SINGAPORE: Is it possible to imagine the Merlion as something more than just an unusual-looking, water-spewing tourism icon?
That’s exactly what Singaporean author Kevin Martens Wong did when he turned it into a fierce, gigantic beast in his debut novel Altered Straits.
In his sci-fi-fantasy book released earlier this year, Wong reimagined it as an animal species with telepathic powers, armour-like scales, and super-sharp whiskers that can pierce skin. His merlions spew deadly jets of water and people ride them to bloody war.
“I think the Merlion has been unfairly maligned. And there was space to write about it in a way that had not been done before. Everybody was going in the direction of ‘the Merlion sucks!’ So I thought, why not go the opposite way?” he told Channel NewsAsia.
BUILDING SINGAPORE’S OWN MYTHOLOGY
With speculative fiction – an umbrella literary genre that includes fantasy, horror and science fiction – as one of the main topics in the recently concluded Singapore Writers Festival, an event held over the weekend looked at how writers tapped into Singapore’s own fantastical stories for inspiration.
Wong’s novel was among the works cited in The Merlion And The Pontianak: Towards A Uniquely Singaporean Mythology, a talk by author and researcher Ng Yi-Sheng.
Ng highlighted the boom in Singaporean speculative fiction in recent years, not just in English but in the other main languages, with many of the authors winning prizes and getting publishing deals both here and overseas.
And it hasn’t just been about copying western trends. “We have built, through the generations, something of our own Singaporean mythology,” he said.
Found at opposite ends of the spectrum were the Pontianak and the Merlion.
The former – a female vampire-like being known across the region – has gained a kind of respect among people, appearing in both popular and high culture.
“She’s nostalgic enough and has accumulated enough history for us to take her seriously,” Ng said.
It’s been a bit tougher in the case of the Merlion, which began as a 1963 design by the curator of the defunct Van Cleef Aquarium, before being adopted into a logo by the Singapore Tourism Board.
“The Pontianak represents old folk tradition and the Merlion is a government-imposed new artificial narrative. A lot of us don’t really don’t trust the Merlion, which is this hybrid, artificial, inauthentic animal,” he said.
FROM PONTIANAKS TO FLYING SAUCERS
Both would continue to rear their heads throughout history, with their presence somewhat tied to the country’s shifting moods, and the ups and downs of the various fiction genres in Singapore.
In the 1950s, the iconic film Pontianak was so popular it spawned other similar movies at that time.
“It was a huge hit and people of all races were lining up around the block to watch it,” said Ng.
The boom of Malay horror films had also coincided with the rise in popularity of supernatural fiction. So much so that the late Othman Wok, who was a journalist at Utusan Melayu at that time, was tasked with writing ghost stories that became popular.
Sci-fi was also in vogue – one Malay comic book, called Tungga dan Piring Terbang, featured an old warrior’s encounter with a flying saucer.
Meanwhile, post-Independence, which saw Singapore separated from Malaysia, saw a kind of search for new myths at a time of uncertainty.
Along with the newly-invented Merlion, which was slowly – and begrudgingly, according to Ng – seeping its way into the consciousness of Singaporeans, were more sci-fi works coming out.
“Science fiction became this new way for a young nation to try to express itself,” he said.
One of the first works in English had been Mushroom Harvest, a short story about Singapore and Malaysia in the wake of nuclear war and featured mutant children. It was written by Emily Of Emerald Hill playwright Stella Kon.
NATION-BUILDING AND GHOST STORIES
Singapore’s nation-building years, beginning in the 1980s, also saw the proliferation of more sci-fi and horror in all sorts of media, from novelist Catherine Lim’s Chinese ghost-flavoured works to Russell Lee’s extremely popular and still ongoing True Singapore Ghost Stories series.
Fantasy, too, was slowly blossoming – in the comic book scene was Wee Tian Beng’s The Celestial Zone series and Gwee Li Sui’s The Myth Of The Stone, which included all sorts of fantastical creatures, including merlions, which was slowly getting a bit of cred as time went by.
“It was an early case of the Merlion being embraced as part of local culture, equal to other mythological creatures,” said Ng.
As for the Pontianak, she would again pop up, with writers taking her in different directions, said Ng.
A 2004 book titled Curse Of The Pontianak features her as “a kind of superhero” – it has a moment where she murders a Japanese general during World War II (depicting) the “righteous vengeance” of a Pontianak.
STEAMPUNK? NO, CALL IT SPICEPUNK
But while there were fantasy, horror and sci-fi works in the past, these genres would never really get the respect they deserve, said Ng.
According to him, things eventually changed by 2012, when a handful of new publications in English and Malay began to signal a new wave in speculative fiction.
Among these were the anthologies Fish Eats Lion, Ayam Curtain, and Selamat Malam Caesar. The Pontianak, too, was present in works such as the supernatural historical fiction Black Isle by Sandi Tan.
The trend would continue, with a slew of books that Ng describes as “spicepunk”, a more Southeast Asian-flavoured version of the subgenre steampunk, which combines technology and fantasy.
These include works such as Wong’s Altered Straits, JY Yang’s The Red Threads Of Fortune, Lim Cheng Tju and Benjamin Chee’s Guidebook To Nanyang Diplomacy.
“We have a lot of these now, worlds which are either set in the past or drawing a lot of elements from old Asian cultures, but also focused on high-tech works of science,” he said.
Ng reckons the reason speculative fiction is gaining traction among writers is that it’s a way for many to make sense of Singapore’s past and future.
“My idea is that it’s trying to reconcile the two – a future techno-Singapore with this hunger we have for heritage,” he said.
HERE BE MERLIONS
Whatever the case may be, Singaporean speculative fiction writers are slowly trying to make the genre their own.
Yang, who has released two books this year under her Tensorate series, has been conscious about creating a fantasy world that draws from her own experiences.
“I drew on cultural influences in the places I grew up in – so people in my book speak Hokkien, have pseudo-Malay and pseudo-Chinese and pseudo-Japanese names because these are the ones I am familiar with," she told Channel NewsAsia.
"If white people can make fake medieval Europe in their fantasy worlds, I can make my own fake medieval China or Southeast Asia."
Meanwhile, Wong admitted his delight at these new stories collectively coming out of Singapore.
“It’s been really surprising because it was very difficult to find these kinds of story writing here until five years ago. That suggests something about how we are evolving, in terms of what people want to read and write about,” he said.
And perhaps that includes embracing a relatively recent invention like the goofy-looking merlion as something that could be as cool as dragons.