Sun, Jan 21, 2018 - Page 7 News List

With only 50 speakers of its unique creole surviving, Macau’s traditional community fears extinction

The number of people who speak Patua, Macau’s blend of Portuguese and Cantonese, has fallen to just 50 speakers as the casino-dominated territory continues to expand, attracting ever more Chinese residents

By Matthew Keegan  /  The Guardian, MACAU

Illustration: Kevin Sheu

“Nowadays, nobody speaks much Patua. Only the old people speak Patua,” 102-year-old Aida de Jesus said as she sat across the table from her daughter inside Riquexo, the small Macanese restaurant that she runs to this day despite her grand age.

Patua is the name of De Jesus’ mother tongue and she is one of its last surviving custodians.

Known to those who speak it as “Maquista,” Patua is a creole language that developed in Malacca, Portugal’s main base in southeast Asia, during the first half of the 16th century and made its way to Macau when the Portuguese settled there.

It blends Portuguese with Cantonese and Malay, and some traces of other languages from stops on the Portuguese trading route.

Patua developed to eventually become the language of Macau’s indigenous Eurasian community: the Macanese. They first arose from intermarriages between Portuguese colonizers and the Chinese — mostly Portuguese men marrying and starting families with Chinese women.

However, as of the second quarter of the 19th century, the strengthening of public education in Portuguese and the socio-economic advantages associated with the language led to the stigmatization of Patua. It was shunned as “broken Portuguese” and became a language confined mostly to the home.

In 2009, UNESCO classified Patua as a “critically endangered” language and as of the year 2000, there were estimated to be just 50 Patua speakers worldwide.

“At school, I was taught Portuguese and told not to speak Patua” De Jesus said. “If I spoke Patua at school, they would not understand, and so we had to speak Portuguese.”

Elisabela Larrea, a part-time PhD student and author of a blog that introduces Patua dialect flashcards to English and Chinese readers, learned of the challenges her ancestors faced speaking the language. She is now part of a small community in Macau that wants to help preserve it as a medium of Macanese culture.

“My mother once told me: ‘Our parents gave up what was ours for a language that is not; now we are left to grab back what truly represents our culture, our spirit. Patua is our language; it is ours,’” Larrea said.

“If you spoke in Patua you were seen as uneducated, so I can understand why parents, in the past, forbade children to learn their own Macanese language,” she said.

However, now “the Macanese are more proud of who they are compared to years ago, when Macanese culture was not held in high regard,” Larrea said.

This sea change has inspired efforts to revive the language.

Miguel de Senna Fernandes is a local lawyer and president of the board of the Macanese Association; he is also one of the main faces of the Patua revival.

Fernandes is director of Macau’s Patua language drama troupe, Doci Papiam di Macau, meaning “sweet language of Macau.” For more than 20 years, it has been preserving the language through original plays performed in Patua by local actors. The group’s work, presented with subtitles in English, Chinese and Portuguese, has become one of the most anticipated features at the annual Macau Arts Festival.

“When no one really speaks Patua anymore, people ask me: Why do we make all this fuss to write a play and engage so many people?” Fernandes said. “I say it’s like something that your dad left behind, like a jar or a notebook. You know that it belongs to one of your dearest, though you won’t likely use it — but you won’t throw it away because you feel connected to it. The same is true of Patua. We don’t speak it on a daily basis, it’s not useful anymore, but it links us to our ancestors and to a sense of our unique community.”

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