Kristang crusade: A new festival for a 500-year-old language

Kristang crusade: A new festival for a 500-year-old language

This weekend, the inaugural Kristang Language Festival puts the spotlight on an age-old language by Singapore’s Portuguese-Eurasian community, through workshops, dance and poetry performances, food, and even a new board game.

Kodrah Kristang (classes)
Kodrah Kristang's language classes see both young and old aiming to revive a 500-year-old language. Seen here is KK director Kevin Martens Wong's own grandfather Peter Martens with KK core group member Anirudh Krishnan. (Photo: Marvin Tang)

SINGAPORE: Bos kereh prendeh linggu nubu?

That’s Kristang for “do you want to learn a new language?” If the answer is an affirmative “seng”, you might want to check out a unique festival on one of Singapore’s least-known heritage languages.

This weekend, the inaugural Kristang Language Festival will be putting the spotlight on a 500-year-old language belonging to the Portuguese-Eurasian community in Singapore and Melaka.

Taking place at the Asian Civilisations Museum from May 20 to 21, the festival will include workshops and discussions, poetry and dance performances, a minority languages trail, and even the launch of a new board game and some food.

Kodrah Kristang (board game)
Ila-Ila di Sul, a new board game in both English and Kristang, will be launched at the inaugural Kristang Language Festival. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

The event is organised by Kodrah Kristang (KK), a group that is revitalising what’s considered a dying tongue in Singapore.

While there are reportedly more than 1,000 speakers in Melaka (and another 2,000 in the rest of Malaysia), only roughly a hundred people speak it here.


Kristang is a creole language combining a primarily Portuguese vocabulary (with a smattering of other languages) with Malay grammar. The word itself comes from the Portuguese term “cristao” or Christian, and can refer to the language, the religion, or the people who spoke it.

In Singapore, much of the Kristang community traces its origins to the start of the 19th century, with many Eurasians moving here from places such as Melaka. But these days, not many even know the language exists, said Eurasian-Chinese Kevin Martens Wong, director of both KK and the festival.

“The youngest fluent speakers we know of are in their 50s, so it’s quite a serious situation where not many Singaporeans know about this language. We’ve thus been aggressively pushing for awareness by holding classes and talks, and the festival is sort of the culmination of that.”

The 25-year-old author and linguistics undergraduate student from the National University of Singapore is the man behind these efforts to revive Kristang, after he stumbled upon the language two years ago while researching for an article for a linguistics magazine he had founded, Unravel.

And he did not have to look far to discover it.

“My maternal grandmother is Portuguese-Eurasian; she in turn learned it from my great-great-grandmother who spoke Kristang exclusively. My maternal grandfather, who is Danish-Eurasian, picked up the language when he was dating my grandmother and had to get to know my grandmother’s family,” he said.

Last year, Wong and five like-minded individuals founded Kodrah Kristang, which means Awaken, Kristang.

Kodrah Kristang (core group photo)
Kodrah Kristang and Kristang Language Festival director Kevin Martens Wong (centre) with KK's core group members (from left) Fuad Johari, Andre D'Rozario, Luis Morgado da Costa, Frances Loke Wei, and Anirudh Krishnan. (Photo: Marvin Tang)

To date, there have been five iterations of the classes, with around 150 to 180 regular students, of which two-thirds are Eurasians. The youngest is 11 and the oldest is in his 80s.

“The remaining speakers like that there are so many young people involved, which is healthy for the language,” he said.

The group’s efforts would eventually catch the attention not just of local and international media, but even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself, who gave a shout-out to Wong on his Facebook page last month.


The group’s aims are long term. In fact, Wong came up with a revitalisation plan that stretches all the way to 2045.

“For us, the end game is to make Kristang a relatively healthy language again, which means 10 to 15 families using it on a daily basis and passing it on to their children. It’s a modest goal,” said Wong.

It’s a slow-but-steady project. In fact, the festival is only the culmination of the first phase of the plan. At the moment, it’s about building awareness, slowly growing a community of the interested and curious, and encouraging them to develop a more active and personal interest in the language.

Kodrah Kristang (flashcards)
Kristang flash cards anyone? These will be launched at the first Kristang Language Festival. They're not for sale at the moment but who knows? (Photo: Mayo Martin)

Among the projects at the festival is the launch of an online dictionary, which currently comprises 3,500 words and will be freely accessible.

They will also be launching a set of flash cards and even a bilingual boardgame called Ila-Ila di Sul (Southern Islands). Both aren’t commercially for sale, but Wong said they are open to the possibility in the future.

The festival will also go beyond Kristang-as-language and will look at culture, with the Kristang 1511 O Maliao Maliao dance troupe from Melaka coming down to perform and hold a workshop on the dance form branyo (which is related to the Malay form of joget).

Eurasian food establishments Quentin’s and Mary’s Kafe will also be present to showcase Eurasian food such as Pang Susi, a minced meat-filled bun, as well as Kari Debal, popularly known as devil’s curry.

But at the heart of all these cultural efforts is the language itself, which Wong believes binds everything together.

“The whole initiative is still focused on reinvigorating the language, but we’re hoping the culture gets reinvigorated as well,” he said.

And the festival isn’t just about Kristang. A couple of events, including the Languages Of Singapore Trail, also looks at other minority languages in the country, such as Baba Malay, Boyanese, Punjabi, and more.

While Wong admitted that revitalising a language with relatively very few speakers can be tricky, he pointed to successful efforts elsewhere.

“The Hawaiian language was dying in the 1970s, with only 2,000 speakers. But a bunch of people got together, and now it has 24,000 speakers and 2,000 kids learning the language. And along with that was the revival of Hawaiian culture and ways of thinking.”


Wong and his fellow Kristang crusaders want to start them young. In June, KK will begin classes for children between the ages of four and six, a critical period recognised by linguists for picking up language skills.

There are also others who are doing their bit independently — Eurasian writer Melissa de Silva is planning to publish a children’s book in Kristang, said Wong.

Kodrah Kristang (group photo)
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)

As for his own creative efforts, Wong has a YouTube channel called Kantah Kristang, where he sings translated Kristang versions of popular songs. In his new sci-fi novel Altered Straits, he has also sneaked in some Kristang, too. He’s also planning a new novel with “a lot more Kristang in it”.

For Wong, it has gone beyond simply saving a language, but also building new families and strengthening ties with his own.

“When I started out, it was as a linguist interested in finding out how to preserve a language. But as time has gone on, I’ve also come to do it for the older speakers. I’ve built very meaningful friendships with them. And working with my grandparents on the language – it’s a whole other side of a relationship that I had never experienced before.”

He added: “There’s so much about the older generation that we don’t know about, and I think it’s so important that we make an effort to bridge that gap before all of that knowledge is lost forever.”

Source: CNA/mm