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Being black in Singapore: Our African history might go back to Bugis ancestry

A new play at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival looks at the history of black people in Singapore. (Also, did you know Sir Stamford Raffles was born in Jamaica on a slave ship?)

Being black in Singapore: Our African history might go back to Bugis ancestry

An African family in colonial Java during the 1600s, taken from Johann Nieuhof's Voyages And Travels Into Brasil, And The East-Indies. (Photo: Courtesy of Farish Noor)

When Black Panther hit cinemas in Singapore early last year, Cristelle Mouyelo decided there was only one way to celebrate the big screen debut of the first mainstream African superhero – she and her family headed for the movies dressed up in African garb and a bit of face paint.

“When we arrived at the premiere at VivoCity, people stared the minute we got out of the taxi,” recalled the 43-year-old Cameroonian. “People were taking pictures – and I didn’t care because we were rocking our outfits. It was fantastic. If I could do it again, I would!”

Cristelle Mouyelo (left) with her daughter and friend, rocking her African-inspired getup at a screening of Black Panther last year. (Photo: Cristelle Mouyelo)

The African pride that Mouyelo felt at the cinema was a far cry from the experience she had when her family first came to Singapore in 2008.

On their first week, she took her kids to Ikea, and on the way, they were greeted by lots of stares on the bus and MRT.

One old lady couldn’t help but reach out and touch her younger daughter’s Afro-styled hair. “My daughter was so afraid. It was a shock to us – everyone was staring, staring, staring like they hadn’t seen anyone like us before,” she said, with a laugh.


Mouyelo, who works in a French shipping company and also runs the boutique fashion store House Of Nell, is part of Singapore’s black community today – a loosely-knit group of expatriates, long-term residents and citizens.

A Mandarese and an Abyssinian woman in the harem of a Malay prince in Singapore. (Photo: Fedor Jagor, Peranakan Museum)

But while residents of African descent, like Mouyelo, are regularly regarded as a curious sight here, an upcoming theatre production is aiming to show that the history of black people in Singapore isn’t something relatively new but in fact stretches way, way back.

Directed by Irfan Kasban and written by poet-playwright Ng Yi-Sheng, Ayer Hitam (or “black water” in Malay) is a lecture performance at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival that looks at the black diaspora here.

And the clues lie everywhere, according to the show’s creators: From African slaves brought in during the eighth-century Srivijayan empire and how the Bugis reportedly trace their ancestry to the Queen of Sheba in Ethiopia, to the to-and-fro adventures of explorers like Ibn Battuta and Admiral Zheng He.

Sharon Frese during rehearsals for Ayer Hitam. (Photo: M1 Singapore Fringe Festival)

And then there’s Sir Stamford Raffles. “He was actually born on a slave ship in Jamaica and his father was a slave trader,” said Sharon Frese, who performs in Ayer Hitam and is a British national of Jamaican descent.

The 54-year-old actor and longtime Singapore resident added that slavery and colonialism were huge contributing factors to the presence of blacks here, who worked as domestic servants, concubines and slaves of the Europeans and local royalty.

One of the more tangible pieces of proof the team found while doing research was the population census, which listed a handful back in 1827 (under the derogatory label “caffrees”) and peaked at 62 seven years later before dwindling and finally disappearing.

M1 Singapore Fringe Festival's Ayer Hitam. (Photo: Irfan Kasban)

What accounts for the disappearance in the official books? One theory, said Frese, is that they were assimilated into the Malay and Indian communities.

But that wasn’t the only instance of concrete black presence in Singapore – the first half of the 20th century would see “black” music like jazz or popular colonial sports in vogue. “The colonialists brought in boxing, which used to happen in Victoria Theatre, and we found about 13 boxers who were mainly Afro-Asians and blacks,” said Frese.

It was a shock to us – everyone was staring, staring, staring like they hadn’t seen someone like us before!

One of their surprising finds, however, was in politics –  Labour Party leader Mak Pak Shee, who was part of David Marshall’s cabinet, was supposedly of partial African descent, too. “You had a black person in Parliament,” said Frese.

Boxers of African or Afro-Asian descent regularly fought at Victoria Theatre. Seen here is Harry Wills and Tiger Amino in 1935. (Photo: National Archives of Singapore)

The second half of the last century also saw closer ties between Singapore and fellow post-colonial African nations, which meant people from the latter came here to study and work. “My hairdresser is of that generation – she settled in Singapore and raised a family and her children went on to do NS,” said Frese.

