5 Minutes With... Kevin Martens Wong, Founder of Kodrah Kristang
Kevin Martens Wong first discovered Kristang, the creole language of his Portuguese-Eurasian heritage, in 2015 when he was working on a story about endangered languages in the region for the linguistics magazine he ran with friends. “I was fortunate that the Kristang‑speaking community in Singapore has remained relatively tight‑knit over the years, and I was able to find 14 speakers of the language still alive and willing to speak to me,” Wong explains. A year later, the linguistics graduate set about to revive the language—which has evolved since the Portuguese rule of Malacca in 1511—through the Kodrah Kristang (Awaken, Kristang) movement.
Today, Kodrah Kristang has made great progress in its ambitious 30-year revitalisation plan for the language in Singapore. Besides developing the first structured Kristang curriculum, taught in a 160-hour series of modules at such locations as Cairnhill Community Club, it also organised Singapore’s first-ever Kristang Language Festival in 2017. An English-Kristang board game and an online dictionary followed later. The Eurasian Association, which is celebrating its centennial this year, is inviting the wider Singapore community to explore the vibrancy and richness of the Eurasian culture through its language, with a series of activities including the opening of the newly revamped Eurasian Heritage Gallery next month.
According to Wong, the Kristang classes are key to ensuring that the language is being continuously revived. “Our first class of learners to complete all eight of our Kodrah Kristang modules graduated last November, with our second group on the way. Most importantly, we’re seeing a lot more autonomous interest in Kristang, especially by students who were part of Kodrah, who have initiated their own projects related to Kristang.”
Why is the Kristang language worth saving?
Kevin Martens Wong Languages have immense value beyond simply practical or instrumentalist considerations that focus on their “economic” worth. Being able to see that value is not simply tied to practicality, and that usefulness is not simply limited to an economic or utilitarian consideration.
What have you discovered about the history of Kristang in Singapore?
KMW There used to be a strong tradition of Kristang plays being performed at the old Theatre Royal (now the site of the Raffles Hospital) in the late 19th century. William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice was performed in Kristang in 1893, among other Kristang translations of plays drawn from a variety of traditions. Many of these were staged for charitable causes such as the renovation of the St Anthony’s Church.
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How do you feel now that Kodrah Kristang has inspired spin-off projects?
KMW I didn’t expect Kodrah Kristang to garner such interest in a short time, thanks to our students who have discovered how beautiful and wonderful the Kristang language is, and the community and heritage associated with it. Some of these projects have included children’s books, short stories, music and short films.
Share with us a few simple, everyday Kristang phrases.
KMW • Ki bos sa nomi? (What is your name?) / Yo sa nomi ______. (My name is ______.)
• Ki linggu bos podih papiah? (What languages do you speak?) / Yo podih papiah ______. (I can speak ______.)
What other aspects of the Eurasian culture do you want people to know about?
KMW One of the nicest things about the classes so far is the wonderful sense of community that they have engendered—I think this points to the inclusive and welcoming spirit of the Eurasian community in Singapore. People have made new friends of all ages, races, genders and backgrounds; rediscovered old friends and colleagues; and even met long‑lost relations. The community that has come forward to protect this beautiful language is vibrant and full of zest and youth—it’s one of the things that makes teaching the language such a privilege.
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