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  • Spencer Low

How the Straits Chinese introduced the Malay word "kerosang" from the Portuguese

Updated: Mar 5, 2023

The Straits Chinese in Singapore and Malaysia are a unique culture, a centuries-old

A heart-shaped pendant or coração

blend of Chinese and Malay. One of their traditional outfits for women is the kebaya (the word itself is derived from the Portuguese cabaia, which in turn came from the Arabic/Persian), made famous by the modern version designed by Pierre Balmain for the flight attendants on Singapore Airlines.

The kebaya blouse (not worn by above-mentioned flight attendants), is a loose garment traditionally fastened by a set of three pins or brooches linked by a chain (see picture below). The entire set is called "kerosang" by the Straits Chinese in their Malay-inflected dialect, and this name is actually borrowed from the Portuguese-Kristang.

A kebaya blouse with kerosang

The word originates from the days when Portuguese men gifted heart-shaped pendants or coração ('heart' in Portuguese) to their fiancées and wives as a symbol of their love. The coração was popular in Portuguese Goa and Ceylon, and was introduced to the British Straits Settlements to become the top pin in the set of three used to fasten the kebaya blouse. This top pin was called the ibu kerosang or 'mother kerosang' in Malay, while the two smaller brooches were referred to as the anak kerosang or 'child/children kerosang'.

According to exhibits at the Eurasian Heritage Gallery in Singapore, local craftsmen added Chinese, Malay, Indian and Sinhalese influences, resulting in a very multicultural flavour to the jewellery that eventually lost its original heart shape.

This type of historical cross-cultural mixing fascinates me, but unfortunately I believe the vast majority of Straits Chinese and others that wear kebayas such as some Indonesians have no idea that the Portuguese influence seeps so deep into what they would consider to be their very own local culture.

Traditional Portuguese gilt-silver filigree heart-shaped pendant

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