Saving Macau’s Dying Language

Meet Aida de Jesus. She’s 103 years old. Aida is from Macau, a Chinese city that was formerly colonized by Portugal for 400 years. She and her daughter, Sonia, are among the few people who still speak Patuá, a critically endangered language that is unique to Macau. Here’s a local music video with subtitles in four languages: Patuá, Cantonese, Portuguese, and English. You can see how Patuá mixes the languages of places along the Portuguese trade route in the 16th century. Aida and Sonia are Macau locals of mixed Portuguese-Chinese ancestry. They are the Macanese, and they make up less than 1 percent of a city that is over 90 percent Chinese. To understand Aida’s community, we first have to understand her city, Macau, which is an hour’s ferry ride away from Hong Kong. It has rapidly developed over the last few decades and is now known as the world’s largest casino town, raking in five times as much money as Las Vegas. This is thanks, in part, to the Portuguese legalizing gambling in the 1800s. So when Portugal returned Macau to China 20 years ago, it became the only place in the country where gambling was legal. Many Portuguese left after World War II and an anti-Portuguese riot in the ’60s, but you can still spot signs of Portuguese influence all over the city. Chinese and Portuguese are the official languages, and colonial buildings are protected Unesco heritage sites. And just outside the city center is Aida and Sonia’s traditional Macanese restaurant. Unesco calls Macau the “home of the first ‘fusion food,’” and also recognizes the Macanese language, Patuá, as a dying language, with only 50 speakers left. Although there are only 4,000 Macanese left in Macau, one study suggests there could be over 1.5 million of them around the world. The diaspora is even invited to visit Macau every three years. But those who remain in Macau feel they have to fight to preserve their culture and identity. They have been in Macau for generations, but they are often mistaken for foreigners in their own land. That’s Sergio Perez, a 39-year-old Macanese filmmaker who made the music video you saw earlier. That music video features an amateur theater troupe that’s trying to preserve the language by staging a Patuá play every year. Sonia, who co-founded the theater troupe in the ’90s, says she’ll keep it going. Thanks for watching. If you like this video, we have more stories about culture and identity. Check them out, and subscribe to Goldthread.

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