Curiosity #51: Haw Par Villa and Hell as you’ll know it

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You have nothing to fear of Hell; that is, of course, if you are perfect. Although I might mention that if you consider yourself a perfect specimen, then there is almost undoubtedly a flaw in your moral reasoning that has at some point or another – really think, now – led you to slip into some minor wrong for which you must now atone.

So go on, lay on top of the Devil’s fork.
Now tell me on which prong you fit.

In Haw Par Villa, an old theme park, a small section of property is reserved for visitors and their sins. The theme park, located far from other tourist destinations, is among the less visited Singaporean landmarks. It was created by the inventor of Tiger Balm, Aw Boon Par, for his beloved younger brother, and contains colorful statues depicting scenes from Chinese mythology along with a smattering of life-sized dioramas displaying moral lessons from Confucian literature.

In the right wing of the park, a little plaster and paint go a long way: all the way, in fact, to the Underworld. The statue exhibit, entitled The Ten Courts of Hell, display a horrific journey through the afterlife under cover of a man-made cave. This serves as a warning for park-goers human enough to forget their daily vices.

Care to take a peek at what you deserve?

So long as you're sure...

So long as you’re sure…

Upon stepping in front of the entrance to the Ten Courts, you will be greeted by two faces: Ox-Head and Horse-Face. They will be the first ones to greet you when you die, and they’ll usher you to your fate.

Your entrance into Hell

Your entrance into Hell


The First Court:

Upon entering the underworld, your past deeds will be reviewed. At this point you’ll hold your breath, perhaps say a prayer, and hope that your judge, a dead Chinese king, will deem you virtuous and send you directly to Heaven on the Golden Bridge. You’ll look in the Mirror of Retribution and try to see a reflection that is pure and flawless.

Too bad; your soul is speckled and rotting, and it shows on your face. Move forward.

Seal of DAMNATION

Seal of DAMNATION

The Second Court:

Have you inflicted injury upon another person? Or have you stolen anything? Ever? This is where you’ll be thrown into a volcanic pit.
Have you ever gambled? Prepare to be frozen into a block of ice.
Involved yourself with prostitution? You’ll be thrown into a pool of blood and drowned.

Prostitutes drowning in a pool of blood

Prostitutes drowning in a pool of blood

The Third Court:

Those guilty of ungratefulness, disrespect toward their elders, and escape from prison will have their hearts cut out.
Drug traffickers and addicts (equated with tomb robbers), along with advocates of social unrest will be tied to red-hot copper pillars and grilled like hot dogs.

The Fourth Court:

Those who dare dodge their taxes, refuse to pay their rent, or those who involve themselves in business fraud will have their bones pounded to dust by a stone mallet.
Disobedience towards one’s siblings and lack of filial piety will result in the grinding of one’s flesh by a large stone.

The Fifth Court:

Money lenders with outrageous interest rates will be thrown onto a hill of knives.

Wall Street?

Wall Street?

The Sixth Court:

Those who cheat, curse, or abduct others will be thrown onto a tree of knives and left as pickings for carrion.
Have you ever “misused” a book or witnessed pornographic material? Have you ever broken a rule or regulation? Worst of all: have you ever wasted food? Busted.

Body sawn in two.

Body sawn in two.

The Seventh Court:

Rumor-mongers, beware! Your tongue will be pulled out with pliers far filthier than your lies.
Rapists and ignorant, ill-meaning fools who drive others to their death will be thrown into a wok of boiling oil.

The Eighth Court:

Those who cause the remotest amount of trouble for their respective parents and/or other family members, as well as those who cheat during examinations, will have their intestines and organs pulled out.
The harming of other human beings to benefit oneself will result in body dismemberment.

The Ninth Court:

Now that you have been mutilated (quite literally) to pieces, you will make your way to The Pavillion of Forgetfulness, where an old lady will invite you for some tea. She will introduce herself as Meng Po, and she will look like she has questionable intentions. After drinking tea in the pavilion, you will forget everything about your past life and move on to this fate’s final stage.


The Tenth Court:

The Samsara, or “The Wheel of Reincarnation” will guide you out of this Hell Hole via one of six paths. Depending on your conduct in your now-forgotten life, you will return to Earth as one of the following: nobility, common man, quadruped, fowl, fish, or insect. Good luck to you.

May you enjoy the sunlight, and may you live long before the Horse-Face.

Curiosity #50: Scenes from Singapore

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Skyscrapers sit on the shore like spaceships. Multi-colored search beams light up the weeknights. Expatriates, comprising more than one quarter of the population, come to Singapore to make a dime on behalf of their domesticated company owners out West.

At the docks near Clark Quay, foreigners smile at swept cement and modern buildings. Visitors from every end of Europe sip imported wine beside a river that overlooks a Las-Vegas-style dining and entertainment complex — complete with sushi and Chinese Opera — and they watch, fountain-mist baying at their skin, as riverboats glide toward the coast and sea. For modern city-goers without a culture, Singapore is Paradise.

Singapore for locals is a corporate breeding-ground: a country that once traded its history for economic productivity and never looked back. While a significant number of local Singaporeans take part in large business enterprises, more of them — most of them of Chinese or Malay descent — serve as common employees. They are the ones offering company pro-mos on the streets and wiping down unoccupied tables at the cafes. They manage restaurants and parole the malls. In the underground railways (which are disconcertingly idiot-proof), middle-aged government workers polish single square-yards of floor tiles for five or more minutes, waiting for hundreds of foreign feet to soil it all.

