They Sing Dick Lee's 'Home' In Kristang, A 500-Year-Old Language
The interview below was first published on 2 Aug 2019.
Singapore's 58th National Day (or rather, Dia di Tera) is around the corner, and in keeping with Wonderwall.sg's promise of helping you discover something new in the familiar, we've decided to share something a little different from 2016: a Kristang rendition of Dick Lee's beloved "Home" by Fuad Johari and Kevin Martens Wong.
We speak to Kevin, the 30-year-old founder and director of Kodrah Kristang (or Awaken Kristang) to find out more about his ongoing efforts to revitalise a creole language that's more than twice as old as Singapore, and why this endeavour is a necessary one.
Kevin, what is Kristang and why is it important in the Singapore context?
Kristang is the critically endangered heritage language of the Portuguese-Eurasian community in Singapore and Melaka. It is very important because it is a unique part of the region's intangible cultural heritage and tapestry, and therefore carries a lot of cultural and historical significance for the Portuguese-Eurasian community.
You are the founder and director of Kodrah Kristang, which you started in 2017 as a way of revitalising the 500-year-old language. What kind of progress have you seen since?
We've seen quite an upsurge in interest in Kristang among both the Portuguese-Eurasian community and Singaporeans from all walks of life outside of the community, which has been very promising. A lot of our learners have also gone on to initiate side projects of their own in Kristang after being in Kodrah classes, which has been something that has been very fulfilling to observe.
You’ve said that Kodrah Kristang is one of the most rewarding things you’ve ever done in your life. How so?
I think it's mostly been the very warm, genuine, friendly and collegial atmosphere that the classes have given rise to that has made Kodrah so rewarding for me personally. It's really the people who have come for class who have given the initiative life and beauty, and made it full of exciting possibilities.
Tell us more about your background. What were the most interesting parts about growing up in this culture?
I actually come from a mixed Chinese-Portuguese-Eurasian household – my dad is Chinese while my mom is Portuguese-Eurasian – so I didn't really have a very Eurasian experience growing up. However, I did spend a lot of time at my maternal (Eurasian) grandparents' house, which I enjoyed very much. I think for me, the warmth that the community exudes has always been something very strong, and has always held a lot of appeal; it's also very interesting to see how many aspects of our culture (food, songs, language etc.) have very diverse origins.
How and why did you pick up Kristang?
I started learning the language in 2015, having had no idea previously that it existed, after I had to do research for a magazine article about endangered languages in the region. I picked it up initially out of a very linguistic interest, but as I got to know more of the community who still spoke the language – as well as more about my own maternal grandparents, who had spoken some of the language growing up with my ancestors – my attachment to it really grew, and I became very invested in being able to speak it well.
Tell us more about your Kristang classes. Who attends them and do you have any interesting student stories?
We have a very diverse range of students from all walks of life, aged between 9 and 89! About two-thirds of our learners are Portuguese-Eurasian, while the other one-third are from all sorts of other backgrounds. We've also been very pleasantly honoured to host learners from Brazil, Japan, the United States and elsewhere. I think one of the more interesting things that we've been able to see is whole families coming to learn the language together; we've had the Edemas, the Pereiras, the Sundrams, the Körbers and many others, and it's really made class come alive, because many of our older learners are quite well versed in the language (sometimes more than me) and support everyone in that way.
We'd love to learn a couple of cool phrases in Kristang. Please teach us!
- "Bong pamiang" is "good morning".
- "Yo sa nomi Kevin" means "my name is Kevin".
- "Yo ta papiah Kristang" means "I am speaking Kristang".
What is it about languages that ignites your passion for linguistics?
I think it comes from the joy of understanding new ways of being human and seeing and appreciating the beautiful world that we live in that language provides, and which really makes humanity so unique as a species. I really enjoy learning about other languages and getting to know the people who speak, use and cherish them.