We're more than an ‘other’: Eurasians in search of their disappearing culture

We're more than an ‘other’: Eurasians in search of their disappearing culture

Their centuries-old culture is elusive and on the brink of dying out - but this new-generation group wants to reclaim it, starting with their language and some well-guarded family recipes.

Friends out to learn more about and preserve their Eurasian heritage. Left to right: Kevin Martens Wong, Brenda Pereira, Andre D’Rozario, Allison Koek, Cassandra Anthonisz, Ida Cecil. 

SINGAPORE: Most people who meet Andre D’Rozario for the first time struggle to get his surname right. “Dee-rose-zay-rio”, he would say very slowly, to which a common response would be “orrhhh”. 

Then, there is his looks - in school, he always had to convince teachers that his curly locks were natural. “They didn’t believe me until they saw my parents. My aunties called me Cupid, and that hair-touching thing, it happened quite a lot,” said the 21-year-old, a Kristang Eurasian.

But what he struggled with the most was having to explain his race. He would be asked questions like: You got pink IC or not? Your English very good ah? Your grandparents from where?

“I would say ‘my parents are from Singapore, my grandparents are from Singapore’ - then I would have to go through my whole family tree,” he said. 

Mr Andre D’Rozario with pictures of his great-grandparents.

Stories like these are not unique to Mr D’Rozario, especially among the younger generation of Eurasians who are increasingly taking to social media to share their experiences of being mistaken for a foreigner in their own country. One high-profile case: Olympic gold-medallist Joseph Schooling, whose roots were questioned when he first began making waves as a swimmer.

Said Mr D’Rozario:

It’s really frustrating when people think that you are not Singaporean. It seems like you have to work twice as hard to be part of the national identity.

Eurasians have long had a long stake in the history of this land. Even though they make up just 0.4 per cent of the Singapore population, they are a group with assorted strands, from the Portuguese (or Kristang) Eurasians to the Dutch and British Eurasians.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that the rest of Singapore gets confused about their culture.

Eurasians have long had a stake in Singapore's. This road sign in Mr D’Rozario’s home bears the same family name as his mother, a Eurasian of Dutch descent. 

EURASIAN FOOD: SINGAPORE’S BEST-KEPT SECRET?

Take their food for example. Chances are, if you’re a non-Eurasian, you would struggle to name three Eurasian dishes outside of devil’s curry. Yet, Eurasian families seem to enjoy a spread of delectable dishes that somehow remain known only within their community. 

Brenda Pereira, 51, a Kristang Eurasian, picked up a number of recipes from her mother - but not before swearing that she would never divulge the family’s well-guarded secrets. Such fiercely guarded secrecy is apparently a Eurasian thing, which she thinks is one reason why most outsiders know nothing about Eurasian food.

“We are so selfish and hardly share our recipes because our grandmothers have instructed us... ‘this is your great grandmother’s don’t-know-how-many-times removed legacy, and if you tell anybody she’ll roll in her grave!’,” said Ms Pereira.

“My grandmother would get seaweed from the sea to make jelly in these moulds,” said Ms Brenda Pereira.

Cassandra Anthonisz, 31, who is of British and Portuguese descent, had a similar experience. Women in her family were not taught the family recipes until they got married and had families of their own to feed.

“That’s how our recipes stayed in the family and never got out further than that. And that’s why the only Eurasian restaurants are Quentin’s and Mary’s Kafe!” said Ms Anthonisz.

Common Eurasian dishes include pang susee, a bun made of sweet potato and flour stuffed with minced meat; or feng, a greenish-yellow stew made of pigs’ innards seasoned with coriander seeds and other Indian spices.

WATCH: A lesser-known Eurasian dessert (2:19)


And though these dishes may not sound familiar within the Singapore food narrative, there are elements in the dishes that tell an undeniably local story. 

One such dish is devil’s curry, or curry debal in Kristang. It’s a traditional Boxing Day dish made with leftovers from the Christmas feast - chunks of turkey, sausage or ham, stewed with a typical Southeast Asian rempah (spice paste), with a sour gravy of assam and gula melaka for that extra kick.

“If you look at all the ingredients we use, you already get our story,” said Mr D’Rozario.

While some Eurasian families may still be reluctant to share their secret recipes, good friends Mr D’Rozario, Ms Pereira and Ms Anthonisz jumped at the opportunity to talk about their families' cooking methods when contacted. 

Another friend, Ms Ida Cecil, 41, demonstrated her mother’s sugee cake, using a recipe that she “stores in her head”.

WATCH: One family's tried-and-tested method (3:05). For the recipe, click here.


“YOU ARE EURASIAN, NOT ‘CHAP CHYE’”

Like most other cultures, the older generation of Eurasians have a good grip on their food heritage. Malcolm Pereira, 70, is a well-known baker among his family and friends.

His version of sugee cake - which he likes to believe is “the best” - is a result of an entire childhood spent observing how his aunties did it.

“Those days, there were no gas or electric ovens. They used charcoal ovens, and it was very difficult to regulate the temperature, so all the aunties would gather at a certain house and bake together.

“You put the charcoal underneath, and you cover it and put the cake inside,” he recalled.

Whenever they baked tarts, the children would also be roped in to help. “There was so much work involved - you had to taper the tarts, pinch the tarts, and fill the jam,” he said.

Food is a family affair for the Pereiras.

Back in his time, sugee cakes were made only during special occasions like weddings, birthdays, Christmas or other important religious events, and only a handful of bakeries did it. 

“I remember Konas confectionery in Katong priced it according to weight,” said Mr Pereira.