A pit of escalators in one of the many mall complexes in Singapore

A pit of escalators in one of the many mall complexes in Singapore

The Singaporean skyline. Upon first looking at it, you might think the architecture looks surreal.

The Singaporean skyline. Upon first looking at it, you might think the architecture looks surreal.

Clark Quay at night, near the river in the picture above. Here people enjoy fine dining and watch rainbow fountains. I heard there was also a hologram fountain, but I was not lucky enough to witness it

Clark Quay at night, near the river in the picture above. Here people enjoy fine dining and watch rainbow fountains. I heard there was also a hologram fountain, but I was not lucky enough to witness it.

Little India:

In Little India, the streets are neither mopped nor swept: a relief, for some. Food stores are everywhere and stock standard Indian imports. The shop-owners are nearly all men. Dark-skinned. Hastily-shaven. Women gather produce. After nine-o’clock at night, the women disappear and men begin roaming the streets alone. Many of them have alcohol guts that weigh over their belts, and all stroll in an easy manner hinting at many nights of ambling the same route with nowhere to go.

My one night in Little India, I sat outside a youth hostel drinking red wine out of the bottle and watching passerby. I had just finished arguing with three young Norwegian backpackers who insisted that there was something “fundamentally wrong” with the American system of government. The arrogant, blue-eyed gentlemen sat with beers propped on their long legs as they spoke of luxurious travels from Thailand to Brazil.

Across from the youth hostel was a gentlemen’s club. Chinese women in short skirts and high heels sat outside the venue and chatted with men at sidewalk tables. Behind them, solitary night-goers of all nationalities exited from an opaque door that closed into a painted seascape. To the left and right of the club where merchandise shops. Each had a large shelf for liquor in back, clearly visible from the street. Liquor is extremely hard to find in Muslim-dominated Java, and — if purchased — must be delivered in brown packaging at tolerant venues. The more I drank my wine, the more the whiskey shelves of Little India stood out to me like exposed breasts.

China Town:

In Chinatown, near the railway station, a complex of shops sold low-caliber clothing and Chinese dumplings. I was directed there by a lonely Sri-Lankan in Fort Canning’s park who, despite being a local, asked me for directions to the Botanic Gardens and then – five minutes after introducing himself – attempted to develop a conversation about the beauties of inter-cultural marriage.

Upon entering Buddha Tooth Temple in Chinatown, I was surprised to find a blend of Hindu and Buddhist idolatry. The temple was new, and was clearly as much a tourist destination as it was a worship space. In the temple museum on the third floor, there was a stool for visitors intending to pray on their knees. The stool was surrounded by transparent vials sectioned off by a wall of glass. The vials were displayed as if they were ancient Egyptian sarcophagi holding mummified remains, but instead contained small crystals: blue, pink, yellow. They represented parcels of Buddha’s body, among them being his brain, his heart, and his lungs. The holy man could have been strung into a rainbow bracelet.

A local offering a prayer at the entrance of Buddha Tooth Temple

A local offering a prayer at the entrance of Buddha Tooth Temple

The entrance of Buddha Tooth Temple

The entrance of Buddha Tooth Temple

A wall of Buddhas

A wall of Buddhas

The Dharma Wheel. Worshippers take hold of a rail and walk around the wheel until it spins without human effort. Then they stand back and watch the words of the dharma pass around again and again. The repetition is meant to facilitate efficient meditation.

The Dharma Wheel. Worshippers take hold of a rail and walk around the wheel until it spins without human effort. Then they stand back and watch the words of the dharma pass around again and again. The repetition is meant to facilitate efficient meditation.

Just around the corner was a Hindu temple and a mosque. I entered the mosque, which served free pamphlets about Islam’s promotion of peace. Upon entering the building, a Chinese man pointed out that my calves were exposed and told me to put on a robe. My short-wearing male friend was left alone.

Singaporean Art:

The Singaporean government takes significant pains to support its display of art, which, for the most part, is dry. Museums are gorgeous. The Singaporean Art Museum showcases art from residents who immigrated from all parts of South Asia. Among the masterpieces are collections of coin-sized people chiseled out of wood (placed in a single galaxy formation to represent the Indonesian perception of the cosmos), a painted series of fairy-like women interweaving by the Laotian sea, a dimly-lit room containing a grass-field of doll heads capping stalks of wood like dandelion weeds to represent the “decapitated” pride among Malaysians toward their own brown skin.

Field of doll heads from a dump in Malaysia

Field of doll heads from a dump in Malaysia

Decapitated doll bodies stored away in a shed

Decapitated doll bodies stored away in a shed

My host in Singapore was another Oberlin Alumni: a film professor at Singapore’s university. He kindly invited me to a German Film Festival at the historical Cinema, The Cathay. High-class art critics of the city joined together to drink wine and eat wedding food. Not one local Singaporean was present. Tall white Germans rushed at the trays of wine, and for the first time since leaving in Indonesia I felt my physical smallness, made more apparent by the fact that I was also the youngest of all the visitors present. The air conditioning had been hiked for those who couldn’t stand the local heat. Later, I found myself freezing in a movie theatre, watching a well-executed film about a delusional German King and wondering if the other attendees felt at all uncomfortable about the fact that the featured film had nothing whatsoever to do with the continent where we ate and slept.

My host (right) and a young film director at the German Film Festival

My host (right) and a young film director at the German Film Festival

Singapore, despite being clean, easy, and bursting with corporate promise, is a cultural limbo. After four days of eating delicious food and marveling at sanitized museums, I felt ready to leave and return to Indonesia, where everything is hard and raw, yet still has a challenging depth much worth unveiling.