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They say that my language, like my grandmother, is dying.
“...and what will his Mother Tongue be?” was the question. Innocent; perfunctory.
“I think you mean his Second Language . That’ll be Malay.” my mother volleyed; anything but.
The year was 1993 and this was a routine meeting with staff from St Stephen’s School before my enrollment in the coming months. I acquainted myself as well as I could with Malay over the next decade of school life along with the other ten (more or less) Eurasian boys in my cohort. All of us with “MOTHER TONGUE” screaming ironically from the covers of our ring binders.
In 2004 my mother and her sister submitted a forum letter to The Straits Times1, spurred by the launch of the Eurasian Heritage Dictionary that year: “We wonder if the Ministry of Education will recognise Kristang as an ‘official’ mother tongue,” they wrote, “Eurasians have been obliged to choose mother tongue languages which are not their own for more than 30 years. We studied Malay in school, as did most Eurasians, but we are not Malays, nor are we Chinese or Indians.”
A reply2 surfaced a week later from the then-President of the Eurasian Association himself. Because Kristang was only spoken by a “minority” of Eurasians of Portuguese descent, he argued, it was neither useful nor economically valuable. He was partially right. Eurasians in Singapore are diverse in terms of heritage. The European portion of our stock varies from family to family – among them Portuguese, Dutch, British, and more – via the different waves of traders and settlers in Singapore, Malacca, Batavia, Ceylon, and Goa between the 1500s and 1900s. Kristang is specifically a marriage of Portuguese and Malay, made in Malacca, and may not resonate with the swathes of our community that do not hold Portuguese or Malaccan lineage.
But the usefulness of a language is subjective; its value immeasurable by any standards let alone economic ones. It could be a tool to forge lasting connections with. It could be the pillar of an entire culture. It could be a vessel for identity and expression. In doggedly pragmatic Singapore, still reverberating with Lee Kuan Yew’s belief that “poetry is a luxury we cannot afford”3 , it could also be an indulgent distraction from the blueprint of success. God forbid if Joseph Schooling had deigned to speak Kristang as he surged towards Olympic glory – it might have slowed him down.
Conversations are to a language what oxygen is to a flame. With a resistance towards fanning it, Kristang deteriorated in exile, even as other facets of Kristang culture – like curry devil4 and the Jinkli Nona5 – became steadfast synonyms of Eurasian-ness.
I will gather to myself these lost words of my ancestral tongue and I will speak them to my children and my children’s children. This gift I can give them. The gift of knowing and being who they are, and who and all they have been.
My mother, aunt, and grandparents are considered “native” or “fluent” speakers by today’s benchmarks. Growing up, smatterings of Kristang had made it into our household vernacular – like danadu (naughty), oh Deus (oh God), olah sa kara (see his/her/their face), ta drumih (sleeping), and jah kumih (already eaten). But it was predominantly used for clandestine conversations when kids were in earshot. Perhaps the convenience of this private channel was far too alluring to let go of. Perhaps it was enough of a struggle to keep us abreast of our school curricula, let alone a third language. Or perhaps they’d simply taken their own inheritance of the language for granted. Nonetheless, I suspect that that was the case for many other households too. Aside from the occasional “oi bola (testicle)”, Kristang never made it into the chatterings of us Eurasian boys in Mother Tongue classes.
Over the years, there had been efforts within the community to teach Kristang, of course. Both my grandmothers were involved in some of these classes and learning groups at one point. But none captivated hearts the way Kodrah Kristang did. Kodrah Kristang, or “Awaken, Kristang”, was started in 2016 by a linguistics student from NUS named Kevin Martens Wong who, while researching endangered languages in the region, discovered that Kristang – his own maternal heritage language – was among them.
Ostensibly, the success of Kodrah Kristang compared to its spiritual predecessors was a combination of its lesson structure – Kevin adopted best practices he had learnt through his extensive study of language revitalisation – and a single-minded determination to steer the language into the mouths of a new generation. Social media nous and press coverage helped plenty, too.
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Our second online Jardinggu discussion for "quarantine", "surgical mask", and "to disinfect"! Lucky for those who joined, Pat ended off with a Kristang song from her childhood "Yo Naki Fikah". Keng ja ubih isti kantiga? 😊 Speak Kristang and want to join in these online discussions? Please drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about Jardinggu: The Kristang Lexical Incubator on our website.
Kodrah’s biggest triumph, its greatest gift, was in bringing together Eurasians of all ages – some attended in the form of three-generation family units – in classes of up to 100 on some nights and forcing us all to interact with each other. Kodrah had awoken far more than Kristang. For many of us, it was the first time in years if not decades that we were not the only souls in a large group of strangers who grew up with Gatu bai, gatu beng6 as a nursery rhyme, who perfectly understood what rayu (rascal) and furiada (vainpot) meant, and who lived in households where the word “swine” was practically used as punctuation. Who looked forward to stew7 and bostador8 and semur9 and feng10 from their Nanna. Who had a Nanna instead of a Nenek or an Aatha or a Popo.
As friendships deepened, common ground broadened: we realised we all shared similar gripes about what it means to be Eurasian. About constantly being mistaken for foreigners. About bracing ourselves over and over again for interrogations about our existence (usually within the first five minutes of conversation – on my very first night at Basic Military Training, a platoon-mate couldn’t even wait till my toothbrush and toothpaste had vacated my mouth): “Your father from where?”, “Why your name like that?”, and “You all eat curry? How’s that European?”. About always having to tick the box marked “Others” on official Singapore documents; an eternal reminder from the system about our lack of economic value compared to Chinese, Malays, and Indians.
