Faine Opines

Southeast Asia, liberation technology, drones, and pontification

Category: Singapore

The Weirdness of Haw Par Villa – Singapore

haw par villa gate

Singapore is not a place renowned for its eccentricity, its exoticism. This gleaming, modern city where everybody is above average (or would like to be) takes great pains to be pleasant – and pleasant, as most of us are aware, is the direct enemy of the funky, exotic, and surreal.

So it is a great irony that within a city that appears to be striving to become a heavily-populated offshoot of Disney World, there resides what is one of the more freaky tourist attractions I’ve ever come across: Haw Par Villa, the vanity project of the man who gave the world Tiger Balm.

Kids love it.

Kids love it.

Haw Par Villa is a theme park in the early 20th century sense, before over-priced rides $80 entrance tickets became the standard way of things. Brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, of Burmese-Chinese descent, decided to use some of their fortune gleaned from Tiger Balm sales to construct the place, framing it as a place to teach traditional Chinese values to the good people of Singapore.

The brothers commissioned a entire park full of large, gaudily colored statues portraying Chinese legends from the Journey of the West to the Legend of the White Snake, with added portrayals of the Buddha (in various forms), huge white stupas devoted to the duo’s parents, and ponds full of ferociously reproducing water turtles.

Horse demons. For the kids, see.

Horse demons. For the kids, see.

All fine enough – and eternally overshadowed by the park’s portrayal of the Ten Courts of Hell, a remarkably graphic romp through what happens to very, very naughty boys and girls. Middle-aged, Singaporeans, I’ve been told, seem to share a collective memory of being dragged through these subterranean chambers and summarily lightly traumatized at very young ages.

Which, you can kind of understand why from looking at these pictures. As I peered at the various layers of hell and contemplated why “refusal to pay rent” is considered a much more serious crime than “inflicting physical injury,” I watched a Chinese father guide his small array of children through the exhibits.

The Volcano Full of Prostitutes. No, really, that's what it is.

The Volcano Full of Whores. No, really, that’s what it is.

“See, THIS is what happens if you lie,” he said, pointing to a portrayal of little clay people being poked to death by colorful, fanged demons with pronounced eyebrows.  The kids look worried.

In alignment with wimpy modern sensibilities, signs now warn unsuspecting parents of the impending trauma that awaits them from venturing into the Hell dioramas. The strategic problem with this is that the rest of the park is just about as baffling and potentially distressing to anyone under the age of 10 who has yet to deeply contemplate sin, mortality, and what happens when you take psychedelic drugs for extended periods.

haw par tiger car

For example: I was particularly struck by Aw Boon Haw’s tiger-themed car, which does in fact feature a molded tiger head, orange and black paint, and a horn that emits roaring sounds when pressed. It’s a 1925 Buick Californian Hardtop, in case you are one of the weirdos who keeps track of these things. This is weird, and yet, not even the weirdest thing by a long shot.

 

animal war

While I wandered, I came across this particular nightmare fodder tableaux, which portrays adorable woodland creatures warring with one another, complete with gore.

If you are the type of parent who is eager to fill your offspring in on certain harsh Darwinian realities of life, it’s hard to imagine a better pedagogical tool than this type of thing – the perfect antidote to friendly, singing animals in Disney movies that always stop short of showing the gore.

“This is the true face of existence,” one can imagine this parent telling their little child, as the two of them look stone-faced upon furry animals murdering one another. “Being adorable will not save you from terror.”

Thanks, Aw Boon Haw.

cricket elephants

Right around the corner from Adorable Rodent Mutually Assured Destruction, there was this quite frankly baffling scene.Far as I can tell, it portrays tiny elephants in Dad outfits forcing horrifyingly large crickets to kiss one another, as mean looking rat men look on and jeer.

Maybe it’s a metaphor.

crab people haw par

A major theme of Haw Par Garden’s exhibits is people who are also crabs, or perhaps crabs who are also people. They are joined by turtle men, fish ladies, and other examples of people fusing with animals in distinctly unsettling ways. I have no idea if this is a theme of Chinese literature but it’s probably going to regularly haunt my dreams.

turtle man fish woman

Haw Par Gardens is, rather sadly, declining in popularity, as modern parents conclude they’d rather not outsource teaching morals to their kids by way of distressingly graphic visual aids.I was just about the only person there on the weekday on which I visited, with a small smattering of mainland Chinese tourists wandering through the exhibits with me. It’s still free to enter the park, and it’s conveniently located off its very own Singapore Metro stop.

As for Haw Par Villa’s appropriateness for children. Of course it is appropriate for children, especially those children who are prone to dark, horrifying ruminations on the nature of existence – which is pretty much all children with an IQ higher than that possessed by a celery stalk.

Here is a man fighting a dangerous Muppet.

Here is a man fighting a dangerous Muppet.

If I had been brought here as a small child, I would have likely experienced a month of existential terror, and come out of it on the other end with nothing but fond, rosy memories and warped sensibilities.

I mean, I was taken to the Salvador Dali Museum on multiple occasions when I was very small and there’s nothing even vaguely weird about me.  Take the kids to Haw Par Villa, and do report back on the ensuing conversations.

