Ayer Hitam at M1 Singapore Fringe Festival explores local history of African diaspora

Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore creators (from left) Irfan Kasban, Sharon Frese and Ng Yi-sheng. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - From prize-fighting boxers to politicians, people of African descent have played varied and active roles in the history of Singapore.

A search of the digital newspaper archives available via the National Library throws up hundreds of examples. "This isn't secret knowledge but it was surprising to me how hardly anyone had talked about it," says poet and playwright Ng Yi-Sheng, one of the three creators of Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore, a lecture-performance exploring the history and influence of the African diaspora in Singapore.

It is directed by Singaporean theatre-maker Irfan Kasban, who also serves as stage manager and dramaturg, and stars actress Sharon Frese, a British expatriate of Jamaican descent. She has lived in Singapore since 2009 and performed in productions by Teater Ekamatra (This Placement, 2012) and The Necessary Stage (Singapore, 2012).

Ayer Hitam started out as Ng's idea. He knew Frese and had been following a blog about the history of black people in Europe. This made him curious about the African diaspora in Asia.

Research was not difficult, he says, adding dryly: "One of the first major steps was going through the newspaper archives searching for politically incorrect terms like 'negro'."

Ayer Hitam means "black water" in Malay and is used in homage to the phrase of the same meaning in Hindi, "kala pani", used by convicts and indentured labourers from India who crossed the seas. Singaporeans today may be aware that these labourers built the British colony, but are probably unaware that there were also workers and soldiers of African descent in the entourage of British officers.

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In the 1920s, when boxing and prize fights were a major source of entertainment here, fighters of African descent drew crowds. There were also entertainers and even a Member of Parliament - Labour Party leader Mak Pak Shee reportedly had African heritage, according to Ng's research.

Frese, 54, says: "It's an enlightenment. It illustrates the place that black people have in Singapore history. We've been part of the nation-building, part of Parliament and people don't know we are there."

Besides Singapore, she has lived in the American Mid-West, in Germany and in South Africa.

While she has experienced some racism or ignorance here - people wanting to touch her hair or taking photos of her secretly - what stands out are the common cultural values.

"I always cry at Malay weddings because I get the sense that this is what it should be about - lots of food, lots of family connecting," she says. "Asian values are very similar to traditional Jamaican values."

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