Some say it taught them not to lie or kill. Others feel speechless at the scenes of horror it introduced them to as young children. Yet others are simply creeped out.
Ask anyone about Haw Par Villa and you will evoke such interesting responses about this public attraction in western Singapore.
That’s right. Singapore, better known for its clean, green ways and orderly efficiency, is also home to a theme park which houses more than 1,000 statues and grottos depicting vivid scenes of torture in the afterlife and other mythological images, lifted from Chinese folklore such as the Ten Courts of Hell, and classic literature such as Eight Immortals Crossing The Sea.
The park comes with another fascinating nugget of information – the garden grounds and residence were a gift from Tiger Balm tycoon Aw Boon Haw to his beloved younger brother Boon Par.
Built in 1937, the premises had seen several incarnations and far better days until Singapore Tourism Board appointed Journeys Pte Ltd as the new operator of Haw Par Villa in 2015.
SMM, the facilities management arm of Surbana Jurong, was engaged in 2011 to provide services such as cleaning, security, landscape, pest control, building, plumbing, sanitary and M&E maintenance.
Its scope also included the maintenance of the park’s over 1,000 surreal sculptures.
At that point, the park’s sole surviving craftsman, Teo Veoh Seng, was hoping to retire after painting, sculpting and repairing for over 70 years. SMM was duty-bound to transfer his skills to a suitable artisan.
Mr Teo, now 84, was picked at age 13 by Aw himself to paint the statues, and he trained under the master craftsman who had worked at Haw Par Villa’s sister park, the Hong Kong Tiger Balm Garden, which has since been demolished.
Mr Teo had tried to groom a successor over the years as age caught up with him, but no one would keep at the job, which called for meticulous and manual work done mainly under the hot sun or in stuffy “caves”.
Mr Chen Jinlong, 51, did things differently – he stayed the course. A Technical Executive with SMM, Chen joined the company in 2011 and has been working on the park full-time since Mr Teo retired last year. Learning restoration techniques from a master craftsman who has been doing the job for a lifetime is no mean feat — given Mr Teo’s strict discipline and high standards, it comes as no surprise that Mr Chen would struggle.
Mr Chen says in Mandarin: “It was initially difficult to adapt to the harsh weather and working hours. But under Mr Teo’s guidance, I’ve learnt to find joy and satisfaction in restoring these statues.”
Mr Desmond Seah, General Manager of SMM’s Commercial Division, calls this “a significant project for SMM. In a project such as this, there is added commitment to a deeper cause. It is contributing to the preservation of the future”.
Mr Chen was engaged for his experience in China as a craftsman. “He has always been keen to learn from Mr Teo’s skillset on how to liven up the sculptures that will leave a lasting impression on the visitors,” says Mr Seah. “Mr Chen exhibits patience and the right mindset to hone his skills to the next level and beyond.”
In October 2017, Haw Par Villa was revived with new exhibits and activities. But the sculptures will always be its stunning centrepiece.