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The Joy of Padang Food – Singapore

nasi padang yay

Nasi Padang at Sabar Menanti.

“What the hell is Padang food?” you may ask yourself one day, if you happen to be looking for lunch in Singapore, Indonesia, or Malaysia. “Does this have something to do with Penang?”

Ah, you fool, it has jack-all to do with a charming city in Malaysia, but in fact describes a style of cuisine typical of the Minangkabau people of  Western Sumatra, one of Indonesia’s largest islands. Typified by robust spices, long cooking times to ensure maximum flavor, and considerable quantities of coconut, it’s a style that many overseas associate with all Indonesian food. Padang food is available just about everywhere in Indonesia, and is exceedingly popular at lunch time.

The title “nasi padang” usually describes restaurants that function rather like point-and-shoot buffets: a wide array of items are presented behind a glass counter, and you point at what you want to flavor your rice, which is usually served in a whimsical cone shape. Prices are low, service is instant, and it’s a marvelous way to inexpensively sample a wide array of different Indonesian flavors. Some up-scale restaurants will bring all the dishes to your table right off the bat, and you only pay for what you actually touch.

Singapore, thank God, has a healthy assortment of Padang restaurants, and you’ll find most of them in the antique and pleasantly walkable Kompong Glam neighborhood, an easy stroll from multiple metro stops.Certainly Singapore’s most well-known Padang joints are clustered here, and working stiffs on their lunch breaks filter into the area in packs starting around 11:00 AM on any given day. Kompong Glam, with its candy-colored shop houses and beautiful old mosque, is well worth a visit in and of itself.

Selection at Sabar Menanti.

Selection at Sabar Menanti.

SABAR MENANTI

  • 778 Northbridge Road, Singapore
  • +65 6294 4805

I wanted to try a new padang place this visit to Singapore, and a quick perusal of the usual Internet food-related forums convinced me to give this one a go – based on its reputation for fresh food, and its remarkable 50-year longevity. No one, of course, had mentioned that it moved. I went to the old location on Kandahar Street, stared at it for a bit in bovine, hunger-induced confusion, and decided to wander around Kompong Glam’s profusion of fancy carpet and fabric shops for a while.

sabar menanti

Quite accidentally, I found myself at the new storefront, where a chipper, seeming member of the family that owns the place just about pounced at me when I paused outside the door. I had found the right spot, and everyone seemed very happy to see me. All of this struck me as particularly pertinent, considering that the restaurant name translates roughly into “Good things come to those who wait”. (They could stand to do a better job of communicating to their public that they’ve moved).

I’m terribly glad I stopped, because Sabar Menanti is serving just about the best padang food I’ve ever had – and it’s not even in Indonesia.  Chew mussels were cooked in a slightly sweet red chili sauce, while cucumber and carrots were sliced up and tossed in a rich, eggy yellow concoction.

I was particularly delighted by the three kinds of fresh sambal on offer: a chunky red chili paste, a smooth, vibrant classic red sambal, and an incendiary green variant. The entire plate was delightful to look at and entirely irresistible: I inhaled it within 10 minutes, and briefly considered seconds.

Anthony Bourdain, who gives me minor rage headaches, seems to agree: he’s got a signed plaque on the wall. I vaguely recall that episode of No Reservations but I believe I’ve blocked it out. Bourdain phobia aside, I highly suggest you give this place a whirl when you’re in the area.

minang storefront

RUMAH MAKAN MINANG

  • 18 & 18A Kandahar Street, Singapore, 198884
  • +65 6294 4805

 

Rumah Makan Minang is one of the stalwart Nasi Padang joints in Kompong Glam and certainly seems to attract the longest, most devoted lines. I clearly remember first  stumbling upon this place during a gloamy evening in 2010 and thinking “I have got to eat here.” Everyone seems to feel the same way, considering that it’s been in operation since 1954 with little sign of lacking in popularity.

Which I did and do, seemingly whenever I return to the area. Minang specializes particularly in Indonesian tofu dishes and beef rendang, but this time around, I simply ordered from what was behind the window.

A man at the next table and his friend were digging into a gigantic concoction I had always wondered about but had never ordered, and I asked him, as I walked to my table, what it was.

“You must have some!” he demanded, placing some on my plate. He then pretended to take some of my chicken, and we all laughed at each other. It was in fact an excellent and monumental rendition of Tahu Telor, fried tofu mixed with eggs, topped with bean sprouts and carrot, and served with dark soy sauce.

Standouts included stir-fried greens with sambal belacan (shrimp paste), braised chicken in sweet soy sauce with a hint of chili, and flaky tofu with chili. Still, it wasn’t as good as Sabar Menanti: the flavors weren’t as fresh, and there wasn’t as much variety. Perhaps I’ll try ordering off the menu here next time, especially if the rendang isn’t up at the counter.

minang plate

Beyond these two stand-bys, there are sundry great padang options in Singapore, and it’s not to be missed if you’re in the city and want to try something different.

I maintain that the first person to realize that padang food is profoundly marketable to obnoxious Silicon Valley types will get obscenely rich – especially if they serve their food out of a graffiti-adorned food truck at music festivals.

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