Kristang: A shallow sea

by on June 2, 2015

Malacca, even and especially on the weekends, is a crowded town. The over-peopled alleys and shophouse-lined streets of the city centre are almost obstinately narrow, and traffic, vehicular and pedestrian, struggles endlessly to disentangle itself. Boats have a little better luck, as they ply the relatively serene waters of the Malacca River, but their function is mainly a scenic one: their sides swell with tourists, who shrill with unadulterated joy as waves leap onto the deck during the sharper turns. A larger vessel, a replica of some older sailing ship, stands alone, a forlorn guard at the water’s edge, its insides given over to curators and relics of Malacca’s maritime history, silhouetted against the smudged outline of an old fort built atop a hill, and the sharper, clearer block of highway that runs along the coast. Snatches of Malay, the national language, flitter through the heavy afternoon air, and also other languages: English, in all its brazen, imperialist disregard, and Chinese and Japanese, German and French, Swedish and Italian.

Malacca, or the “Historic State”, as the Malaysian government dubs it, draws many to its sights and stories; and of these there are many. From the fortress of A Famosa to the replica of La Flor de la Mar, to the great Stadthuys, Malacca has them all. And why not? It has changed colonial masters no less than three times: first conquered by the Portuguese in 1511, it was taken by the Dutch over a hundred years later in 1641, before being ceded to the British in 1824, and finally becoming independent with the rest of Malaysia in 1957. Cultures and churches collide in this vast, vibrant, chaotic sea, and it is sometimes difficult to find yourself passage through it all.

But if you manage to ride just the right tide of traffic out of the claustrophobic city centre, you might just find yourself nudged into a relatively gentler lagoon: a series of flat, low-rise dwellings, with narrow, overgrown gardens that curl around each house’s edge, all framed by shoulder-high walls and rusting gates that glint waveringly under the watery late-afternoon sun, and watched over by tall, slightly off-centre wooden poles connected by a haphazard tangle of electrical wiring. The streets are wider here, and so much quieter; the scuff of your shoes against the basalt road is almost embarrassing. Even the sea, so close to the last row of houses, is relatively placid.

This greater area is called Ujong Pasir, or ‘Sand’s End’, in Malay; yet there’s something slightly peculiar about the street names. Daranjo doesn’t sound particularly Austronesian; neither does Eredia, or Texeira, or D’albuquerque. And English predominates here, of course, and sometimes Malay too; but if you listen very closely, and are lucky enough, you might just hear the sounds of something else that’s quite unlike both.

This is the Portuguese Settlement, and this, the third language, so similar to Standard European Portuguese and Malay and yet so different, is Malacca Creole Portuguese, or Kristang.

De Albuquerque’s children

On August 24, 1511, the guns finally fell silent in Malacca Town. Afonso de Albuquerque and his small force of just a thousand men, had overcome Sultan Mahmood Shah and his coterie of Malaccan soldiers, cannons and elephants [1] to gain the first Portuguese foothold in Southeast Asia and its spice trade, and control over what was already one of the region’s most thriving mercantile ports.

As all conquering men usually do, de Albuquerque and his band quickly set about leaving their mark on the city and on history, and by all accounts, they quite definitively succeeded. By January 1512, de Albuquerque’s men had completed construction of A Famosa (or ‘The Beautiful’): a magisterial, imposing fortress that would later serve as a bastion against more than twenty subsequent attacks by pirates and hostile empires alike, the lone fortress on a hill. The bounty of Malacca was carried off in the Flor de la Mar (‘The Flower of the Sea’), an unwieldy Portuguese carrack bound for Goa; rather unfortunately for de Albuquerque, she eventually sank off the coast of Malacca in a storm, where her treasure remains to this day, but she is preserved in the replica that bobs gently up and down along Malacca’s present-day quayside, inviting all and sundry to consider Malacca’s once-abundant maritime riches.

Yet history usually neglects to consider one of the most long-lasting and dynamic elements of the Portuguese legacy: the Portuguese themselves, or rather, their descendants.

