Issue 8 |

Patuá, the Sunset Creole

by on September 20, 2016

Filo di quim?

A Macanese would expect to stumble upon the question “filo di quim” in Patuá during a first encounter with another Macanese.  Literally meaning something like, ‘To whom you are born?’, this question serves as a mark of kinship on many levels. By identifying your surname, you confirm your genealogical link of Macanese descent. However, you also identify yourself as Macanese because you are able to understand Patuá, the sunset creole of Macau.

patua 1

Patuá phrases on commemorative T-shirts for Dóci Papiaçám di Macau di Macau theatre company’s 20th anniversary. (Photo by Elisabela Larrea)

Macau is a small territory situated at the mouth of the Pearl River in Southern China that was initially just 8 km2 of land mass [1]. At first a fishing village, Macau developed into a commercial port with the arrival of the Portuguese in the 16th century. Macau’s location and history made it a place of constant controversy between the East and the West, which has given rise to the three major ethnic categories extant in the city today: the Portuguese, the Chinese, and the Eurasian creole community known as the Macanese.

The Macanese are Macau’s indigenous Eurasian residents. It is believed that the first Macanese arose from intermarriages among Portuguese colonizers with Asians and/or African colonial subjects, and so Macanese are therefore a bilingual (or even trilingual) cultural group, with a language preference of Portuguese accompanied by Cantonese (a Chinese dialect spoken in South China), and/or English. However, as the Macanese are not quite an ethnic group or a nationality, the actual definition of Macanese has always been notoriously ambiguous. Even scholars express difficulty when attempting to clearly define the Macanese identity. Anthropologist João de Pina-Cabral, for example, began his account of the Macanese by saying “it is impossible to know how many of the inhabitants of Macau consider themselves to be Macanese.” [2]

Traditionally, however, the Macanese have been distinguished from other ethnic groups by their Catholicism, their food (which has always incorporated spices from various Portuguese colonies), their kinship and traditional families, and their language use. They are known in Portuguese as Macaenses, Orphãos de Oriente (literally ‘Orphans of the Orient’); in Cantonese as to saang 土生 [3] (literally ‘land born’), tou saang chai 土生仔 and touh saang pou yahn 土生葡人 [4]; and in their creole dialect Patuá as Macaísta, Maquista, Macau-filo and Maquista chapado [5].

patua 2

Ethnic intermarriage of author’s Macanese maternal grandparents.
Photo courtesy of Elisabela Larrea)

Língu Maquista

Patuá is a creole language of Macau that was once commonly used within the Macanese community. Linguists believe it was derived from Papiá Cristang of Malacca, a similar Portuguese creole still spoken there today. It was then later influenced by Cantonese, English and Spanish elements, and particularly by the Indian Canarim, a language of Goa [6]. It is also known as língua nhonha (‘women’s language’), maquista, papiaçám and papiâ Cristâm di Macau [7] (‘Christian Language of Macau’). The learning of this language required some level of group belongingness and knowledge passed down orally across generations. Its first record in Portuguese history was by Francisco Adolfo Coelho (1847–1919) in his monograph of Portuguese dialects spoken outside Portugal [8].

Patuá went through different phases of development. Initially a pidgin that incorporated words from Portuguese and native languages to aid communication, it was then later developed into a creole with its own grammatical structures and vocabularies. Considered as ‘broken Portuguese’ by the metropolitan Portuguese, it appears to bear a simpler language form with less demand for grammatical precision and formality. Worldwide, pidgins and creoles are usually abhorred when compared to other, more so-called ‘complete’ languages. However, having been listed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a ‘critically endangered[9] language in the year 2000 (when the number of Patuá speakers was recorded at 50), this creole must be studied and preserved in order to survive. The creole language reflects the Macanese self-image and traditions, which serves as a cultural representation of the community.

