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Jenti Cristang – the Cristang People
Very little is known, and even less is written, about the Cristang, an ethnic minority in Malaysia. Their origins can be traced to the first European settlers who came to Asia. Portuguese seafarers were the first to set foot in Malacca - then already a bustling port with a natural harbour, and all the attributes that would make it a globally renowned, 16th century commercial hub. The heart of all things Eurasian, in particular all things Portuguese and Dutch in Southeast Asia, is in Malacca. Today Malacca ,today holds the prestigious award of being acclaimed as a World heritage Site by UNESCO.

A new ethnic community

"Cristang" has its roots in the Portuguese word "cristao"; a nomenclature adopted by the mestizos of Malacca to avoid persecution by Dutch papists. The Dutch conquered Malacca around 1641, and remained for 150 years. During the Dutch occupation of Malacca, the Cristang were accepted for their European features, and were favoured with jobs in the administration. Some Dutch officers even chose to remain in Malacca by marrying Cristang women.

Around 1440 a Sumatran Prince called Parameswara fled his kingdom of Temasak (modern day Singapore) after being attacked by the Majapahit. Legend has it that as he sat under a tree he saw a mouse deer defend itself against his hunting dogs. Such bravery inspired Parameswara to make his domain there. To name the domain, he asked his guards the name of the tree he sat under and was told that it is the Malacca tree, hence the name of the state. Malacca grew in prominence due to its strategic location as a port for eastern travels (between March to October) and western travel (between November to February). It grew as a spice port with traders from China, India and the Arabian Peninsular located there. History records that the famous Chinese Admiral, Zheng He called on Malacca in the mid 1400s when the Emperor of China sent a princess Hang Li Po to wed Sultan Mansur Shah (1459 - 1477), the then ruler of Malacca, in response to the Sultan's request for protection from the Siamese.

The arrival of the Portuguese

In 1509, Portuguese mariner Lopez de Sequeira decided Malacca would be the base of his country’s commerce in the region. Two years later, Alfonso d’Albuquerque, took possession of the land and fortified it to achieve that aim. The ruins of the fort, "A Famosa", can still be seen in Malacca to this day.

Map of Malacca (circa 1630), the fort surrounds the entire city.


Current day Serani (Eurasian) fisherman, fishing off Portuguese Settlement in Malacca

Legend has it that in the walls of Porta de Santiago lies a nun who was buried alive because of her nightly tryst by the gateway with a solider; he was beheaded in front of the gateway after their liaison was discovered.

The Portuguese came for God, Gold and Glory; their mission was a campaign of trade and crusade which evolved into cultural and culinary assimilation.

The arrival of the Dutch

The Dutch East India Company (Verenidge Oos-Indische Compagnie or V.O.C ) arrived and conquered Malacca in 1641 from the Portuguese who governed Malacca for 130 years.

Dutch VOC Coin

The interesting fact is that it was the Dutch East India Company and not the Dutch State that established a commercial presence in Southeast Asia.

Portuguese Settlement

In 1933, 2 missionary priests, Frs. J.P. Francois & A.M. Coroado, recognising that the Cristang culture was in danger of disappearing, proposed to the British Administration that poorer Cristang be regrouped into a settlement so that they could practise their religion and culture within the community. The British agreed and provided the land which was swampy and mosquito infested but it was later drained and made habitable. This settlement is known as Portuguese Settlement, but was originally called St. John's Village, later changed to Padre sa Chang. This enclave is 3 kilometers from the town centre. Its first inhabitants were 10 of the poorest of the Cristang community.

Serani or Eurasian
The Cristang is a new ethnic community - of Malay, Indian, Portuguese and Dutch descent. The British called the Cristang "Eurasian" and the local Malays referred to them as "Serani" .

Cristang dancers doing the branyo

Cristang dancers doing the Branyo

The Portuguese and Dutch ancestry can be noticed in the surnames that the descendents carry such as Dias, Fernandes, Gomes, Lazaroo, Nunis, Pinto, Peris, de Rozario, de Souza, de Vries, Goonting, Klyne, Marbeck, de Witt, Danker, Hendroff, Hendricks, Westerhout and many others.

Cristang Food

The nobles in their galleons may have had retinues of personal retainers, but it was the lowly press-ganged deckhand, forced to forage to survive, who became the cuisine’s prime mover. Adapting was easy because then – as it is now – fresh food was abundant, and the spices on which mercantile capitalism thrived, were the same that made delectable the bounty of land and sea. Cristang food is a mélange of many flavours combined to bring out the best of East and West. This was when fusion cuisine was first created.

Cristang Festivals

Intrudo - is celebrated on Sunday preceding Ash Wednesday and is the last day of merriment before Lent. It dates back almost 5 centuries when it was brought to Malacca during the Portuguese era. People splash water on everybody and no one in sight is spared a drenching. Those splashed are given a glass of wine as a token of respect.

Quaresma - is Lent in Cristang language. It is a time of self denial so instead of eating rice, "canje parper" (a rice gruel) is served with a pickle salt fish relish called "pasce tambrinhyu".

Easter - is the culmination of Lent. Cristang families rejoice with serving of rice, curry seccu mutton and pang susis (a savoury meat bun).

Festa de San Juang - is celebrated on the evening of 23 June with the lighting of candles along the pathway leading to the entrance of the house Children and adults wear green garments  and canje mungoo a sweet porridge made from mung beans and sweetened with gula melaka and coconut milk is served throughout the day.

Festa de San Pedro - is celebrated on 29 June in honour of St Peter, the patron saint of fishermen, with a carnival, decorative boats, folk dancing and a delicious array of typical Cristang food .

Christmas - is a time of feasting and family reunion. This is the time when traditional Cristang cuisine is at its peak. Age old recipes are brought out. Kuih tart, bolu cocu, bluder, sersagung, agar-agar are the must have sweets. The savouries are  garlinhia pai, curry feng, curry seccu, seybak and fluffy white rice.


Porta de Santiago

Dutch VOC

Dutch VOC buildings in Malacca

 Queen Victoria Fountain
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