It’s many years since I went to the Haw Par Villa in Singapore — I mean the original, not the spruced up version that’s there now.

The villa is  definitely one of the odder aspects of Singapore, whose respectful and pious Confucian ethic is well known. The often gruesome depictions of the 10 courts of the Chinese hell are stomach churning and often distasteful.

The villa is located in Pasir Panjang and was built in 1937 by the brothers who invented Tiger Balm. The villas are named after the two brothers given names — Haw meaning Tiger, and Par meaning Leopard. It was originally open to the public with a zoo ; the creators of the attraction apparently boasted that creatures from the whole world were to be seen in the garden of the villa.

Taken over by the Japanese in the war, the villa and garden were opened to the public in the 1970s and became a popular attraction in the 1980s, albeit known for a certain faded charm. On my first visit, I was astonished by the graphics scenes of torture and cruelty in the section of the park depicting Hell. But it was no less distasteful than the Chambers of Horrors that adorn the centres of many Western cities.

The villa and theme park have more than 1,000 colourful statues and tableaux on display. What was extraordinary was the Singapore government’s attempts to sanitize and tone down the vivid images of the original in what amounted to an act of Bowdlerization.

This was typical of the government of the day. They also closed down the original Bugis Street in a flagrant act of misplaced public decency! 

Nowadays, Singapore seems to me to be heading in the right direction, and there have been attempts to reignite the spark that made Haw Par villa a quirky but exciting destination. But I doubt it will ever get back that faded slightly tatty look that made it so appealing.