03 March 2009

What manner of beast is the merlion?

Half fish half lion, what is the merlion? I wondered, after the attention it got since it was struck by lightning.
The beast, it appears, is a figment of imagination. But rather suitable that it is half a fish. Singapore is an island surrounded by living shores and depends on the sea. Alas, despite this reminder, many Singaporeans don't know much about our shores and the sea.

Here's what I found out about the mysterious merlion.

The merlion was designed as a logo for the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) in 1964. So it's about 40 years old. Its designer was also the curator of Van Kleef Aquarium, so that might explain the fishy bit. The formal story is that the tail represents Singapore’s humble beginnings as a fishing village.

The merlion statue that got hit by lightning was built by a Singapore craftsman and all his eight children. It was completed in 1972. Measuring nearly 9m tall and weighing 70 tonnes, it was originally located on Elizabeth Walk on the river-bank, at the mouth of the Singapore River.

Did you know the merlion had a cub?

A second and smaller merlion statue, measuring 2m tall and weighing 3 tonnes was also built by the same craftman. Apparently, its eyes were made of small red teacups! It is referred to as the 'cub' in the official stories.

The merlion and cub were relocated to their current location in 2002, with the merlion facing East (apparently auspicious) and the sea, and the cub behind it.

There are three other merlions officially recognised by STB. The hideous huge one on Sentosa (which gives me nightmares) and two smaller ones, one on Mount Faber and another at STB's office. But only the two at Fullerton spout water.

Alas, there are no descriptions of the beasts' biology. How do they reproduce? What do they eat? What are their predators? Is the Sentosa one a different subspecies? One comment on this blog suggests the merlion might not be doing well since the Marina Bay has been turned to freshwater. Does it need seawater? A marine creature and not brackish or fresh?

You can't anyhow use the merlion logo as it's trademarked. Among the rules on its use, the merlion has to "be used in good taste".

Although most Singaporeans pooh pooh the icon, apparently more than one million visitors a year trek to the Merlion Park just to take photos of the beast.

In fact, a would-be visitor left a comment on this blog to ask whether the merlion will be alright for an upcoming trip.

More links
  • The Merlion on Uniquely Singapore, history and origins, location and frequently asked questions (wow!)
  • The Merlion Statue on the National Library's infopedia
  • Merlion on wikipedia with lots of info including its appearance in overseas restaurants, in films, video games and more.
  • Rejoice! The Merlion has been smote! A Facebook group for anyone who's never been fond of the half-fish half-lion; who've been personally affronted that we seem to have nothing else to offer than a half-baked story about a fish-mammal hybrid and who've had to cringe when telling the story to their tourist friends. Let's cleanse our souls and not perpetuate a lie into eternity.


And here's what the soothsayers say of the lightning strike ...

Strike while the Merlion is hot?
Pessimists say incident a bad omen, optimists say worst is over
Liew Hanqing, The New Paper 4 Mar 09;
WITH exports down, jobs disappearing and the economy in the doldrums, we need more bad news like we need a hole in the head.

So what does Mother Nature do? It zaps the Merlion, leaving Singapore's iconic symbol with, well, a hole in the head.Coincidence? Bad omen? Mother Nature's sick sense of humour?

Why zap the Merlion? Why the head, of all places? Why now?

As can be expected of superstitious Singaporeans, chatrooms have been abuzz about the significance of Saturday's incident.

The doomsayers are convinced that the hit - which took a chunk off the Merlion's crown - is a bad omen.

As in three strikes and you're out!

The Toto optimists see it as a sign that the worst is over for Singaporeans, speculating that the Merlion could have - heroically - sucked the 'suay' (bad luck) out of our way forward.

Who you gonna believe? Who you gonna call?

We called the fengshui experts - and were left as dumbstruck (pardon the pun) as our precious Merlion.

The geomancy experts, too, were divided.

Geomancer John Lok, who runs Fengshui0011.com, said the event could have positive implications.

'As the Merlion was hit by light on its head, it could signify that Singaporeans will be able to see more clearly, as this is a wake-up call to all Singaporeans.

'This year - the (Chinese) zodiac Year of the Ox - has a sign which represents 'ugly' or 'clown'. As a result, there will be some superficial events occurring, such as the lightning strike on the Merlion.'

Not that bad

Another geomancer, Master Lim Koon Hian of San Yen Geomancy Centre, agreed. He said the event signified that Singaporeans would experience a wake-up call, and a greater understanding of events around them.

Fengshui master Gwee Kim Woon, who runs Fulu Geomancy Centre, told Lianhe Wanbao that the lightning strike had only damaged a small portion of the Merlion's head, and not the entire head.

'This could mean that it has averted a more serious disaster,' he said.

He added that, judging from the Merlion's position, it is possible that the lightning strike could bring about a release of good fortune in Singapore.

He explained that the lightning strike could be interpreted as the 'ignition' of wealth and luck for Singapore.

Others were less optimistic.

Fengshui master Lee Yuhon said the event marked the arrival of 'negative forces' from the south of Singapore.

He added that it was caused by negative forces which had accumulated in the area.

'The lightning strike could mean that something bad may happen in the southern part of Singapore.'

Master David Tong of CMG Consulting, too, felt it was 'not a good omen'.

'The Merlion is an icon of Singapore, and an icon getting struck by lightning is not a good thing.

'In Chinese metaphysics, we learn that everything happens for a reason. It could be that the recession we are already in could get worse.'

From a tourist-revenue standpoint, he may have a point. After all, what's a visit to Singapore without taking in the sight of a part-lion part-fish puking continuously into mouth of the Singapore River?

So contractors are doing brain surgery, trying to replace the scalp of the 36-year-old statue.

Temporary barricades have been erected around the statue for safety reasons - not necessarily in case lightning strikes twice.

The Singapore Tourism Board said it is waiting for a full assessment from contractors before deciding when to allow the public access to the statue, and whether to erect a lightning conductor to prevent a repeat incident.

Meanwhile, the verdict remains a toss of a coin - lion's head, fish's tail - a stroke that will leave the economy paralysed, or a stroke of good fortune, as in tio beh pio (strike it rich!).

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