Lesson in Crime and Punishment

I decided I’ll go to Haw Par Villa, having never been there in all the years I’ve been going to Singapore.

The brothers Haw (Tiger) and Par (Leopard) were the Tiger Balm entrepreneurs. It was the time of the Empire, and the pair started their business in Rangoon, and came down to Singapore and increased their fortune there. In Singapore the brothers built a mansion on a hill, and that estate in their time and afterward has transformed into a public garden with statues and dioramas that tell stories and parables and aphorisms from the worlds of Tao, Confucius, and the Buddha. The most touted exhibit there is a long man-made cave depicting the Ten Courts of Hell. A sign outside the grotto cautions there's gore inside.

It was blazing hot on the exposed hill; so the enclosed space was inviting. And who doesn’t enjoy gore? Also, I’m at an age where one is keen for hints of the afterlife, and I found them in that dark interior, in neat, dim-lit dioramas.

The virtuous dead have it easy. On arrival at the Courts, they’re split into two classes, somewhat like the gold and silver card holders of airline loyalty programs. The best get on the golden bridge, the next best are routed to the silver bridge, and both bridges offer a quick passage to paradise. The sinful dead are sent on a rough ride. They’re to be dealt with across ten courts, each ruled by its own Yama, its own god of death. When the dead arrive before the Yama and the sins read out, the Yama has a ready list of punishments to hand down.

The prostitute, for instance, is presented before the second Yama. Her punishment is to be drowned in blood. The third Yama's jurisdiction is ungratefulness, disrespect to elders, and escaping from prison. He also tries drug addicts, drug traffickers, tomb robbers, and fomenters of social unrest. He is severe: If you belong here, you could have your heart cut out, or you may be bound to a red-hot copper column and grilled. The fourth Yama tries tax dodgers, rent defaulters, fraudsters and sends them to a stone mallet for a pounding. The sixth Yama takes cheats, those who curse, abductors, misusers of books, patrons of porn, rule breakers, and food wasters, and he saws them in two, or throws them upon a tree of knives. The seventh Yama is named as King Taishan: He pulls out the tongue of rumormongers, and those who sow discord among family. The eighth Yama digs the visceral organs from those who abandon filial obedience, cause trouble for family and cheat in examinations. If you have robbed, murdered, or raped, the ninth Yama will see you. He will have your head and arms chopped off; if you have neglected the old and the young, he will crush you beneath boulders.

It seems that you’re condemned to emerge from each court alive so you’re fit for punishment at the next court. After you have passed the first nine courts a fresh lease awaits you at court ten. Here a lady serves you a potion that erases the past from your mind, and sets you off on a new life, as human or animal, as the tenth Yama sees fit.

I regarded myself. I must prepare for the sixth Yama, and the eighth; I must prepare to crash on a knife-covered tree; must prepare to be sawed in two; must prepare to experience my visceral organs hacked. I haven’t known it was this serious to waste food; I could've been an obedient son. My belly writhes as I write.

These sins and punishments are declared on plaques posted alongside the thick-painted dioramas populated with expertly crafted oriental figurines — a diorama to illustrate each court. Reading the plaques, I wondered first if the Yamas catalogued them in an uncharacteristic fit of humor, and if the entire scheme is all in jest. Later, it struck me that the punishments lacked in imagination — they’re merely torture that man has inflicted on man down the ages. The retributions didn’t appear divine to me; they read like the secret penal code of a despot, ready for administering here and now — even as the sinner in the despot’s book lives. At any rate, I cannot imagine that the Ten Courts of Hell as described in Haw Par belong in the sagely Buddhist scriptures. They’ve perhaps mutated through time and in translation.

Leaving, in the cool of the taxi, the driver asked me, “First time in Singapore?”

“Naw … .” I told him how much I love Singapore, and how often I’m there.

“Foreigners don’t come to Haw Par, la.”

There hadn’t been many locals either. Haw Par Villa seldom made money over the decades when it was a for-profit. It’s a non-profit now, and entrance is free, and I’ve described only one exhibit from the sprawl.