Eurasian Arts: Does it Exist?

Published on 7 July 2015

We seek out Eurasian artists, who fly our flag with pride as theatre practitioners and musicians.

TEXT BY DAPHNE ONG

If someone were to ask you about “Asian arts”, what comes to mind? You might mention Malay joget, Beijing opera or traditional Kathakali Indian dance. But what would you name if someone asks you about Eurasian arts?

In the Singapore context, a Eurasian is anyone with both Asian and European ancestry. The Eurasian community has been here since shortly after colonisation by the British in 1819. The ethnic and cultural melding has evolved to include uniquely Eurasian traditional elements over two centuries.

If artistic expression is a reflection of who we are, Eurasian arts certainly do reflect the varied Eurasian identity in Singapore, or rather, the varied notions of identity that individual Eurasians here have. We speak to three theatre practitioners who weigh in about being Eurasian artists in Singapore.

ARTISTIC PRESENCE

Eurasians, although small in number, make up one of the four major races in Singapore, which include the Chinese, Malays and Indians. Although they comprise less than one per cent of Singapore’s population, Eurasians are prominent in the media and arts. Well-known Eurasians in the field include singers Jeremy Monteiro (a Cultural Medallion recipient) and Alemay Fernandez, veteran radio DJs Brian Richmond and Mark van Cuylenburg (better known as The Flying Dutchman). Then there’s former Nominated Member of Parliament Eunice Olsen, a one-time Miss Singapore Universe. Eurasians also have a strong presence in the local theatre industry. So what is it that makes Eurasians so visible in artistic circles?

Actor Brendon Fernandez theorises, “Perhaps it is because we were told as kids in school that we should be the ones with better language ability, the ones who are more “not-shy”. This outspoken identity was fostered and encouraged.”

SONG & DANCE

Is there such a thing as Eurasian arts? Does Eurasian arts exist? The short answer is “yes”. Many Singaporeans have witnessed the well-known Portuguese-Eurasian dance ‘Jinkli Nona’ at prominent national events like Chingay and this year’s SEA Games Opening Ceremony, performed by the Eurasian Association.

‘Jinkli Nona’, which means fair maiden, is a traditional folk song in Kristang, a creole language comprising Portuguese and Malay words. It is often performed in traditional Portuguese dance costumes.

However, as some Singaporean Eurasians point out, ‘Jinkli Nona’ does not necessarily represent the cultural heritage of all Eurasians here. While a sizeable proportion have Portuguese ancestry, some are of other European heritage, not to mention myriad Asian lineage.

“I myself am of Portuguese-and-rojak descent and my mother is Chinese,” says actor-and-theatre-maker Candice de Rozario. “Others may be Dutch-Indonesian, English-Chinese, Irish-Indian, and what have you. Every single one of these bloodlines has its own distinct history and culture. It becomes really hard to pinpoint what ‘Eurasian arts’ actually is.”

Director Samantha Scott-Blackhall agrees, “It’s a mix of all the cultures you are born into. This may vary from one Eurasian to the next. I do feel, however, when one recognises there are these people called Eurasians, they are accepting that not all things are just black and white; you can’t judge a book by its cover. And it’s nothing to be feared but, rather, to be embraced.”

ON THE ROLE Actress Candice de Rozario has played Chinese, Latino, Indian and Caucasian characters, thanks to her mixed-heritage looks.

CULTURAL IDENTITY

Race and ethnicity are often talking-point issues in Singapore. Official ethnic identification for all Singapore residents used to be only ‘Chinese’, ‘Malay’, ‘Indian’ and ‘Others’ — unofficially referred to as CMIO. ‘Eurasian’ was later added.

Since 2011, listing dual ethnicity in your identification documents became an option. A child of mixed parentage could record their race as ‘Chinese-Caucasian, ‘Eurasian-Indian’ and so on. However, mindsets take longer to change. Many Eurasians face the same eye-rolling questions and assumptions from people who are unable to place them under their imagined CMIO categories.

One of Fernandez’s peeves is when he tells someone he is from Singapore, they will invariably ask, “No, where are you really from?” This confusion is sometimes reflected in the theatre scene. Fernandez speaks of being cast mainly as Chinese characters in the early days of his career, but has played Eurasian characters in more recent years.

IN THE MIX Samantha Scott-Blackhall says being a “multi-cultural being” makes her more open and receptive to other cultures.

For de Rozario, having a look that is not immediately ethnically obvious is not a bad thing. “There is a certain advantage I have when it comes to changing my look to suit a role — I’ve been cast as Chinese, Latino, Indian and even Caucasian characters before. All it takes is a different hair colour and strategically-planned makeup, but I still have to work as hard as the next actor. As a writer and director, I suppose coming from a mixed heritage makes me slightly more sensitive to issues of race and culture.”

Scott-Blackhall also finds her Eurasian identity has benefitted her role as an artistic director. “Being Eurasian means possessing the best of both (or more) worlds. For me, it means Asian values with liberal Western expression. Being somewhat of a multi-cultural being, I find myself giving equal respect to various cultures, religions and traditions because they live within me.”

Ethnic identity often finds itself in the spotlight centrestage in Singapore. Increasingly, theatre companies are coming up with innovative ways to explore racial identity and relations. Fernandez gives the example of Teater Ekamatra’s Charged, a play, which, among other themes, discusses why Eurasians are seen as ‘hybrid and neutral’.

The arts are more than a dance, more than a song. Eurasian arts include the collective expression of its artists, how their identity informs their craft, and its presence in the larger Singapore arts scene.

“I also think most of us would prefer to be seen as Singaporean artists who happen to be Eurasian,” says de Rozario. “I look forward to the day when we no longer draw lines and say, I’m Chinese from Singapore, I’m Indian from Singapore, and so on. We are all simply Singaporean.”

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