The children of the Portuguese men who manned A Famosa and the town’s municipal elements and the local women who married them were at first deeply valued by the Portuguese crown, who believed that such intermarriages would make Malacca easier to rule, and promote the spread of the Gospel. This community grew, and despite the Dutch conquest and subsequent reparation of many of the Portuguese to Goa and Negapatam in early 1641, there were still to be found 1603 Portuguese residents in Malacca on the municipal register in December of that year. Nonetheless, this group that remained were the poorer members of the community, and to this day, the Portuguese in Malacca, who also call themselves Eurasians, or Kristang, continue to struggle to earn their livelihoods in an increasingly crowded and urbanised city.

Today, there are just about two hundred families left in Malacca, most of them concentrated in the Portuguese Settlement, where the government relocated the majority of the community in 1933. Many Portuguese-Eurasians are fishermen, and continue to ply the maritime trade in some fashion as their ancestors did so very long ago, albeit in a vastly different manner; where de Albuquerque and his men looted and conquered, his descendants now fight for catch in a rapidly industrialising strait and sell it at sadly identical-looking restaurants along Malacca’s coast. Their traditions and culture, some say, are bastardised; but they also represent a way of life that has been present in some form along Malacca’s shores for over five hundred years, a meeting of two worlds long separated by a vast, unyielding ocean.

And we must remember the other major progeny of this concordance that history, in all its haste to preserve the relic, the monument and the memorial, seems to have forgotten. As the people and their culture go, so too goes their language.

Daughter of two worlds

The word Kristang is believed to be derived from the Portuguese word cristão, meaning, as it were, ‘Christian’. It stands not just for the language, papia kristang (‘Christian speech’) but also for a people for whom it is clearly evident in the singular use of this term that the Christian identity is a significant part of their tradition.

Wandering the streets of the Portuguese Settlement, and grasping at the occasional, distant trails of the language that tumble through the air, a learner (or even a native speaker) of Standard European Portuguese might be forgiven for initially considering Kristang to be but a separate dialect of the Portuguese language–indeed, much of its vocabulary, and even its sound system, lend themselves to this. Nonetheless, Kristang is a vastly different language from its more famous progenitor because of its mixing with its less famous one–Malay. Linguists call mixed languages like Kristang creoles.

In modern-day popular usage, the word ‘creole’ has unfortunately acquired significantly derogatory overtones, which in linguistics it thankfully lacks. Indeed, in linguistics, a creole simply refers to any language formed from the marriage and interplay between two other languages, with features from both being transferred to the daughter language. Kristang, therefore, is the product of contact between Portuguese and Malay, just as Tok Pisin, the national language of Papua New Guinea, is the result of intermixing between English, Kuanua, Malay, German, and a variety of other languages, or Singapore English, which in all its bizarre, copula-depleted glory, is the product of British English being blended together with several Chinese dialects and Malay.

Of course, the process is usually not as easily analogous to picking out your two favourite languages at the linguistic grocery store and popping them in a cultural milieu blender, with a perfectly engineered and even glass of Tok Pisin smoothie which results. Often, one language serves as what linguists call a substrate, providing for the new language much of its grammar, sentence structure and other nitty-gritty bits you as a non-linguist hate to talk about. The other is termed the superstrate, giving the new language most of its vocabulary, terms and names. In the case of Kristang, therefore, it possesses Malay as a substrate and Portuguese as a superstrate. Although it is extremely reductive to think of Kristang as Malay with Portuguese slapped on top of it like a shiny bumper sticker, since both languages contributed to its grammar, sentence structure and vocabulary. Nevertheless, distinguishing the primary roles of the two languages in this regard allows linguists to better conceptualise and analyse how Kristang functions as a language, and occasionally disentangle complex word forms or clauses. And yes, Kristang, like all languages, has those – creoles are languages as much as any national European language, with their own endlessly complicated tangle of rules, and have been extensively studied as such.

