Saving the Malay Peninsula’s centuries-old Portuguese creole

On the Malay Peninsula, a small community of Portuguese creole speakers survives almost four centuries since the southern Europeans were expelled from the region. On the brink of extinction, there are people working to preserve this rare language and culture

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August 6, 2020
Saving the Malay Peninsula’s centuries-old Portuguese creole
Esta di Papia Kristang (Kristang Language Festival 2017). Photo: Kodrah Kristang

In 2015, half-Chinese, half Portuguese-Eurasian Kevin Martens Wong began researching for an article on endangered languages in Southeast Asia when he stumbled upon Kristang.

Little did he know the discovery of this creole language, spoken by about 2,000 people on the Malay peninsula at its peak in the 19th century, held more than just a thread of relevance to his personal heritage – and would ultimately spark a lifetime pursuit.

Wong – today a teacher and founder of Kodrah Kristang (Awaken Kristang), an initiative to revitalise the Kristang language in Singapore, had no idea it existed until 2015. But while working on the article for linguistics magazine Unravel, which Wong founded in 2014, he traced his own family roots and discovered it was the mother-tongue of his maternal great-grandparents.

His own grandparents, however, could hardly speak their parent’s native tongue. With his attempts to reconnect with this dying part of his culture proving difficult, and realising that his ancestral language was at the precipice of extinction, Wong came together with a group of friends to hold free weekly Kristang classes.

“It’s because these are the languages of my grandparents, relatives and friends, for many of whom these languages still have powerful emotional connections that resonate even today,” said Wong. “Learning these languages enables me to develop these kinds of very deep and personal connections.”

With years of study under his belt, the former National University of Singapore linguistics major has ended up teaching their ancestral tongue to his grandparents, students at his weekly classes that gather around 200 students.

Kristang is a contact (or creole) language meaning it was formed when two languages – in this case Malay and Portuguese – amalgamated to form a third language. Its main source of vocabulary comes from Portuguese, Wong explained, with a strong influence on its grammar from Malay and Hokkien.

The word Kristan is derived from the Portuguese term cristão (Christian), standing for not just the language Papia Kristang (‘Christian speech’), but also used as a term for the community of people in Malacca, whereby the Christian identity is embedded in the city’s history and elements of Portuguese influence persist today. 

The Portuguese were the first European’s to reach Malacca, a city sitting on the coast almost equidistant from Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, when Admiral Diogo Lopes de Sequeira arrived in 1509 on the orders of Manuel I, King of Portugal. Two years later, forty days of fighting would result in the Portuguese conquest of Malacca on August 24, 1511, toppling Sultan Mahmud Shah and giving the European colonists their first foothold in the region.

It would remain a Portuguese colony for 130 years, with the Dutch successfully ousting the southern Europeans in January 1641, removing their final presence on the Malay archipelago. 

Today, the Straits of Malacca is home to a melting pot of religions and languages – from Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism, as well as English and Malay. But almost four centuries since the Portuguese were expelled from Malacca, a small Portuguese settlement founded in 1933 still exists in Ujong Pasir, remaining sturdily steeped in the Catholic religion and their shrinking language, Papia Kristang.

But while the Kristang traditions and language are packed into tiny pockets of Malacca, in Wong’s home country of Singapore, they are on the brink of extinction. A tiny Eurasian Kristang community can be found today in the city-state, tracing their origins to various trading ports on the Malay peninsula, including Malacca.

Kristang Language Festival 2017 in Singapore. Photo: Kodrah Kristang

“Almost nothing was known of the language’s situation here in Singapore back then [when I started researching in 2015],” he said. 

This endangered language is spoken by less than 1,000 people on the Malay peninsula, but in Singapore it is estimated that less than 100 fluent speakers remain.

“We resolved to find the remaining speakers here in Singapore and work to revive the language before it went extinct,” Wong said. 

After finding out his hereditary ties with the dying language in 2015, Wong travelled to Malaysia where he met Sara Santa Maria, a teacher of Kristang in Ujong Pasir’s Portuguese Settlement.

