I am nine.
I am in Primary Three, in social studies class at the all-girls Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus. Not all of us are Catholic (we even have some Muslims in the enrolment) and unlike my mother’s day when sweet Irish nuns taught classes, none of our teachers are nuns except one who makes me think of a bespectacled cockroach. That day, the social studies lesson promises pleasant disruption, because we have to move out of the classroom to the air-conditioned video lab. We also get to choose our seats, and I choose to sit with my three friends (we’re the only ones in class who study Malay as a second language): Faranaz Alam, Michelle Joseph and Geraldine Minjoot.
When the chatter and movement across the room finally settles, Ms Pat Lim, a short, chunky woman with a porky sort of face, casts her eye over us.
“Those four Indian girls sitting together, split up!”
My three friends and I look at one another. Who was she talking to? Faranaz is of Pakistani descent; Geraldine is Eurasian, like me. Only Michelle is Indian.
“I said move!” she snaps.
She clearly means us. We are alarmed. Being nine, and cowed by the authority of a teacher, we break apart and manage to find random seats among the rest of the pupils. I’m not able to articulate the sense of unfairness I feel, like a hot, clenched fist. But during the rest of the lesson, and as I sit brooding on the public bus that afternoon, I can’t shake my conviction—what she’d done was wrong. Why shouldn’t we have been allowed to sit together?
Never mind that she was ignorant only one of us was Indian. Every single one of the rest of our class was Chinese—all thirty of them—and they were sitting all together, weren’t they?
I am twenty-five.
I am trying to communicate with the immigration official at the airport in Barcelona. He is speaking in Spanish, and I respond in my newly acquired broken Italian, refusing to lapse into English, because I’m ridiculously determined not to stick out as even more of a tourist. He is stony-faced when he accepts my red Singaporean passport. Then he flips it open, and his eyes glide over my surname. His expression lifts.
“De Silva,” he enunciates perfectly. “You are Portuguese?”
“Il mio nonno.” My grandfather. Now, that’s not exactly true. But I don’t know how to say “great-grandfather” in Italian, so I can’t tell him it was my great-grandfather who was from Goa and he was only part Portuguese. But none of this seems to matter.
“Muy bueno!” He beams genuine welcome at me, and I experience a strange warm feeling I’ve never felt at Changi Airport returning home.
I am thirty-five.
I am in a cab on the way to the Eurasian Association at Ceylon Road. The taxi driver eyes me openly in the rear view mirror.
“Miss, you are what ah?”
I’ve moved beyond my teenage belligerence, when I would either not acknowledge they were referring to my race or retort, “Human.” I don’t even roll my eyes anymore, even in my head. I think I’ve come a long way.
“What is loo-rayshiun?”
“People who are mixed. Europe people and Asia people mixed together.”
“Aww … like Gurmit Singh, issit?” he says, referring to the Singaporean comedian.
“Err … no. Uncle, Gurmit Singh is Chinese and Indian. His surname is ‘Singh,’ so—never mind.”
I’ve never understood why it seems so difficult to understand. No doubt we make up less than one percent of the population, but we’ve been part of this country since the colonial times, as long as some and longer than others.
We spend the rest of the journey in silence, zooming past skeletons of condos rising from stamp-sized plots of land, regurgitated tarmac and clay from road works and the boarded up Red House Bakery on East Coast Road, it’s shophouse face shuttered and mute. This is Singapore. Where you’d be a fool to cling to any place held dear, where the treasures of space and memory being blasted into oblivion is the only certainty in the ferocious race for development. The red brick National Library where my mother started taking me when I was two, demolished to make way for a yawning traffic tunnel. Block 28 Lorong 6 in the Toa Payoh neighbourhood, where I lived with my grandparents till I was five, razed to the ground. Thank god the dragon playground in front of the building was spared, out of a government nod at “preservation” and “Singapore icons.”
Some minutes later we approach the gates of our destination.
“OK Uncle, you can stop here please.”
As the taxi rolls to a halt, the driver cranes his neck to look at the massive three-storey building in the middle of the leafy residential neighbourhood. “What is this place? Your house ah?”
“No, this is the Eurasian Association.”
“For Eurasian people, mixed people, mix European and Asian.” Still not rolling my eyes.
“Oh, United Nations ah?”
