Embracing his mixed Indigenous identity helps a young Singaporean embark on a healing journey.
WORDS, MUSIC, AND IMAGES Kevin Martens Wong
Listen to Kevin Martens Wong sing “Little Lion Boy” and “Tiger Tide” to his own piano accompaniment.
About the Songs
I hail from the Creole Kristang or Portuguese-Eurasian community of Singapore and am the leader of the grassroots revitalization movement for our critically endangered heritage language, Kristang. Ours is a very small community, accounting for only about 0.38% of Singapore’s overall population, but we have always stood out for our spontaneous, joyful, and irreverent approach to life and for our love of song and dance in a variety of forms. One of these is the “Mata Kantiga” (dueling song; literally, “killing song”). Only a few in Singapore, if any, are still able to dance and play the Mata Kantiga, but it is well remembered for its intensity, complexity, and invitation to a nuanced approach to life that accepts the layered and complex inherent nature of existence, hearkening back to both our community’s genesis as the offspring of colonizer intermarrying with colonized and the wider dynamism and fluidity of everyday life in Southeast Asia.
My own life has been similarly turbulent and extremely traumatic as a gay, nonbinary member of my still largely religious community living in Singapore; I am a survivor of sustained sexual, emotional, and institutional abuse across all major formative periods of my life, especially as a child in 1996–1997, as a secondary school and junior college (high school) student in 2008–2013, as revitalization director in 2016–2019, and as a teacher in a government school in 2022.
I finally understood what abuse and trauma were. I was able to more fully accept my own Indigenous body and spirit.
During the third period of abuse, however, I finally understood what abuse and trauma were. I was able to more fully accept my own Indigenous body and spirit, and this greatly strengthened my psychoemotional defenses and ensured that I was much less affected by the subsequent incidents in 2022. I wrote this pair of songs at the start of that healing process, adopting a “meta-Mata Kantiga” style. The songs duel with each other and present competing approaches to not just the pain, terror, and aftermath of abuse but also the healing process as I first experienced it in 2018. During that time of healing, I struggled to reconcile what had happened to me, to love and respect myself after the abuse, and to find a way forward that sought a restorative outcome for all involved, allowing the two dueling parts of myself to finally come together as a whole. Those two major parts of my psyche, the conscious and the unconscious, could now finally be in dialogue with each other, helping me to accept and validate my inherently mixed Indigenous identity.
Those two major parts of my psyche could now finally be in dialogue with each other, helping me to accept and validate my inherently mixed Indigenous identity.
In Southeast Asia, where Kristang peoples evolved and continue to prevail, both the lion and the tiger carry deep, majestic significance as the living archetypal symbols of nobility; the tremendous responsibility that comes with power and authority; the recognition that we are all deeply and primally connected to both tangible nature and the deeper, unknown psychoemotional forces that make up the unseen world; and the courageous protection and defense of one’s kith and kin. In terms of Singapore as a nation-state, the lion and tiger are the two animals that appear on our state crest, and they are deeply rooted in our collective unconscious or psyche. The lion is seen as representing both the island and nation of Singapore, the Lion City, while the tiger is taken as the symbol of both the Malay peoples (those who live in the Malay Peninsula and surrounding area) and the nation-state of Malaysia, from which the Kristang separated in 1965 under somewhat traumatic and confusing circumstances but with which they retain close links. That tension underpins much of our daily reality in Singapore and reflects the deep-seated conflicts between conscious and unconscious, colonizer and colonized, and pride and shame — all of which are at the core of Kristang identity in the twenty-first century. Singapore and the Kristang community have both remained, at face value, at peace for the last few decades and have generally maintained a respectable image, but there is so much beneath the surface that remains chaotic, primordial, and untamed, waiting for all of us to overcome our fears and come to terms with this complex reality at last.
We all carry similar lions and tigers in our hearts.
In today’s increasingly uncertain world, we all carry similar lions and tigers in our hearts with dueling, paradoxical tension between them. Consciously, we carry fierce, dauntless nobility, hope, and courage as seen in the lion; unconsciously, we carry the ferocious, wounded, lonely, empyrean trauma and pain symbolized by the tiger. Both forces are part of the human condition, although we may strive to ignore one or the other and decide we are faultless heroes or villains overtaken by rage and anger. When both forces within us are tamed, embraced, and united, we can become much more than that simple binary between pride and joy, fear and shame. Instead, we can unlock serene, steadfast, and transcendental courage and strength that will help us overcome our own insecurities and torturous past. It will help us stand by our rights and responsibilities, accept ourselves as vulnerable and imperfect, and champion a better world for us all — no matter who or where we are on this beautiful Earth.
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Kevin Martens Wong is a gay, nonbinary Creole Kristang independent scholar and speculative fiction writer from Singapore. He is the director of the Kodrah Kristang revitalization initiative for the critically endangered Kristang language and also runs his own coaching and consulting initiative, Merlionsman.