Wednesday, October 02, 2013

My Mother's milk ... part 2

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 (in fact, 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. In fact, it is 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 unaware of anyone in Melaka who styles himself or herself as Eurasian, and there is certainly no visible community that claims that identity now. The point Noel hammers home again and again is that the community is Portuguese and as well as Lusophone (i.e. Portuguese-speaking).

His point is important as far as the name of the language is concerned. He ridicules the appellation 'Pápia Kristang' often used for the language. To him 'kristang' is a religious identity, not a language. He says that the designation started in the Dutch times. To me it makes sense, as the Dutch East Indies Company did have an all-encompassing category of 'Christenen'. It was a complex category as it had a legal as well as a religious nature. It also included people who were not ethnically European or not only European.

Also, calling oneself and one's language 'Portuguese' during the Dutch era must have been slightly tricky as the Portuguese remained enemies of the Dutch - the Catholic church was officially suppressed in Dutch settlements - for quite a long time (the Dutch conquered Melaka in 1641; the Portuguese community's Church of São Pedro was only built in 1710).

Joti - a man from Penang, who long ago married a woman from Kampung Portugis and is fluent in the local language, told me that the language became Creolised (he says, meaning 'full of short forms') during the Dutch period, as locals tried to avoid the impression that they were speaking an enemy language. Hence, also the name of the language. There was also more to it: religious identity -- Catholicism -- that was obviously enormously important. In fact, the community moved to its current location due to the efforts of at least two priests - one French, the other Portuguese - to get the colonial government to give them land. The efforts eventually succeeded in the 1930s and the community then moved from its various previous locations - mainly in Tengkera -- to Kampung Portugis. Joti tells me that the land is still often called 'chang di padri' - the priest's land ('chão de padre' in my Portuguese).

My impression is that religion has therefore been a very important binding element in the community. For it is not only a Christian community in a Muslim-
majority country and in a city where (non-Christian) Chinese are dominant; it is also a minority Christian community within the varied and multi-denominational group of Melaka Christians itself. Besides, most Catholics in town don't count themselves as members of the community. (The other church in town, Saint Francis Xavier, was built in 1849 by French missionaries from Siam and south France, and is mainly a Chinese church today. Donations from as far away as Peru and the erstwhile Brazilian Empire went into its construction.)

It strikes me that one other thing that may have kept the community together is their comparative poverty (that used to be worse in earlier times). Incidentally, this is also something they have had in common with local Indians, a group with which they have obviously been closely associated, also through marriage. Some of the houses in the settlement in fact still look very modest. Part of the settlement is also made up of ugly blocks of public housing that probably can be found in every Malaysian city. Jorge, one of the elders, as well as Kátia - a social worker from Portugal who has just left the community to go back home - have told me that there are quite a few families in need, or who live very modestly.