The Merlion and My Brief Identity Crisis

Dec 16, 2010
*Special to asia!

National dress does have a place in the designer world.

So there I was, talking to Hong Kong actor/film director Mr Michael Wong in the Salvatore Ferragamo boutique at the Paragon on Orchard Road. He was wearing a Merlion tie and I was wearing a sarung kebaya. To clarify, Wong was modelling Ferragamo’s latest tie and I was just erm, a nyonya fan basking in the star's light.

“So why did I wear a sarung kebaya to a Ferragamo cocktail evening?” you might ask. Doesn’t such a glamorous event call for an LBD and Ferragamo heels? (Or Christian Louboutin stilettos if you march to the beat of your own drum and don’t follow what local society ladies do.)

The answer to your question: The Italian fashion house was launching the Merlion tie. The Merlion being Singapore’s national icon, I thought I would attend the event wearing national dress. It turned out I was the only tropical coloured thing in a sea of black, white and beige. Everyone was dressed in what were probably the latest fall/winter colours. Or else, just wearing their classic, never-fail staples.

I spent time examining the rack of ties just to gather my wits about me and avoid being photographed. Who knows which magazine would print a picture of me with a "thumbs down" from the fashion police.

It was then that I noticed that the Merlion tie was dotted with discreet motifs of merlions, traveller’s palms and Vanda Miss Joaquim orchids. It did look fabulous on Mr Michael Wong and would look great on all the  VIPS who received one that night including the CEO of CapitaLand Ltd Mr Liew Mun Leong.

The Merlion had originally been deemed worthy of a Ferragamo tie by Ms Fulvia Visconti Ferragamo, the daughter of the founder of the fashion house. Now our national icon had morphed into a stylish motif on 400 Ferragamo silk ties. They would make great souvenirs for visiting dignitaries or the newly-arrived foreign talent at your office, or your boyfriend in New York. Just something to remember our little red dot by.

To continue in the vein of small countries and small things, I have this anecdote.

“Why is the Merlion motif on the tie so small?” an ingénue reportedly asked, to which the person next to her replied: "Just imagine if it were big."

I had the same reaction. Imagine the horror of a collar-to-tie-tip Merlion with glittering ruby eyes. It would be a throwback to the trout ties worn by the style-challenged of the '80s.

My efforts to fade into the background like a wallflower were foiled by Ms Eileen Bygrave, Ferragamo's retail director for South-east Asia. She whirled over to me and said, “You’ve been standing there all along and I never got to speak to you.”

"Very charming," I thought.

She praised my sarung kebaya and told me she wore the whole ensemble overseas but never in Singapore.

“Why not?” I asked, my curiousity piqued. I turned on my recording device.

“I don’t know,” she said. “In Singapore I might wear a kebaya with jeans and a little over jacket. When I wear the whole ensemble abroad, its fabulous because people always appreciate the handwork and all the intricate flowers. I get triple value when I wear it abroad. I think that's the reason. Sarung kebayas combine the best of hand-stitching, craftsmanship and design to good effect. In my wardrobe I have four favourites, all different colours. ”

Then I approached the chief executive of the Singapore Tourism Board Ms Aw Kah Peng who was immaculately dressed in crisp black and white. "Do you wear sarung kebayas?" I asked.

She smiled demurely, turned away from my recording device and whispered to me, “I don’t even have one.”

That night after the party I thought it over. What does being Peranakan mean to me? Why did I have the feeling that I had committed a fashion faux pas? Should I limit wearing my national dress to family parties, Peranakan Association dinners and weddings where the dress code is ethnic costume?

Then I made a decision. I was going to champion my national dress, I will continue to wear my sarung kebayas to chi chi events. I’m proud of my hybrid heritage and unlike the half-fish half-mammal Merlion who surely must have an identity crisis, I am comfortable in my own skin. With a nod to Helen Reddy, I'll just say, "I'm Peranakan, hear me roar."


46 Peranakan to the core


47 HK actor/director Michael Wong modelling the Merlion tie


49 Ferragamo's Eileen Bygrave in chic black, flanked by Citibank's Anil Wadhwani and Han Kwee Juan


48 The other guests wore autumn colours.


50 The Italian ambassador to Singapore Mr Anacleto Felicani, Ms Bygrave and STB's Ms Aw Kah Peng

vivienne khooOnce a lifestyle editor at a website, a newspaper journalist and a food editor, Vivienne Khoo writes about luxury hotels, food and travel whenever she is not sub-editing. The perfume industry and essential oils are her pet topics at the moment.

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