In December that year, I make a trip to Malacca, Malaysia. The Portuguese Settlement is a coastal hamlet of modest, mostly single-storey houses spanning three lanes on either side of the impressively named d’Albuquerque Road. As I walk along the main road, an old man with sun-creased skin turns his head as he cycles by. A wavy-tressed teenaged girl and two boys chatting across a gate pause in their conversation, watching me silently as I pass. The stranger in the village. What’s even weirder is I’m overcome with a feeling of kinship with these sun-browned, curly-haired people I’ve never seen before.
In the 1500s, when the Portuguese arrived at the palm and mangrove-fringed coastal town of Malacca, in what was then known as Malaya, their imperative was to capture control of the lucrative maritime trade passageway between Asia and Europe. As time went on, the union of the Portuguese with the local women resulted in burnished-skinned children with Iberian features and a culture that leaned heavily toward the religion, customs and language of the male colonisers. Five hundred years later, this tiny Catholic community, with a robust Latin tendency towards music, dance and enjoying the sweetness of life, still endures in the midst of the Muslim majority country.
A month earlier in November, I was in Uncle Maurice Pereira’s living room in the Portuguese Settlement. The rain was driving down against the slatted wooden shutters. His fisherman’s hands, weather worn, were clasped on his lap. My father’s cousin was bare-bodied, wearing only white loose cotton pyjama trousers, and his still-muscled torso made him look like a jujitsu master. He regarded me with eyes of blue traced around dark lenses, the onset of cataracts.
My great-grandfather had been a fisherman in Malacca, the traditional livelihood of this community descended from the seafaring Portuguese.
My father had told me how, when he was a boy, he would accompany his mother—who moved to Singapore with his father after WWII to seek a better life—to Malacca during the school holidays. There, he’d learned from his grandfather how to make the two foods from the fishermen’s catch: chinchalok, the relish of shrimp fermented in salt and brandy and belachan, heavily salted fermented shrimp paste, baked into hard cakes in the sun, excellent stir fried with vegetables and a generous handful of chili.
As I explained how I’d like to document his work by going out fishing with him, to record it for future generations, his craggy white eyebrows rose.
“You want to write something? About me?”
That Saturday morning in December, it’s just past 8:30 when I set off with Uncle Maurice and his eighteen-year-old grandson, Jeremy, in his open boat named Lucy. His cropped close white bristles are hidden under a black cap and he’s wearing a white polo tee that says “Irish Harrier Pub” on the back.
The water glitters. My notebook and camera are waterproofed in plastic and ready to go. At my feet at the bottom of the boat is a one-day-use orange lifejacket, still in its clear wrap and the fishing nets. The planks we sit on are worn smooth, bleached by the sun. Even if I run my fingers along the edge of the boards, I don’t feel any splinters.
Soon we are speeding through the waves, and Maurice is pointing out spots on the shoreline where, in the 1950s, they would push their boats through the mud of the mangroves at 5 am., carrying their water for the day in glass bottles (“Those days no one had a fridge”).
We approach a boat with a flapping orange and yellow flag, carrying two Eurasian fishermen, a father and paunchy son, and a Malay boatman. A white buoy attached to a stick with a red flag bobbing nearby indicates where their net is.
“They are fishing for pomfret,” says Maurice.
He asks them how it’s going. There’s no need to reply. As they draw up the net, it sparkles like fairy candyfloss, then we see they’ve only caught three tiny fish, smaller than a child’s palm. The son tosses a plastic bag caught in the net back into the sea.
Maurice’s voice takes on a hard edge. “All the fish dying, all the construction, the reclamation.”
We are scudding past a small island, called Pulau Jawa, just off Malacca’s coast. “In the 60s, we would go camping there, to fish, eat sardines and gather seaweed to make jelly,” Maurice tells me, his sea otter face crinkled with glee.
Pulau Jawa was where the Portuguese naval general Alfonso de Albuquerque first dropped anchor on July 1st, 1511, as he led a fleet of eighteen ships, with 900 Portuguese men and 300 Goan-Indians, sailing in on his carrack, the Flor de la Mar.
Uncle Maurice points to undulations of pale grey mounds in the distance on the water. His forearms are compact and sleek with muscle, lined with protruding veins. “See what happened,” his eyes rest on the coastline of developments, “to our sea.”
Sand barges lie like alien spacecraft beside them and the air is filled with metallic hissing sounds. These piles of sand are the nascent artificial islands of Melaka Gateway, a project with ambitions to be the largest cluster of synthetic islands in Southeast Asia. The plan for the 246-hectare area is to hold entertainment resorts, theme parks and “man-made eco-islands.”
