Many older folks in Singapore would know Haw Par Villa as Haw Par Bit-su (in Hokkien). To probably the English-speaking world or the tourists, maybe would know it as Tiger Balm Gardens. What an innovative way to introduce one to the garden and to the world famed Tiger Balm. It is a "cure-all" that my grandma and mum would use, from mosquito bites to bed bugs (in the old days, they were our constant companions) to headache and sniffing noses. We would use the white cream (although the red cream is said to be stronger, they stained the clothing) and oil. One could almost never get away from it, be it in a bus or even in a plane when the old folks travel!
Haw Par Villa is a favourite place for us kids in the old days but we got to visit it only during the Chinese New Year holidays. That's the time when our parents would bring us there, probably the cheapest to go because there was no admission fee and all we needed was bus fare. Although I have been to this park for many a times, I could not fully understand all the characters there. Apart from the marketing part of it (which was also great for us to see miniatures of other countries), it was Chinese mythologies and teachings. Grandpa (interestingly, in such a case, grandpa would take over, well, in my case, it would be my father who came from China) would be seen as the authority on the stories of ancient China.
Ancient China has three teachings (I would consider them as teachings, to be closer to the Chinese description of them as san jiao, meaning three teachings, versus religions) that cross-influence society since a long time. As a result, we have the best of all worlds in having a better society. If we were to adopt, that is. In modern times, much of the teachings have gone down the hill in a rapid and frightening diminishing rate. Haw Par Villa might help to arrest the slide and kick off an interest in our young and not so young about our cultural heritage, which is part of Singapore's cultural heritage.
But I leave the discussions on Haw Par Villa, its colourful history (the park and the original owners) and characters to the forum at this facebook group known as Friends of Haw Par Villa.
The Chinatown Connection
In the greater part of Chinatown, you can say that it is just at the outskirt of Cantonese speaking Chinatown, at the corner of Craig Road and Neil Road is an iconic building. This is the building that has seen many different tenants in succession over the years. The residents of Craig Road, which was where I enjoyed my childhood, called this building simply as Eng Aun Tong or Aw Boon Haw (after the person who ran this business with his brother, Aw Boon Par - more stories about them can be found in Haw Par Villa facebook page or in a recently published book on Aw Boon Har (in Chinese) by the Char Yong Association.
The Aw Family stories span from China to Burman (Myanmar) to Malaya and Singapore, and HongKong (which used to have a Tiger Balm Garden as well, but I understand that it is no longer there). More information can be found on Aw Boon Haw from the National Library.
Back to this iconic building. In the 50s, when I was still a kid, running up the length of Craig Rd, oblivious to the existence of any secret societies or gangsters, I used to go to the Aw Boon Haw building, especially in the evening. In front of the main office, which would have been closed, would be placed a charpoy (a rope weaved bed on strong wooden frame) where the Indian Jagas would be sleeping or rather lying down and ensuring that no one tried to break in. As kids, we could sit and lie on the charpoy much to the amusement of the jagas.
I remember one of our neighbours (we were just a tenant family in this house along Craig Rd which had many tenants with a rather strict Bibik - Peranakan lady) was working in the Aw Boon Haw building. I think on the upper floor was a factory or assembly plant. The ladies would be wearing light blue samfoos to work. At 4pm each day, they would end the day and that was when we would see them streaming out of the building.
There seemed to be a warehouse (we were not so curious in those days) on the other side of what used to be the railway track (long before my time) which was then a basketball court and park on which the Chin Woo pugilistic association would have their martial arts (including Taiji) and lion dance training. At that time, it seems like Chin Woo was the only association with the northern lions. Oh yes, the warehouse was the place where the jaga would live during the day. Where the warehouse was, today it is part of the huge Pinnacle flats.
When I was much older and could take a bus to Pasir Panjang Road where the Haw Par Villa is, I would sometimes meet the same jagas there.
Diagonally across from the Aw Boon Haw building, on the row of shop houses, is the Eng Teng Association which was supported by Aw Boon Haw. The Aw family came from Eng Teng (Yong Ding) in Fujian province, I wonder if they were a member of this association. You can see the names of Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par inscribed in many stelle in Malaysia and Singapore, as they donated generously to the society. In another Hakka Guild in Singapore, the Nayang Khek Community Guild, you can also find the connection.
Will Singapore remember Aw Boon Haw's legacy? I think the Haw Par Villa and the Eng Aun Tong building probably will be the visual memory, with much information kept in the National Library and the related Hakka associations.