A small group of enthusiasts fights for the survival of an endangered language in Macao.
These days Macanese patois is spoken in very restricted circles and by merely a few dozen people. But the importance of the doçi lingu di Macau (sweet language of Macao) does not come from the number of people who speak it but from the history of the region that it carries.
“Patuá (patois) is a way into the Macanese soul,” said Miguel Senna Fernandes, president of the Association of Macanese (ADM), describing the dialect that in the past was the signature of the people of Macao.
The origins of Macanese patois date back to the 16th century, following the establishment of the first Portuguese trading post in Macao in 1557. The basis of the Portuguese lexicon came together with elements of Cantonese, Indian and several other Eastern languages. Macanese patois most closely resembles Malayan Creole, also known as cristang de Malaca (Malaccan Christian).
“To understand patois is not only a question of learning its grammar, it involves greater knowledge of a social context. Anyone who speaks patois is also speaking of a certain culture,” explained Fernandes.
Containing elements in common with African Creole languages and the Papiamento of the Caribbean, Macanese patois tells the story of Portuguese expansion.
In the early twentieth century, this creole was still spoken but started falling out of use from the 1930s onwards after the imposition of standard Portuguese as the official language of Macao. In addition, during the Estado Novo (New State) regime in Portugal, pressure was put on the colonies to speak “good Portuguese”, especially among the upper classes.
Standard Portuguese was a status symbol and all versions that were not within this standard were relegated to the background, according to Fernandes, recalling his grandmother who corrected him when he asked the meaning of expressions he used in patois; she replied by saying “speak Portuguese, please” without giving him any explanation.
“Speaking patois was thought to be the same as speaking poor Portuguese,” he said. “The language evolved in a negative way, in the sense that a language that was common to all, that everyone understood ended up being a reason for mockery.”
The Maquista language – as Macanese patois is also known – is listed on the UNESCO Atlas of World Languages in Danger as “critically endangered”. In 2000, it was estimated that there were just 50 patois speakers in the territory.
But, to Fernandes, establishing the number of speakers raises more questions than answers.
“What is this patois spoken today? That dense patois of the 17th, 18th or 19th centuries or the patois that has undergone other changes, a patois that is already somewhat altered compared to that original way of speaking?” he asked.
“If we are talking about that dense kind of patois, then we have almost no one that speaks it here in Macao. There is nobody who can hold a conversation in this patois that has no vocabulary to describe the world of today. But if we mean the way Macanese speak today, the most modern way, then we are talking about a lot more people.”
The Macanese diaspora has an important role to play. The old-school Macanese speak Maquista on important days and holidays and at other meetings, but it is rare among young people.
Deolinda Adão, director of the Portuguese Studies Programme at the University of California Berkeley and who has close connections to the Macanese community of California in the United States, believes that most traditions continue in the Macanese diaspora, except the language.
“The cuisine is the strongest part and the language is the weakest. Patois is almost non-existent in the young communities and Portuguese as well, as young people are losing the ability to speak in their native tongue,” explained the researcher. “The hegemonic force of growing up in a country with another language is very powerful. Even older people end up being contaminated. Those who lose patois are losing the added value of being able to think and exist within a variety of cultural realities.”
But what does the Chinese community think of this dialect of Macao, a linguistic legacy which now belongs to them?
According to Wu Zhiliang, President of the Macao Foundation who was born on the mainland, “Both the Chinese from Macao and those from the mainland consider patois to be an integral part of Macao’s cultural heritage and that it adds value to the culture of the region.”
In 2006, several Macanese associations considered an application for patois to be given Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity status. But, to date, the formalities have not left the drawing board and preservation measures have not been put in place.
According to Wu, raising the Maquista language to Heritage status is key. “Macao’s historical centre (monuments and other old buildings in the city centre) is listed as heritage and is evidence of the exchange of various cultures and the common life of many people, but I think the language – in this case patois – is a crucial element to explain how people lived in those buildings,” he explained. “Patois is a very important aspect that distinguishes Macao’s culture from other Chinese cultures.”
The “Macanisation” of the language
José dos Santos Ferreira, a Macao poet better known as Adé, dedicated his life to Macanese patois, or, as he wrote, the “Dóci língu di Macau di tempo antigo” (Sweet language of Macao of the olden days), and to keeping alive the cultural traditions of Macao by publishing 18 books of poetry, prose, plays and operettas in patois before he died.
Adé used the dialect in a lyrical way, according to the meter and all the rules of classical poetic structure, but importing words from Portuguese in the most traditional Macanese way, or “Macanising” them. So he used the same word in its original form and adapted it to how a Macanese would say it if he had to use the word.
From the 19th century onwards, Cantonese undoubtedly had a decisive influence on the formation of new words and idioms.
