Walked to see the Portuguese Square in Melaka. Ended up partying with the descendants of Portuguese settlers from 500 years ago and learning about their culture.
As I walked with Lauri into the Portuguese Settlement in Melaka, some men sitting under the main stage in the compound beckoned us over. The next thing we knew, we were given beer after beer and treated to some local food.
These were the people known as the Kristang. Descendants of the Portuguese explorers who appeared on the shores of Melaka some 500 years ago.
We happened to meet these Kristang, after this group of friends, who had grown up together, helped to clean most, if not all, of the 116 homes in the compound in preparation for Easter.
Calling each other friends was important, they said. They jokingly took offense to being called “cousin”.
One of the Kristang explained that if they thought of each other as relatives, the hierarchy of family structure prevented them from openly having fun. Thus, as friends, young and old alike could enjoy each other’s company as equals.
In fact, in this meeting we happened upon, one nineteen-year-old just discovered that the oldest person there was his uncle, and another member of that group was an actual cousin.
This intermixing of young and old was important, said an elder. It helps to foster a strong community as well as to keep their culture alive.
The Kristang in Melaka have strong Catholic roots, although Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country. Despite spending the past 500 years half a world away from Portugal, they retained their culture and maintain some contact with their relatives in Europe. They teach traditional dance as well as their form of the language as part of the attempt to keep their culture alive.
I learned that even the Malay culture borrowed quite a bit from the Kristang culture.
As they danced and sang to some of the local Kristang music, I could hear some familiar beats or styles that I have heard in Malay music.
“Is this adapted from Malay music?” I asked.
One of the elders, whose son is in the local rock band Blister, explained that the opposite was true. Some of the Malay music borrowed from the latin heritage of the original Portuguese settlers.
The Kristang put Lauri, the Finnish traveller I met on the way to the settlement, on the spot and asked him to play the guitar. Lauri didn’t disappoint and started to entertain the crowd with Stairway to Heaven.
The guitarist from Blister then took over and we were jamming and singing to many tunes including No Woman No Cry, with modified lyrics.
One individual, a man who had suffered a stroke, took over from the guitarist.
“He used to be a master on the guitar,” said one of the Kristang.
“He’s going to pass away in three months. Anyone want to donate for his funeral?” asked the member of the group, whom another described as their leader.
A member of their group, of Chinese descent who had grown up with the Kristang, explained that they were very open with each other, could swear, condemn and hurl obscenities at each other and none would take it personally.
“If you can’t take our jokes, get out of here,” joked their leader a few times.
While we were chatting with the Kristang, a German, Mario, appeared. He doing research on the Kristang for his Masters in Lingustics.
According to an elder, linguists still come to this community to research a form of the Portuguese language which predates the current form in Portugal. The language has survived despite the intermixing of the original settlers with the locals through mixed marriages.
“A lot of people want to call themselves Eurasian, but we are the original Eurasians,” said the nineteen year old who had just discovered his relatives. He seemed to take exception to the association with the word Eurasian being a new popular trend.
The elder explained, that the Kristang went from the people in power, to becoming very poor. The nineteen year old was a little unhappy with the people who did not have to experience this decline, but want to associate with being Eurasian as a trend.
I suppose it didn’t help that I mentioned that one of my great grandmothers was Portuguese and possibly from the ancestors of this community. Although, for the record, I wasn’t claiming to be Eurasian.
The next day, I realized that we spent all the time with the Kristang and never got to see the settlement past that main stage. There are no regrets though as meeting the people who live there was a much better experience than seeing some buildings.
They invited us back to the settlement for their festival at the end of June and, if I’m still in South East Asia, I will just have to do that.
* Check out band, Blister’s, Facebook page!