Call Your Mother. Seriously.
Travel Stories: Abbie Kozolchyk visits a most unusual theme park in Singapore
12.30.14 | 3:03 PM ET
At every turn in the dimly lit cave, criminals faced their sentences. Thieves were being frozen into ice blocks; drug traffickers grilled on red-hot rotisseries; kidnappers impaled on trees of knives; porn possessors sawed in half; and classroom cheats meticulously disemboweled. But there was one piece of the action that I wasn’t able to make out through the cluster of young families who’d stopped for a good, long look. And I could hardly grudge them their presence: We were in a theme park, after all.
Picture “It’s a Small World” with set design by Hieronymus Bosch, and you’ll start to get an idea of the “10 Courts of Hell”: a detailed tour of the sinner’s afterlife, and the centerpiece of Singapore’s Haw Par Villa. This sprawling mythological playground—created in 1937 by the brothers behind the Tiger Balm analgesic empire—is a rhapsody in dioramas, each an ode to Chinese history, legend or virtue.
But it wasn’t just any old virtue drawing those families to the cave the day I visited. Once the parents in front of me began to disperse—along with the kids they’d been hoisting for unobstructed views of the damned—a stark lesson in filial piety emerged from the shadows. Actually, what emerged was a special place in hell for the unfilial. Yes, here in Court Four of the underworld, offending offspring were being ground to a bloody pulp between boulders. Under the supervision of masked demons. Any questions, boys and girls?
Filial piety. The virtue of obeying, revering and looking after one’s parents. I’d certainly heard of it—and knew it was pretty huge in Confucian circles—but I’d never seen a place so steeped in it as Singapore.
Granted, Confucius’s homeland had to be a worthy rival, but during my only trip to China years earlier, the language barrier was too high for me to grasp even beginner family politics.
Not so in Singapore, where English is an official language—and where even a visitor who considers herself a fairly decent daughter starts to doubt her devotion.
No sooner had I exited the Hell cave than I hit the park’s 24 Filial Exemplars diorama. And there, among other goings-on, a pretty young plaster woman was guiding one of her milk-filled breasts into the mouth of her feeble, white-haired mother.
“Never in a million years, ma,” I whispered apologetically to no one—as my mother was fast asleep on another continent at the time.
Not only couldn’t I imagine nursing her, I hadn’t even called lately. Normally, I phoned home from wherever I turned up on the planet, but between the almost unnavigable time difference and overflowing itinerary on this trip, I resorted to quickie emails instead.
Clearly, that sort of behavior wouldn’t fly here: When I asked a local friend about the whole nursing-your-own-mom thing, she told me she knew someone who’d done it. The nurser in question had an ailing mother who’d heard breast milk was the best medicine. And in the name of filial piety, the daughter obliged.
“I understand that it goes against Western sensibilities,” said my friend. “But so does a lot of what we do to be filial, whether that’s living with our parents until we get married, giving them an allowance, or taking them on holidays—though I’ve failed miserably there compared to my sisters.”
Sibling rivalry gone wild! Who’s the most filial?
Indeed, a Singaporean movie, “Filial Party,” posed that very question earlier this year—not to siblings, but to contestants on a fictional reality show. “They go to the extremes to be filial,” touts the must-YouTube trailer.
Taking filial piety to even greater heights, many locals—some Buddhist, some Taoist—literally worship their (deceased) parents. The resulting offerings are so multitudinous, the uninitiated mind boggles. Still digesting the previous day’s dioramas, I wandered into an ancestor worship supply shop that sold everything from three-piece suits to iPhones (or Galaxies, for any dearly departed who leaned Samsung). Of course, all of these items were made of paper so they could be burned in offering to the deceased. In fact, one woman I chatted up told me that her brother—having just acquired his own mac daddy massage chair—decided to buy a burnable version for their mom, who’d surely appreciate being as pampered in the afterlife as he was on Earth.
With that, I was officially guilt-stricken and filial piety was all I could see, whether in the local papers, where pundits explored the economy’s impact on filial duties; on TV, where politicians condemned “the outsourcing of filial piety” to retirement homes; or in temples, where ancestral tablets filled entire pagodas.
Needless to say, I called home upon touchdown at JFK.
My mom answered, and I sensed immediately something was wrong. Turns out, she was extremely sick, and had been since I left for Singapore.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” I demanded.
“I didn’t want to ruin your trip, sweetheart,” she answered.
And I could swear I heard Confucius say, told you so.
A version of this story first appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.