Review: 'Ayer Hitam - A Black History of Singapore'

by Kiran Bhat

"The truth is, Singapore’s colonial history rises directly out of the legacy of African slavery"
Photo: BlackNet Singapore


The shaky island of Singapore. The wind tussles against the waves of the palm trees, only to smack shut against the skyscrapers.


It’s a city where conformity talks and capitalism walks. It’s full of energy, it’s clearly multicultural; but at the heart of it is not the manic infinitude of a New York or a Mumbai.


I’ve been to Singapore several times in my life, twice as a child, twice as an adult. There’s something exciting about the city, something endearing about the city, but there’s also something lifeless, something stifling. People say that Singapore is a commercial city with little to offer to the adventurer, but I disagree. I think that the local pockets of the city are full of flavor, and that unique mix of Malay-Chinese-Tamil history makes Singapore a cosmopolitan city with a very different racial heritage compared to its counter-parts. What makes the city lose its potential edge has less to do with the endless lanes of malls and office buildings, and more to do with the separations innate in Singapore’s inception and the history from which those demarcations lie.


We can talk about British colonialism, we can talk about governance, we can talk about the conflicts between the Chinese and the Tamils and the Malays. But this is first and foremost an art review, on a play written by the LGBTQI poet, essayist, and playwright Ng Yi-Sheng.

One merely has to skim the plays in the anthology Black Water, Pink Sands to observe that exclusion is a constant narrative in the life of a minority in Singapore. The play Desert Blooms functions almost as an anthology of all of the ways that one can be excluded in Singaporean life.


Structured almost as an interview series, playwrights, artists, and activists shout their experiences outward, ask questions either directly to each other or to the audience, play to each other, but often speak to the mire. Narratives in boxes interrupt the discourse. For example, the playwright G Selvanathan is telling the story of ‘walking in Serangoon Road, near Desker Road area [when someone asks] “Why you wouldn’t want to do a drama about people like us?” [prompting him to stage a play to speak to the] scope … pain, and various points of view of how the community sees transgenders and gays in our conversation.’



A box then comes to the page, written in Tamil:



‘கூடபிறந்தவர்களே என்னை ஒதுக்கிய பிறகு, வேறு எதற்காக நான் வாழ

வேண்டும். மேலும் அப்ப நான் அனுபவித்த துன்பங்கள், நிம்மதி

இல்லாமை, குழப்பம் அனைத்தும் சேர்ந்து, என் வாழ்க்கையை

மாற்றியது.’


This translates to:

‘When my own siblings ostracised me, for what else should I live? Furthermore, the pain that I experienced then, the lack of peace, the confusion, all together, they changed my life.’

Kamani tells the story ‘Kaman became Kamani. [She] worked. Did the operation.’ The interconnecting of the back-and-forth between artists and boxed-in narratives of Singapore’s subaltern has several affects. It contrasts the somewhat stiff voices of the professionals with much rawer and crackling narratives, giving a much stronger human sensation to the subtexts of the play. It also creates a multiplicity beyond the premise of the text.


This is not just a space to complain about Singapore’s relationships to its minorities, it’s also a space to give voice to the people who are largely on the fringe. The choir of voices largely works. Desert Blooms feels almost like a kaleidoscope of a hundred small narratives, tied together by being queer, Singaporean, coming together, to froth at the mouth and creates blossoms out of their suffering.


"By all means, let our ‘cultural desert’ bloom. But please let the blossoms be beautiful and

wholesome and not be prickly pears or weeds."

Related: We want it all - fighting for disability rights on stage

If Desert Blooms is a reflection on what it means to be queer in Singapore, the play Hitam: a Black History of Singapore is, well… a narrative on the black history of Singapore.


While the population of African or African origin people is still extremely low in Singapore, somewhere under 3 percent, any and all minorities deserve to be visible in their country, and so Sheng has taken this task under his own belt. The play is designed to be as much educational as it is performance.

Actress Sharon Frese (Photo: Irfan Kasban)

The first half of the play is almost exclusively an information dump. The text begins with a West African origin tale:


‘In the beginning, everything was water. Then Olodumare, the supreme god, sent Obatala down from heaven, to create the dry land.’

All life begins in Africa, as Sheng reminds us, and from there we travelled, diverged in race, culture, and narrative. Sheng gives a meta-narrative of the slave trade, the demonisations of black people in various lands, from the minds of Portuguese colonialists to Chinese historians.

‘Many of the wealthy households in Guangzhou raise devil slaves. They definitely have strength and can carry several hundred catties of weight... Their coloring is black like ink, their lips are red and their teeth white, their hair is curly and yellowish...Those who do not die can be domesticated. Those who have been domesticated for a long time can understand human language, although they cannot speak it themselves.'

— Zhu Yu, Pingzhou Ketan, 1119 23


Sheng’s decision to give such a cosmic history of the life of black people serves several purposes. We have to remember that his audience in Singapore has probably very little knowledge about narratives of people from other races or cultures, and so it is important to give them as much information as they can so that they can learn to be sympathetic to the plights of people outside of their perspective.


Furthermore, while we can single out one country for being more racist or another, the truth is that networks of human trade were what entrenched a lot of our current misunderstandings of the human condition. By going so far into the general and coming back into the particular, Sheng is reminding us that we all are tied to the narrative of black people in some shape or form, even if we’re not racially black.


