Haw Par Villa, formerly called Tiger Balm Gardens, was originally constructed in 1937 by “Tiger Balm King” Aw Boon Haw as a grand residence for his younger brother, Aw Boon Par, who helped create their fortune with the anagesic balm. In English, Haw Par Villa translates as Villa of the Tiger and Leopard.
This history of the legendary brothers Haw and Par and the origins of their genius trace back to Rangoon (Yangon), Burma, where it all began. Their father, Aw Chu Kin, the young son of a herbalist in Xiamen, Fujian Province, left for Rangoon in the 1800s to seek his fortune.
His first stop was Singapore where he lived for several days in a kongsi house in the Chinese quarter of Telok Ayer Street before leaving for Penang. Rangoon beckoned and soon he was on his way. Aw Chu Kin set up his own sinseh shop with a little help from his uncle, and Eng Aun Tong, or the Hall of Everlasting Peace, was founded in 1870. Uncle turned matchmaker and a bride was soon found for Aw Chu Kin. Boon Haw, the “gentle tiger” was born in 1882 and Boon Par, the “gentle leopard” in 1888.
In 1908, father Chu Kin died, leaving the family practice to Boon Par, having despaired of Boon Haw’s rebel-rousing ways. The gentle leopard, finding the responsibility too much to bear, later asked for his older brother’s return from China to carry on the family business in Rangoon. The brothers Haw and Par built an empire and a legendary fortune out of a formula for a cure-all ointment sold in a little jar. Today, Tiger Balm is sold in over a hundred countries, arguably the world’s best known analgesic ointment.
The tiger tycoon moved into Singapore in 1926 and Eng Aun Tong found a spanking new home in the busiest port in the region. A new and larger factory was built along Neil Road where production was ten times more than that of Rangoon’s.
A new mansion, Haw Par Villa, was built on a hill in Pasir Panjang surrounded by unique gardens depicting Chinese mythology for the younger, quieter Boon Par in 1937. Aw Boon Haw created this entertainment park to teach and preserve Chinese values.
The park’s colorful collection of over 1,000 statues and 150 giant tableaux centered around Chinese folklore, legends, history, and Confucian ideology. Morality tales included classic battles between good and evil and tributes to Chinese cultural heroes such as the famous pugilist Wu Song, who tamed a ferocious tiger with his bare hands.
Haw Par Villa also holds an exhibition of the 10 courts of Hell, as depicted by Chinese mythology. According to Chinese belief, hell hath not one court but ten. It is believed when one first dies, 2 guardians from Hades will come to take your soul to Hades. One has the head of a horse and the other of an ox. These are the guardians of Hell….Ox-Head and Horse-Face.
Each court is ruled by a ‘yama’ or a king, who dishes out different punishments befitting the sins committed in one’s life. The concept ‘One reaps what one sows’ is the basis of the legend of the Ten Courts of Hell. However, the influence of Confucianism is so great that punishments for failing to comply, such as disrespect for the written word, lack of filial piety or inattention in class are often equal to, or more terrifying than that for murder.
Also known as Tiger Balm Gardens, it was free to the public. (Tiger Balm Gardens was later donated to the Singapore government by the Aw family, put on public tender for re-building as a theme park under the name Haw Par Villa. This theme park is no longer associated with the Haw Par group).
Beside the Haw Par Villa in Singapore, 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 but demolished in 2004. In Thailand, Boon Haw contributed a Haw Par Childrens Playground (虎豹兒童遊樂場) in 1938 for the purpose of promoting his Tiger Balm.