Far from Malaysia’s mosques and laksa soup, Portuguese influence in Ujong Pasir is visible in its Catholic churches and fresh-baked Portuguese pastries, offering a vision into a bygone era in the region’s history. During the Portuguese festivals of Festa de São João and Festa de São Pedro, the streets of the settlement are immersed in songs and dance, and the Portuguese Square, the centre stage of Ujong Pasir, is a colourful display of vibrant decorations and lights.

Santa Maria is the only Kristang language teacher in the Malacca Portuguese Settlement, and her students range from adults to children as young as four years old. Besides teaching the creole’s dictionary and vocabulary, her classes also include teaching Kristang folklore and culture, as well as holding cooking competitions for traditional Kristang dishes.

“Kristang is an endangered language and culture – I can see from how most of the younger generation cannot really speak it,” Santa Maria told the Globe. “Sometimes the kids at the centre ask me to speak English as they can understand me better than when I teach in Portuguese.”

With the growing influence of English and Malay resulting in a shift away from Kristang in homes, schools and churches, Santa Maria fears that her mother tongue could be phasing out for good. Kristang language and culture used to be on the curriculum in at least two or three schools in the Portuguese settlement, but it is now no longer actively taught. Where church sessions used to be conducted in Kristang, the same displacement is evident.

“No one else here is teaching the language, and everyone says I’m wasting my time,” Santa Maria said. “Some will ask me, ‘Do you think these kids will speak this language when they go home, or in the future?’”

When in Malaysia, Wong also met with Stefanie Pillai, an associate professor at the University of Malaya studying Kristang in Malacca.

Pillai, whose mother was of Malacca Portuguese descent, is also trying to revitalise the Kristang language. She chalked up the faster decline of the language in Singapore to the lack of a cohesive community and how dispersed all the Kristang speakers are. 

“In Malacca, there is still an immediate community [in the Portuguese settlement] where people can still communicate with each other in the language, so it doesn’t fall out of disuse and is more constantly reinforced” she said.

Pillai and her team have produced a disc of Kristang hymns and prayers, requested by older members of the community who had forgotten how they sounded in Kristang and wanted to learn how to pray in the language again. An online dictionary in the form of a mobile application is also in the works, Pillai said.

She was also a part of a community team which led efforts in creating a mini textbook – Come, Let’s Learn Portuguese – which is now utilised in Sara Santa Maria’s Kristang classes. A collaboration between the Malacca Portuguese-Eurasian Association and University of Malaya’s Languages and Linguistics Faculty, the book was collated with the intention to aid people who wish to learn the language’s basics.

Featuring unique Kristang expressions Kenti Chuma Fogu (as hot as fire) and Altu Chumba Albi Bambu (as tall as bamboo), it is hoped that the book will help establish the written form of the Kristang language, offering Malaysians an opportunity to access and learn it.

Festa di Papia Kristang (Kristang Language Festival 2017) in Singapore
Photo: Kodrah Kristang

I love that you can walk through Singapore and hear snatches of so many different languages and cultures, and so many different ways of seeing the world we live in

In spite of these efforts, Professor Pillai explained the key ingredient necessary for these efforts to work – community involvement. She cited the importance of academics and the Kristang community working together so that both sides’ resources can be brought to the table.

“If you don’t involve the community itself, you are not taking into account that this is a lived language,” she said. “That this is the language and culture that’s been practiced daily by a community.”

Back across the causeway, Wong has his own five-phase, 30-year masterplan for Kodrah Kristang. They are currently in phase two, where the focus is on sustainability and growing their small community, as well as launching their free Kristang Online Dictionary.

While the value of saving a dying language may not be apparent to some, with the close affinity Wong feels towards the Kristang language and culture through his grandparents, he emphasised the importance of language and identity in connecting with his heritage.

But more broadly, Wong said, there are expressions in some languages that can never be fully encapsulated in the vocabulary of another without losing some of its essential elements. And in Singapore, a country that prides itself on its multiculturalism, diversity is the cornerstone of the city-state’s identity.

“I love that you can walk through the city and hear snatches of so many different languages and cultures, and so many different ways of seeing the world we live in,” he said. “If we were all English speakers, we’d only see the world through one language.” 

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