March 7th, 2004

krazy koati

In the hot sun city of Mexico, it's a pity

I couldn't get in to Hell today; it was closed for renovations.

In this case I mean the Ten Courts of Hell, from the Buddhist legend of the ``world of sufferings'' where one is punished for the sins committed in the present life. And this would be one of the exhibits at Har Paw Villa, perhaps better known as the Tiger Balm Gardens. This park, originally opened in 1937 by Tiger Balm magnates Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Paw, features elaborate concrete statues depicting scenes drawn from mythology and morality plays intended to teach how to be a good person. As the Malay peninsula has drawn Indian, Chinese, and Polynesian traders for thousands of years the result is a blend of regional myths that plunges right into bizarre. The gardens have had their ups and downs, been expanded, been allowed to decay, and finally turned into a public park and given renovations -- which, at last, is why the exhibit of the Ten Courts of Hell was closed.

Coming from a thoroughly western perspective these Chinese and Buddhist (and fusion) myths seem like bizarre dreams, and the panels translating pieces into English don't really give enough context to grok it all. It helps that the Aw Boons were a little nuts; the result is many of the statues are bizarre but ebullient figures. They also had some idea of this educating people into the Chinese culture and so there are scenes set in an abstracted 1930s.

The morality tales, set in abstract 1930s, feature scenes showing people involved in noble activities and being praised for it (like building a bridge that rich and poor may use) or committing bad actions and seeing trauma come to their lives (if father hadn't been gambling, mother wouldn't have sent son out to the store in such a rush and son wouldn't have been run over by the car, thus you see the evil gambling does), or just plain weird (three friends handle bear attacks, unsuccessfully). Some include animal figures in place of humans, because, well, why not?

The pure mythology elements feature stories like the Eight Immortals Crossing The Sea -- featuring crabs with men's heads dragging tortoises with men's torsos (think of a centaur, with a turtle in place of a horse) under the sea, or fish-men and frog-men wrestling against a long pole. There's also the Journey To The West (to retrieve Buddhist scrolls), which features explanations that are curious but not satisfying, such as this caption from a horse: ``Before I was Tang Seng's horse, i was a son of the Dragon King. But I broke the heaven's rule by burning the Jade Emperor's pearl and was cast out of heaven. Through the Goddess of Mercy, i came to serve Tang Seng in his journey to the West. We returned with the scriptures and Buddha made made a god.''

Shown in many places through the Gardens were a sort of mermaid I've never seen anywhere else -- the torso and arms and head of a reasonably shapely woman; in place of her legs, a snail. I suppose she curls back in the shell for the night. Many varieties of snail, mind you, so there's sure to be one that appeals to you, if you care for human women with the lower bodies of snails. I can kind of get it as seeing a woman who's very nearly immobile and thus dependent on the support and love of others, but I don't really get it. If I knew the proper name of the things I could find out if this is really mythological or if it was just something the Aw Boons liked.

Though the park is small -- one or two hours is plenty to take it all in, at least until Hell opens up again -- I can recommend it to visitors who are happy to see a lot of strange things. Visitors are allowed to climb up on the statues, which sprawl over a lot of space and height, or at least they're not shooed off when they do so. Features include the giant Confucious; the big round-headed tigers; a lot of faux birds and fauna including a line of kangaroos; and mermaid-based creatures. Park open to 7 p.m. daily. No charge for admission.

Trivia: To be acceptable in the court language of the late Byzantine empire -- which required slavish devotion to classic Hellene scholarship -- the names of current opposing empires had to be translated into ancient ``equivalents''. The Turks were called the Persians; Bulgarians the Mysians; Serbians the Triballi. Source: The End of the Byzantine Empire, D.M. Nicol.

Currently Reading: London: A History, Francis Sheppard.