According to Hao, the Macau creole was a living means of communication for approximately 300 years, between the 17th and 19th centuries [10]. As a creole language, Patuá had various functions in the colonial era. Patuá was used as a domestic language between the Portuguese and natives.  It also served as a marker of social class, as people who spoke the creole or ‘broken Portuguese’ were regarded as less educated and of a lower class than those who spoke standard Portuguese. João Feliciano Marques Pereira (1863–1909), a dedicated researcher of Patuá, categorized three forms of Patuá [11]:

• macaísta cerrado or macaísta puro, literally “pure Macanese”, which was the original form spoken by the creole community;

• macaísta modificado pela tendência a aproximar-se do portuguez corrente, literally “Macanese modified in order to approximate itself to current Portuguese”— this form of the creole was spoken by more upper class Macanese, to make themselves appear closer to metropolitan Portuguese through language use; and finally

• macaísta fallado pelos chins, literally “Macanese spoken by the Chinese”.

Throughout the colonial era, the Portuguese secured their control over the creole Macanese beginning in the late 19th century. They did so via measures such as enforcing the use of the standard Portuguese language throughout the colony, thus depriving the Macanese of the opportunity for a more individual and independent expansion of their creole culture [12]. Patuá was suppressed in schools and standard Portuguese language education was implemented.

Moreover, restriction of high ranking government positions to Metropolitan Portuguese indicates that though the Macanese were subjects of the Portuguese empire, they were nonetheless not treated as equals in the hierarchical system. This meant that by the early 20th century, the creole dialect or língu maquista was being abandoned in large numbers. For one, the pidgin accent was thought to ‘spoil’ the pure Portuguese accent, while the creole community, hoping to ‘whiten’ themselves and claim a closer relationship with colonial power, became involved in higher administrative positions, often acting as the bridge between the Portuguese and Chinese. Unfortunately, by attempting to increase their pragmatic importance in this way, many Macanese thus abnegated their language, which ‘disappeared altogether in less than a century’ [13].

The sunset glow

In 1987, the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration was signed between the Portuguese and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) governments, consenting to return Macau to Chinese sovereignty on December 20, 1999. This granted Macau the Special Administrative Region (S.A.R.) status of ‘one country two systems’ for at least 50 years starting from the handover [14], and gave it a relative “high degree of autonomy” and its own legal system. Major social and political changes started during the transition period [15]: for instance residents born after 3 October 1981 were no longer Portuguese nationals; the Chinese language became Macau’s official language [16] in 1991 [17], and Portuguese public holidays were replaced with Chinese ones. All these constituted a new social and political environment for Macau.

The shift of administrative status provoked spirited discussion within the Macanese community on how to protect the unique elements of Macau’s Portuguese identity. All but lost as a language of daily conversation by the 1950s, and today spoken fluently by only a handful of people, Patuá became one of the core markers of Macanese culture to be preserved.

As a home language, Patuá lacks orthography and written documentation; accompanied by its abandonment, its preservation is a challenging task. José de Santos Ferreira, commonly known as Adé, is considered to have been the last person with comprehensive knowledge of macaísta cerrado. Adé “reinvented Patuá… and his output was indeed vast: [he] dedicated himself to poetry and prose, wrote lyrics for songs, translated poems and sonnets, recorded cassettes for radio programmes” [18]. An influential figure in creole theatre who later prompted the establishment of theatrical group Dóci Papiaçam di Macau (literally ‘Sweet Language of Macau’, also a synonym for Patuá), Adé was an active member of previous creole theatre groups that performed récitas macaísta (‘Macanese theatrical pieces’).

Récita macaísta performances first appeared in the 1930s, presented by a group of Macanese known as the Grupo de Amadores de Teatro (‘Amateur Theatrical Group’). This creole theatre was used as a means of intervening in social and political issues through the use of light comedy as an expressive tool and the stage as a public space for commentary. In 1992, just five years after the Joint Declaration, a group of well-known Macanese, including Adé, Cecília Jorge, and Julie de Senna Fernandes, initiated a meeting in an attempt to create a new creole theatre group that was initially known as Teatro Amador de Macau (‘The Macau Amateur Theatre’) [19]. The objective of this group was ‘a revival for survival’ [20]. Sadly, the death of Adé came shortly after these meetings and the loss of this representative figure of the dialect shocked the creole community, prompting awareness of the need to preserve the dialect that once defined the Macanese.

