Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Portuguese of Malaysia and Singapore

The Portuguese of Malaysia and their novelist, Rex Shelley.*

The Portuguese Eurasians of the Malay Peninsula are close historical cousins of the Macanese, Macau’s native sons (and daughters) of Portuguese and Asian ancestry. For nearly one hundred and fifty years after its seizure by the Portuguese in 1511, the port city of Malacca was an important commercial hub in trade between Goa and China and Japan. Early Portuguese settlers in Macau inevitably came through Malacca, and very often they brought with them Malay women. Unlike Macau, of course, Malacca was seized by the Dutch in 1641, before coming under British control in the early nineteenth century. But the Portuguese creole language, Kristang, which has affinities with Macau’s Patuá, continued to be spoken by the Portuguese Eurasian community, albeit with some Dutch and later English influences. The city lost much of its previous commercial status even under the Dutch, whose main centre of operations in the region was Batavia. But it was during British rule that the centre of commercial power shifted away from Malacca to Penang and then Singapore. Malacca’s importance therefore dwindled, rather like Macau’s decline after the foundation of Hong Kong. Like the Macanese, who migrated from their tiny homeland to seek employment in Hong Kong, Shanghai and the Chinese Treaty Ports, the Portuguese Eurasians in British-ruled Malaya spread out from Malacca, seeking employment in other, more thriving metropolitan environments, in particular Singapore. They took with them their language, their cuisine, and of course, their Roman Catholicism, along with the cultural memory of their heartland. Like the Macanese, the Portuguese Eurasians of the Malay Peninsula constituted a buffer group, a frontier ethnicity whose position within the colonial order was ambiguous. They occupied the lower to middle ranks of the civil service and the police, and they worked for banks and trading houses. They were the most Oriental of the Westerners, but the most Western of the Orientals. Finally, during the volatile years of the 1950s and 60s, which witnessed the rise of Malay nationalism, the communist insurgency, and eventual independence, these Eurasians began to migrate and form diasporas elsewhere. Many went to Australia. So once again, like the Macanese, the lives of these Malay Portuguese were affected by the profound political changes that followed the end of the Second World War.
Rex Shelley is the novelist who has done most to highlight in his work, the life of the Eurasian community in Malaysia and Singapore during the most turbulent period of the region’s recent history, beginning with the Japanese invasion of 1941 and culminating in the tensions between Sukarno’s newly independent Indonesia and Malaysia and Singapore as they lurched towards their own independence, a period known in regional history as 'Konfrontasi'. Shelley, who died in 2009, was himself of partial Portuguese Eurasian origin. Born in 1930, he experienced the Japanese occupation of Malaya, took degrees in Singapore and in England, and spent his professional life in the civil service and in business. He began publishing novels when he was in his sixties, which is why it is tempting to see an analogy with Macau’s Henrique de Senna Fernandes. Perhaps both writers wanted to explain to a wider world the history and drama of the community from which they sprang, but that was becoming increasingly vulnerable to change and the forces of dispersal in the post-war world. Shelley wrote four novels in which characters in one are mentioned or feature in another, thus enhancing the notion of a communal history and an inter-related set of individual and family experiences. The novel for which he will be most remembered is probably The Shrimp People (1991).

The prologue to Shelley’s first novel explains in almost mythical terms the origins of the Portuguese Eurasians. A wounded Portuguese sailor, a survivor of the initial expedition to Malacca in 1509 by Diogo Lopes de Sequeira, is tended to by a native woman, after the Portuguese have been driven back by local forces. The man’s name is Rodrigues, the woman’s, Bedah. Together, they settle by the seashore, and devote themselves to catching shrimps to make the paste that will become a culinary mark of the Portuguese Eurasians of Malaya. This is the celebrated 'belachan', which of course appears in Macanese cuisine as 'balichão'. From the depths of the sixteenth century, the scene then switches to a bar in present-day Australia, where members of the Portuguese Eurasian diaspora are talking of the folks back home. From these conversations, the novel gradually focuses on the story of its heroine, Bertha Rodrigues, daughter of a policeman in Singapore, a direct descendant of the original Portuguese pioneer. The story traces her passage from youth to adulthood, her exploits on the hockey field, her failed marriage following an unhappy love affair, and her involvement in espionage and the nationalist struggle for Malaysia and Singapore. Bertha is intuitive rather than intellectual, she is active, a doer, someone who is adaptable to changing circumstances, but ultimately places loyalty to her country above her attraction to Hartono, the Indonesian infiltrator who seeks to destabilise British-ruled Malaysia in the name of Sukarno’s revolutionary nationalism. At once a novel of social customs and of history, it also incorporates elements of spy fiction. But above all, it is a novel that evokes the life and culture of a small community that straddles and fuses a variety of cultural influences. Linguistically, Portuguese (or at least its creolised form) has been lost, except in Malacca, but religion and the social life that revolves around the church continue to be important for the Eurasian community. British culture, including the English language, but with a local Malay flavour, has long supplanted Portuguese, at least among Bertha's generation. At the same time, food is an important feature of the community’s identity, and The Shrimp People is littered with references to dishes and to eating. Indeed, the Eurasians, apart from attachment to their own ethnic cuisine with its blend of Portuguese and Asian influences, seem at home across the various food tastes of the Malay peninsula, which perhaps underlines their cultural adaptability and therefore their claim to a sense of belonging to the country.
Another of his novels, People of the Pear Tree (1993), is set during the Japanese occupation, and has as one of its themes the relationship between the invaders and the Eurasians, through the romantic attraction of a Japanese officer for a young beauty by the name of Anna Perera. For Captain Junichiro, the Portuguese Eurasians are a mystery, a kind of exotic 'other'. More generally, the Japanese authorities found it difficult to classify this group: were they Asian, and therefore potential allies, or were they alien Europeans, and therefore enemies? Anna's predicament is that she will have to choose between the sensitive, artistic, and scrupulously polite Japanese who is her suitor, and the English officer who is sent to liaise with the local guerrillas fighting the occupying forces in the jungle near where the bulk of the Eurasian community from Singapore has been effectively interned. Her brother, Gus, on the other hand, joins the resistance. Here then, we have what might be termed a war novel, but like Shelley's other work, it engages with the concerns of his own Eurasian community, and the question of where its loyalty lies. If the Pereras are 'a noisy family of all brown bodies interspersing their dreadful English with Portuguese', Anna's Britishness emerges when she finds herself singing along with her brother the old wartime favourite, 'There'll always be an England'. On the other hand, in discussing their future, they are torn between the choice of being absorbed into the wider Asian population and thus losing their specific identity, or reaching out to other Eurasian groups in a bid to create a homeland of their own. Historically, the third possibility of migration emerged in the 1950s and 60s, bringing with it further problems of adaptation, integration, and the preservation of a unique cultural identity. Shelley touched upon this in his first novel, but migration and the experience of the Portuguese Eurasian diaspora in the wider world has been a theme taken up by other writers from Malaysia and Singapore. I look forward to returning to the subject of these writers in the near future.


* Published in the Macau Daily Times (Weekend Magazine), 10 July, 2010.

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