Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore
A performance by SHARON FRESE, IRFAN KASBAN & NG YI-SHENG
Introduction by Sharon Frese
In this lecture performance, actress Sharon Frese explores the history and influence of the African diaspora in Singapore. She shares images and documents relating to slavery, colonialism, jazz and nationalist struggle, reaffirming the value of black culture in our shared heritage.
Both a history lesson and a theatrical ritual, Ayer Hitam commemorates the black men and women – enslaved, indentured and expatriate – who crossed the oceans into unknown territory. They draw strength from these tides, which Indian convicts called the black water in Hindi kala pani, or in Malay ayer hitam.
Ayer Hitam: A Black History of Singapore was commissioned by M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2019: Still Waters.
How long have people of African descent been a part of life in Singapore?
Tomé Pires, a 16th century Portuguese writer, noted that the traders in Malacca included “Abyssinians and people from Ormuz, Kilwa, Malindi, Mogadishu and Mombassa”.
In 1827, a colonial census of Singapore counted five Black residents: two Black men and three Black women. By 1834, the number had risen to 62.
Boxing was an extremely popular sport in early 20th century Singapore. Several Black boxers made their homes here and became huge celebrities, such as Joe Diamond, active from 1930 to 1945.
Mak Pak Shee, a homeopathic doctor, served as MP for Geylang from 1955 to 1959. Though many assumed he was Indian-Cantonese, his father was in fact a sailor of African descent.