Also among the group that met in 1992 was Henrique de Senna Fernandes, a Macanese writer, lawyer and influential political figure. His son, Miguel de Senna Fernandes, became one of the founding members of the creole theatre company which became known as Dóci Papiaçam di Macau in 1993. He is currently the scriptwriter and director of the group, presenting a theatrical piece every year. The theatre’s dialect is a form of discourse for the community, and the performance functions as a reunion site for the community. In 2012, Patuá theatre was inscribed on the List of Macao S.A.R. Intangible Cultural Heritage.

patua 3

Dóci Papiaçam di Macau group photo after performance. (Photo courtesy of Elisabela Larrea)

Today, language continues to play a major role in the construction of identity. The dialect is a form of discourse by which the Macanese present their identity, a medium from which many Macanese gain a sense of self and community belonging. However, with the establishment of Macau Special Administrative Region, reduced creole intermarriages and the influences of globalization, the Chinese language has become predominant as the language of government and everyday social life.  With this change of political environment, the continued survival of Patuá and creole culture is facing a crisis.

Just like the sunset glow that flourishes with its diversity of colors and layers before absolute darkness, all sorts of media to promote the dialect have been employed. The creole dialect, with its locality, has become representative of difference. Efforts to stretch its continuity further have been made via theatre performances, creole songs, short films, social communications such as Facebook and even flashcards. The generation that once forsook the sweet language (Dóci Papiaçám) is learning it all over again; as my mother once said, “our parents gave up what was ours for a language that isn’t, now we are left to grab back what truly represents our culture, our spirit. Patuá is our language; it is ours.” I believe that Patuá, a creole dialect seen as facing extinction, is like a terminal cancer; as a responsible doctor, we have to continue fighting, in hopes that a miracle will come.

patua 4

Flashcard by Elisabela Larrea.
More flashcards and information on Macanese culture can be found at


Amaro, Ana Maria. (1994). Sons and Daughters of the Soil: the first decade of Luso Chinese Diplomacy. Review of Culture 20 (2nd series English Edition). Instituto Cultural of Macau, Macau.

Azevedo, R. (1984). A Influência da Cultura Portuguesa em Macau. Instituto de Cultura e Língua Portuguesa: Ministério da Educação.

Clayton, C. H. (2009). Sovereignty at the Edge: Macau and the Question of Chineseness. Harvard University Asia Centre.

Coutinho, P. (1994). Dóci Papiaçam di Macau: the art of survival. Macau Magazine, Special 1994. Livros do Oriente: Macau.

Hao, Zhidong. (2011). Macau History and Society. Hong Kong University Press.

Jorge, C. (1994). The Macanese Récita and the Língu Maquista, Macau Magazine, Special 1994. Livros do Oriente: Macau.

José Feliciano Marques Pereira, Ta-Ssi-Yang-Kuo, 大西洋國, Arquivos e Anais do Extremo-Oriente Português (1899-1903.

Macau S.A.R. official languages are Chinese and Portuguese.

Pina-Cabral, J. de. (2002). Between China and Europe: Person, Culture and Emotion in Macao. Continuum.

Senna Fernandes, Miguel de and Alan Baxter. (2004). Maquista Chapado: vocabulary and expressions in Macao’s Portuguese Creole. Macau: Cultural Institution of Macau.

The official transfer of sovereignty occurred in the midnight of December 20, 1999, also known as the handover.

Transition period of Macau is between the signage date of the Joint Declaration and the handover.

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger (2009)

Usellis, William R. The Origin of Macao: a master dissertation submitted to the Faculty of the division of the Social Sciences. Department of History. Chicago, Illinois: 1958.

Wang, Z. (1994). “O Estatuto oficial do chinês e bilinguismo durante o período de transição em Macau”. Administration Magazine, No. 23, Volume VII. Public Administration and Civil Service Bureau.

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