Thinking about theme parks, many would expect cartoon characters or merry-go-round. This is nothing close to the first theme park in Hong Kong, Tiger Balm Garden, a surreal public park that was like Alice in Wonderland crossed with a horror film.
As spooky as it sounds, Tiger Balm Garden was originally a privately owned garden, next to Haw Par Mansion, situated at the foot of Jardine’s Outlook, stretching across eight acres of land. They were built by a Burmese Chinese tycoon Aw Boon Haw in 1936. With his brother Aw Boon Par, they inherited a small herbal shop from their late father and produced a camphor and menthol-based pain-relieving ointment which became the very famous Tiger Balm. The brothers used their Tiger Balm bounty to establish a series of Chinese newspapers across Southeast Asia, and they built mansions in Singapore, Hong Kong and Fujian, their ancestral homeland.
Worried that ethnic Chinese residents of British colonies Singapore and Hong Kong would lose touch with their cultural identity, Aw Boon Haw designed the park to provide a public open space, to educate people about their culture with characters from traditional folklore and to promote Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian morality – while also promoting the Tiger Balm product.
Tiger Balm Garden and Haw Par Mansion in 1958
While Haw Par Mansion was the private residence of the Aw’s family, the landscaped Tiger Balm Garden was opened to public in the early 1950s. The Garden could be easily recognised from miles away with its 44-metre-tall Tiger Pagoda. As a devout Buddhist, Aw adapted the concept of Buddhist Karma, with a mix of Taoism and Confucian morality, on the garden design. Benign images of Buddha and amusing scenes of sculpted animals would sit beside scenes of purgatory, representing the Eighteen Courts of Hell.
Colourful statues with freakish and menacing faces were erected to create scenes of the eighteen levels of hell according to Buddhism, simulating the after-life judgement by the King of Hell and depicting how sinners would be subject to gruesome tortures like being pulled apart with five horses or trudging up a mountain of knives. Those bad-mouthing or lying would have their tongues pulled out; robbers or persecutors would be burnt with boiling oil in a giant wok.
Tiger Balm Garden became a popular go-to spot for many Hongkongers. Public leisure facilities for the Chinese community were thin on the ground in colonial Hong Kong, and Tiger Balm Garden was a rare exception. Despite the brutal and ultra-realistic sculptures, many parents regarded it as an ideal outing spot to teach their kids about righteousness and karma. If you ask any Hongkonger of a certain age, they will certainly all share the same fond memories of fascination and nightmares about this surreal park.
Tiger Balm Garden in 1950s
After Aw died in 1954, the park gradually declined. A portion was sold to a developer in 1971, and the Garden was restored for its 50th anniversary and converted into the “Haw Par Villa” amusement park in 1985. Many of the sculptures were replaced by rides at that time, and were later replaced again by the old statues. The Garden was eventually demolished in 2004 and replaced by an immense residential complex, The Legend, while many of the Garden’s murals and statues were saved by the Hong Kong Antiques and Monuments Office.
Fortunately, its adjoining 4-storey Haw Par Mansion and the private garden have been preserved and passed to the HKSAR Government in 2001. The Mansion became Grade I historical building in 2009 as one of very rare surviving Chinese eclectic style heritage sites in Hong Kong. Built in the Chinese Renaissance style with a blend of Western and Chinese architectural style, the Mansion was of great social and historical significance in reflecting the East-meets-West colonial life of Hong Kong in the 1930s – elegant ancient Chinese hip roof structure, Western porches, bay windows and fireplaces. The painted glass windows from Italy and the Burmese-style gold gilded murals were also displayed in a harmonious way. The authentic appearance of the Mansion has been well preserved over the years.
Haw Par Mansion
Eventually, Haw Par Mansion has been revitalised and converted into Haw Par Music, a music and social initiative under the HKSAR Government’s Revitalizing Historic Buildings through Partnership Scheme. The aim was to create a unique place where the heritage of the Haw Par Mansion would integrate vibrant and enriched music education and arts programmes for the Hong Kong community. Haw Par Music also offers guided tours in Cantonese and English to the restricted upper floors of the Mansion to learn more about the history of the Tiger Balm Garden and Haw Par Mansion, as well as the Aw Family.
Whether you are nostalgic or curious, you can enjoy the few sculptures saved at the Heritage Discovery Centre in Kowloon Park. And if you wish a more reminiscent experience, you can visit the Haw Par Villa in Singapore.