Keeping the Malacca Portuguese Language Alive

09 November 2017

We take a look at the efforts of the Kristang community to ensure the survival of their language.

Malaysians who remember their history lessons well will be familiar with Melaka’s importance as a prime hub for the spice trade, and how it attracted the Portuguese to our shores. In the early 15th century, Portugal’s role as a global colonial power was in the making, thanks in part to developments in maritime technology. Expeditions by sea were sanctioned, and sea explorers left their home country via the port of Lisbon, sailing around the world in search of a lucrative spice trade.

The historical details of Portugal’s sea expeditions have been recorded in countless books – but in short, over the decades, Portuguese explorers were able to achieve a few significant seafaring milestones that brought the Portuguese to Asia. Bartolomeu Dias made an important discovery in 1488 about the world’s known geography – that the Indian Ocean was not landlocked as previously recorded, enabling Dias to sail around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa and opening up the possibility of exploring even further eastward than the Portuguese may have expected.

Melaka’s Portuguese Square during this year’s Festa San Pedro last June.

Ten years later, in 1498, Vasco Da Gama would land in India, the first point of entry to Asia, before Alfonso de Albuquerque arrived in Melaka in 1509, with every intention of carrying out the King of Portugal’s instructions of expanding their growing empire. By 1511, when Melaka had fallen under the rule of the Portuguese, marriage between the settlers and local women in Melaka was encouraged, to create a new community that was Catholic in faith and would be loyal to the King of Portugal.

Fast-forward to current times, and the Portuguese legacy in Melaka lives on most notably through the modern-day descendants of those 16th century settlers. They are a creole ethnic group of people, who in addition to Portuguese and Malaccan-Malay descent may also have a Dutch or British lineage, as well as Chinese and Indian heritage due to intermarriages with those communities.

Festa San Pedro is an important traditional holiday to the Malacca Portuguese community. The four-day festival honours the patron saint of fisherman, a key occupation for the Malacca Portuguese community.

Officially, the government accepts “Portuguese Eurasian” as the proper term for this group. To Malaysians, they are more commonly known as Serani or Kristang, the latter which Michael Singho, president of the Malacca Portuguese-Eurasian Association clarifies, is a colloquial term – a secret word of sorts amongst community members themselves.

Eurasians who are not of Portuguese descent are sometimes wrongly identified as Serani, which is why Singho prefers the term “Malacca Portuguese” as the most accurate way to describe his ethnic group. Their culture is a unique blend of Portuguese, European and Malaysian; similarly, their language has also evolved into a form of localised Portuguese known as Kristang, or Kristao.

Michael Singho, president of the Malacca Portuguese-Eurasian Association.

In June, the settlement in Melaka celebrated the Festa San Pedro, an important traditional holiday also known as the Feast of San Pedro. The four-day festival honours the patron saint of fisherman, a key occupation for the Malacca Portuguese community and indeed, for the coastal communities in Portugal. This is one vestige of the old country that the settlers’ descendants have clung to faithfully, as a small reminder of their European heritage.

It’s a festival that celebrates the unique evolution of the Malacca-Portuguese community, and there’s a great deal of attendance from the settlers themselves. Occasionally, a non-settler at the festival might hear unfamiliar words being used, and yet, for reasons unknown, it was hard to catch any conversations being carried out fully in Kristang.

Festa San Pedro often features traditional dances and performances by modern band ensembles.

Earlier this year, the BBC reported that the language of the Kristangs was “dying”. Efforts were being made by a group of community activists in Singapore to revive this “dead” language by conducting lessons partially funded by government grants. The report noted that there were “as few as 50 fluent speakers left in Singapore, along with more in Malaysia where the language is also in decline.”

The article’s overgeneralisation did not sit well with the Kristang community here in Melaka. Community leaders like Singho acknowledge that while the language is on the UNESCO list of endangered languages, it is not a “dead” one.

“[The report] made it sound like the language is at a very critical position, but that is at our expense. It’s not happening here, where people do speak the language,” explains Singho.

Singho estimates that there are about 20,000 individuals in Malaysia who are of Portuguese origin, with approximately 4,000 to 5,000 who can speak Malacca Portuguese to varying degrees of fluency: 30 percent are in the upper brackets of fluency, another 30 percent are in the middle brackets, and the remaining 40 percent are least fluent.

Other than the religious processions on its first day, the events and activities at Festa San Pedro are closer to what you might find at a community fun fair: games with prizes to be won, markets, temporary tattoos, and drinks and homemade food for sale.

Singho notes that level of proficiency correlates to the individual’s age. “The older the more fluent. The younger, the less fluent,” he says. The natural next step, as part of the effort to rectify the decline of the Malacca Portuguese language, is to target the middle and younger brackets.

One of the food vendors at Festa San Pedro.

Since Malacca Portuguese is carried orally from one generation to another, this poses an immediate roadblock to formally introducing it into a school curriculum. The effort to create recorded documents that will meet the approval of the Ministry of Education’s stringent criteria for accepting any syllabus is a long-term task requiring commitment, and although Singho acknowledges that they are still some way off from a proper syllabus, there are efforts from the community that are now coming to fruition.

Last year, Singho published a book entitled Beng Prende Portugues Malaká (Papiá Cristang): Come, Let's Learn Portugues Malaká, an eight-chapter, instructional guide to the Kristang language complete with exercises at the end of every chapter. The aim, says Singho, is to enable the student to master the basics of conversation, or at least understand Malacca Portuguese when they hear it.

“Things like, have you taken your dinner? Are you tired? Where are you going? What’s your name?” explains Singho. “You won’t be fluent, but after going through the exercises in the book, you should be able to converse the basics better than you would ever expect.”

Beng Prende Portugues Malaká (Papiá Cristang): Come, Let's Learn Portugues Malaká, an eight-chapter, instructional guide to the Kristang language complete with exercises at the end of every chapter.

The book is a culmination of two years of collaboration between standard Portuguese experts, native speakers and academicians. “Dr Stephanie Pillai from the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics at the University of Malaya approached us [the community] about working together on this book,” says Singho

The editing process included many back and forth debates over contentious elements, like spelling, and the inclusion of English and Malay words that have crept in. For Singho, upholding the dignity of his native language was also important. “My job was to balance the black-and-white approach that the academics took with the subject, and to see that their treatment of it did not overwhelm the emotional essence of our language.”
Ultimately, regardless of approach, the end goal is the same: encourage greater fluency and preserve a language that, in its own way, tells a story of our nation’s earliest contact with the Western world. That alone is reason enough to make sure that this made-in-Malaysia, language of the Malacca Portuguese, can survive for centuries to come.  

By Shermian Lim
Photos by Wong Yok Teng and Teoh Eng Hooi

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