- 2008/08/13 Fighting to preserve a 500-year-old identity

In a world where preserving ethnic identities has acquired almost a sacred character, the Kristang people of this historic, picturesque seacoast trading port are something of an exception, and it's impossible not to feel melancholy about that.

The Kristang have been part of this part of the world since 1511, when Alfonso de Albuquerque, the governor-general of Portugal's expanding empire, seized Malacca from the local sultan and ordered his men to marry local women.

Albuquerque's purpose was to breed a population that would then serve as sailors and administrators for Lisbon's string of trading posts, which was soon to extend from the west coast of Africa to Japan, with Goa, Malacca and Macao as stops along the way.

And the Portuguese commander succeeded, even though Portugal itself was to fade as an imperial power. The Kristangs, as the Portuguese-Malay mixture came to be called, established a hybrid identity, speaking a kind of archaic Portuguese, going to Mass at the various Roman Catholic churches and cathedrals of Malacca while creating distinctive cuisine, music and festivals.

"We've lasted for all these centuries," said Martin Theseira, a Kristang activist in Malacca, "and we've done it without schools and without any connection to Portugal."

He meant that Kristang children might have exotic Iberian features, but they have always gone to government schools where the medium of instruction has been English or Malaysian. And because Malacca has not been a Portuguese colony since the Dutch took it over in the seventeenth century, the Kristangs were effectively severed from what used to be the mother country for more than 350 years.

Just three years from now, the Kristang community will be 500 years old, a remarkable record of longevity - especially given that there have never been more than a few thousand of them, mostly in Malacca but with branches in Penang, another seacoast trading town, and elsewhere in what is now Malaysia.

But although five centuries would certainly seem something to celebrate, Theseira is not optimistic that the Kristangs are going to last another generation or two, much less another 500 years.

He cites a kind of perfect storm of current conditions, all of them tending to erase their identity, to force them to meld with the Malaysian majority.

"We are not very happy," Theseira said. "There are so many forces that want to knock us out."

Among these forces are the Malaysian marriage law, which prohibits a Muslim from marrying a non-Muslim unless the non-Muslim converts to Islam. Theseira estimates that half of the Kristangs getting married these days convert to Islam as a result. Another factor has been seacoast reclamation, which has removed the Kristangs, whose traditional occupation has been fishing, from their former community along the coast.

"If you separate us from the sea, you destroy our culture," Theseira said. "In the past, almost all the Kristangs fished," he said. "Now most of them don't, and that changed everything, the whole atmosphere."

Theseira himself makes a living producing what he calls "Martin's Homemade," various condiments and pickles that reflect the aromatic and delectable Kristang cuisine. He has been trying to convince the local authorities that maintaining the Kristang culture would be good for tourism, since, after all, visitors would be attracted by a vibrant, living seafront community with roots deep in Malacca's cosmopolitan past.

Now, visitors from China, Singapore and Australia spend their time roaming the old Dutch Town, preserved as a sort of living museum of Dutch rule, which followed the Portuguese reign and preceded the British. They eat at restaurants and listen to music on Malacca's two well-preserved shopping streets, with their columned porticoes so characteristic of this part of Southeast Asia.

But there's not much to see along Malacca's shoreline, which has by now been pushed nearly a mile from the Kristang kompong, or town, that used to press against the sea.

"In 1998, the government reclaimed a piece of seafront land near the new Portuguese Settlement in order to build a hotel," Theseira said. "They said the hotel would be an extension of the Kristang community, but when the hotel was finished, it was simply taken over by the government."

The place is called the Lisbon Hotel, and it's a kind of Alhambra of the Straits - beige stucco wings with red tile roofs surrounding an inner courtyard. But few Kristangs are employed there, and the hotel is used mostly by Malaysian government officials on business, so, in proper Muslim fashion, no alcohol is allowed. How Portuguese can something be if drinking is prohibited?

"It's not compatible with the name Lisbon," Theseira said.

Malacca, of course, is home to more than just the Kristangs among hybrid cultures. There is also the Chinese-Malay community, known as Baba-Nyonya, who began even earlier than the Kristangs. The Chittys are the Indian-Malays, produced by the migration of Indians to the Malay Peninsula during the British Empire.

"But, in a way, we are more distinct," Theseira said of the Kristangs, "because the Baba-Nyonya have the Chinese community for support, and the Chittys have the Indian community, but we have no larger Portuguese community to attach ourselves to."

There's another element in this picture too, a sort of historical paradox. During the centuries of colonial rule in Malacca and much of the rest of Asia, empires were multicultural.

India, Shanghai, the Middle East under the Ottomans were all vibrantly diverse, with a rich mix of people living more or less in peace under colonial jurisdiction.

Colonialism, of course, does not have a good retrospective reputation, and deservedly so. Still, colonial rule did for centuries encourage and preserve an acceptance of difference. Its replacement by post-colonialist nationalism has been hard on diversity, especially for very small groups like the Kristang.

And so, while Theseira and his friends do what they can for cultural preservation - he recently compiled a CD of Kristang music, for example - they also know that for their tiny group to flourish they need to be seen by the surrounding majority as an indispensable, precious element of cultural richness. Sadly for the Kristangs at the moment that doesn't seem to be the case.

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