Haw Par Villa is renowned, or should I say notorious, for being Singapore’s weirdest attraction.
Thanks to that, it’s often forgotten that the statue park was originally created by its founders, the Aw Brothers, to celebrate and promote classic Chinese virtues. Here are 9 “lessons” on classic Chinese morals and values that you’d learn about when you visit this truly bizarre attraction.
1. Madam White Snake (白蛇传, Bai She Zhuan)
The legend of Madam White Snake is one of the most well-known legends in Chinese mythology. It is also one of the hardest to interpret, with the story exploring a broad range of themes such as inter-racial unions, moral obstinacy, blind fury, and karma.
If there’s any overall takeaway, it is perhaps that of destructive cultural differences. The tragedies in the latter part of the myth all stem from Monk Fa Hai’s fervent opposition to a snake spirit marrying a mortal, despite her benevolence.
Of note too is how the trope of forbidden unions often recurs in Chinese myths. This might or might not be reflective of oppressive class differences during Ancient China. Jump forth to modern times, such lessons, if any, still carry much worth.
2. Old Sage Jiang (姜子牙, Jiang Zi Ya)
Historically, Jiang Ziya was a strategist who aided the Zhou Kingdom dukes in overthrowing the Shang dynasty, thereafter also assisting with the establishment of the Ancient Zhou Dynasty.
Within Chinese culture, however, he is more widely remembered as the magical sage marshaling the Zhou forces in the Chinese fantasy saga, Investiture of the Gods.
As for his symbolism in traditional Chinese morals and values, any discussion of this could easily extend into a thesis, a task further complicated by modern beliefs that the Zhou rulers rewrote history to vilify the defeated Shang Dynasty.
What’s undeniable, on the other hand, is that Jiang is widely regarded by the Chinese as representative of heavenly justice. Revered as they were, Chinese rulers and leaders were expected to put subjects before themselves. Failing to do so, too often, invites punishment by the gods themselves.
3. The Oath of the Peach Garden (桃园三结义, Tao Yuan San Jie Yi)
A major event in the classic Chinese saga The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the declaration of brotherhood by Liu Bei, Guan Yu, and Zhang Fei has for centuries, symbolized loyalty and devotion to the Chinese. To a great extent, the episode also represents honor and integrity. Guan and Zhang remained loyal to Liu Bei throughout their lives despite their faction being the weakest.
One of the tamer displays of Haw Par Villa, this statue trio is located in a shady tree corner; specifically, at a quiet spot near the rear of the park. The serene location certainly provides for lofty reflections. It also invites the question of, would you remain loyal to a comrade when faced with overwhelming odds?
Few can comfortably answer that question, I’m sure.
4. A Blissful Union? (美满良缘, Mei Man Liang Yuan)
This bizarre display near the heart of the park is one of the most baffling in Haw Par Villa. And not just because there is no explanation accompanying it.
The wolf bridegroom and the rabbit bride strongly indicate a disastrous and “carnivorous” union. In stark contrast, though, everything else in the homely surroundings suggests a blissful marriage.
Given Haw Par Villa was built in the 1930s, a period when China was undergoing terrible social upheaval, could this macabre scene could be a satire of a tragic practice then? That of selling daughters to rich men for marriage?
Alternatively, it might refer to naïve girls marrying wealthy men for money. These girls, naturally, had no idea what they were in for.
5. Virtues and Vices (善与恶, Shan Yu Er)
This is part of an extensive rundown on classic Chinese morals and values, one that consists of a macabre man-made cavern slicing through the northern segment of Haw Par Villa.
Notoriously unapologetic in its portrayal of what’s morally superior or reprehensible, the lessons here are obvious. Starkly emphatic too.
At the same time, a common message is that indulgence inevitably leads to violence, followed by open oppression of the weak. In short, this grim diorama and its siblings are not just expository vignettes about classic Chinese morals, they could be considered as socio-political commentaries too.
In some ways, they are more chilling than the park’s infamous Hell’s Museum too.
6. Contributing to the Community (造福社稷, Zao Fu She Ji)
The Virtues and Vices display is, of course, not all grim warnings. Shown among the cautionary tales are examples of how one can lead an exemplary life too.
Here, various villagers are shown working together to set up a community Buddhist shrine. Such an act, in Chinese culture, is considered great for karma. It is also a classic example of how to “return to society.”
Noteworthily, this display has a Samsui woman in the foreground, i.e., the lady with the square red headdress. Such historical construction workers from the Guangdong Sanshui province are nowadays considered one of the pioneers of Singapore. By including one in the display, the artist was acknowledging their role in the development of Singapore.
7. The Grateful Tortoise (海龟报恩, Hai Gui Bao En)
The Grateful Tortoise tells the story of Wang Qing, a kind man who pitied a tortoise being carried to a market for slaughter.
Using his own money, Wang bought the tortoise and set it free in the sea. Thanks to this simple act of kindness, Wang Qing was later rescued by the tortoise after a shipwreck, thus completing the message that a random act of goodness could someday save your life.
Notably, this peculiar story could also be re-interpreted in the opposite way, the question then being, did the other passengers deserve to die simply because they did not perform any ostentatious act of kindness?
In other words, is it fair to consider disregard as a sin? Is charity for charity’s sake praiseworthy?
There is much to chew on regarding these.
8. Su Wu Herding Sheep (苏武牧羊, Su Wu Mu Yang)
This rather neglected display near the Hell’s Museum tells the story of Su Wu, a Han Dynasty diplomat who lived between 140 BC and 60 BC.
During a mission to bordering Xiongnu “barbarian” kingdoms, Su was captured and imprisoned for 19 years, much of which he was forced to herd sheep under harsh weather.
Despite this hardship, Su remained loyal to the Han Dynasty, never once abandoning hopes of returning to China and completing his mission. (He ultimately managed to escape) The story is thus an analogy for the classic Chinese morals of perseverance and faithfulness to the nation i.e patriotism.
Su Wu’s success in staying alive under captivity could also be interpreted as a lesson on making the best of one’s circumstances. No matter the overwhelming odds.
9. The Ten Courts of Hell (十殿阎罗, Shi Dian Yan Luo)
Haw Par Villa’s most terrifying and macabre exhibit, the Ten Courts of Hell is the easiest to understand, as far as morality messages are concerned. Regardless of whichever hellish punishment you are staring at, the message is crystal clear.
Live wickedly and you will suffer horribly for your sins in the afterlife.
At the same time, the descriptions for each of the ten courts also give a good idea of what the Chinese consider as shameful, vile, or immoral. Correspondingly, what’s exemplary could also easily be deduced. For example, filial piety is obviously regarded as a supreme virtue.
10. The Way of Benevolence and Morality (仁义道德, Ren Yi Dao De)
With most Chinese morals based on traditional Confucian teachings, it is only natural that the sage himself enjoys a prominent spot in Haw Par Villa.
Displayed together with the character for benevolence, Confucius is the embodiment of benevolence and morality for the Chinese.
Without going into extensive details, this phrase could also be considered as the foundation of all classic Chinese morals and virtues. The fountain from which all else stems from.
It furthermore denotes “good” living based on kindness and grace to others. Most importantly, it stipulates that one must always honor his family, fellow men, and country. One should never, ever, shirk from responsibility to others too.
© 2019 Ced Yong