Camaraderie fortified us. We all set out, in our own ways, to invert our communal void and restore our connections to our heritage. Over subsequent years, past and present Kodrah participants and team members produced the Kristang Language Festival, a Kristang board game (Ila-Ila Di Sul), Kristang flash cards (Bista Di Kristang), a short film (Nina Boboi), and a graphic novel about Eurasian culture and identity (Ki Sorti, which I co-authored). And, most notably, ‘Others’ Is Not A Race, Melissa De Silva’s Singapore Literature Prize-winning book featuring The Gift and other stories.
Ours was poetry that could no longer afford to be silenced.
And we will form a single, unbroken thread, stretching from my youngest grandchild, winding backward to the admiral, apothecary or merchant at the root of our heritage, perhaps five hundred, a thousand or even more years ago in that maritime European nation across many seas. And our language will course through the line, life-giving blood, linking us in a circlet of our common love of laughter and the simple joys of existence. We are, all of us and Nanna, inextricably bound into eternity.
“UNDI TA BAI!? BENG NAKI! (Where are you going!!? Come here!)” yells Nanna as her great-grandson dashes recklessly around the living room. Kristang has reawoken in our household, too. At one and a half years of age my son is already a veritable rayu.
My daughter, five, is very much a furiada and also mutu chadu (very clever). She has been learning Mandarin at pre-school and kindergarten and will continue to take it as a Mother Tongue. But she has also picked up smatterings of Kristang at home – larger smatterings than I did at her age.
“Nang toka almari! (Don’t touch the cupboard!)” she calls after her brother, echoing the warning my mother gives him when he tries to hit the doors of her glass cabinets. When I started playing Uno with her, she habitually called “Ngua! (One!)” instead. The latter shares linguistic roots with the former; she is only mistaken in a pedantic sense.
At the height of Kodrah’s coverage in the media, the likes of CNA ran stories about Kristang and the efforts to save it. One Facebook comment from the Singapore public lodged itself in my memory: “Why must we help some other language. Why can’t we help our own local languages which are dying, like Teochew?”
A Singaporean who fails to grasp that Kristang and Eurasians are indeed local is par for the course and the epitome of our status quo. But he reminded me of the wealth of other heritage languages – Teochew, Hakka, Baba Malay, Sindhi, Malayalam, Urdu, and Boyanese among them – that also fell victim to our nation’s dogged pragmatism. That are all equally worth preserving.
Melissa’s “single, unbroken thread” is an eminently appropriate metaphor for what Kristang is to our identity. As our heritage it is our anchor, especially when we are reminded how Other we are – it doesn’t matter how foreign it feels to the rest of Singapore. It matters that it sounds like home to us. Implicitly, the onus is rightfully on us, at each generation, to keep our thread taut lest it unravel or be lost to the winds. And as the people who rallied towards Kristang’s revitalisation have demonstrated, the threads of heritage and identity that weave across the community are equally critical to the ones that span each family line; each fortifying the other and providing leverage to keep going. Collectively forming a rich, distinctive, immovable tapestry that continues and continues to give.
1 Pereira, B & Carroll, B 2004, ‘Recognise Kristang language as mother tongue’, The Straits Times, 31 May
2 Davenport, B 2004, ‘Why Kristang not taught as mother tongue’, The Straits Times, 8 June
3 Koh, TA 2014, ‘It’s Not Just the Singapore Literature Prize, But Also Literature in Singapore That’s In Crisis’, Commentary 2014, vol. 23, pp. 30-42
4 Also known as curry debal or devil’s curry. As legend has it, the dish originated as a means to use up leftovers from Christmas dinner, and utilised plenty of spices to add coherence to the hodgepodge of ingredients. Centuries later, curry devil is now the centrepiece of every Eurasian family’s Christmas dinner, with each family passing down their own version of the recipe like a closely-guarded heirloom. Each family will claim that their recipe is the best, but of course, this is inaccurate. My Nanna’s recipe is the best.
5 Loosely translated as “Fair Maiden”, this Kristang folk song is about a man who is attempting to woo and marry a woman. Jinkli Nona is commonly played at Eurasian weddings and is accompanied by the branyo, a Kristang dance. At my own wedding, my Nanna and Papa kicked off the branyo to Jinkli Nona on the dance floor.
6 A Kristang nursery rhyme: “gatu bai, gatu beng, buskah ratu, naki teng!” Translates to “the cat goes, the cat comes, search for the rat, here it is!”.
7 Eurasian stew uses spices like cinnamon and cloves; its meats vary between chicken, pork, corned beef, and meatballs.
8 Prawn sambal bostador is a thick, spicy curry made with coconut milk, turmeric, and sliced green chillies. And, naturally, prawn and sambal.
9 Semur is a peppery stew made with fragrant spices, carrots, potatoes, radish, beef, and pork, and served with sambal belachan on the side.
10 Feng is, in my personal opinion, a true delicacy. A thick, peppery curry made with finely diced pork offal. Feng is labour-intensive and can take up to a full day to make (and that’s not counting the curry powder which is made from scratch), so it is traditionally reserved for special occasions like Christmas.
Shane Carroll writes for both work and play. By day he’s a copywriter specialising in digital and social media marketing. By night he’s a poet, pun artist, and everything in between. He is the author of Stories by the River, a poetry collection set around the Singapore River, and co-author of Ki Sorti, a graphic novel about Eurasian heritage, culture, and identity.
Singapore literature, reimagined. little red comma comprises digital adaptations of six diverse literary works by Arthur Yap, Latha, Melissa De Silva, Mohamed Latiff Mohamed, Samuel Lee and Yeng Pway Ngon, released from Aug to Nov 2020, as well as stories, essays and podcasts inspired by these literary works.