This is a deeply patriotic poem about Chong’s pride in Singapore and everything the country has become. She celebrates its growth from a collection of small islands in southeast Asia into the most influential in Asia and one of the most prosperous city states in the world, becoming one of the major hubs for world finance.
Here she appreciates its beauty and success, while connecting the success to the maritime heritage and history of Singapore’s development.
Dappled – spotty;
Sinews – the tissue connecting muscle and bone;
Runes – a type of lettering from old Germanic languages;
Squall – a sudden and violent gust of wind;
Pulmonary – a vein that transports deoxygenated blood from the heart to the lungs;
Keris – the curved sword from the Singaporean flag.
You came out of the sea,
skin dappled scales of sunlight;
Riding crests, waves of fish in your fists.
Washed up, your gills snapped shut.
Water whipped the first breath of your lungs,
Your lips’ bud teased by morning mists.
You conquered the shore, its ivory coast.
Your legs still rocked with the memory of waves.
Sinews of sand ran across your back-
Rising runes of your oceanic origins.
Your heart thumped- an animal skin drum
heralding the coming of a prince.
In the jungle, amid rasping branches,
trees loosened their shadows to shroud you.
The prince beheld you then, a golden sheen.
Your eyes, two flickers; emerald blaze
You settled back on fluent haunches;
The squall of a beast. your roar, your call.
In crackling boats, seeds arrived, wind-blown,
You summoned their colours to the palm
of your hand, folded them snugly into loam,
watched saplings swaddled in green,
as they sunk roots, spawned shade,
and embraced the land that embraced them.
Centuries, by the sea’s pulmonary,
a vein throbbing humming bumboats –
your trees rise as skyscrapers.
Their ankles lost in swilling water,
as they heave themselves higher
above the mirrored surface.
Remember your self: your raw lion heart,
Each beat a stony echo that washes
through ribbed vaults of buildings.
Remember your keris, iron lightning
ripping through tentacles of waves,
double-edged, curved to a point-
flung high and caught unsheathed, scattering
five stars in the red tapestry of your sky.
Amanda Chong (1989-)
Another live one here!
Amanda Chong has a bloody impressive CV (here, you can check it out if you want on LinkedIn) and is someone we should all hate purely because she is better than us. She’s 26-7 making waves in the legal system in Singapore and an award winning poet and writer from her school days. In contrast, I’m unpublished, 30 and teaching in Uzbekistan!
However, putting aside my envy for a second, she is clearly a talented lady and showed it by being the top Literature candidate in Asia and Australasia during her school days.
The important contextual information you need here is that she grew up in Singapore and this poem is full of respect and awe for her homeland. It stands as a nice contrast to Kim Boey Cheng’s The Planners who was so disillusioned with the development of the modern country at expense of its past and history.
You also need to know a bit about Singapore’s history. Although it was colonised in the 2nd century AD, it was destroyed and abandoned a couple of times before it was reinvented in its modern iteration. In 1819 a British trading post settled on the main island and five years later it would become a British territory. It was important due to its position in southeast Asia for trade and also because it has a natural harbour making maritime trade especially easy.
I won’t bore you with this, but if you are interested in this sort of thing you should really read Taipan, which is a fantastic novel that loosely historical fiction about the settling of Hong Kong – a city that has a similar history to Singapore.
Anyway, the population explodes after the British move in and the country went from strength to strength in terms of its economic role in the region. During the Second World War it was briefly occupied by the Japanese, flirted with joining the rest of Malaysia and ultimately became an independent state in the 1960s. At this point the economy really explodes and it rapidly developed to the point where land was really at a premium and they just started building upwards with skyscrapers now the dominant inhabitant of the city. Its development is explored in detail here.
Love here is the major theme and is displayed for her home, her heritage and the people of Singapore. She feels a sense of awe with the way the city has developed from basically nothing to a thriving metropolis.
The title is pretty crucial here. ‘Singa’ translates as lion in Malay with the ‘pore’ simply representing city. Thus Singapore is known as the Lion City. Chong is clearly connecting with that, but she chooses to focus on the lion’s heart, which tells us about the cities role in the world. A heart supplies blood to the body and keeps us alive (am I patronising you now?) and thus the city is being presented as a vital organ for the region, if not the world.
In the first stanza she establishes the origins of the country. She uses an analogy between the city’s first steps and those of the first creatures emerging from the seas that would evolve and become amphibians and then mammals. Here we imagine a newt or the like emerging for the first time from the sea, its skin glistening beautifully in the sun. Gills close and the sea forces its first breath of air into its lungs. Thus the city seems to come from nothingness to gradually finding its feet thanks to the sea and the trade that passes through it.
Some people relate this whole transformation as being that of a mythical creature, the so called mer-lion, which is something of a symbol of the country. I think the poem is easier to understand without complicating it in this way because the mer-lion is a modern mythical creature created by the Singaporean tourist board.
Anyway, back to my analysis.
