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Reviving Kristang in Singapore

The Future of Our Pasts intern Teo Zi Qing finds out more about the critically endangered Kristang language, and efforts to revive it, through playing a special board game.


Photography by Teo Ziqing


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Up till a month ago, I, like many Singaporeans, was unaware of the existence of the Kristang language.

Kristang is the critically endangered language of the Portuguese-Eurasian community in Singapore and Malacca, and a product of marriages between the Portuguese settlers and the locals in Malacca. This creole of Portuguese and Malay incorporates elements from Chinese dialects such as Cantonese and Hokkien, and influences from an array of languages historically present in Singapore like Dutch, Malay and Hakka.

Listed as “Severely Endangered” under UNESCO’s Red Book of Endangered Languages, Kristang is is almost extinct in Singapore with only an estimated 50 fluent speakers left in the country. Though it was still common to hear Kristang spoken in areas like Katong and Joo Chiat in the 1930s, the language soon began to decline as it was seen as a “broken language”. Under British rule, many Portuguese-Eurasians worked in the civil service where English was mostly used.  The use of Kristang was hence gradually de-emphasised in favor of the more economically relevant English. When Singapore became independent, Kristang was not chosen as one of its official languages which children could learn as a second language alongside English. Over the years then, Kristang soon lost its ground in Singapore.

 

Is there still hope for the revival of this 500-year old language in Singapore?

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Kodrah Kristang - Awaken, Kristang - is an initiative in Singapore that aims to revitalise and bring the language of Kristang back to a healthy level of use. However, working to resuscitate the language comes with its fair share of challenges, especially since Kristang is primarily an oral language that has never been taught in schools. The language is not well-documented, and has huge gaps in its vocabulary. The team at Kodrah Kristang has hence been inventing new words to fill these gaps, and are working on publishing dictionaries and textbooks. In addition, it also offers free classes and audio learning courses for those interested to learn Kristang.

In May 2017, the team put up the first ever Kristang Language Festival in Singapore, featuring workshops, panel discussions, and Eurasian Stories. Four members from Kodrah Kristang — Andre D’Rozario, Gerald Choa Kai Kit, Sung Chang Da, and Shane Carroll — have also received a grant from The Future of Our Pasts (TFOOP) for their project Boka di Stori.

On a Thursday evening, I was invited to the National Library to play a board game that Kodrah Kristang had created, along with friends interning with them. There, I met Andre and Gerald from the Boka di Stori team.

Titled Ila-Ila-Di-Sul (The Southern Islands), the bilingual board game was created by Kodrah Kristang founder Kevin Martens Wong with five other artists, including Andre. It is used primarily to facilitate learning during lessons. The game was difficult to grasp at first, especially since I had to speak in Kristang terms for the first half of the game. But as it went on, everyone found it easier to understand the rules and aim of the game.

  Ila-Ila-Di-Sul:  A bilingual board game designed to aid the learning of the Kristang language.

Ila-Ila-Di-Sul: A bilingual board game designed to aid the learning of the Kristang language.

Southern Islands began as a pedagogical game in the Kodrah Kristang classes for the teaching of Kristang. It was designed to help learners master the use of the Kristang location and movement verbs teng na “to be at/in/on”, bai “to go”, beng  “to come”, as well as other miscellaneous vocabulary. Setting the game in the south of 1800’s Singapore allowed us to pay homage to our Port-City origin, to raise awareness of Singapore’s very own southern islands and the communities that once resided there. Kodrah Kristang employs Communicative Language Teaching, a pedagogy that strengthens language acquisition and retention through interaction (and gameplay), and this board game is just one of the many board games that are played during our classes,” Andre and his team said.

Southern Islands was further developed to tie in with their Festa - The First Kristang Language Festival, in May 2017. The game was designed and produced entirely in Singapore, and was later launched at a gala dinner, by Guest-of- Honour DPM Teo Chee Hean.
 

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The board’s background depicts the Southern Seas and its islands because of its historical significance as a port city for the Kristang population, which was a fishing community. Ships known as Koleks were also used in the game. I was awed by the board game’s stunning visuals, from the board to the cover and card designs. They enhanced the experience of learning about the culture and history of the language, which Andre and Gerald explained to us throughout the game.

In addition to finding out about the initiatives by Kodrah Kristang and the board game, I also took the opportunity to speak to them about their upcoming The Future of Our Pasts project, where they will showcase the Kristang story in Singapore through a graphic novel:


Why a graphic novel?

It provides a more contemporary form of storytelling which is also more popular with people in our (younger) age group where most of the heritage work has to be done since most of them do not care as much about the language. There also hasn’t been a Kristang graphic novel before as there aren’t a lot of Kristang visual artists that can help to contribute to the language. It’s in the form of an animation background as I feel I’m the most familiar with storytelling, and is how I know I can contribute to the Kristang community. The graphic novel also features varying art styles and we try to also feature Kristang in it..

Some aspects we’ll be mentioning in the graphic novel include more about the “Devil Curry” (also known as Debal Kari) - on how it includes the community. English and Kristang descriptions on its history will also be included. so as to facilitate learning and raise more awareness about Kristang. It’s based on transcripts done during interviews. This is particularly based on a story of Bernard Mesenas’ aunt (a Kristang consultant under Kodrah Kristang) going to the beach road for the ingredients, with ham or bacon bones to flavour the curry. Apart from the devil curry it also includes other iconic dishes in the Eurasian cuisine that many people may not know about..
 

 Draft sketches from Boka di Stori’s graphic novel for  The Future of Our Pasts .

Draft sketches from Boka di Stori’s graphic novel for The Future of Our Pasts.

What are some of your hopes and feelings towards your project under TFOOP?

Our team hopes to firstly do what the grant itself wants to do – bring to light lesser known narratives of Singapore. As there is only a small body of local literature written by and/or for Singapore Eurasians, we wanted to do a story featuring the community. We want to show that the community, though small, is incredibly vibrant and warm, which is something that the Eurasians pride ourselves in. The Singapore Eurasians have cultures and traditions and that set it apart from their European and Asian counterparts, as well as the generation of new and biracial Eurasians, a demographic that has been steadily increasing and forming their own narrative.

While researching and learning more about this language, I was drawn to how the beauty of Kristang lay in the fact that it embodied the history, tradition and culture of both the Portuguese and Malay people. It may just be another language, yet it reflects what it means to be a Portuguese-Eurasian. While there may be no economic value in reviving the language, it’s still a unique part in Singapore’s story and history - a wealth of knowledge we will all lose if it eventually fades away.

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