Wednesday, November 06, 2013

My mother's milk ... part 3

by Fernando Rosa

I had watched a performance of Portuguese dance and music in Melaka. Almost all of the songs and the dances were from Portugal. Minha Rosinha was one of them, Casa Portuguesa Com Certeza was another (the titles mean respectively 'My Little Rose' and 'Surely a Portuguese Home'). They are both well-known songs. I am familiar with them from watching Portuguese folk dances on television as a child. I remember I usually changed channels after a minute or two, for I found the singing and dancing terribly tacky, and very un-Brazilian.

The most famous Portuguese singer in Brazil back then was Roberto Leal ('Loyal Robert' - it turns out it is a stage name). He usually donned a folk costume while he sang and danced. The costumes were also thoroughly Portuguese. (Interestingly, although he was Portuguese-born, he moved to Brazil as a child and had lived there. He was our own indigenised Portuguese folk dancer and singer. He was also the most famous Portuguese in Brazil. Nobody seems to care that he was also very much Brazilian).

This is what many anthropologists and historians call a clear case of invention of tradition: namely, none of it was around before the 1950s. The youngsters doing the dancing in Melaka seemed to do it correctly. One of the girls was very striking: she was tall, had bright green eyes and a beautiful smile. (I learned she died in a road accident, last year.) I was invited with several guests to take part in one of the dances. The green-eyed beauty came to me but I was reluctant to show off my astonishing lack of skill in Portuguese folk dancing. All the same, an Italian colleague urged me to get up and dance. I was a Brazilian after all, and fancy a Brazilian not being able to dance. Almost as weird as an Italian not gesticulating!

Several of the students - they were Malaysian Portuguese language students - also danced. The group was in fact performing not to the community but to a large group of students and staff from the University of Malaya. The venue was Papa Joe's restaurant that advertised Portuguese and Nyonya cuisine, as well as Chinese seafood (Papa Joe himself was one of the singers). I find the combination of Portuguese, Nyonya and Chinese seafood revealing: I have found local cuisine to be often related no matter what ethnic origins or labels that were attached to it. Rather than being in opposition, the three were part of the same culinary continuum.

During one intermission, I noticed the young men and women who were dancing, speaking to one another in Malay. Noel (my Portuguese-teacher friend) regrets deeply that it is not the government nor local non-Portuguese society who is undermining the community heritage; it is the community itself. Traditional feasts are not 'properly' carried out any more; traditions are discontinued, and the language is slowly but surely falling into disuse.

I muse that perhaps everything is changing, and very fast. Noel is very religious, like all the community elders I have spoken to so far. He easily goes off into a long tirade about morals and religion. I wonder how appealing that is for the younger generation. Also, the Portuguese community has always been an open group: the descendants of the Dutch in Melaka, for instance, also speak Portuguese and are often counted as members of the community. (I don't believe anybody speaks Dutch in Melaka any more). Noel still inveighs against the designation 'Eurasian' every now and then: his point is that it does not root people in any specific country, but is vague and general. It was a British colonial designation used by the community before it refashioned itself as Portuguese in the late colonial era. Noel must have been a teenager when the identity shift took place. I am not aware of anyone in Melaka who styles himself or herself as Eurasian. The point Noel hammers home again and again is that the community is Portuguese and as well as Lusophone (i.e. Portuguese-speaking).