updated 29 Jun 2014, 10:15
Login password
Tue, Apr 29, 2014
The Straits Times
Email Print Decrease text size Increase text size
Parenting, for the Hell of it
by Clara Chow

Last Sunday, I took my younger son to the mouth of hell.

Okay, not really. I took him to Haw Par Villa, where we strolled blithely by the 10 Courts of Hell dioramas, the parenting tool du jour of many Chinese Singaporeans in the 1970s and 1980s (is it any wonder we, Generation X, turned out weird?).

I remember hours spent staring at the gut-pulling, tongue-severing, heart-cutting demons in the moralistic Hell displays, with their painted plaques cautioning that this is the fate that will befall you if you cheat at examinations, tell lies or disrespect your parents.

But, instead of having nightmares, my cousins and I giggled over the grotesque statuary.

The average Singaporean kid then, raised on a diet of gong tau (Asian black magic) movies and other PG-fare by our non-child-psychology-concerned mums and dads, understood that the Technicolor glory of the Haw Par Villa figures were kitsch to the point of comedy.

It was entering a haunted mansion at the carnival, where badly disguised actors tried to scare you: We took the opportunity to squeal and scream a lot, then emerged heart pumping, more alive and bigger rascals than ever, into the unrelenting sunshine of our childhood.

Now in 2014, I paid my $5 carpark entry fee to the attendant - the price was a bit steep, considering that admission to the park is free. But it became totally worth it when I realised one could drive up the statue-lined hill to the carpark, sending oblivious selfie-taking visitors scuttling left and right at one's noiseless approach.

We were there to meet a friend, artist-curator Chun Kai Qun, who had just opened a temporary art gallery within the villa grounds, housed in a fake chinoiserie- looking building (the former Jade House, admission: $1).

Latent Spaces, which is the name of both the space and the curatorial project by Chun and his twin brother (symmetry, between two brothers who owned the gardens - Tiger Balm tycoon Aw Boon Haw built the garden in 1937 for his brother Boon Par - and the two who set up the gallery) and art educator Elizabeth Gan, is open at no charge to the public until October.

As my son sat in a corner of the gallery with my iPad, and later ran around outside while chomping on a Potong brand red bean ice cream, Chun and I talked about the fascination that Haw Par Villa had always held for us.

Many Singaporeans are nostalgic about Haw Par Villa, but they probably never come very often, is how Chun sees it. Their childhood memories, which warp and morph over the years, are what feeds their nostalgia for the place.

Meanwhile, the villa sits in its western corner of the island, quietly falling into disrepair, forgotten. Occasionally, some rumour that it is going to close down will send people rushing there in a panic to take a "last look", before the fervour dies down.

Haw Par Villa was turned into a theme park in 1990 and closed 10 years later after chalking up losses of $31.5 million.

The Hua Song Museum, which was a tribute to Chinese migrants, officially opened a few days after I had my first child in March 2006. It closed down in 2012.

With last month's announcement that the Singapore Tourism Board plans to renovate and rejuvenate the park, one wonders what new incarnation the villa will take.

To me, Haw Par Villa has always felt more real than other parts of the country because it hasn't been whitewashed and cleaned to within an inch of its life. Sporting "a legacy of failures", as Chun put it, it has simply given up on impressing cash-spending tourists.

We said goodbye to Chun, who breathed a sigh of relief when Lucien stopped touching the artworks in his gallery.

I let the boy loose in the morally edifying garden. He dashed up and down the dioramas, climbing into nooks and crannies, and molested the topless mermaids hanging out in a strange line.

Like his mum before him, he mugged for the camera next to scenes from Journey To The West, grinning widely with his pals Pigsy and Tripitaka.

"What's that coming out of his head?" he asked, pointing to a figure of a boy face-down on the road, with his brains oozing out.

"Oh, that." I replied, casually. "That's a boy who didn't hold his mummy's hand when crossing the road and got run over by a car."

Pointing to the distressed woman running towards the squashed boy, as a policeman in shorts took down the name of the driver who mowed him down, I added for good measure, channelling my own mother and her talent for subtlety: "See? That's his mother, screaming, 'My son! My son!' So sad."

I could see Lucien's face absorbing this. Then, he took my hand dutifully. He now does so every time we cut across traffic.

In a country where things develop at breakneck speed, I am glad that there are still pockets where I can re-enact family rituals exactly - repeating the same wisdom in twisted ways for my children, just as my parents lovingly did for me, and possibly their parents for them.

Parenting would be less fun - and a poorer experience - if such spaces are wiped out.

Lucien and I didn't make it to the 10 Courts that day; it threatened to rain. I'm hoping that, while rejuvenating away at Haw Par Villa, the powers that be will respect and leave Hell enough alone.

This article was published on April 27 in The Straits Times.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.

readers' comments

Copyright © 2014 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Co. Regn. No. 198402868E. All rights reserved.