An overlooked part of Singapore’s history comes to light

An overlooked part of Singapore’s history comes to light

Theatre practitioner Sharon Frese (above) is part of a trio of artists who are bringing to life a fascinating and little-known aspect of Singapore’s history – the African diaspora, through a new theatrical work. (Photo: Irfan Kasban)

For almost 200 years, the history of the African diaspora in Singapore, including the first residents of African descent, lay buried in old newspapers and records.

The curious minds of three arts practitioners, however, are bringing to light fascinating and little-known aspects of Singapore’s history, and giving them new life in the work, Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore.

The lecture-performance, commissioned for the M1 Fringe Festival 2019, is a collaboration between the Singapore-based, Jamaican British actress Sharon Frese, director Irfan Kasban, and playwright Ng Yi-Sheng.

The production’s name, which means “black water” in Malay, refers to the oceans that the African diaspora had to cross to arrive in Singapore.

Archival research for the project uncovered interesting nuggets of information that highlight the influence of the African diaspora on the arts, sports and politics in Singapore, and in turn, the diversity of Singapore’s multi-racial society.

For example, Wilbur’s Blackbirds was among the first African American jazz groups to perform at the Victoria Theatre in 1928, catering to the growing Peranakan and Eurasian interest in jazz, says Ng.

The team’s research also found that a popular boxer from the 1930s, Mohamed Noor Bahiek, who went by the moniker of Joe Diamond and played matches at the New World and Great World amusement parks, was a Saudi-born boxer of Kenyan descent.

Politician Mak Pak Shee, a member of Singapore’s first legislative assembly, representing Geylang, and who was often referred to as Indian-Cantonese, also reportedly had African heritage.

Ng, who came up with the idea for the project, says of the findings: “It shows that there are a lot of fascinating histories in Singapore, and they’re not even secret – they’ve just been overlooked.”


Details on Ayer Hitam: A Black History Of Singapore here

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