As per the history of Singapore’s black community, it ‘rises directly out of the legacy of African slavery.’ In the early 1800s, Singapore had a community of slave descendants called the Caffrees. They grew over time to reach about 62 people, and then slowly dipped until there were only three. What happened to them? Most likely, ‘They’d been in Southeast Asia for generations, intermarrying with Malays and Indian convicts. Maybe they decided the best way to prosper would be to find new communities. To forget who they were. To stop calling themselves Black.’


There were also the black people of accomplishment who were living in 19 th century Singapore. ‘[There was] Fraser, a Caribbean butler who lived here from 1887 to 1892. He served Sir John Goldney, the man who introduced golf to Singapore,’ as well as ‘Syed Abdul Rahman Alsagoff… honoured [today] as the founder of Singapore’s oldest madrasah.’


The black diaspora of Singapore, in other words, was small, humble, and largely faded to the mixtures that would come to make up modern Singapore. But it was significant, nonetheless. And even if a lot of black Singaporean history isn’t prominent in what Singapore is now, there are also immigrants from all corners of the world which make Singapore home.


One such person is Sharon Frese, an English citizen of Jamaican descent. She is the person who has chosen to collaborate with Ng on the play, the performer who is on-stage mouthing Ng’s diatribes on history and narrative. I have a lit bit of trouble with how she is presented in the play. From the get-go, Frese is dressed in an Ankara/African wax print playing a drum, and then she changes into a sarong kebaya. The lines she says immediately after are: ‘I am fifty…plus. A British

citizen, of Jamaican, therefore African heritage… I am a Black woman in Singapore. I do not fit your historical narrative.’


We have to remember certain things: The African wax print is an Indonesia-inspired form of dressing that is popular in West Africa. When a British person of Jamaican heritage wears it, and is also stereotypically playing a drum, I wonder what it is that is being accomplished. A Jamaican need not also be an African by heritage. Plenty of Jamaicans are Indian, Arawak,

Taino, or mixtures of a lot of other races. The play therefore starts off with a certain amount of essentialisms that are easy to disprove. For pages upon pages, the artifice of it all is never hinted at with any sort of awareness. At one point, while discussing all of the ways that black people have influenced art and culture, Frese says:


Was this colonialism or decolonisation?

Was this appropriation or appreciation?

Folks were too busy having a good time to care.


I certainly believe that if an artist is going to put their name at the title of a play inherently built off of the experience of another minority group, they should address the appropriation concern, but not in such a defiant way. It just made the question worse in my head. Why isn’t Sharon Frese the star of the show? Why isn’t she telling her story as a Jamaican-British person in Singapore, rather than miming this monolithic history lesson of African-ness in Singapore? Then, Frese gains control over Ng in the narrative. In the midst of musing about race issues in modern Singapore, she suddenly says,


Blame him. It’s Ng’s fault.

He put words into my mouth.

Take away his passport.

I’m sorry, Ng. I want to say “we”. I really do.

But I don’t really have a voice here.

And if you won’t let me be part of this nation,

then I cannot afford to take any of your blame.


At that one moment, Frese is festive, Frese is alive, and Frese is very much complaining, from her own voice, that she loves Singapore, she sees this space as her land, but doesn’t like that she doesn’t belong. And because of that, I remember once more the things I really like about Ayer Hitam. It takes a lot of bravery to write something completely out of one’s element, and that bravado is on display in Ayer Hitam.


So is Ng’s imagination. There’s a part where Frese and Ng play with an alternative history of the caffrees in Singapore having remained a vital part of the Singaporean community. If that had happened, ‘We’d have curry goat rendang… plantains and jollof rice with buah keluak… laksa with fufu… Kasut manek made out of Masai beads…. sarong kebaya embroidered with little black power fist designs… Cantik sekali!’


Ng also interrupts his own text for the sake of performance. There are moments when Ng and Frese dance along to the Cha-Cha, Vogue, and YMCA, moves all developed by the African diaspora. Towards the end of the play, Frese asks audience members to read out loud from snippets of text detailing how prejudice against black people in Singapore takes place. These moments of play are a welcome distraction from the didacticism of Ayer Hitam’s other moments. They also give a bit of leisure to drive home Ng’s driving point. ‘The truth is, Singapore’s colonial history rises directly out of the legacy of African slavery.’


Ultimately, while Ayer Hitam: a Black History of Singapore struggles to escape the controversy or limits of its presence, I laud Ng Yi-Sheng’s attempt to write and perform out of his comfort zone, and to include a black actress in his project. Certain other decisions could have been made so that Ayer Hitam was a more honest or truthful representation of blackness in a Singaporean context. At the same time, Ng Yi-Sheng has brought a certain limelight to a minority experience we rarely consider, and for that, much like Harriet Beecher Stove or Aphra Behn, he has done monumental work in educating citizens of his country of a people that are too often ignored.

Kiran Bhat is an Indian-American traveller, polyglot, and author. He can be found on Facebook, Amazon and his website.

The Radical Art Review is a non-profit cooperative platform fuelled purely by people power for those who think art holds the potential for social transformation. We publish the thoughts, philosophies, and stories of all who dare to dissent. We seek to inform, to empower, and to dream collectively of a better tomorrow.

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