HOLIDAY IN HELL
springtime in singapore
The “hell” in the title of this little essay does not refer to the fact that I narrowly escaped the fate of, at best, a fine of a few thousand dollars and, at worst, being executed in a foreign prison, having unknowingly almost smuggled illegal contraband into the country. Oopsie. You could say it was as much their fault as mine, since their security didn't catch my paraphernalia on the way in and I surrendered it myself after Doktorfrau pointed out the warning sign as we were about to leave the airport upon arrival, visions of the Bali Nine dancing in my head. But I doubt that would work as a legal defence.
This is the notice they put in my passport after confiscating my vaping gear, and which I was supposed to turn over when exiting the country, but I forgot and airport security didn't notice it on my way out. As good a souvenir as any, I reckon.
Nor is the heading related to my now probably being doomed to Naraka after getting angrily accosted by a worshipper in a Hindu temple for apparently offending the entire pantheon. I have no desire to go into someone else's house and deliberately disrespect them, so I gladly removed my shoes and rinsed off my feet in the bacterial breeding ground of the communal foot-washing station prior to entry, but I have this thing about not leaving my personal property unattended in a public space – an attitude strengthened years ago when I lived in Kelowna and most of my wardrobe was stolen from the drying line. O, Ministry Stigmata T-shirt, we hardly knew ye. So I secreted my shoes in a cloth bag and carried them hidden with me into the sacred space. A devotee noticed that I had not left them outside (I imagine from having seen other tourists try a similar trick), and a small tirade was launched, as the might of 330 million gods is no match for the presence of a pair of swaddled sneakers.
(Also, you got me - since Singapore is located just barely above the equator, it wasn't actually springtime there. And they experience pretty much the same temperature every day of the year, so seasons in that sense are perhaps largely meaningless. But it was my springtime, so I'm keeping the alliteration.)
Anyway, to explain what I mean by a holiday in Hell, I must tell you a bit about Haw Par Villa.
In the thirties, the sons of the man who founded the Tiger Balm empire bought some land in Singapore and built a lavish mansion thereupon. A mere handful of years later, it was occupied by Japanese forces during WWII, and after the war and the occupation were over, the building was destroyed out of grief. Millions of dollars were then sunk into making this 8 acre expanse, 10 kilometres from the city centre, into a Chinese Buddhist Disneyland, populated by over 1,000 statues. But, though they built it, no one came. The statues now are in various states of disrepair. Intended to teach moral values, the displays mostly manage to combine a kind of dilapidated kitsch with sometimes gruesomely violent imagery, and an overall general vibe of what-the-fuckery.
This tableau here depicts two grasshoppers kissing under the encouragement of some gun-wielding rodents while another films the action with a super-8 camera. My Chinese Buddhism may be a little rusty, but if someone can remind me regarding its teachings on the subject of anthropomorphized-animal-directed insect snuff-porn, I'd be much obliged. (Also, I suspect that elephant is whacking off the rhino's horn, which may be an entirely new form of bestiality hitherto underexplored)
Another giant display appears to be a representation of the fevered PTSD-fueled nightmares of a survivor of the events in Watership Down – animals involved in bloody warfare, silently screaming as they are frozen forever in a state of being violently ripped apart.
For some reason, a corner of the park is Australia/New Zealand-themed, with some kiwis (the birds, not the fruit) and kangaroos. Another area features some sort of domestic dispute between a pig-man and his mouse-wife. Again, I must admit the connection to Asian moral mythology is not entirely clear. One could almost be forgiven for surmising that the whole enterprise is one of 'more money than sense', a folly of inherited wealth. This feeling is only enhanced by reading some of the signs strewn about the place which tell the history of the Villa and its founding family in the most glowing of terms while noticing that practically no one is on the grounds but you and a handful of other bewildered souls. And just when you think you have seen everything the space had to offer, there is always more just past that next rise.
The best section of the theme park, though, without question, is the Ten Courts of Hell exhibit. Passing through the mouth of a 'cave', you enter a dimension of miniaturized horror, confronted with scene after scene of a brutal afterlife involving stabbing, drowning in lakes of blood, disemboweling, dismemberment and a variety of tortures. In case you are wondering, yes, there is a photo here of someone having their face sawn in half. I have never been to a Disney theme park, but despite reports of their creepy robo-presidents, I am somewhat skeptical that this attempt to replicate its charms has quite hit the intended mark.
I experienced many things in Singapore – amazing architecture, decent food, seedy red-light districts, crushing crowds of imported workers clogging the streets, conversations with people who drank the cultural Kool-Aid to a scary degree and those who giggled nervously as they explained how to surreptitiously dispose of cigarette butts in public (I stayed some distance from the clean and sanitized downtown generally, preferring to experience the city-state in its less designer districts). But, without a doubt, my favourite part of the journey was this few hours spent in Hell (and, I suppose, avoiding the death penalty was pretty good, too). At the very least, perhaps this failed attraction has given me some insight into what awaits me in Naraka.