They would ask you, ‘how many pounds you want?’ If it’s a wedding cake, ‘how many tiers?’ It was all very expensive, so we were trained to bake these things at home from scratch.

Although he now lives in Australia with his family, Mr Pereira still stresses the importance of “remembering your roots”, especially with his two daughters - one who married an Italian and the other, an American.

 “I hope they tell their children that they are Eurasian, not half here, half there like the Chinese say, chap chye,” he said.

“Remember the food, the warmth, that’s how you have that bond and that continuity. Otherwise once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

The Pereira family's dishes. “Remember the food, the warmth, that’s how you have that bond and that continuity."  

BELTED FOR SPEAKING KRISTANG

It’s not just those who’ve moved overseas who struggle to preserve identity. Kevin Martens Wong, 25, a Singaporean who is half Portuguese-Eurasian and half Chinese, says that he had never felt the need to “belong” to any culture.

“My parents always prided themselves on being a-cultural; they always said we have no ethnicity as a family. I’m just a mish-mash of things, so I just thought of myself as Singaporean.

“Perhaps the Eurasian-ness got lost in there,” he said.

But a few years ago while he was a linguistics undergraduate, he was asked to write an article on community languages in Singapore, and discovered he had a mother tongue - Kristang, which, to put it simply for a layman, is a creole of largely Portuguese vocabulary with Malay grammar.

"I did some research and I found out that, hey, I have this language that I never knew about, and it turns out grandma and grandpa can speak it!” he said.

Mr Wong's Kodrah Kristang movement, with members of the Portuguese-Eurasian community from Melaka, including dancers who performed at the Kristang Language Festival in May. (Photo: Jeremy Ou)

He was so intrigued that he went on a hunt around Singapore to look for the last remaining speakers of Kristang, and eventually found 14 people who were willing to speak to him.

What he discovered made his heart sink. He was told stories of how children were belted for speaking Kristang during the British times, and within a generation, an entire language was lost because people were made to speak English during that era. He said:

I found it very sad. People tend to say that Singapore is made from borrowed culture, but Kristang was born here (in this region). This language is so unique to this region.

The linguist in him sprung into action and, within a year, he had learnt enough Kristang to launch a campaign to revitalise the language, which he called Kodrah Kristang, meaning ‘awaken Kristang’.

His first round of classes started in March 2016, and to date has had close to 400 students, of which a third were Singaporeans from other races.

“I never thought that this would be possible. That we have the space to discuss this is something very special. It shows that we are interested in Singapore’s shared heritage, and we really enjoy embracing each other’s cultures,” he said.

Ms Anthonisz with a photo of her British grandfather as a boy. In colonial times, you were belted for speaking Kristang - but today, a new generation is picking up the dying language again.

Participating in those Kristang classes made Mr D’Rozario, Ms Anthonisz, Ms Pereira and Ms Cecil finally feel that they had a place in Singapore.

“I had never been in a place with so many other Eurasians in my life,” said Ms Anthonisz.

Growing up in Singapore, all of us could really relate to not having a mother tongue, not having something to call our own.

Mr D’Rozario put it this way: “I found family. I found my voice again, it was just like going to a family reunion.”

NOT “THE OTHERS” ANYMORE

While the Eurasian community may have found their voice again, there are still many aspects of the culture that remain nebulous.

“The community is very small, and a lot of Eurasians have moved away. So with a small, dispersed community, it’s hard to have clear markers of what constitutes a culture,” said Mr Wong.  

It's a struggle to define clear markers of Eurasian culture. Mr D'Rozario's home decorated with Eurasian charm - lots of art and Catholic ornaments.

Yet, it remains an important task for this generation of Eurasians because “we want the future generation to be able to have their roots in Singapore. It’s really hard when you feel like you are not a part of your country,” said Mr D’Rozario.

And for some, it’s the desire to be known as more than just the “others”. “All we want is to be recognised as a race,” said Ms Anthonisz.

So how do you identify a Eurasian? Is it the looks of a person whom you can’t quite place into the typical Chinese, Malay, or Indian profile?

I could meet a Eurasian person who is 50 years older than me, but there’s still that look like ‘hey, you’re me, a gragoh!’

said Mr D’Rozario. (‘Gragoh’ literally means shrimp, and was slang for Eurasian in the old days because many were fishermen.)

Or is identifying as Eurasian simply when the sound of certain familiar terms cause your ears to prick?

“Some phrases we use, like when someone says ‘swine’, you know they are Eurasian. My grandmother would scold me: ‘Take the cup off the table, you bloody swine!’ and that’s normal,” said Ms Cecil.

Ms Cecil with photos of her family.

So Eurasians seem to have an inbuilt radar for other Eurasians. But perhaps the best way to shout out their culture and heritage to the less-attuned ears of other Singaporeans, is through food – since eating is the one common passion.

To do that could mean relaxing the jealous tradition of guarding family recipes, and sharing more of them around, until Eurasian dishes become a staple in every household - as much part of the Singapore food DNA as Chinese or Malay or Indian.

“It would make us so proud,” said Ms Anthonisz.

“Except my mother would probably disown me if any of her recipes left the house!” quipped Ms Pereira. 

This is part of a series on vanishing home recipes. For more stories and recipes, check out CNA Insider.

Know an old-time home cook we could feature? Contact us at Facebook.com/CNAInsider, or Lam Shushan on Twitter @ShuShanCNA.

Mr D’Rozario and Ms Cecil baking a sugee cake, based on her mother's recipe which she “stores in her head”.

Source: CNA/yv

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