The Kristang People: Fighting to Preserve a 500-year-old Identity

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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...

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