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Singapore’s Hell’s Museum demystifies death — with a smile


By Lilit Marcus, CNN

Singapore’s Haw Par Villa is a sprawling complex of sculptures, tree-lined walkways and exhibits focused on Buddhist beliefs. But there was only one part that any visitor wanted to talk about — hell.

The 10 Courts of Hell, specifically.

For generations, children as young as six or seven were brought here on school field trips. And it was clear that the most memorable attraction was the 10 Courts of Hell, the depiction of the Buddhist post-death experience where people are judged for their actions on Earth and then sentenced to rebirth in another form, whether as an animal or another human being.

The graphic sculptures depict potential punishments in the afterlife, like bodies on pitchforks, dismembered heads crying tears of blood and wild-eyed demons feasting on internal organs.

Thanks to the memorably gruesome exhibit, generations of Singaporeans were scarred for life — or at least reminded of what could happen if they disobeyed their parents and failed to show enough filial piety.

Now, eight decades later, the 10 Courts has finally been recognized as the star of the show and is the main attraction in the complex’s new Hell’s Museum.

But its journey from an exhibit to a standalone museum wasn’t straightforward.

Opening the gates to hell

“Every time you spoke about Haw Par Villa, people just wanted to talk about the 10 Courts,” says Jeya Ayadurai, the historian behind the museum’s recent reimagining.

Ayadurai is the director of Singapore History Consultants (SHC), a non-governmental group that has taken over the management of some of the country’s historic sites and modernized them for a new generation. Previously, the company masterminded the conversion of Battlebox, a World War II bunker and military command post, into a tourist attraction.

Next up for SHC: Haw Par Villa.

Originally, Ayadurai and his team planned to open the ambitious Rise of Asia Museum (ROAM), which focuses on Asian history and power, on site. That project is still happening, but with Covid shutting down the world and delaying development projects everywhere, he took the path of less resistance.

The people got what they wanted. In October 2021, Hell’s Museum opened as a standalone attraction within the Haw Par complex.

Haw Par Villa was built in the 1930s by Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, Burma-born brothers who created Tiger Balm, the camphor-scented waxy pain analgesic that is ubiquitous in pharmacies across Asia.

Local legend has it that while driving along the Tajong Pagar Road in Singapore one afternoon, Boon Haw’s car had a flat tire. While he was waiting for it to be fixed, he fell in love with the spot he was stranded in and bought the land.

There, he built an extravagant Art Deco mansion, surrounded by Chinese-style gardens. He filled the gardens with some 1,000 sculptures, many of which depicted figures and scenes from Chinese folklore.

Both brothers were stranded overseas during World War II and the mansion was taken over by the occupying Japanese. Boon Par died without ever seeing it again, and Boon Haw ordered the house demolished after the war ended.

These days, Haw Par Villa’s name remains even though the villa itself is gone. Tiger Balm is no longer owned by the brothers’ descendants, and the gardens were handed over to the national government in Singapore.

Why Singapore is a good home for hell

For a small country, Singapore is wildly diverse. Subway announcements are made in Mandarin, English, Malay and Tamil, reflecting the many ethnic communities who call the island home.

Ayadurai grew up in Singapore in a family with Ceylonese Tamil heritage and did his graduate studies in the UK. Unlike many Singaporeans, he only visited Haw Par for the first time as an adult, but when he did he was struck by how many elements of the Buddhist theology were similar to those in other faiths he’d studied.

“What we’ve done today is siloed everyone into their own framework, as if they were totally exclusive to one another, instead of seeing how they could have impacted each other,” he says.

He knew that the 10 Courts of Hell was the most popular site at Haw Par Villa. That gave him the idea to use the 10 Courts as a kind of Trojan Horse to get people talking about death, the afterlife and other deeper concepts.

“We wanted to take away the taboo (of death) and also look at the 10 Courts with fresh eyes,” he explains.

Not everyone was excited about visiting hell, though.

Jerome Lim, a history buff who writes about Singapore on his blog The Long and Winding Road, agrees that Haw Par Villa was due for a makeover. However, he thinks it’s disappointing that hell has become the centerpiece of the new museum.

“It’s a shame that focus is on hell,” he says. “(Haw Par Villa) is really about a broader picture of bringing out the Chinese values, Chinese classics, an introduction to Chinese culture.”

But both Ayadurai and Eisen Teo, a curator at Hell’s Museum, point out that there have always been non-Chinese elements at the villa. The Haw brothers wanted their gardens to be a way for regular Singaporeans — who didn’t necessarily have the means or opportunity to travel the world — to learn about other cultures. There’s even a mini Statue of Liberty there alongside a sculpture of the Buddhist goddess Guanyin.

To hell and back

Ayadurai hopes that the reimagined Hell’s Museum can highlight commonalities between belief systems, whether Chinese or not.

For the museum’s opening, he commissioned the local Mexican community to construct a traditional Dia De Los Muertos altar, which was displayed next to a Buddhist altar for the Hungry Ghost festival to show how similar the two are.

One way of creating community is through humor. Hell’s Museum manages to be irreverent and playful but stops just short of being disrespectful. Even its website’s Frequently Asked Questions section helps set the tone. A sample: “Kindly note that pets are not allowed in the Hell’s Museum complex, in order to keep our exhibits safe. Anyway, all pets go to heaven!”

Ayadurai’s goal is to teach people about how different faiths view topics like life and death — while still being a fun place to visit.

So far, it’s working. Hell’s Museum is now ranked as the 11th top attraction in Singapore on TripAdvisor.

“There’s always a contemporary relevance for history,” he says.

“That’s what our intent is — to have an impact on every person who walks through that door, to see the world differently and hopefully more positively. Sharing knowledge leads to appreciation, which leads to understanding.”

Hell’s Museum, Har Paw Villa, 262 Pasir Panjang Rd, Singapore; +65 6773 0103. Entrance to Har Paw Villa is free. Admission to Hell’s Museum costs 18 Singapore dollars ($13) per adult, 10 Singapore dollars ($7.29) per child. Open Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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