Fascinating look at the African diaspora in Singapore



M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

Centre 42/Sunday

Upon entering Centre 42's black box theatre, one is greeted by performer Sharon Frese, playing a drum with a troubled look on her face.

When the lights go up, she sheds her African garb, revealing a Singapore Airlines stewardess uniform to chuckles from audiences.

Ayer Hitam, with a script by Singaporean writer Ng Yi-Sheng, delves into the obscure presence of the African diaspora in Singapore's history.

"Ayer hitam", or "black water" in Malay, is derived from the Hindi phrase "kala pani", the name Indian convicts and indentured labourers gave the oceans they crossed to their new, unknown futures.

Actress Sharon Frese (left) in Ayer Hitam: A Black History Of Singapore.
Actress Sharon Frese in Ayer Hitam: A Black History Of Singapore. PHOTO: IRFAN KASBAN

As a nod to the festival theme of "still waters", water recurs as a symbol throughout the piece.

Frese's dips into African folklore or the grim history of the transcontinental slave trade are set against a backdrop of swirling water - an effect achieved through Ng pouring water into a bowl on an overhead projector.

The densely researched script unveils little-known aspects of the African presence in Singapore's history, from the appearance of "Caffrees" in censuses from the 1800s to Joe Diamond, a Mecca-born boxing champion who trained in Singapore to politician Mak Pak Shee, who was part of Mr David Marshall's cabinet. Both, according to Ng's research, had African heritage.

It also draws lines between Singapore's success and the legacy of slavery. The Suez Canal, for instance, which was instrumental in bringing European trade to South-east Asia, was built by African slaves.

Many members of the Afro-Asian community in the region are descended from African slaves brought in by the Dutch East India Company, who went on to intermarry with local Malays and Indian convicts.

Frese laments humorously that this did not give rise to "Afro-Peranakan" culture, in which she might be eating curry goat rendang and laksa with fufu (a starchy West African staple) while clad in sarong kebaya embroidered with Black Power fist symbols.

On paper, the factoid-heavy Ayer Hitam is very much a history lecture, but in the hands of director Irfan Kasban, it takes on the conviviality of a storytelling circle.

One might imagine oneself to be in a cosy living room - the set is filled with upended furniture and tall, vertical wooden frames - with Frese as affable host.

But for all its intimacy, it is an uncomfortable show. For Singaporeans in the audience, it becomes a reckoning with privilege, with how some stories are more easily erased from history than others.

Frese, an actress in her 50s, moved to Singapore in 2009. She is British of Jamaican heritage and mostly Nigerian ancestry and, in the course of the show, switches easily among these respective accents, even doing a turn in Singlish.

Her presence in Singapore - and her attempts to identify as Singaporean - disrupts the tidy racial classifications of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other. One expects to see Eurasians or even Caucasians in the Others box, she says, but not a black person.

At one point, she turns against Ng's script, which she says puts words such as "we" and "us" into her mouth in ways she feels are ultimately hollow.

It is a personal connection that renders Ayer Hitam's fascinating insight into a marginalised part of local history especially powerful.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 22, 2019, with the headline Fascinating look at the African diaspora in Singapore. Subscribe