“Did you know that Centre 42 might have been a Japanese brothel back then?” smirks Cheyenne Phillips. She flips through the pages of a book entitled Singapore Eurasians: Memories and Hopes and reveals a map of Waterloo Street from the 1930s, hand-drawn from memory by a man named Patrick Klassen. Pointing to a box labelled “JAPANESE HOTEL” – which sits next to another box labelled “MAGHAN ARBOTH SYNAGOGUE” – Cheyenne explains that the word “hotel” was often a euphemism.
Cheyenne and her collaborator Charlene Shepherdson – who are both Eurasians and both performance poets, and collectively known as CharChey – are currently researching the Singaporean Eurasian culture for a project they’ve named For the Record. Having scoured the National Archives, libraries, and online resources in an attempt to piece together a narrative of their heritage, they’ve acquired their fair share of interesting facts and stories.
It all started when the two friends were talking about their heritage after a few drinks late one night, and they realised that not a lot has been written about Singaporean Eurasians. So they decided to take it upon themselves to start the conversation.
The first phase of their investigation culminated in a performance, also called For the Record, which weaved together their research, family history, and personal stories in a series of songs and poems. It was developed over the course of four months with support from Centre 42’s Basement Workshop programme, and was staged at The Arts House in February this year.
“We wanted the show to not just be a transfer of knowledge [about the Eurasian culture], but to look at why it’s important,” says Charlene. “I’m proud of it, but it’s definitely a work in development and it’s far from finished. We just wanted to invite people into the conversation.”
To continue that conversation, the pair are now working on an exhibition titled (pre)position, which will be held at Centre 42 and around the Waterloo Street area for a few weeks from 16 June this year.
“We’re thinking of doing it sort of like a scavenger hunt,” explains Charlene. “We want people to get involved to uncover the story of different places, and explore how places feed into someone’s identity.”
The idea is for participants to embark on a walking trail around Waterloo Street and Queen Street, which used to be one of six main Eurasian enclaves in Singapore. Up to 20 families had lived in the area since the 1880s, many of whom would send their children to the missionary schools in the area, including St. Joseph’s Institution, Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus, and St Anthony’s Convent.
Along the way, visitors to (pre)position are encouraged to make pit stops at various locations to learn about the little things that make being Eurasian special. They’ll also get to try their hand at various games and exercises that are designed to mimic Charlene and Cheyenne’s research process. For example, they might be asked to determine the identity of Eurasian women by matching their maiden name with the surname they took on after they got married.
On top of that, the pair will be displaying their research and poems for browsing at Centre 42, and showcasing original artwork in the Courtyard. At the time that we met Charlene and Cheyenne for the interview, they were still experimenting with the media and form that the works will take. However, they knew that they’ll be playing with found poetry and materials that will deteriorate over time.
“We want to explore the idea of layers and how things get lost,” says Charlene. It’s a metaphor for how easily history, heritage, places and identity can be forgotten, especially in a city that’s constantly rebuilding itself.
“Everything in Singapore is only permanent for the time being,” Cheyenne adds wryly.
Indeed, even the exhibition is only temporary. But the duo are also working on a manuscript that comprises the drafts and script from their February show, poems that didn’t make it into the performance, and their research materials including photos and maps. They’re hoping to complete a draft by July, and have it published sometime next year.
For now though, the focus is on the exhibition, which they insist is not just for their fellow Eurasians, but for everyone who’s interested in the Singapore story. After all, as Charlene recalls, an audience member called Gwyneth Teo commented after attending the opening night of For the Record that the Eurasian culture “goes beyond East-meets-West or the marriage of cultures. It is as simple as that families who have been here for four generations and longer – since Raffles and Farquhar’s time – have a lot to tell us about what’s missing from our history books. In short, the Eurasian story is the Singaporean story.”
By Gwen Pew
Published on 21 April 2017
Find out more about CharChey’s project here, and check out the exhibition around Waterloo Street from 16 June 2017 onwards.