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 the 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 Aw Boon Haw later diversified his wealth into newspaper publishing industry. His newspaper empire, by the 1930s, would had almost a dozen different set of daily newspapers distributed at China, Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore.
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.
Aw Boon Haw was a marketing genius, while the more introverted Aw Boon Par preferred to work in his researching and refining of their famed ointment. In the 1920s, the Aw brothers spent heavily in marketing; almost two-third of the manufacturing costs of Tiger Balm were used for packaging and advertising. The strategy worked, and their company’s turnover reached a hefty $10 million in 1926.
After convincing his brother to move to Singapore, Aw Boon Haw acquired the land along Pasir Panjang Road at a cost of US$1.95 million for the construction of his dream park in 1937, which placed importance on Chinese traditions and family harmony. It was said that his pick of the Pasir Panjang site was purely coincidental.
While driving on Pasir Panjang Road one day, his car broke down. As Aw Boon Haw’s chauffeur was repairing the car, he wandered nearby and liked what he saw – a small hill facing the vast sea (Pasir Panjang Road was then situated just beside the coast before the land reclamation). Citing good fengshui, Aw Boon Haw decided to purchase the parcel of land for his villa and theme park.
In 1937, the grand villa and park were completed, but the happy days for the Aw brothers could not last for long. The Second World War struck Singapore in the early forties, and their business was disrupted by the Japanese Occupation. The villa and park were occupied by the Japanese forces, forcing Aw Boon Haw to move to Hong Kong, whereas Aw Boon Par escaped to Burma, where he died in 1944. The two close-knit brothers would never meet again.
After the war, Aw Boon Haw returned to Singapore only to find his villa and park in bad shapes, damaged during the war and looted after the Japanese surrendered. Devastated at the loss of his dear brother and the destruction of his prized properties, Aw Boon Haw decided to demolish the villa. He, however, devoted his time to restore the park.
Most of Haw Par Villa’s existing hundreds of statues and dioramas in Chinese deities, Buddha, dragons and mythological and legendary figures were added after the war until Aw Boon Haw’s death in 1954. That year, he passed away, at age 72, in Honolulu, Hawaii on his return trip after a stomach operation in USA.
Haw Par Villa’s golden period arguably came in the seventies and eighties. The theme park, and its famous illustrations of Ten Courts of Hell, was opened to the public for free, and attracted tens of thousands of visitors every year.
At Haw Par Villa, there are four eye-catching stone memorials. They are dedicated to Aw Boon Haw, Aw Boon Par, their parents Aw Chu Kin and wife, as well as his adopted son Aw Hoe, who managed the family’s medical hall and newspaper businesses.
The Singapore Tourism Board (STB) took over and revamped Haw Par Villa in 1988, but the high entrance fees affected the visitorship. The addition of the Dragon World in 1990 as a new section of the theme park failed to revive the public’s interest. Singapore, by then, had built numerous new places of interest to attract both the local and foreign visitors.
Beside 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. There is a pavilion in Penang bearing the name of Aw Boon Haw.
Published: 23 July 2011
Updated: 01 May 2019