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  • Spencer Low

The Portuguese roots of Southeast Asia's Eurasian community

To be Eurasian is to be between two worlds, with ancestors from both Europe and Asia. From the perspective of ethnicity there is much complexity: it includes much more than just first-generation children of parents one of whom is "clearly" Asian and the other European (or Caucasian to be inclusive of "Amerasians", a term which is extended to those with African-American ancestry). There are also those whose parents only include one who is Eurasian from many generations ago. The cultural dimension is also complicated, as the ethnicity of parents may not match their lived culture. As younger people become ever more ethnically blind when choosing partners, the proportion of children with mixed heritage will continue to rise, making terms like Eurasian, Chindian, and other biracial epithets increasingly irrelevant in a multi-ethnic world.

However, there is a historically important Eurasian community in Asia that still preserves traditions that are a unique blend of both European and Asian cultures. These started with the arrival of Europeans in the colonial era, and the community is naturally very diverse given the mélange of Portuguese, Dutch, British and French with Indian, Chinese and Southeast Asian. The community had social and economic advantages during colonial times, being linguistically and often religiously aligned with the power structures in place. With independence spreading across Asia after the Second World War, the community adapted to the loss of privilege and often moved, both within Asia and also to Europe, Australia and North America. As an example, the Eurasian community in Singapore was likely 2.2% of the population at the time of independence in 1965, but this proportion has dwindled to less than 1.6% among citizens according to the latest 2020 census.

The Singapore Eurasian community has often chafed under the label of "Others" given to them by the Singapore government. Today, 75.9% of Singaporean citizens are considered Chinese, 15% Malay, and 7.5% Indian, leaving everyone else, including members of the Jewish, Armenian and other diasporic communities, as "Others". Singapore writer Melissa de Silva is Eurasian, and her book 'Others' Is Not A Race won the Singapore Literature Prize in 2018.

A self-declared introvert, De Silva is now working with CNA (formerly Channel NewsAsia), the Singapore English-language news channel, on a documentary series called My Debal Diaries - Tracing The History of Singapore’s Eurasians. The first episode can be viewed above, with De Silva going to Malacca and Goa, where her ancestors hail from, to discover more about the roots of Eurasian culture and identity. Her family history is Portuguese Eurasian, but her investigation of the cultural identity of Eurasians shows clearly how the Portuguese influence is especially prominent, the Portuguese being the first Europeans to interact at scale with Asia, from India (and the Persian Gulf before that) to the Malay Archipelago to China.

After more than 500 years, this Portuguese influence runs deep in different parts of Asia and is often forgotten, either because it has been completely assimilated (e.g. the many words of Portuguese etymology that are now part of Asian languages), or it is gradually dying out with the passage of time. I've written a post on Kristang, a Portuguese creole language that still lives on in Southeast Asia, and speakers of modern Portuguese will still be surprised by how recognizable it is.

Finally, although English-speaking Singapore is well known to be a former British colony, there is a strong Portuguese presence both through the Portuguese Eurasian community as well as the Portuguese Mission and its role in the history of the Catholic Church in Singapore. For Portuguese readers of this post, much of the content has been translated into Portuguese by writer Margarida Pereira-Müller in her blog: Singapura também tem herança portuguesa.

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