How exactly is Kristang different from Standard European Portuguese? For starters, Kristang expresses tense very differently. Where most European languages have tense or word endings on their verbs, or action words, to show who performed the action and at what period in time, Kristang simply doesn’t have these. In standard Portuguese, for example, the verb fazer, or ‘to do’, is expressed like this:

I do it – Eu faço isso

You do it – Tu fazes isso

We do it – Nós fazemos isso

Notice how fazer changes form. In Kristang, the verb fazeh remains exactly the same:

I do it – Yo fazeh eli

You do it – Bos fazeh eli

We do it – Nus fazeh eli

This goes for past tense as well–in standard Portuguese, there is a whole set of different forms of fazeh (and, if you notice, to a lesser extent in English as well):

I did it – Eu fiz isso

You did it – Tu fizeste isso

We did it – Nós fizemos isso

In Kristang, by contrast, all you need is the past tense marker ja before the verb:

I did it – Yo ja fazeh eli

You did it – Bos ja fazeh eli

We did it – Nus ja fazeh eli

Much of Kristang works in this fashion, using particles, as they are known to linguists, to express nuances of grammar that in European languages would more often be expressed through word endings. To describe something happening in the future, for example, you simply replace ja with logu, while to highlight that something belongs to someone, just add sa:

My name is Kevin – Yo sa nomi Kevin

Kevin’s house is big – Kevin sa kaza grandi

(You might have picked up another salient feature of Kristang in that second example – Kristang lacks any word for is/are/am. This is not strange, of course; many other languages like Russian have the same property.)

Languages that encode meaning in separate words or particles in this fashion are described by linguists as analytic, while languages on the other end of the spectrum like Hungarian that encode meaning in word endings are known as agglutinative. Most languages fall somewhere along this line – English, for example, demonstrates characteristics of both extremes – but does this mean analytic languages are simpler and easier to learn, since the naïve, innocent learner is spared the iniquitous torture of conjugation tables and case ending charts? Not so; the interplay of so many different particles and function words means that much of a Kristang sentence is usually extremely context-dependent and derivable only if you have a firm grasp of the nuances of different communicative situations.

Why do such languages arise? Many of the 120 or so remaining creoles around the world are products of an earlier time when first contact was not mediated and mitigated by Google Translate or dictionary apps, and further contact or trade required a common, understandable tongue. Encountering each other for the first time, Portuguese traders and settlers and local Malay residents in Malacca would have had very limited knowledge of the other’s language. In order to communicate, some sort of compromise system would have to be developed for both parties to understand each other – simple and yet contextually flexible enough to allow a user to get his message across in the most varied of possible situations. Such is how many creoles have been born; Kristang is no exception, appearing in order to facilitate the spice trade between Portuguese merchants and the indigenous Malay townspeople, and later going on to serve as the main means of communication between their descendants.

You also would be right to think that creoles have for the most part remained largely oral languages, since they have often served in this mediating way as trade languages between different communities. A few, like Tok Pisin, have achieved national status, and now enjoy the patronage of writers and government officials to ensure their continuity. But for the most part, many of these languages have rarely been documented or written down. In Kristang’s case, real scientific documentation only began in the latter half of the 1930s, with the pioneering work of Portuguese linguists Luis Chaves and António da Silva Rêgo, and later, the American linguist Ian Hancock. In 1988, Australian linguist Alan Norman Baxter completed the first full grammar of the language, outlining the linguistic rules of Kristang for the first time. In 2004 two full dictionaries of Kristang were published; one by Baxter and a Eurasian counterpart, Patrick de Silva, outlining “Malacca Creole Portuguese”, and another by Valerie Scully and Catherine Zuzarte entitled The Most Comprehensive Eurasian Heritage Dictionary and outlining the Singapore dialect of Kristang. A third in 2012 followed, by the prolific Kristang writer Joan Margaret Marbeck, who has also published two collections of Kristang poetry and short stories and a Kristang phrasebook. Several CDs and recordings of Kristang speakers have also been published, most notably in 2014, when a team from the University of Malaya led by Stefanie Pillai put together a collection of prayers and hymns recorded in Kristang.

Yet aside from a few papers in scholarly journals and several press releases, this is the sum total of all the works that have been produced in or about Kristang; and it is partially because the language is dying. Long engaged in a losing battle against the much more well-entrenched English and Malay, Kristang is slowly being washed away in the sweeping tides of globalisation, migration, and national development. No one knows for sure how many Kristang speakers are left, but it is not many, and the number is declining; Alan Baxter’s 2004 estimate of 2,150 speakers is quoted by the 2010 UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger and the 2015 edition of Ethnologue, while a 2014 estimate put forward by Stefanie Pillai’s team pegged the number at just 750. What is to be done? Why don’t people want to speak Kristang anymore?

Linggu mai

“They are ashamed.”

