 1990]

Haw Par Villa was built by millionaire philanthropist Aw Boon Haw in 1937 for his family’s enjoyment.  After it was destroyed during the Japanese Occupation, Aw painstakingly rebuilt the place, adding more displays each year until his death in 1954.

But as with many historical relics, Haw Par Villa fell into disrepair.  The paint on the statues started to peel, and weeds began sprouting between the cracks.

A similar villa had also been built in Hongkong, another place where Tiger Balm Oil found a market.  This was demolished in 1978, making Singapore’s Haw Par Villa unique in the world.  But the owners decided to sell off the park as it was becoming a white elephant.

A 1975 report by Haw Par Brothers stated that it cost $10,000 a month to upkeep the park, part of the costs going to the four sweepers, three jagas, three gardeners and four painters employed.

With thanks to the National Archives of Singapore, the archived photos are shared on the blogs for the memories of Haw Par Villa.

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Tableaux of the infamous Chinese tale “The Journey to the West” displayed at Haw Par Villa.

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Tour guides to Tiger Balm Garden in the 1950s

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Yang Di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak, Puan Nor Aishah and Governer General of Trinidad and Tobago Sir Solomon Hochoy touring Haw Par Villa, guided by Chairman of Haw Par Brothers Private Limited Aw Cheng Chye (centre) on 30 June, 1964.

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Family photos at Haw Par Villa in the 1950s

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Students and teachers of Tampines Primary School on an outing to Haw Par Villa in 1980.

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My personal childhood memories of Haw Par Villa to share here .

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Many generations of Singaporeans have grown up to remember Haw Par Villa.  It is a special place to learn and enjoy for family and community bonding.  An unique tourist attraction in Singapore not found elsewhere in the world, because the sister Haw Par Villa in Hong Kong have been demolished.

One of the oldest existing cultures in the world today, Chinese history stretches back across millennia, and is filled with fascinating stories.  History buffs looking to journey through the richness of Chinese tradition and religious beliefs to visit Haw Par Villa, an Asian cultural park that is a repository of folklore and storied myths.

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