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Photograph: N_Sakarin/Shutterstock

6 Merlions in Singapore and the stories behind them

We go on the hunt for the six ‘official’ statues of the half-fish, half-lion icon on the island, as well as the ones abroad

Cam Khalid
Written by
Tiffany Chow
&
Cam Khalid
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The Merlion is not a real creature. Not only in the sense that it’s a fictional half-lion, half-fish hybrid, but that it wasn’t a character in local folklore handed down through the years. It was created by a local authority – the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) – in 1964 as a mascot for the city. British zoologist Alec Fraser-Brunner, then the curator of the Van Kleef Aquarium, is responsible for the Merlion’s design, whose copyright is owned by the STB. 

The lion’s head is a reference to the Singapura, a name coined by Sang Nila Utama which translates to ‘lion city’ in Sanskrit. The fish’s tail, on the other hand, denotes the country’s humble beginnings as a fishing village.

Since the 37-metre-tall Merlion statue at Sentosa (the tallest!) has been closed to make way for a themed linkway between the north and south shores of Sentosa, there are a total of six ‘official’ Merlion statues to check out on the mainland.

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Merlion Park
Photograph: Kashmira Kasmuri

Merlion Park

Built in 1972

The first official Merlion statue ever erected, standing at 8.6 metres tall, was designed by Kwan Sai Kheong and crafted by sculptor Lim Nang Seng. Lim also made a smaller, 2-metre-tall Merlion cub situated behind and facing away from its larger sibling – so there's not just one but two bad boys within the vicinity. Both statues are made with cement and inlaid with porcelain plates – and the larger one has red teacups for eyes.

Previously, both sculptures used to hang out at the mouth of the Singapore River. However, with the construction of the Esplanade Bridge, the view of the Merlions from the waterfront was blocked. And so, in 2002, both statues were shifted to their current location in front of Fullerton Hotel, overlooking Marina Bay. 

Tourism Court

Tourism Court

Built in 1995

No, the sculpture inside the STB headquarters in Tanglin doesn’t count. Head instead for the Merlion located at the taxi drop-off point. Made in the Philippines, this 3-metre-tall polymarble statue is also the skinniest (looks slightly weird, we gotta say) of the lot.

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Mount Faber
Photograph: One Faber Group

Mount Faber

Built in 1998

Expect a long queue to take a picture with this 3-metre-tall Merlion – tourists love to plaster themselves over the statue, situated at the highest point on Mount Faber, Faber Point. Made out of polymarble, this sculpture was installed by the National Parks Board as part of the park’s redevelopment.

While you snap a cheeky selfie with this superstar, be sure to admire the breathtaking view which stretches to the southern islands – you might even catch a glimpse of Batam. You can also learn more about the mythical tale and other lesser-known stories of the city when you traverse Mount Faber Park with the Gai Gai Tour

Ang Mo Kio

Ang Mo Kio

Built in 1998

Constructed by the Ang Mo Kio Residential Committee, a pair of Merlions stand guard at the car park entrance of Blocks 216 to 220 at Ang Mo Kio Avenue 1, opposite Bishan Park. Local lore maintains that these sculptures were almost removed – the Residential Committee didn’t get prior approval from STB – but the veracity of that urban legend is beside the point. In a true attestation to our love of bureaucracy, the two Merlions are now well and truly ‘authorised’ by the state. Majulah Singapura!

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Now closed: Sentosa

Now closed: Sentosa

Built in 1995

Over Imbiah Station on Sentosa looms the tallest Merlion in Singapore – it’s 37 metres high. Designed and sculpted by Australian artist James Martin, the 320 scales of this cement tower, reinforced with a concrete layer, are moulded into bagua (an eight-sided feng shui motif used to direct ‘energy’). In case that wasn’t enough for the gods of qi, the statue is also built on an octagonal base.

Older Singaporeans will remember that this national icon used to shoot lasers out of its eyes as part of the now-defunct Magical Sentosa show.

Merlions abroad

Hakodate City in Hokkaido, Japan
Photograph: Hokkaido Government Representative Office

Hakodate City in Hokkaido, Japan

To mark Hakodate City’s long-time friendship with Singapore and the 130th anniversary of Hakodate’s port opening to foreign ships, the Merlion’s 8.6-metre-tall cousin was erected in 1989. It stands guard next to a welfare home, sports centre, and a public bath, away from the city's tourism hot spots. It’s also a Pokéstop for the popular Mobile game Pokémon Go. And no, the Merlion is not a Pokémon, even if it looks like one.

Nami Island, South Korea

South Korea’s half-moon-shaped island is a big hit among tourists for its picturesque corners and being the gorgeous setting in the popular K-drama Winter Sonata. While the island is decorated with flags from all over the world, none is paired with an iconic mascot except for Singapore’s. Flanked by two flags, the mini Merlion can be seen spouting water from its mouth into a water-lily filled pond.

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 Benjakitti Park in Bangkok Thailand
Photograph: Kevin Hellon/Shutterstock

Benjakitti Park in Bangkok Thailand

Closer to home, Thailand’s replica of the Merlion calls Benjakitti Park home. It’s located by the Queen Sirikit Convention Centre. And it’s not just any long-lost, distant cousin, either – it comes with an official plaque, stating that the folks behind the statue include several government organisations such as STB and Singaporeans living in Thailand. Like the one in Hakodate City, this one is a Pokéstop too.

Cafe Singapore in Bontang, Indonesia

A popular seafood restaurant in Bontang – better known as Cafe Singapore – offers customers the opportunity to dine with a six-foot-tall Merlion. Well, sort of. The half-lion, half-fish statue stands tall by the sea, overlooking the Makassar Strait, a strait between the islands of Borneo and Sulawesi in Indonesia.

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Chessington World of Adventures Resort in Chessington, England
Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Chessington World of Adventures Resort in Chessington, England

Beyond Asia, you can also find the Merlion in the UK. Located in the ‘Mystic East’ area of British theme park Chessington World of Adventures, which lies just outside of London, is a small version of the Merlion. It forms part of the decor and comes complete with a plaque that details the Singapore mascot and its original statues.

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