It is a lazy, sultry Saturday morning in Seremban, and we are sitting in a hotel café around a platter of samosas, sandwiches, and French fries, listening to Joan Margaret Marbeck talk about Kristang.

One of Malaysia’s less well-known cities, Seremban sits squarely on the Malaysian North-South Highway that links the capital, Kuala Lumpur, with the southern port of Johor Bahru and the independent city-state of Singapore. This morning, we’ve travelled just over two hundred kilometers in three hours, making an early, drowsy start in Singapore to get to Seremban on time.

Seremban is what Joan Marbeck now calls home. A music teacher by trade, Joan was born into a Eurasian family in Malacca that was not fully Portuguese and had stopped using Kristang. However, while playing in the kampong, she often overheard her friends’ mothers call to them in the language. Intrigued, she learned enough Kristang to later surprise her Eurasian pupils in the Settlement who believed that she could not understand their ‘secret language’. (She confesses to me with equal amounts of wistfulness and guilt that “believe it or not, I never taught one Kristang song while I was teaching.”)

In 1995, Joan chose to retire from the Malaysian teaching service in order to produce her first book on her heritage and history – Ungua Adanza. An inheritance, in Kristang. The book is a piecemeal collection of discourses, poems, photographs, and song lyrics, snippets of Kristang that she was able to gather and translate into English (the original and the translation are provided side-by-side). It also features a glossary of Kristang, the first up till then that had been published for the mass market. Marbeck followed this up with Linggu mai (‘Mother Tongue’) in 2004, a book in much the same vein as Ungua Adanza, and in 2012, the Commemorative Bahasa Serani Dictionary, “bahasa serani” being the name of the language in Malay. She’s also written a Kristang musical, Kazamintu di praia, and a play in English and Kristang, Seng Maryanne.

Joan is clearly very well-known amongst those who know of Kristang, and she has been well- rewarded by her prolific writing: a 2007 ‘Amazing Malaysian’ contest organised by Malaysian telecommunications provider DiGi saw her declared the “Kristang Poet of Malacca.” Her mission, she tells us, is “to get things done, and to get Eurasians on their feet again.” Yet I found it intriguing that she should have chosen to live in Seremban, away from the community in Malacca which she sought to represent to the world.

“I wrote my books very, very simply. So that anybody – the man on the street, anybody – can learn it, look at it and say, ‘this is my secret language’.”

Joan speaks with a quiet, passionate ferocity that matches the oftentimes intense and even urgent writing that streams through her books. One is reminded of an old, grizzled eagle (lang, as they say in Kristang), still diligently scanning the seas for prey. She speaks candidly, and effusively, still possessed of what seems to be almost unlimited passion and vigor for this dying language.

“If you go to the Settlement, you’ll meet little boys, between twelve to fourteen to sixteen years old, and you’ll ask them ‘Kaiya, teng bong?’, and they’ll say, ‘Aiyah, I don’t know how to speak. You talk to my mother and my grandmother.’” She wears a thinly-veiled mask of disapproval now. “Why? The influence of English and Malay. I think we are losing out, because that group of people in the Settlement should have been the core group that would have stimulated the rest to speak the language – but they are not speaking it anymore.”

And she’s right. Several teams of researchers have documented this shift in the language use of families in the Settlement; their studies concur that because of the influence of English and Malay in not just the home environment but in school and the church, domains where Kristang used to hold sway, it is losing out. The language is no longer being taught actively, whereas once upon a time it was taught in at least two or three schools; similarly, where certain elements of the mass in the community church were once said in Kristang, today’s priests preach in English because they just don’t know the language – the current parish priest is Chinese, and never had the opportunity to learn Kristang. Joan advocates the development of more educational resources – “see, everybody’s doing dictionaries now, but what I want to see is pedagogical materials!” – but if no one wants to learn, then what value would textbooks possess?

Joan says she doesn’t want to work with the community in Malacca anymore. “I actually have given up on Malacca and the Portuguese Settlement there,” she tells me, with no hint of regret – hinting at perhaps why she now coordinates her efforts from Seremban. Yet she still sees herself as part of a “Eurasian community, a strong community, five hundred or so years old,” and she is genuinely concerned about the people who remain in Malacca, especially in light of recent, ominous developments – as multinational corporations seek to reclaim the waters in which the Portuguese fishermen presently fish, the community itself may be dispersed, having lost their most valuable and vital source of livelihood.

