Review: The Secret Life of Haw Par Villa by Strawberries Inc.

Hell hath no story like Haw Par Villa after hours. Spoilers ahead.

Haw Par Villa used to haunt me when my grandmother took me there as a child, with images of King Yama and tortured souls filling my worst nightmares. Coming back as an adult though, Singapore’s most unusual theme park has become something of a contemporary surreal trip, feasting our eyes on the grotesque sculptures and camp nature of the whole experience. All of it prompts the question: who in the world could have thought up such a concept, and invested money into bringing this hellish dream to life? 

Strawberries Inc, the events and experiences arm of theatre company Patch & Punnet, has you covered. With support from the the STB-NAC Performing Arts Tours Pilot Grant, which supports the development and test-bedding of innovative performing arts tours by tour operators and arts practitioners, the team is set to present The Secret Life of Haw Par Villa, a unique after hours theatrical tour of the theme park, replete with fun facts, interactive games, and bringing both fictitious and historical characters to life. 

Often out of bounds to tourists at night, there’s almost the feeling of being somewhere we shouldn’t, with exclusive access via The Secret Life of Haw Par Villa. Against a moonlit sky, the park is enshrouded in a brand new light, as we begin our journey into the underworld and dive deep into its past, and the realm of Chinese mythology. 

Our host for the evening is none other than Haw Par Villa founder himself, Aw Boon Haw (played by actor Benjamin Chow). As our main tour guide for the evening, the role is a challenging one to play, and from the very get go, he already imbues the performance with spunky personality, literally starting off the tour on a high note with a rousing musical number to introduce the park. Even though he’s the only one performing, his voice alone carries the Broadway-style original song, committing himself fully to the act with his seemingly endless well of energy, where one can almost imagine an entire ensemble backing him up.

Aw Boon Haw proves to be an adept tour guide, confidently recounting the Aw family’s humble beginnings in Burma, before hitting upon his herbalist father’s secret recipe and rebranding it as the all-powerful Tiger Balm, and his subsequent rise to fame and fortune upon moving to Singapore. While there is much information to absorb, the story is told in such a way that the timeline is clear, and coupled with his energy and pacing, makes it as educational as it is entertaining – it’s particularly impressive that he keeps all this up while climbing atop structures and rushing ahead of us up slopes and stairways.

Aw’s family history and reasons for crafting the park form the bulk of the tour’s narrative, but over the course of the night, we’re also introduced to plenty of side characters to lead the way. Visitors will be pleased to know that the Hell’s Museum is included as part of the tour (regular day visitors pay up to $18 for entry), where condemned spirit Putu (Nadya Zaheer) takes over, and regales us with a little too much enthusiasm for the scenes of blood, gore and torture we witness in these graphic depictions of the 18 Courts of Hell. In a time of COVID-19, safety measures in such a narrow location can be difficult, but Strawberries ensures we remain safe by keeping us neatly divided into colour-coded groups, and maintaining the requisite social distancing.

Midway through the tour, and we go from hell to heaven, with Lan Caihe serving as our next guide, one of the Eight Immortals, and one of the few non-binary queer characters in the Chinese canon, and in theatre, traditionally played by a man in woman’s clothing. Played by Benjamin Lye, Lan feels like an ageless drag queen as they flirt with audience members while regaling them with the story of how they lost (and later, found) their legendary clapper weapons again. Bold audience members even get a chance to join the parthenon of Chinese gods, as welcomed by Lan themselves.

Perhaps one of the most well-known pieces of Chinese classic literature, Journey To The West also plays a prominent role on the tour, with Sun Wu Kong (Fahim Murshed) joining Aw Boon Haw as tour guide, and teaching us about how he came to become the Monkey King. This was one particular segment that showed how Strawberries was prepared for any kind of setback, with the weather suddenly turning stormy and putting a pause on the tour. But as soon as the skies cleared up, both Benjamin Chow and Fahim Murshed resumed where they were interrupted, still bright and cheery despite the rain, with the latter even showing off a few kung fu moves.

Once done with the myths and legends, The Secret Life of Haw Par Villa returns to historical ‘fact’, as the second Aw brother, Aw Boon Par (Hu Yuheng) makes his appearance. Both Aws quickly establish a fierce rivalry with each other, forgetting their brotherhood as they vie for the audience’s favour with a medley of games. Some of these work very well – such as a quickfire game where we are to guess if an esoteric quote was said by Confucius, or is in fact, a famous film quote, and ties in nicely with Haw Par Villa’s original aim of educating visitors on traditional Chinese values.

But once the games are over, the brothers’ feud is at an all time high, as they thrash it out (in an epic rap battle). The Secret Life of Haw Par Villa mines its theatrical elements to find an emotional core, and reminds us all of the power and importance of family. Appropriately, the tour ends off in front of the iconic Goddess of Mercy fountain, as the two brothers, the tiger (Boon Haw) and the leopard (Boon Par), share a heartfelt moment with each other, letting bygones be bygones as they learn to cherish each other’s presence and company, in spite of all their misgivings.

With this, writer and director Krish Natarajan has captured precisely the aim of Haw Par Villa – opening our eyes to the splendour of Chinese culture in its myths and morals, where family is almost always at the heart of every story, encapsulated in a 100 minute tour. It’s not often that tours have the ability to evoke such emotion and keep us engaged throughout, but The Secret Life of Haw Par Villa has done just that with its recipe of theatre magic, a committed cast, and a team who understands how to bring out the park’s fascinating mix of kooky, campy and sincerity. Move aside Joe Exotic, and let Aw Boon Haw rock your world as the real Tiger (Balm) King in The Secret Life of Haw Par Villa.

The Secret Life of Haw Par Villa runs from 7th January to 22nd February 2022. Tickets available from SISTIC

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