The Sea is Not a Highway: Performing Maritime Histories in the Not-Quite-Global-City

Parry-Davies, Ella (2019) The Sea is Not a Highway: Performing Maritime Histories in the Not-Quite-Global-City. Theatre Journal, 71 (4). pp. 437-453. ISSN 0192-2882


In 1972, Singapore’s then Foreign Minister Sinnathamby Rajaratnam used (and likely coined) the term “global city” to describe the Southeast Asian city-state. “The sea is all highway,” he announced in the same speech. Rajaratnam’s metaphor reveals both the importance of the sea to the making of a global city, and the ways in which the very discourse of globality would seek to deny the sea’s materiality. In 1996, then Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri described Lebanon as the “Singapore of the Middle East,” evoking the global city as the model for a postwar, regenerated nation. This essay takes up the seemingly unlikely juxtaposition of Singapore and Lebanon, examining the related conditions and concerns for performance practice in these two coastal, postcolonial and multi-ethnic nations at opposite extremes of the Asian continent. I argue that their intimate relationships with the sea mean that Lebanon and Singapore are both not-quite and more-than “global cities.” The performed representations of the sea discussed in this essay pinpoint this discrepancy. Focusing on Singaporean playwright Kuo Pao Kun’s Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral (1995) and Lebanese artist Karine Wehbé’s Tabarja Beach project (2008-2018), I explore the ways in which stagings of the sea make possible a specific critique of late capitalist discourses of globalization, by insisting upon material, embodied histories of maritime dwelling and travel. In these pieces, the sea is ambiguously remembered, powerfully affective and semantically unstable: emphatically, it is not a highway.


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