Mermaids and Magic in Modern Asia
Image Credit: Syrena

Mermaids and Magic in Modern Asia


Yesterday we looked at the trend of “mermaiding” – essentially playing the part of a mermaid decked out in a monofin – and its recent pop culture boom. This is no passing fad.

The roots of the mermaid myth go much deeper and further back in human history (and psyche) than widely recognized icons like Ariel (the Little Mermaid) or even the original 19th-century tale penned by Danish fairy tale maestro Hans Christian Andersen suggest. (To say nothing of the commonly held theory that the oceanic archetype was nothing more than the product of romantically starved sailors’ overactive imaginations.)

Shattering the classically held image, a new wave of mermaid myth is washing up in global culture. Today, both the historical and archetypal threads of the myth are converging as an international community of bona fide water lovers and skilled swimmers – both women and men – drawn to the mythos are shelling out hundreds, even thousands of dollars, on custom-crafted monofin tails made of lycra and silicon. Meeting in “pods” they are assisted by “mer-tenders” into their tails mainly at swimming pools where they frolic and glide through the water for fun (and sometimes profit). But at their core, many of these modern day mermaids deeply identify with the myth they embody when they slip on their tails.

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“I’ve always loved mermaids and sirens, even when I was little,” Cara Nicole Neo (mermaid Syrena), a 21-year-old literature student at the National University of Singapore, tells The Diplomat. “I was fortunate enough to have parents and grandparents who taught me to read and write at a very young age, and who plied me with a lot of the classics—so I was exposed to mythology very early in my life.”

image (34)According to Syrena, some of her favorite myths while growing up involved mermaids and sirens, which she incorporated into her childhood play.

“I admired them for being strong, graceful, and paradoxical—and that admiration, evidently, lingers to today,” she says. “A major attraction (of mermaiding) is being able to flesh out a mythical creature I have loved for so long.”

She adds, “When I’m swimming in my tail, it’s really something else. For one thing, the propulsion can be insane. For another, I feel completely at peace when I’m underwater. Strength, grace, and dignity – those are the feelings swimming as a mermaid gives me.”

This means that not just anyone can squeeze into a tail and jump in. Syrena explains that you need to be a good swimmer to try this at all. Further, you need a “mer-tender” to physically help them into the tail and lug them to the water. For Syrena, this is her 30-year-old boyfriend, for her she is effusive in her praise: “Carrying a mermaid in a heavy, wet tail is no joke! He’s been endlessly supportive, and so wonderful—although I’m having trouble persuading him to get into pirate garb.” Syrena bought her first tail while shopping online for a Halloween costume. After that, she was hooked.

image (2)(1)As Yahoo! Singapore notes, a typical mermaid fin starts for around $150, but can easily set mermaid aspirants back thousands of dollars, depending on the material, build and weight. At the higher end – where a tail can cost as much as $2,500 – silicone monofins weigh around 11-14 pounds. This is only the beginning of the financial outlay involved. The article also notes that shipping can set one back an additional $500 to $700, according to Abby Roberts, co-owner of US-based Finfolk Productions. Roberts said that Singapore accounts for most of her company’s international orders, signifying a wave of recent interest in the Lion City. Singapore is not alone in this surge of interest in mermaid culture. Another Southeast Asian celeb-mermaid is Malaysian Felixia Yeap, with other mermaids swimming in tails from India to Thailand.

“Because the mermaid community in Singapore is very much a newborn one, with people only starting to consider investing in monofins and possibly tails, we haven’t had any meet-ups yet,” Syrena says. “My dream is to establish a Singapore mer-pod, where mer-enthusiasts can meet up, swim and talk together. It’s important to have friends who share the same interests—I myself have been fortunate to be so supported and cared for by other international mermaids.”

Syrena explained that no less than Thom Shouse, who created the mermaid tails used in the 1984 movie Splash, starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah, recently contacted her to express his support for her efforts in Singapore. She called this “a great encouragement because not only is he a genius at what he does—but he’s also active in bringing mermaids together to help out at the Make A Wish Foundation in USA. That’s what I want to do too.”

1013556_655865991114814_1422825517_n - CopyOne mermaid with ties to Syrena is Raina S, who lives across the world in Halifax, Canada. The positive effect on Raina’s life from her involvement in mermaiding has been no less profound. “Being a mermaid helped me overcome mobility issues that were the result of a serious illness, and instilled in me a sense of identity and confidence that nothing else in my life has,” she tells The Diplomat. “I swim better in a mermaid tail than without, and when I perform underwater for modeling, video or performances, I can hold my breath up to two minutes and 30 seconds.”

Syrena echoes the importance of the positive transformative potential of this hobby. “Perhaps some people also hanker after some sign that magic, to an extent, still exists,” she says. “We live in an age of chrome and glass and hyper-efficiency. Which is great, but I believe that some people possess a sense of nostalgia for the ‘old days’. With that nostalgia comes this eagerness for magic—for a sign that some element of mystery, of myth, still exists.”

She continues, “I have parents writing in telling me that their kids have seen my pictures, and would love to meet me at their upcoming birthday parties. I have little girls commenting on my photographs, telling me how much they love mermaids and how they’d love to be one. It’s so important for children to retain a sense of wonderment and awe, which is precisely what I try to instill.”


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