17 September 2007

Hungry Ghost Month

I am beginning to miss Autumn in the States, especially when I see that night NFL games are being played in 50 degree (Fahrenheit) weather. But, Singapore has a number of Autumn festivals to help divert my attention from this. Currently, we are at the end of Hungry Ghost Month/Festival. The Chinese believe that the seventh lunar month is a time when spirits of the dead come back to earth, and they make all kinds of offerings to please them. Among these is a burning of (fake) money. Throughout the city during the last few weeks, I could see people burning the money over makeshift bonfires. Sometimes, I would just come across a smoldering pile of paper. As part of the festivities/offerings, Chinese street opera troupes stage colorful performances of Chinese legends. In Singapore, performances called Getai are staged during Hungry Ghost Festival, performed to appease the ghosts and entertain the living. I am in search of one of these performances before the month is over.

Haw Par Villa

In the early part of the last century, two Burmese Chinese brothers introduced to Asia a product called Tiger Balm, which is a heat rub that was developed by their father. Tiger Balm made the two brothers, Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, very rich (actually, the elder brother Boon Haw ran the company, and Boon Par worked for him). Boon Haw was quite a character - a generous philanthropist who was also quite flamboyant. As part of his Tiger Balm identity, he drove an old Buick that had been outfitted with a large tiger head across the bonnet, with red eyes and steam coming out of its mouth.

The two made Singapore their home territory, and Boon Haw built his brother a large estate on several hilly acres along the west coast (actually, the western part of the south coast). Today, the area is called Haw Par Villa Tiger Balm Gardens, a landscaped theme park that features huge monuments to the brothers and their parents as well as thousands of statues and figurines in recreations of Chinese myths and legends. There are stories of spider demons that turn themselves into beautiful women to tempt travelers, heroes that cross oceans and mountains on grand quests, and a number of battles pitting good versus evil. The main attraction, however, is the recreation of the Ten Courts of Hell. I mentioned this in my post on the Jade Emperor Pagoda in Saigon, but it is here that the Ten Courts really come to life. Each court features a stern-looking judge, and a list of the sins for which you (dearly) pay accompanies each scene. Things like robbery, cheating, adultery, lying,...you name it, it is there. And woe to you if you committed one of these. You are lashed to burning hot copper pipes, thrown into boiling oil, disembowled, frozen, thrown onto sharpened stakes (in some scenes, there are lookout towers where your earthly relatives are forced to watch your punishment). All of this is graphically displayed, which is morbidly cool. I think it is a good place to take a wayward child who doesn't seem to respond to any other discipline - there certainly were a lot of kids in there.

The gardens also feature beautiful ponds and walkways, and it is a nice, peaceful, out-of-the-way destination in the city. Singapore has all kinds of places like this, but you have to look just off the beaten path.

A note on names: in China, the surname comes first, so the brothers' family name was Aw. The first given name is usually the same for all children of the same generation, thus the Boon name for each brother. It is the second given name that is unique to the person: Haw and Par. The park's name is a combination of their two unique given names.