Dona Aida de Jesus is 96 years old and still runs the family restaurant in Macau. She is also something even more remarkable: one of the last custodians of a dying language.
“My friends all died, nobody speaks Patua with me any more,” says De Jesus, as she helps serve Brazilian black beans, Portuguese stewed fish and Chinese choi sum to customers in her restaurant, Riquexo.
De Jesus’ mother tongue is Patua, once also known as Christian speech or the sweet language of Macau — a creole that blends Portuguese with Cantonese and Malay, plus traces of Hindi, Japanese and the languages of other stops on the travels of the Portuguese over the past few centuries.
It was once the language of Macau’s Eurasians, called the Macanese: people who served as interpreters and cadres for the Portuguese colonisers in the Chinese territory, and who still hold onto a distinct social identity.
In 2009 Patua was classified by Unesco as “critically endangered”. Local enthusiasts say that only a handful of original, fluent speakers like De Jesus remain in Macau, and perhaps a few hundred overseas among the Macanese diaspora.
Since Macau was handed back to the Chinese in 1999, and then swelled into the world’s largest gambling city, bigger forces that had already got the better of Patua seemed to sound its death knell.
“It has lost its social utility,” admits Miguel Senna Fernandes, a lawyer who has headed the effort to hold onto Patua as a medium of Macanese culture. “Reviving Patua is giving life to a lost memory.”
But Fernandes’ energetic arrival on the Patua scene, plus a growing awareness of heritage in general, have helped to place Patua, as local journalist Harald Bruning says, “on life support”.
‘Speak proper Portuguese’
Fernandes writes and directs a satirical community Patua play every year, which revives a tradition dating back at least a century. He adapts the language to mock contemporary Macau.
His most recent production, Que Pandalhada!, took pandas as its theme, after two giant pandas arrived in Macau from the central government to much fanfare to mark the tenth anniversary of the handover to China.
Through a host of characters, including one in a panda suit, the play poked fun at the government and striking workers, to much hilarity from the audience.
Yet to learn Patua at all, Fernandes had to persuade his reluctant grandmother to explain the words. One of the key reasons for Patua’s downfall was a policy in Portuguese-language schools of discouraging and even punishing the use of what was seen as a debased language.
Fernandes characterises this attitude, which pervaded through the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, as “Boy, you speak proper Portuguese! Don’t speak this rubbish!”
‘Keeping the memory alive’
Dating back to the 16th century, when the first Portuguese travellers arrived in Macau from Malacca — where a related creole, Papia Kristang, is still spoken by a small community — the language later began to bloom when colonists intermarried with locals. They brought along some words used by their African slaves for good measure.
But as education spread in the 19th century, Patua declined, and by the start of the 20th century it had become a women’s language. It was spoken in homes, with children and sometimes on the street, not in schools or workplaces.
This meant its functions were limited, but poets like the 20th-century writer Jose dos Santos Ferreira — known as Ad and still revered by the community — treasured it for its rawness, as well as its reflection of a lively hybrid culture.
“It was the voice of the common Macanese,” said Fernandes.
Fernandes says one of his favourite words in the language is saiang, a Malay-derived word for longing similar to the Portuguese saudade.
Manuel Noronha of the University of Macao, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on Patua, says the language mingled international influences even within a single word. Babachai, a word for baby, seems to combine the Hindi word baba (father) with chai, a Cantonese suffix for a little person.
Another word reflects the arrival of the British in neighbouring Hong Kong: a beefy is a vaguely pejorative word for an English or English-speaking person.
Although Patua’s foundations are in Portuguese, its grammar is more like Cantonese: it does not conjugate verbs, and words are repeated for emphasis.
In many ways Patua, already based on archaic Portuguese, is now frozen in time. Noronha, who also heard Patua spoken by ageing relatives when he was a child, said he would not know how to describe an iPhone or cappuccino in the language.
Instead it has words like caxa hap-loh, a Portuguese-Cantonese fusion word describing a traditional box given to the groom’s family by the bride’s relatives at weddings, and barung, a south-east Asian word used in Macau for an all-purpose kitchen cleaver.
Noronha said that the identity of the Macanese themselves, of whom about 8 000 still live in Macau, is increasingly diluted. Large numbers left before the handover to the Chinese, for economic reasons or fearing discrimination.
Now, many young people with Macanese heritage would simply describe themselves as Chinese, while there is just one Portuguese-language school left in Macau.
But Macanese culture still survives in other ways: those same young people may well cook and eat ta-chu, a Portuguese hotpot adapted to contain Chinese sausage and pork skin, and served with a pungent Malay shrimp sauce called balichao.
Since Fernandes began his campaign in the early 1990s, young people with no previous knowledge of Patua have joined his theatre group, which receives government funding.
However, in a territory where 95% of people are ethnically Chinese, Fernandes says the government can appear lukewarm: “They want to preserve, but they don’t know exactly what they are preserving.”
Bruning, of the Macau Daily Post, has become a passionate Patua campaigner despite coming from Germany. He is urging that audio recordings be made of fluent speakers like De Jesus while the opportunity is still there.
Still, Bruning is sanguine about the chances of Patua surviving in some form.
“It’s on its deathbed and the doctors are rushing in, but more has been done in this decade than in many before,” he said. “Nowadays there is a chance of keeping the memory alive.” — AFP