- 2009/03/02 Portuguese community a living legacy of colonial era

George Paul Overee, a sprightly 78-year-old museum guide, greets newcomers with a cheerful "Bom dia" and listens to Portuguese folk music as he sits in his village square.

But like most of the Malaysian Portuguese community in the port city of Malacca, a living legacy of long-gone colonial days, he has never set foot in the country from whence his forefathers journeyed some 500 years ago.

As one of the oldest members of the community, he is intent on preserving this fascinating enclave, with its unique language and traditions, against the pressures of modernisation.

"My children have long left this place. I see my grandchildren every once in a while," Overee said as he guides a group of Chinese tourists through the tiny museum at Malacca's Portuguese settlement. "But I will never accept that the people in this village will ever forget their culture. It should begin in the family, start speaking the language at home to the young and cultivate the culture," he said.

The Portuguese village, a strip of coastal land overlooking the Malacca Strait, is a hive of activity as community members mingle in the central square, and entertain scores of tourists during the holiday season. "Tourists are curious about us and there are also many Portuguese who come by to visit and keep in touch with us," Overee said proudly as he played folk music from a CD sent by a tourist from Lisbon.

The Portuguese arrived in Malacca, a strategic port in the lucrative spice route, during the 15th century and conquered the tiny sultanate. They ruled for 130 years and assimilated with the local people, intermarrying and spreading Catholicism. In 1641 the Dutch snatched Malacca from Portugal and remained there for 183 years before giving it up to the next colonial rulers, Britain.

The current settlement opened in 1930 after priests with the local church petitioned the government for a place to house the community. The settlement is home to some 1,200 Portuguese Eurasians, among an estimated 20,000 across Malaysia.

Children with the striking features of mixed heritage practice a traditional dance, the branyu, in the village hall led by Manuel Lazaroo, the community's cultural organiser who is fondly called "Pappa Joe". "I know 89 songs and they are all written in here," said the 67-year-old green-eyed Lazaroo, tapping his head. "But the youth are not interested in folk dance or Portuguese numbers. They prefer their pop music and hip hop," he said.

Lazaroo said the community's elders are trying valiantly to hang on to their culture by encouraging the settlement's youngsters to speak their unique creole language and learn the traditional dances and cuisine. "Only the very old and the very young remain here and the working people are mostly away seeking better paid jobs in big cities like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, and even in other countries like Australia," said the village headman Peter Gomez. "We make it a point to keep the festivals every year so that they have an opportunity to get recharged with their culture and the language," he said. "We are afraid that the culture and the heritage may disappear altogether."

Among other Malaccans, the Portuguese Eurasians are commonly known as "Kristang", which means "Christians" in the Portuguese creole language, the "Papia Kristang". The language is unique, a mix of archaic Portuguese and other languages spoken in Malaysia -- mainly Malay, Chinese, Indian languages and English.

The community is famous for its colourful festivals which are tied closely to the Catholic saints such as San Pedro, San Juang and the Intrudu water festival. These annual affairs attract not only tourists but many of the Malaccan Portuguese who have long since left the village. "As long as people still live here, the traditions won't die. That is why the festivals are very important, at least the youngsters will pick it up," Gomez said.

Suzanne Lazaroo, a 30-year-old writer who was born and raised in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, said she has only recently become interested in rediscovering her cultural heritage. Her parents never spoke the old creole at home, so like many others in the community she grew up speaking English. "Honestly, I don't feel very connected to my Portuguese roots because I was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur," said Suzanne, who is no relation of Manuel Lazaroo. "The urban Eurasians are further removed from their culture, further flung, we don't really have a larger Eurasian community to mix with, apart from relatives."

Lazaroo said that as families became smaller and many people marry outside their community, there is less cultural identification among the Portuguese Eurasians of Malaysia. "But that is not to say that there isn't an underlying desire to have that culture in our lives," she said, talking enthusiastically about young, modern Eurasian bands who play famous Portuguese folk songs and the handful of Kuala Lumpur restaurants serving authentic Eurasian curries.

Ema Pires, an anthropologist from the University of Evora in Portugal who has spent six months in Malacca researching the community, is optimistic that they can keep their heritage alive. "Undoubtedly migration to the big cities brings about a cultural impact of several levels," she said. "But all communities have cultures and societies like these, and when facing processes of change they also find creative strategies to deal with it."

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