Patuá, the dying language of Macau that mixes Cantonese and Portuguese

Mar 14, 2019

Macau, a city on the southern coast of China, is best known today for its casinos, but until 20 years ago, it was a colony governed by the Portuguese.

During this period of colonial rule, which lasted more than 400 years, many Portuguese traders married Chinese women, and their children developed their own distinct culture, food, and language.

Aida de Jesus is one of them. As a child in Macau, she grew up hearing Portuguese in the alleyways and speaking Patuá, a creole language, with her grandmother at home.

Now 103 years old, De Jesus has seen Macau develop into the casino capital of the world, raking in five times more money than Las Vegas.

But she is the last of a dying breed. Today, only 50 people still speak Patuá, according to Unesco, which has deemed the language critically endangered.

Part of the reason for its decline is because the language was often seen as inferior to Portuguese.

“When I was in school, they didn't like us speaking Patuá because they felt it wasn’t real Portuguese,” says De Jesus’ 75-year-old daughter, Sonia Palmer, who regards Portuguese as her mother tongue.

Sonia Palmer, left, with her mother in Macau.
Sonia Palmer, left, with her mother in Macau. / Photo: Mario Chui

Patuá emerged as a result of Portuguese trade and intermarriages with local women, a policy encouraged by the Portuguese administration in the 16th century as a way to “create” more Portuguese.

The hybrid language combines Portuguese with Cantonese, the local language of Macau, as well as Malay, Sinhalese, and various Indian languages that Portuguese traders came across in Asia.

Both De Jesus and Palmer can speak Patuá, but when I ask them to converse in the language, De Jesus often slips back into Portuguese.

“Unfortunately, most of her friends have passed away,” Palmer explains. “In the later stage, she also learned Portuguese. She seldom speaks Patuá now.”

Palmer feels that she is witnessing the last chapter of her people, the Macanese, and their distinct culture.

The Macanese are generally defined as people in Macau with mixed Chinese-Portuguese ancestry, though some also have roots in India and other Portuguese trading outposts. (Some Macanese families might have no Chinese blood at all.)

Aida De Jesus' family.
Aida De Jesus' family. / Photo: Mario Chui

They had a prominent presence in the city, dominating white-collar jobs in law and government when the Portuguese governed the city from the 1500s until 1999, when Macau was handed back to China.

But now, the ethnic group makes up less than 1 percent of the city’s population, according to the latest census in 2011. Many are often mistaken as foreigners in their own city because of their complexion.

“Old Macau people definitely know about the Macanese,” says Sérgio Perez, a Macanese filmmaker. “Sometimes, they might think I'm a foreigner, but the moment I start speaking [Cantonese], they’re like, ‘Okay, this guy's Macanese.’”

Nowadays, Perez says he is often complimented for speaking Cantonese. “This is a part of my everyday life.”

The changing face of the city

The demographic changes in Macau are tied to the city’s economic development since it was returned to China in 1999.

A watershed moment came in 2002, when the government ended a four-decade monopoly on the gambling industry and issued licenses to Las Vegas giants like Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands.

The Venetian and Sands in Macau.
The Venetian and Sands in Macau. / Photo: Shutterstock

They started building in Macau, and within four years, the city outranked Las Vegas in terms of revenue. At the same time, Macau’s population jumped from 440,000 in 2002 to 653,000 in 2017.

Much of that population increase was because of workers coming into to the city seeking jobs in the casinos. More than half of the current population was born in mainland China, according to the 2011 census.

Over time, many Macanese left the city in search of other opportunities.

It is hard to estimate the number of Macanese people around the world, but one study by Roy Eric Xavier, a visiting scholar at the University of California in Berkeley, puts the number at over 1.5 million.

“It’s a hidden population because they’re scattered,” Xavier says. “They’re everywhere, from Africa to Australia.”

There are many overseas associations such as Casa de Macau that connect the diaspora. Some are invited back to Macau to visit every three years on partially government-funded trips.

Social media, too, has helped overseas Macanese stay in touch, Xavier says, with many Facebook groups dedicated to Macanese culture.

Preserving their heritage

The period of time right before the handover marked a surge of interest in Macanese culture, even though many of them had already left Macau by then, says Cathryn Clayton, chair of the Asian studies program at the University of Hawaii in Manoa.

“The Portuguese government hailed the Macanese as a ‘living legacy’ of the Portuguese presence in Asia,” she says, “and funded a lot of projects tracing Macanese genealogies, recording the creole language and producing cookbooks for Macanese cuisine.”

There was especially interest from mainland Chinese academics, who produced hundreds of scholarly articles in the decade following the handover.

“Mainland scholars became interested in showing the strong influence of Chinese culture, which had perhaps been downplayed earlier when the Macanese were considered ‘Portuguese,’” says Clayton.

It was around that time that Palmer co-founded an amateur drama troupe, Doci Papiaçám Di Macau, dedicated to preserving the Patuá language.

These stills from a music video by Doci Papiaçám Di Macau show the origins of different Patuá words.
These stills from a music video by Doci Papiaçám Di Macau show the origins of different Patuá words.

The group stages a Patuá play every year with subtitles in Chinese, Portuguese, and English. Palmer is determined to keep it going.

“I think we are doing something good,” she says. “Although it’s a dying language, we kind of preserved it for 25 years, and we hope to continue.”



Written, Produced, and Narrated by: Venus Wu

Shot by: Mario Chui

Edited by: Mario Chui and Nicholas Ko

Animated by: Ray Ngan

Mastered by: Victor Peña