Haw Par Villa is like a surreal acid trip made real. A young woman breastfeeds her mother-in-law while a bevy of rodents battle for glory. A crab man grins next to a giant gorilla. Topless mermaids beckon passersby. A pig is dressed in underwear. An absurd tableau of anthropomorphic animals watching fighting crickets stands not too far from a recreation of the Statue of Liberty. It's a park where nothing makes sense, but that might be the point.
The attraction, which is full of statues and dioramas, is Singapore's largest outdoor art gallery. It's the first place I recommend visitors check out. I, like countless other children, was first brought to Haw Par Villa to be shown the "Ten Courts of Hell"—a graphic depiction of what kinds of punishments await sinners in the afterlife. It's here that I first learned the consequences of disobeying my elders (your heart gets ripped out), prostituting my body (you're drowned in a pool of blood), or loan sharking (your body is thrown onto knives).
It was a terrifying slice of Singapore to a child, one steeped in Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist folklore. I've been obsessed with it for years—and it turns out I'm not the only one.
Haw Par Villa, and its elderly caretaker Teo Veoh Seng, are the subject of The Last Artisan, a new documentary that premiered at the Singapore International Film Festival last week. Teo, now retired, took care of the bizarre park for nearly 70 years, first taking the job at the young age of 13. Now 84, Teo has passed his paintbrushes on to two China-born apprentices.
Director Craig McTurk, an American who’s lived in the country for nearly two decades, told me that he saw the story of modern Singapore in Haw Par Villa and its caretaker. The elderly Teo has spent a lifetime maintaining a very iconic part of the tiny city-state, one that was built by a wealthy family who created of the globally known medicinal cream Tiger Balm.
The park itself is visually arresting, but it was Teo's lengthy career that first motivated McTurk.
"That prompted me to conceptualize how he could be the centerpiece of a film that ties together his life story with that of Haw Par Villa and the country as a whole," McTurk told me.
But he also sees the story as a metaphor for the city-state’s transition from sleepy fishing village to wealthy digital and financial hub.
"The film asks, indirectly, what is gained and what is lost in the country's push for progress and profit,” he said.
As Singapore, now one of the wealthiest places in the world, continues to embrace new technologies and glitzy condo towers, McTurk, who self-funded half of this film, hopes the vestiges of the past will be preserved. The 8.5-hectare park sits on what is today a prime location overlooking coastal waters. It could, one day, be torn down by developers for another condo or shopping mall, but McTurk hopes it will remain.
“It’s my connection to an older Singapore," he told me.