“Just tell me – what will you do with a sea that is shallow?” Joan says, her mood now pensive and melancholy. “You cannot go out and push that net out further. There’s nowhere to go, because it’s all being filled up with land.”

Indeed, the last coherent group of Kristang speakers would possibly be broken up, and the final domain of the language lost to the waves.

The last fishermen

“It’s dying, actually.”

It is early evening on the same day, and we are now in Malacca, in the Portuguese Settlement, in the house of Sara Santa Maria.

Sara learned Kristang from her grandmother and her father; she teaches at a local learning centre on weekdays, but on Saturday evenings, she teaches the language at the local convent school. The classes, though, are informal, and she only teaches to willing children in the community, most of whom are actually more content, as Sara tells us, to spend the time playing in the drains, or at the nearby field. She currently has six children in the afternoon class, including her youngest son; on our visit there, we were supposed to observe a language lesson in action, but Sara’s young protégés need to practice for a dance performance the following day at the cultural centre, so we watch them practice their act to the tune of heavy, blasting American pop music that quickly and conscientiously erases the unobtrusive silence that had earlier followed us into the Settlement.

Later, we sit on Sara’s pockmarked couch, amidst the various cats and kittens of the Santa Maria family. One kitten immediately takes to assistant editor Anirudh’s socks, snagging its paws with contented firmness in the soft, warm cotton (and, of course, despite its owner’s protests, a bit of the soft, warm skin) and curling up around his heel. Sara tells us we’ll have to bring her back. Another, older tomcat named Finn repeatedly refuses, with polite but very adamant grace, to remove himself from the sofa, and observes the proceedings between us with intelligent green eyes.

Sara and the adult members of the community still make a concerted effort to use the language. In the morning, for example, Sara greets her neighbour with a friendly Ki ta kumih? (What are you eating?). They use it at community festivals, and several elder members of the community like Noel Felix still sing in it. Sara and the adults like Kristang; to them, it is their secret language. Sara’s in-laws are of Indian and Chinese descent, so when she and her sister Rebecca get together, they speak Kristang: “if they don’t understand, it’s okay. We don’t want them to know.” The children understand it too, says Sara; although they are afraid to speak, they can readily understand Kristang commands, and even, apparently, more complex sentences.

“When I teach at the learning centre, I sometimes use Portuguese words. The children will ask me, ‘Teacher, what are you saying? Can you speak English so I can understand you?’, and I will say, ‘Go and learn your mother tongue. It’s your mother tongue,’” she says, smiling. Her smile quickly fades. “But it’s dying, actually. You can say it’s dying. Adults, down here, the ladies would rather play chikee, or poker. To go and learn this, they will say, ‘for what?’”

Indeed, the Portuguese community in Malacca remains largely poor. Relocating to the Settlement area in 1933, Portuguese settlers like Sara’s grandfather began with government housing that had no electricity and no running water; until recently, they also had no flooring, and Sara still woefully points out unpatched cracks in the walls and the ceiling. It is easy to see why saving the language hasn’t really been much of a priority.

Even so, the community has banded together to make some attempt at promoting (and thereby saving) their culture; last year, the Eurasian dance troupe performed in a concert entitled Songs Of Padri Se Chang: Music And Dance Of The Portuguese Of Malacca under the auspices of the Malaysian non-governmental and minority group organisation Pusaka, and to great success. Meanwhile, led by Michael Singho, the president of the Malacca Portuguese-Eurasian Association, the fishermen in the community, who still number about two hundred strong are fighting a difficult and protracted battle against the proposed land reclamation, although they have made progress with a responsive Malacca state government.

“Are you the only one championing the language here in the Settlement?” I ask.

“I think so.” Sara tells us that her father, Aloysius, who had also greatly supported the language revitalisation efforts, passed away in December; he had meticulously prepared Kristang handouts and worksheets full of songs, texts and exercises, which she shows to us. They are several thick, dusty reams of degenerating workbooks, printouts and loose leaflets. Some pages are typewritten; much of the rest is in elegant, looping cursive. Many of them are old and crumbling. Why haven’t these been compiled and published? I wanted to know.