Not content with merely managing a breath, the city grows from strength to strength and in the second stanza has conquered its new environment. This suggests mastery and the thumping heart that has been born from the sea is seen as signalling the coming of a prince, otherwise think of the beginnings of a powerful and important new nation.
The third stanza begins the remarkable transformation that is detailed so beautifully in the article I linked you to in the context. The land is at first overwhelmed with jungle, but its beauty or importance is still recognised despite being currently completely buried by foliage and sunk in swamps. As a result of its value being recognised the fourth stanza sees the arrival of the British who want to cultivate the islands and realise the true value of Singapore. As soon as they do the city begins to grow exponentially.
This growth is powered by the vein of the sea, which pumps life into Singapore as a trading hub. The jungle doesn’t just recede, it becomes superseded by the huge skyscrapers that rise up in Singapore, which would tower over and dominant them. These skyscrapers still remains connected to the sea, but now only at their ankles as the economy frees itself from merely being maritime based and presumably as Singapore becomes a major player in the global finance markets.
The sixth stanza instructs this new city to remember its heritage and roots from the sea. The seventh recalls the Singaporean flag and the sword upon it, which is envisaged as being a sword taming the waves and thus allowing Singapore to utilise the sea for its own advantage. Finally she leaves us with an image of this flag flying high as if to show the pride of a nation advertising its success.
Language and techniques
I’ve already touched upon the title and you should make sure you explore the significance in your essays. However, one thing I didn’t mention that you might want to consider is the fact that the title is all in lower case (no capitals). I think this a deliberate choice to contrast the small size of Singapore with its strength and worth as communicated by the words themselves.
It’s completely essential that you deal with the imagery that connects the growth of Singapore with the sea. Chong presents the fledgling Singapore as some sort of mutating fish crawling out of the ocean, but recognises it worth by suggesting it has ‘scales of sunlight’ making it seem like a jewel being unearthed. If it came from the ocean then it owes its success to this birth, but also to its adaptation as its first breath comes courtesy of ‘water whipped’ gusts of air. This analogy represents how initially the ocean provided Singapore with its economic growth.
The imagery evolves with the growth of Singapore and although water becomes less ad less essential it is still ever present. In the second stanza Singapore’s ‘legs rocked with the memory of waves’ meaning that it still owed a good deal of its development to the ocean and maritime trade, but this gradually diminishes and by the fifth stanza the skyscrapers only has ‘ankles lost in swilling water’ signifying increasing independence and development of Singapore’s economic lifeblood. However, the water remains and is a heritage Chong insists we do not forget and should always hear the ‘echo that washes’ through the city of what came before.
This development is shown directly as coming from the sea with ‘the crackling boats’ representing bustling trade that arrives with the ‘seeds’ that allow Singapore to blossom into a proud nation state.
Alongside this watery analogy, I’d also comment on the constant allusion to the beauty and worth of the country. Above I mentioned the shiny, jewel-like scales as Singapore rears its head, this continues it described as an ‘ivory coast’ again linking its to a precious material and even when covered with thick jungle it is rcognised as having a ‘golden sheen’ and islands are described as ’emerald blaze’.
These rich and valuable associations are complimented with a connection to royalty. Firstly with the king of the jungle, the lion’s heart shows how crucial Singapore is to the world. The beating heart that resounds throughout the poem from the title and then the ‘animal skin drum’, through to the ‘throbbing humming’ of the bumboats, which would’ve represented the first local trade in the harbour and finally the thumping ‘beat’ that creates a ‘stony echo’ in modern Singapore.
Our second royal allusion is more direct as its forthcoming growth is ‘herald[ed like] the coming of a prince’, which represents the people that came to the country and recognised its potential. This royal status is furthered in Chong use of verb choices that personify the actions of the country as a leader who has ‘conquered’ and ‘summoned’ others to its flag.
You can also talk about how Chong clearly reveres the flag a leaves us with an iconic and proud image of the flag flying high in the final two stanzas, but I’ve explained that above.
The poem begins with five six line stanzas and end with two three line stanzas followed by the final two line stanza. I think Chong uses this poem to connect us with the proud heritage and roots of the country and the shape of the poem takes us back from the tall skyscraper shapes of the initial stanzas to a simpler and less developed Singapore. Turn the poem on its side and examine the shape.
While the fifth stanza describes the fully developed Singapore that is only distantly connected to its maritime roots by its ankles, the shape of the stanza pulls us back into its past with the lines becoming smaller than those of the preceding stanzas.
The lack of regularity in the poem (in terms of rhyme, stanzas and syllable count across the poem) could be interpreted as linking to the fact that the country’s growth has not been a smooth and obvious journey to magnificence, but has had its fair share of ups and downs. However, I’m not overly convinced as I’m typing this.
This is pure admiration and pride throughout. I’d describe it as being a bit sycophantic and as much as I love my home land, I can’t imagine I could ever write something so one sided. This is probably exactly what the Singaporean tourist board would want us to imagine of Singapore and has no hint of regret or sadness that this speedy evolution of the city has left scars along the way (see Kim Boey Cheng).