“We fishermen don’t cry ah? Habis, habis lah,” he says in Malay. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
As I look, I think of my great-grandfather, the fisherman, and imagine the times he’d shared with my own father, passing on traditions that had survived for over five centuries. And now, just three generations later, the thread of all this knowledge and richness would be snapped. My retired father had been trained as a mechanic. As for myself, former women’s magazine journalist and urban princess, I’m hardly the material of a maritime professional.
A half hour later, we are having engine trouble. Maurice fiddles with the outboard motor but it doesn’t revive. Smiley Jeremy—with blindingly white, straight teeth and an undercut with attitude—picks up the oar and rows. Without the low roar of the engine, the peace is velvet. The only sounds are the lapping of the sea against the boat and the swish of waves against the sun-bleached wood of the oar.
As we make our way slowly back to shore, Jeremy tells me he works for a local film production house called Marco Polo and has just completed a job working on a film set in Mongolia, filmed in a studio in Johor Bahru. His job was to look after the animals on the set. There were three pigs, two goats, a puppy and a lamb. When two of the pigs got into a scuffle, a piece of one pig’s ear flew off. Jeremy saved it.
“It’s brown now,” he says, sounding like a proud father. “Soon I think it will be black.”
“Does it smell?” I ask.
He nods, dazzling me with a smile. “Yes.”
Finally, we make it to a ramshackle dock and Maurice trades boats with another fisherman. On the second leg of the trip, as we pass mangroves near Kampung Batang Pasir, the trees closer to the water’s edge toppled like fallen soldiers, Maurice tells me the mangroves used to be alive with wild boars, monkeys and birds. This is where the fishermen would catch siput (sea snails) then cook them with slices of unripe papaya, small prawns and santan (coconut milk).
Here, the ocean is a translucent mud tint, like watery tea stirred with milk, with a greenish-blue rim along the horizon. Flakes of sun dance on the water, and I’m gripped by the urge to swim, to glide through the cool. I lean over the boat’s edge and trail my fingers through the waves, letting the water release in a delicious crest.
“We’re coming to the place for fishing,” announces Maurice some time later, when the mangroves have become specks in the distance. I rummage in my bag and unwrap my camera from its plastic covering.
“Boy, where are the nets?” he asks Jeremy.
Jeremy stares at the floor of the boat as if encountering virgin terrain. He has the look of a boy who has misplaced the nets. There are the lifejacket, rope and a plastic container with money, sunglasses, a penknife and Maurice’s mobile phone in it. They’d forgotten to load the nets when we swapped boats.
“If we go back one hour to get the net and come back, it will be too late for fishing already,” Maurice explains.
My heart flops. There was only today. Tomorrow he’d be off to the hospital to prepare for an eye operation for his cataracts, and he didn’t know if or when he’d be fishing again.
I manage to nod. Maurice has been kind, hospitable and his company an absolute delight. I don’t want him to feel badly. “Never mind Uncle. It’s OK. I got to see the sea. We can go back.”
He cuts the engine. “No hurry. We drift for a while. We relax.”
It was a clear distinction of values—manic urban efficiency vs sea village chill. I feel slightly chastened, not by him, but by my own embryonic Latin spirit. “C’mon,” it prods me. “Can’t you even relax a little and enjoy being out at sea?”
I don’t yet know what my Latin spirit looks like. I picture it maybe doing the flamenco, holding maracas, even though this is a culturally muddy, geographically inaccurate rendition. Is it a woman? Well, it looks olive-skinned and seems to be wearing a red dress. But this just might be the subconscious influence of the Whatsapp emoticon of a woman in a red dress holding maracas I sometimes use.
Maurice points out a boat with a roof. He tells me how before, when they did night fishing, they would sleep in a boat like that. “No mosquitoes!” He slaps his knee as if in triumph. “If you get hungry, cook Maggi Mee, drink coffee. So nice!” His eyes shine. The man has a lifetime of happiness bottled inside him, I think, enough to last the rest of his time on earth.
As my mind flashes to my previous career of chronically overstressed cubicle rat and the illness that it finally produced, perhaps it’s naïve romanticising, but I feel a deep tug of yearning for this hard yet idyllic life and an ache for everything that’s passed and will be lost forever.
