The Merlion: Unexpected Poetry

"Merlion of Singapore" © Martha Nichols

The Merlion is a huge fountain with water arcing from its open mouth into Marina Bay. Our Rough Guide for Malaysia and Singapore describes the national symbol of this modern city-state like so:

“Half-lion, half-fish and wholly ugly, the creature reflects the island’s maritime connections and the old tale concerning the derivation of its present name, derived from the Sanskrit ‘Singapura,’ meaning ‘Lion City.'”

I don’t find it “wholly ugly” at all. Not for the first time, I’m annoyed by the condescending tone of guides like this or Lonely Planet, much as the authors claim to care about “authenticity.”

In some ways, there’s nothing more authentically Singaporean than this willfully created symbol, clean and modern yet harking back to traditional Asian art. Singapore seems to be constantly reconstructing itself, as if the island is collectively on a quest for self-actualization. But is that a bad thing, really? I find my own attitudes about this recalibrating.

"Nick and Baby Merlion" © Martha Nichols

Nick and I visited the Merlion yesterday. In the snapshot to the left, Nick stands beside a smaller replica (the “baby,” as he called it). In the background: the main fountain and the Singapore Flyer, the famously slow-rolling Ferris wheel that we have yet to ride.

(Sharp-eyed viewers will also note Nick’s Talking Writing field bag, which has become his satchel during our daily excursions.)

Yesterday, it was in the high 80s (Fahrenheit), very humid—pleasant by local standards—but Nick and I were glad to be pelted by Merlion spray. Nick has also taken to the local custom of shading himself with an umbrella.

Me, I continue to stick it out with a hat, trying to keep the bright sun out of my eyes, although it’s clear to me now why so few people wear hats here.

"And Then There's Hat Head"
© Martha Nichols

But even with sweat rolling from below my brim, I enjoyed hot sunshine on the tourist platform overlooking the Merlion. The Rough Guide doesn’t mention something I found unexpectedly lovely there: A poem by Singaporean poet Edwin Thumboo, which appears in full on a plaque on the platform.

As Nick took his own pictures, I read Thumboo’s poem “Ulysses by the Merlion,” which he wrote in 1977. I marveled at the overlapping cultural layers, the polyglot connections between this “lion of the sea” and Ulysses of the Western canon.

I also marveled at the strange synchronicity of being there with a child who is now obsessed with Greek and Roman culture via the Percy Jackson novels—and finding, in an unlikely place, references to Calypso and Circe.

It turns out Edwin Thumboo was born the same year as my father, another man who cares deeply about poetry. I found it wholly lovely.

Later, I tracked down “Ulysses by the Merlion” on the Web and read a bit more about Thumboo. I’m sure cynics could make digs at his version of state poetry, but I felt his ode captured aspects of Singaporean culture you won’t find in guidebooks.

Here’s an excerpt:

“Peoples settled here,
Brought to this island
The bounty of these seas,
Built towers topless as Ilium’s.

They make, they serve,
They buy, they sell.

Despite unequal ways,
Together they mutate,
Explore the edges of harmony,
Search for a centre….

Perhaps having dealt in things,
Surfeited on them,
Their spirits yearn again for images,
Adding to the dragon, phoenix,
Garuda, naga those horses of the sun,
This lion of the sea,
This image of themselves.”

— Edwin Thumboo, “Ulysses by the Merlion,” 1977


A Note About the New Blog Design: It’s so hard to keep up with all I’m seeing here—and with my new-found obsession with snapping pictures on my iPhone—that I’ve created a “Photo Gallery” page for this blog. It appears as a menu option at the top. You can see more images of the Merlion there, and I’ll continue adding others from different locations.

I’ve also spruced up the design, switching themes (partly because the old theme I was using developed a few bugs). My apologies if any loyal readers found this confusing or disorienting.

I’m experimenting with publicizing posts on Facebook and Twitter, so if you’ve received extra updates by accident, my apologies again. Do let me know if something doesn’t seem to be working. The feedback I’ve received from some of you has been very helpful.



2 thoughts on “The Merlion: Unexpected Poetry

  1. It is 27 degrees fahrenheit and WINDY here in Massachusetts today and I’m writing this wearing a sweater and warm slippers with a hot cup of tea nearby so soak up some of that heat for me, please.

    As for synchronicity and coincidences, I guess it just shows that humans aren’t so different after all.

    Kudos to Nick for adopting some local practices and I did notice that swanky bag over his shoulder.

  2. For those of you back in New England, I’ve been trying not to lean too hard on the tropical warmth. It’s a pleasure, although I’m not sure I’d enjoy it so much without air conditioning to retreat to. It’s a life spent in sandals and flip-flops, with no more cracked or chapped skin.

    February is supposedly the coolest month here (mid-80s); the high humidity never changes. Check back with me in March or April, when things really heat up….

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