Kristang – Creole in Malaysia

  • September 08, 2017      Friendly Borders Staff

Kuala Lumpur – Southeast Asia has that distinct beauty of a land that welcomes a colorful variety of ethnicities and cultural wonders. In Malaysia, for instance, the Kristang people reside together with the native Malays. They share the experience of living in one country; sharing and showcasing their own beliefs, history, and current discoveries.

A Strategic Place Turns to Home

In the waves of the European expeditions in the 16th and 17th centuries, Malaysia, specifically the city of Malacca (Melaka), served as a strategic place for the port and base of the Portuguese explorers. The city became a destination where European and Asian cultures met and connected. Through this distinct purpose, both natives and foreign residents walked along the same roads, while each tried to distinguish yet continued to understand one another.

As years passed, interracial marriages brought about the growth of a new community known to be the creoles in Malaysia: the Kristang people. Through this new community, the people discovered the wonders of living in a country with a different culture incorporated into their own. However, this particular community has been incorrectly associated with other mixed races, and their connection to their European ancestry has become blurry through the years.

Confusion and Generalization

Who are the Kristang people? Maybe some local Malays and foreign observers give an overgeneralization of those people having Portuguese descent. However, this is not entirely correct.

The name Kristang came from the Portuguese creole word kristang meaning “Christian,” which in turn came from the Portuguese word cristão. They were the children of mixed race resulting from the intermarriages of Malay women to the Portuguese explorers, sailors, and others during the 16th to 17th centuries.

Foreigners and locals were free to intermarry at the time, as the law on religious conversion was not yet applicable. Non-Muslim individuals did not need to convert to Muslim for marriage, unlike today. However, there are many who simply label individuals as Kristang as long as they show a mixed race of European and Asian ancestries. Whether an individual is of Portuguese, Dutch, or even British descent, they are easily labeled as Kristang, which is technically incorrect.

Home is Still Home: Language Bridges the Gaps

In spite of the confusion, the actual Kristang community is identified as a minority in Malaysia. With a vocabulary that is highly based in Portuguese with only a moderate Malay language incorporation, the Kristang language is known to be a borrowed one that combines other features from colonial European languages. As a smaller number of community members live in the present, the survival of their language is at risk.

Despite fewer speakers, the presence of the Kristang is known by their language. Their Malacca–Melayu Portuguese creole is now in Bahasa Malaysia. It is an active work of those few thousands that help keep the minority’s presence alive through the incorporation of the words in the national language of Malaysia. After all, their history and language are legacies of both Portuguese and Malaysian history that must be preserved. Hopefully, with the efforts of the remaining Kristang, their country can still be called home by the new generations as they learn their culture through the survival of their language.

Image from Lily Riani,