Ching-Li Tor: How has the lame Merlion become a symbol of cool?

Ching-Li Tor: How has the lame Merlion become a symbol of cool?

It’s a lion … it’s a fish … and now it's on Lamborghinis and will morph into a hotel. Is there no end to the madness over Singapore's Merlion?

Ching-Li Tor How does this sound for a vision of a dream date: getting picked up in a Lamborghini Gallardo by your date wearing a Ferragamo silk tie and being driven to a five-star hotel.

Then, the vision becomes clearer and you notice that the date is driving a white and red Lamborghini with a Merlion emblem on the rear fender, wearing a tie with a mini Merlion motif and the hotel isn’t so much of a five-star hotel, as a one-room stay with the 8.6-meter-tall Merlion greeting you at the reception.

Indeed, Singapore’s cultural icon, the Merlion, is not only going places -- on wheels of fortune and branded ties -- but is also getting a roof over its head (albeit temporarily as part of the two-month Singapore BIennale) after 39 years of hard work regurgitating under the hot sun and pounding monsoon rain, never once going on strike despite being struck by lightning.

February 28, 2009: I was already living in Tokyo and doing my daily scan of world news headlines when I chanced upon an article about the Merlion’s loss of face -- if you must know, bits of its visage had been chipped off by lightning.

This was news? 

As a Singaporean living in Tokyo, I’m constantly amazed that whenever I mention where I come from, without fail, the response will be: “Ah, Merlion!”

Perhaps, for lack of anything else to define Singapore by, strangely, nobody’s made the connection: “Ah, world’s second coolest nationality!” or “Ah, F1 Night Race!” or “Ah! Silver Olympic medal in women’s table tennis!”… yet.

Somehow, this half-lion, half-fish creation of the Singapore Tourism Board has become Singapore’s cultural icon, a spitting image with which the rest of the world identifies the Lion City.

And yet, as a Singaporean I can attest that I (or most of my fellow Singaporeans) don't have any emotional attachment to it, nor can I fathom why anyone would want to pay to drive, to get tied up, or sleep with it.

One lady I know in Japan thought that the Merlion was our local god, and seemed visibly crestfallen when I squashed her misconception completely by telling her it’s just a figment of our imagination, a marketing tool, something to put on T-shirts, mugs, cigarette lighters, silk ties and Lamborghinis, you know, that sort of thing.

In the Japanese context, it could possibly be called a "New Half," which is what the Japanese use to refer to transsexuals. Of course, I’m not implicating that our gender undefined national icon is a tranny, but it is after all, half-lion, half-fish. 

Whether it was a fish who wanted to become a lion, or a lion who wanted to become a fish, we’ll never know. Why is it a Merlion and not a Leofish when its head is a lion and its tail a fish? And why is it not roaring but gushing water non-stop?

Forget the Singapore Sling, why doesn't Asia Pacific Breweries come up with a Merlion-shaped draft tap which spouts forth some alcoholic beverage called a Singa-pour. And no, Tiger Beer doesn't count, that's another icon all on its own.

Then of course, there’s the fiddly issue of lions not being native to Singapore at all, which thankfully, has yet to be pointed out to me during my "What is a Merlion?" FAQ sessions.

Singaporeans at home and overseas seem destined to live under the shroud of mystery surrounding our mystic and misty national icon.

Here’s a suggestion for the next Biennale: how about attaching a pair of legs to our beloved Merlion for a change, just to confuse things even more. Could it get more, um, lame?

The opinions of this commentary are solely those of Ching-Li Tor.

Ching-Li Tor is a journalist from Singapore living and working in Tokyo since 2008, keenly practising the way of the sword, while making a living on the pen being mightier than the sword. 

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