Football was also another area where Africans assimilated into society, with the likes of Itimi Dickson and Agu Casmir from Nigeria who both went on to play for the national team in the 2000s.

Former Singapore international Itimi Dickson (centre), now a senior coach at ESPZEN Soccer School. (Photo: ESPZEN Facebook page)

Nowadays, the majority of the black community in Singapore work in all sorts of fields. “There is no black underclass here - you have scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, people in finance,” said Frese.


One of the biggest and most visible groups today is BlackNet Singapore, which has around 500 people in its mailing list. It comprises Africans, Europeans and Americans of African descent, and even those who have grown up in Singapore or other parts of Asia.

The networking group holds ad hoc events like talks and get-togethers, and even held their own screening of Black Panther for the community.

BlackNet Singapore is a networking group for black professionals in Singapore. (Photo: Facebook/BlackNet Singapore)

Aside from a chance to hang out with fellow members of the community and showcase the various aspects of African culture, the group also helps newcomers adjust to Singapore in even the smallest ways.

“One of the first requests we usually get is for someone to help with their hair,” quipped Lawrence Linker, 36, an American professional with roots in Haiti, who founded BlackNet.

Many come from places where racism is very serious and the majority of us feel that Singapore is probably one of the best places, where we feel very respected.

“Black people have very unique hair and need specialised haircare, so funnily enough, this is one of the things that unites us early on.”

Hair issues aren’t the only thing the community has to deal with. One of the biggest misconceptions black people have had to dispel regularly is the assumption that it’s one big culture.

“We’re also so different – there’s Africa itself, which has 54 countries and thousands of language groups; and then you have black people who spend their whole life in Paris or the Middle East, or Europeans or Americans. It’s an extremely diverse group,” said Linker.

BlackNet Singapore founder Lawrence Linker. (Photo: Lawrence Linker)

Unwarranted attention is also something many of them deal with when they step out in public.

Aside from her Ikea experience, another not-so-memorable moment for Mouyelo was being in an elevator with a Singaporean family – with the mother and her young boy asking if they could touch her. “The kid touched me and looked at his finger to see if the colour was running, and the mother commented my skin was so soft,” she said, adding that she wasn’t offended. “It’s a matter of educating people.”

Frese, too, has had similar experiences. “There has regularly been a (sense of) curiosity and sometimes that can be invasive – people sometimes forget you can’t just come up and touch people without consent. It’s a naive curiosity but you’ve forgotten your manners,” she laughed.

Unwanted glances or touches aside (and sometimes blatantly taking photos without permission), Linker reckons it’s not as bad compared to other countries.

Stamford Raffles was actually born on a slave ship in Jamaica and his father was a slave trader.

“Many come from places where racism is very serious and the majority of us feel that Singapore is probably one of the best places, where we feel very respected,” he said.

Frese, who has fully embraced Singapore’s culture – name any cultural festival or family event and she’s attended it – reckons there is so much similarity between African and Singaporean cultures, whether it’s food (“Rendang is similar to a Jamaican curry goat dish!”) or abstract values such as respect for elders.

And while the impact of Africans and Africa in Singapore might not be quite as historically visible as, say, that of the Armenians, Frese hopes a show like Ayer Hitam and other efforts to excavate local history will bring these forgotten aspects to light.

BlackNet Singapore members at last year's Black Panther screening at The Projection. (Photo: Facebook/BlackNet Singapore)

“Singapore began to prosper with the opening of the Suez Canal (in Egypt), which was built through African slavery. Then companies like the Dutch East Indies - all of what they brought to the region was with the assistance of unpaid, forced labour. And today, you’ve got highly skilled (people of African descent) and the expertise they bring, which is right across diverse occupations,” she said.

It might take a while for Singapore’s African story to be heard by more, but in the meantime, Mouyelo will continue to literally wear her heritage on her sleeve.

“I have never rocked my culture and worn African-inspired outfits as much as I have in Singapore, and my family has taken that approach – we refuse to blend in and want to stand out and portray our culture.”

Ayer Hitam: A Black History Of Singapore runs from Jan 17 to 20. For more information on show and the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, visit

Source: CNA/mm