Saturday, May 30, 2009


Yesterday, on my way to a seminar in NUS (National University of Singapore), I drove pass Haw Par Villa.

The grand dame which had been a big part in the growing up years of generations of Singaporeans looked decrepit and abandoned.


Haw Paw Villa was the brainchild of Aw Boon Haw, the tycoon behind the iconic cure all Tiger Balm ointment. The Aw family’s intention was similar to American millionaire Andrew Carnegie’s vision to share the “secrets of success” with everyone.

Andrew Carnegie commissioned Napoleon Hill to interview over 500 American millionaires and compiled his findings in the book THINK AND GROW RICH. To the Aw family, the secrets of success are already captured in traditional Chinese folklore and mythology. The Aw family wanted to share these values and principles with the largely illiterate masses through clay figures.

Co-incidentally, Haw Par Villa was opened and THINK AND GROW RICH was published in the same year, in 1937!

In the over 1000 clay figures, visitors are urged to:

- Be filial to parents, grandparents and parents-in-law
- Be responsible
- Be loyal to country, family and friends
- Be respectful
- Work hard
- Never stop learning
- Persevere – never give up
- Be honest
- Be mindful of others
- Be brave in the face of adversity
- Run from vice and temptation
- Don’t mix with bad company
- Share your blessings
- Avoid crime and doing evil. Because, even if you escaped your just deserts in this life, retribution awaits you in hell and in the next life.

None of these are genetics gifted only to a select few, but they are attitudes and beliefs anyone can have. The Aw family’s message is that anyone can grow rich so long as you think the right thoughts.

For many visitors, Haw Par Villa is gaudy, gory and perhaps even embarrassing. The figures wrapped in ancient garb or clothes from the 1930s, were made by semi-skilled workmen with clay and household paint. The end results were sometimes crude and distorted. Haw Par Villa was much maligned and vilified as low class. It is in your face, without even the slightest hint of subtlety, or sometimes even propriety.

Yet, it is uniquely Singapore. There is nothing like it anywhere in this world – not even in China.

Haw Par Villa was opened to the public free of charge. It instantly became a top tourist hot spot, and remained so up to the 1970s.

With free entry, it was an affordable treat for families. With our ang pow money (traditional cash gifts during Chinese New Year), we could indulge in kacang putih (fried groundnuts coated with sugar sold by Indian peddlers in paper cones made from used magazines at 5 cents each).

Haw Par Villa is part of the soul of generations of Singaporeans. Thousands throng the park especially during Chinese New Year. For many families, it was an annual ritual. The valuable lessons from the clay figures were passed down the generations and reinforced by regular repeat visits.

Haw Par Villa was sold to the Singapore Government in 1979. In 1980, it was closed for major transformation works and re-incarnated with high hopes in 1990 as the wannabe “Disneyland of the East” called Dragon World.

The hefty $16 entrance fee priced out much of the masses that used to throng Haw Par Villa for free. The investors soon lost money as Dragon World did not draw the crowds as its previous incarnation did.

In 1996, the park reverted back to its old name Haw Par Villa and its free entry status. That didn’t bring back the crowds, nor Haw Par Villa’s former glory. Something valuable was lost in all the sweeping changes.


Visitor numbers are dwindling. The clay figures and the grounds are falling into disrepair. If this continues, though no such plans are known to be on the table, we should not be surprised that the authorities may eventually have no choice but to demolish the park.

That will be a sad day as Singapore will lose a part of its soul.

Not many people, especially today’s young, will miss it unless they realise its value and see its part in moulding the Singaporean soul.

Support Haw Par Villa.

It is uniquely Singapore and the World’s only place for a one-stop “secrets of success” fix.

Pay it a visit with your friends and family. Help revive the spirit of Haw Par Villa of old.

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