Singapore Is Home To One of the Most Endangered Languages in the World

“I heard once, that to be a Eurasian you need three things: Language, blood and religion. And I only had one of those.”

Andre D’Rozario tells me this, before breaking into laughter. We are sitting in his Marine Parade home, a HDB flat his parents had moved into before he was born. 


When speaking about his bloodline, he was referring, of course, to his last name D’Rozario which came from one of the early Portuguese settlers in South East Asia. They were amongst some of the earliest Europeans to colonise the region, establishing their first settlement in Malacca in the 16th century. Often coming to this region without female spouses, Portuguese men were encouraged to marry local women. With enough intermarriages, and several generations later, an entirely new disparate community was born — the Kristang people. 

Front door mantel in Andre’s house. The Koek Road sign is from the original street which was once host to the old Orchard Road Market Area. His mother whose last name is also Koek, is a Eurasian of Dutch heritage.

Most Singaporeans have never heard of Kristang, and they are not the only ones. In fact, the Malay-Portugese creole language, named after the ethnic group, was recently placed on UNESCO’s Most Endangered Languages in the World List. Andre himself had not known of Kristang’s existence until he was in his 20s. Though he grew up strongly rooted to his Eurasian identity, he did not know that there was a separate world of a language he was missing out on. 

Admittedly, he did grow up hearing certain, unfamiliar words being thrown around by family members every now and then. He had just assumed they were words in Malay, a language both his parents took in school.

A Brief History of Kristang

Kristang’s origins can be traced back to 1511, when the Portuguese seized control of Malacca, cutting the Arab trade route to Europe and gaining control of the spice trade. At that time, the people of Malacca – who were Javanese, Tamil and Hokkien Chinese in origin – spoke a version of Malay called Bazaar Malay. The constant interactions between Portuguese colonisers, traders from regions like India and the local population eventually led to the creation of the Kristang creole (a language that develops from the simplifying and mixing of different languages into a new one within a brief period). This is why Kristang has influences from languages like Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese, Dutch, English, Konkani, Malayalam and Hindi.

From page 56 of Ki Sorti: Anoti Ngua 

As time passed, the Portuguese also encouraged interracial marriages between Portuguese men and local women, as well as migrants from Portuguese India (who themselves were of mixed Indo-Portuguese origin). This policy could be attributed to a labour shortage in colonies, and the need to increase the size of the working population. 

Eventually, in the early 19th century, a large influx of Kristang people arrived in Singapore from Malacca, to seek better economic prospects and opportunities in the new Straits Settlements colony. The language flourished soon after, spoken widely throughout the Portuguese-Eurasian community. Hearing phrases like teng bong (hello) and bong pamiang (good morning) would have been common in areas like Katong, Frankel Avenue and Joo Chiat. 

However, by the early 1930s, Kristang had started to get a bad reputation, with the community calling it a broken language. Many adopted English instead, partly due to its perceived prestige and its use in securing employment in the British civil service. 

The nail in the coffin was Singapore’s Bilingual Policy of 1959 – which forced many Kristang people to take other languages besides their own. The policy had demarcated different mother tongue languages for the various racial groups: Mandarin for the Chinese, Malay for the Malays and Tamils for the Indians. Kristang was not one of the recognised languages and as a result, had slowly started dying out. It had continued to decline as Kristang people married into races and their children picked up other languages instead. 

Hope

With around 100 speakers left in Singapore, a new initiative by the name of Kodrah Kristang (Awaken Kristang) had emerged in 2015 to revitalise the language in Singapore. The team had learnt the language from remaining speakers in the community and had organised lessons to begin its process of multi-generational language revitalisation. This is also where Andre had initially started to re-discover his own heritage and culture through a new lens. Learning the language had allowed him to feel much more connected with not only the larger community but also to his relatives, who had passed. 

“If my grand-aunties were alive, I could have conversed with him.”

“I grew up with many Eurasian people but sometimes felt that I didn’t really fit into the Singaporean narrative. Few people knew of us, so I never felt very tethered to the country. Learning the language felt like I had set some roots.” 

The initiative’s founder, Kevin Martens Wong, an English teacher at Eunoia Junior College, stated in a Straits Times interview that he had lofty goals for this revitalisation process. He had created a five-part, 30-year masterplan which included developing a Kristang textbook.

Stories

It was Andre’s desire to create more space for Eurasian narratives in our local landscape that had led Andre and his team members, Shane Carroll, Gerald and Chang Da to start working on a graphic novel on Kristang. Graduating from LASALLE in 2016 with a Diploma in Animation, comics became a natural choice when he was thinking about the format and medium through which he wanted to tell these stories. With funding from The Future of Our Pasts Festival, a platform for young artists in Singapore to reimagine Singapore’s history, they had begun what would be an almost three-year journey into creating the first ever graphic novel about Kristang. 

The process of working on the graphic novel had been its own excavation journey for Andre. Old family pictures, anecdotes and even his own experiences had inspired many of the scenes in the novel — everything from the scenes to the style of drawing and even the choice of colouring. 

This novel, however, is only the first book of a three-part series. The team has already started work on their second novel. Whilst the creation of the graphic novel was driven by the team, Andre also insists on it looking at it as a “community collaboration”. 

“I might have been the artist, but I was simply the medium. The novel was a way for me to canonise the experiences of my community, to honour the elders whilst also giving something to the younger generation.” 

To keep up with updates on Ki Sorti, you can follow them on @ki.sorti on Instagram. For other information on Kristang initiatives, you can visit https://kodrah.kristang.com/. You can even sign up for a Kristang class with them.

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Author

Samira Hassan

Contributor

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