Later, as the boat chugs slowly back to shore, I think about how I’d travelled all the way here to document one of the last Portuguese-Eurasian fishermen in Malacca and our traditional livelihood. It seems almost funny it didn’t happen. Almost. Maurice stirs me from my reverie with a gesture. He jerks his chin toward Jeremy, sitting at the bow. The massive construction for a hotel by the settlement’s jetty forms a backdrop for his grandson’s figure.
Maurice’s tone is a wash of sadness over weary anger. “Jeremy cannot be in this line already,” he says, meaning fishing. “The sea is dead.”
His last words are muffled as the dull drone of a generator fills the air.
The next morning, on Sunday, I walk to the settlement’s Chapel of the Immaculate Conception for Mass at 7:30. The place is not jam packed like I expected but about seventy-five percent full. After I’m seated, I see the pew I’ve chosen has no kneeler. The polished ceramic tile floor looks practically spotless, far cleaner than the church floors in Singapore, where you can often spot stray hairs or dust bunnies. I decide to stay. Five minutes later though, the sun inching across the grid rectangle of window facing the pew is blinding.
I move to the adjacent pew. A dusky man with steel-rimmed spectacles is seated at the end, his head bent. I tap him on the shoulder and he makes way for me. Two minutes before the Mass starts, a short man with honeyed highlights smiles his way into our pew and takes a seat on my right.
In Singapore, I can go weeks without seeing any other Eurasian except my own family. Here, I’m sandwiched between two Eurasian men, neither of whom are my relatives. This unprecedented scenario practically qualifies as being on a reality dating show.
During the Mass, the children are not heard, unlike the constant fidgeting, murmuring and some outright conversations between parents and their kids during services in Singapore. At one point, while we are standing, the boy of about six in the pew in front of me wiggles from his grandmother’s grasp and scampers to sit and hug her from behind, burying his head in the small of her back. She takes his wrist and guides him gently to stand beside her. At no point during the Mass did I see anyone look at their mobile phones. This I like. This I like very much.
At intervals during the service, my eyes drift to the window. The early morning light bathes the brick wall beyond in a gold glaze and casts the wrought iron lamp outside into silhouette. The lamp looks like those I’ve seen in photos of Lisbon’s streets. I’ve always wanted to visit Portugal, to see the place of my ancient ancestors, but now, perhaps there’s no need. I realise why I feel so strangely comfortable in Malacca. I’ve found a place I can claim as my own.
After Mass, I take a two-minute walk down to the beach. The sun is watery on the blue and open boats with peeling paint bob against the charcoal rocks. In the distance is a kelong structure, picturesque, made of long sticks. Three mudskippers the length of my index finger hop among the ropes mooring the boats.
As I move closer to the jetty, the air is filled with the metallic whine of drills and the clang of machinery. Relentless construction, even on a Sunday. Instead of the unfettered expanse of ocean, now the view from the settlement is blighted by the concrete monstrosity of the upcoming hotel a few hundred metres away, grasping for the sky. In the sea beyond are islands of powdery grey sand. In an alternate universe, they could be beautiful, like the humpbacked mounds of Vietnam’s Halong Bay, if you ignore the fact that these are the offshoots of reclamation.
I remember how it felt to be out in the boat yesterday, the lapping of the waves, the caress of the breeze, the sear of heat on skin.
When I started out for Malacca just two days ago to document a vital piece of my heritage, I didn’t imagine I’d be setting off on a journey to the place where I’d finally feel like I belong. Yet this place, too, is having its identity eroded by the relentless claw of development. Is it selfish of me that my joy still outweighs my sadness? What I do know is this is the only patch in the world where I don’t have to explain who I am, or why.
There is such relief at being able to walk among people like me, unexplained and understood. The feeling is euphoric.
Tok, tok, tok. The sound of hammering infuses the morning. The sun’s soft light filters through the green netting shrouding the concrete structure, as the yellow hard hats scurry about their business. I turn my back to it all and start making my way down the beach, the noise of industry growing fainter with each step.
This piece appeared as ‘Meeting with the Sea’ in the June 2016 issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.
The amazing pictures were shot by my very talented friend, photojournalist Desmond Lui, who accompanied me on this trip. Desmond is fascinated by the Portuguese-Eurasian community in Malacca and is continuously adding to his body of work on the subject. He has also documented their festivals of Intrudo and San Pedro. You can check out his entire album at his website.
And a huge thank you to my friend and former editorial colleague, writer Jason Erik Lundberg, who’s also editor of the incredible LONTAR Journal Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, for cleverly suggesting that Cha journal might be just the right place for this story!