It is because of the spelling. Sara is working with a team led by University of Malaya linguist Stefanie Pillai to standardise the spelling of Kristang words, which remains a significant issue in the community. As mentioned earlier, Kristang remains largely an oral language – it has no standard spelling conventions, and speakers differ on exactly what these should be. A ‘k’ for the first sound in kaza (‘house’), for example, might make it easier for new learners to acquire the language, but a ‘c’ would highlight the “Portuguese-ness” of Kristang, as Sara calls it. Speakers who identify more with their Portuguese roots want to see the language reflect this; others like Sara want to reduce its complexity for newer students so that the language can be easier preserved.

“If we can get the language taught in school, we should. It would be so good.” Sara’s husband is of Kadazan descent – also a minority language of Malaysia, Kadazan is spoken in Sabah, where it has nevertheless generally fared better than Kristang. “If we can have the Kadazan language in school, the Punjabi language in school, why can’t we have the Kristang language in school? But they say it’s a useless language. Who’s going to use it?”

Flower of the sea

No one’s really sure what will happen next. Two of the linguists we spoke to, Alan Baxter and Stefanie Pillai, had wildly differing views. The former, who also wrote the first grammar of Kristang, feels that the community has yet to come to truly value the language, or recognise that is truly dying. The latter, who has worked with the community on their CD of prayers and hymns, and continues to work with them on a Kristang online dictionary, told us that she believes the community has really started to come together to take up ownership of the language, and that there is a chance that they will be able to revitalize it with the right kind of community support and direction.

What kind of direction, exactly? Education, certainly, if the language is going to be passed on to the next generation of speakers. Tourism might possibly be the next most viable avenue – promoting the language as a novelty, a uniqueness that goes along with Kristang culture, food and festivity. Yet Sara’s informal classes continue to receive only scant, passing attention from both the children of the community and their parents. Joan Marbeck has sought tirelessly to promote the language to both Malaysia at large and the international community through her books, but with little visible impact in the way of language revitalisation.

Whichever way the tide turns will ultimately depend on the community, it seems. This is true of all languages, whose existence as living entities is of course only predicated by speakers wanting to speak them, and pass them on to their progeny. That is how Kristang started life, as a new, mixed language formed from two languages; the same principles govern whether it continues to live on, or slowly dies away.

We walk along the shore after we leave Sara’s house – it’s only a short meander to the coast. The rocky, tepid beach reeks of polluted seawater and sewage, but for brief, serene stretches, we catch fleeting glimpses of what it might have seemed like to a fifteenth century Chinese merchant junk, or an angular, frenetic Malayan sampan, or De Albuquerque and his men, staring out over the thriving, bustling town they were about to consume in the name of God and Empire. Five hundred years later, it seems the fortunes of their descendants are about to come full circle – in the distance, the bustling hulk of a huge container vessel reminds us of the sobering reality that may well soon bear down upon the Portuguese community, and their unique language. Malacca, even on weekends, is a crowded town; yet, in the weekends to come, it might just be a little less so.

For more on Kristang in this issue, check out our Interrogatives interview Revitalising Kristang with Dr Stefanie Pillai of the University of Malaya. Also, it’s not over with Kristang yet – in Unravel Issue 4, Kevin Martens Wong profiles Kristang in Singapore, and tries to find out what has happened to the language of the Eurasians in the Lion City.


[1] Yes, elephants; as de Albuquerque himself relates in an account of the attack,

at this very moment the king of Malaca came up mounted upon an elephant, and his son upon another, with a body of armed men, and elephants armed with wooden castles, containing many warlike engines, and compelled the Moors to return to the stockades which they had deserted. [2]

Unluckily for the Sultan, the Portuguese quickly understood one of the most fundamental rules of combat – jabbing any mammal “in the tender parts” is usually a game-changer. [3]

[2] de Albuquerque, A., & Birch, W. d. G. (2010). The Commentaries of the Great Afonso Dalboquerque, Second Viceroy of India: Translated from the Portuguese Edition of 1774 (W. d. G. Birch, Trans. Vol. 3). Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Diffie, B. W., & Winius, G. D. (1977). Foundations of the Portuguese Empire, 1415-1580. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press and Oxford University Press.

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