Haw Par Villa (虎豹別墅), also known as Tiger Balm Gardens, was built by Burmese Chinese entrepreneur and philanthropist Aw Boon Haw (1882-1954) for his brother Boon Par (1888-1944) in 1937.
The Aw brothers originated from Burma, and made their fortune through their most popular product, a heat rub called Tiger Balm (虎標萬金油), which was invented by their herbalist father Aw Chu Kin (undetermined-1908) in 1870s. Aw Chu Kin, who had travelled to Singapore and Malaysia from China before settling in Burma, had three sons named Boon Leng (Dragon), Boon Haw (Tiger) and Boon Par (Leopard).
By 1920, Aw Boon Haw was the richest Chinese in Rangoon. Eager to expand his business, he migrated to Singapore six years later at an age of 45, and started his Eng Aun Tong factory along Neil Road. The empire grew so fast that Boon Haw soon diversified his wealth into publishing and banking sector.
During their studying years, Aw Boon Par was western educated and became well versed in western medicine, while Aw Boon Haw rejected his English education and was more keen in Chinese culture and medicine. But in their family business, the two brothers were able to cooperate in developing the household brand of Tiger Balm.
After convincing his brother to move to Singapore, Aw Boon Haw acquired the land along Pasir Panjang Road at a cost of US1.95 million for the construction of his dream park in 1937, which placed importance on Chinese traditions and family harmony. It had more than 1000 statues in Chinese deities, Buddha, dragons, legendary figures and the famous illustrations of Ten Courts of Hell. The theme park was later opened to the public for free.
The Aw brothers’ business was briefly disrupted by the Japanese Occupation during World War II. Aw Boon Haw moved to Hong Kong while Aw Boon Par returned to Burma, where he died in 1944. After the war, Aw Boon Haw returned to Singapore only to find his villa and park in bad shapes. He passed away on his trip to Hong Kong in 1954 at aged 72.
The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) took over and revamped Haw Par Villa in 1988, but the high entrance fees affected the number of visitors. The fees were finally removed in 2001, but the public’s interest in the theme park had already declined steadily over the years.
Beside the Haw Par Villa in Singapore, Aw Boon Haw also built similar theme parks in Hong Kong and Fujian of China. The one in Hong Kong, also known by the same name as Tiger Balm Garden, was completed in 1935. In 2004, the Hong Kong government demolished the garden, but the mansion was preserved and redeveloped as a museum.
In Thailand, Aw Boon Haw contributed a Haw Par Children Playground (虎豹兒童遊樂場) in 1938 for the purpose of promoting his Tiger Balm.
Published: 23 July 2011
Updated: 09 December 2014