However, Portuguese uses metaphors for the sake of style but a patois speaker does not. Patois speakers use their language pragmatically; therefore, this has an effect on vocabulary, on how they express themselves, on syntax and on the oral expression that is unique to patois.
“Macanese hear, import and use,” said Fernandes, who is also co-author of Maquista Chapado, a compilation published in 2001 of words and expressions of the Portuguese Creole of Macao, in partnership with linguist Alan Baxter.
In recent decades, Fernandes has played an important role in the fight for the preservation of Maquista, following in the footsteps of his father, Macanese writer Henrique Senna Fernandes.
In 1993, Miguel got together with other Macanese and founded the group Dóci Papiaçam di Macau (Sweet Creole of Macao), which every year since has staged recitals in patois in Portuguese review style.
The Macanese Creole recital group lampoons the daily life of Macao, teaching the community to laugh at itself.
The remarkable success amongst the public during the Macao Arts Festival led to the Grand Auditorium of the Macao Cultural Centre being filled. Friends and family watch and “brush up” on the dialect that is used only for these occasions and the audience is also increasingly filled with curious outsiders.
Miguel Senna Fernandes explained that every year the show also helps to find out who still understands the patois of Macao.
“If people don’t understand the patois, they can’t laugh at the show in the same way. If they really laugh, it means they genuinely understood what we were trying to say,” he explained. “There’s always a lot of laughter and it is absolutely evident that there are still people who express themselves that way these days and who understand the so-called badly spoken Portuguese.”
This year Dóci Papiaçám di Macau put on a play called Macao’s Got Talent, which, according to the playwright and director, reminds us of the Macanese ability to get out of a scrape, which they inherited from the Portuguese.
The play tells the story of Ginete, a businesswoman who runs a small hotel that loses all its employees just as it is about to welcome an important guest.
The cast included the usual recital players from Dóci Papiaçam who are Maquista enthusiasts, including Alfredo Ritchie, Sonia Palmer and Rita Cabral, who this year were joined by Mané Crestejo; despite knowing just a few words in Macao dialect before joining the group, he played the role of Maneco entirely in patois.
The author of the book Cronologia da História de Macau (Timeline of Macao History) said it would be unfair not to mention Doçi Papiaçam when talking about patois.
Beatriz Basto da Silva, who for several years wrote about Macao’s history, refers to patois and remembers the poet Adé and the play Olá Pisidenti (Hello Mr President) that brought new life to the Dom Pedro V Theatre during the second visit by Portuguese President Mário Soares to the region in 1993 as key moments in the history of the territory.
But Doçi Papiaçam’s big year came in 2012 when Theatre in Patois was awarded the status of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Macao.
Over more than two decades of existence, the theatre group has received much applause and also the recognition and support of institutions like the Macao Foundation which through Wu laments the fact that the group does not put on productions more regularly. Fernandes admitted with a laugh that this is not due to a lack of will but of time because of other professional commitments.
What does the future hold?
Using Portuguese as a base language that works as a sort of repository of other languages, brings up a big question mark; if it does not work, it is likely to lead to the death of patois. The question is therefore whether it still makes sense to preserve it.
We all have valuable items at home that ultimately are of no use. If we are talking about utility, there is no point in speaking anything but the universal languages, such as English and now increasingly Mandarin, which is beginning to gain ground in the world,” said Fernandes.
“This increasingly globalised world feels a greater need to preserve differences and this is where patois comes in,” he added.
For this defender of the dialect, the plan is not for people to start speaking patois again, because patois speakers lived at a certain time in history. However, it should always be preserved as a reference to Macao’s history and a very nostalgic way to bring people together.
Fernandes plans to post videos on YouTube that teach some concepts in patois, in an attempt to reach a larger audience.
Wu said that the dialect is neglected and that, in academic circles, it deserves to be studied more. Despite several masters and doctoral theses on the subject, particularly in Portugal, the President of the Macao Foundation said that he receives very few proposals on the Maquista language to be carried out in the territory itself.
The historian lamented the fact that in Macao universities there are no dissertations on the topic, which he feels deserves not only a linguistic but a cultural and social study that has not yet been carried out.
Wu recognises that the study and preservation of an “archaic” dialect is a very difficult task. But he suggests more lectures on the subject at both Portuguese- and Chinese-language institutions.
Fernandes told us that whoever is speaking patois is speaking of a certain culture. It is clear that preservation of Macanese patois, the one-time language of the people, is and should be a goal for all Macanese, so that it can be kept alive as the “home language” of a minority. (Macao Magazine, By Catarina Mesquita, Photos by António Sanmarful, Eric Tam and Leonor Rosário)