After two years, Festa San Pedro returns to Melaka's Portuguese Settlement


Festa San Pedro 2022 marks the return of festivities at the Portuguese Settlement in Melaka. The festival is held to honour the feast day of St Peter, the patron saint of fishermen. Pictured are decorated boats belonging to the fishing community there. Photo: The Star/Filepic

Thousands of visitors and revellers are expected to descend on Festa San Pedro 2022 at the Portuguese Settlement in Ujong Pasir, Melaka for the first time in two years.

The long-running festival, which happens from June 29 to July 2, commemorates the Feast Day of St Peter, the patron saint of the fishermen.

It also highlights the traditional significance of fishing trade and culture to this coastal community, known as the Kristang people. There are about 1,500 people living in the Portuguese Settlement.

Fishing was once an important source of income for this once impoverished Kristang community, which resettled from other parts of Melaka and made the Portuguese Settlement their home in 1933. The settlement, built on 11ha of seafront land in the beginning, was founded by Rev Father AM Corado and Rev Father JP Francois, two missionary priests.

When a community comes together

Every year, the community in the Portuguese Settlement will come together for the main day of Fiesta San Pedro on June 29 to celebrate the fishermen in the village, attend church and observe the blessing of the boats, which will be decorated for the occasion. The past two years have been quiet affairs for the community because of the pandemic.

The lighted statue of St Peter will be paraded around the Portuguese Settlement by the community's fishermen on June 29. Photo: The Star/Filepic  The lighted statue of St Peter will be paraded around the Portuguese Settlement by the community's fishermen on June 29. Photo: The Star/Filepic

“To have the masses from abroad and around the country coming to visit Festa San Pedro again is a big boost for everybody in this small community. It will be a joy to see the settlement coming alive. It will also be a time for reflection and celebration. We will be planning a warm welcome and activities for people to experience the Kristang community and culture,” says Marina Danker, a community leader and Festa San Pedro committee head.

“It’s been a difficult past two years, people are still recovering but the pandemic has also shown us how to be resilient. This year’s Festa San Pedro isn’t going to be rolled out on a grand scale, but we have put together an event that reflects the community spirit here. There will be a party and a stage for the weekend festivities, but we want to offer the masses more.

“Instead of big and bright flashy lights, we will have smaller and more personable events to get the community closer to the public. Candles will be lit throughout the settlement to mark proceedings, people can learn about the traditional games, and also pick up our folk songs. This is a chance for us to reconnect and share our heritage, especially with the new generation.

The 1511 O Maliao Maliao Dance Troupe is set to play at the Festa San Pedro 2022, with a set showcasing the vibrant music and dance of the Portuguese community of Melaka. Photo: PusakaThe 1511 O Maliao Maliao Dance Troupe is set to play at the Festa San Pedro 2022, with a set showcasing the vibrant music and dance of the Portuguese community of Melaka. Photo: Pusaka

“To decorate the festival, we will be using attap leaves. It’s a reminder that we used to have a big mangrove area to collect the attap. Despite things being compact in scale, you will also see a lot of the old Kristang traditions making a return this year,” she adds, referring to the attap leaves used as roofs for houses in the Portuguese Settlement in the early days and also the traditional Kristang cuisine, music and folk games in the festival programme.

The opening day of Festa San Pedro 2022 tomorrow will see more than 30 fishing boats taking centre stage. For the cultural programming, the festival will be open to the public from 10am onwards, with a food market, traditional activities, Kristang music (a creole of Portuguese and Bahasa Malaysia) and dance shows planned.

“There will be a variety of boats on show, the ones with the big sails, which will have St Peter, biblical scenes and fishing motifs, right to the smaller boats with buntings and folk artwork. Each boat is the pride and joy of the fishermen, and these people who go out to sea to make a living are at the heart of this festival,” says Danker.

As a community event, the opening day festivities will culminate (6pm-8pm) with an evening mass that will take place at the Chapel of Immaculate Conception in the Portuguese Settlement before the blessing of the fishermen’s boats, with the priest also expected to head out to the nearby waters to bless the bigger boats that cannot come to shore.

On the literary front, Kristang heritage advocate Joseph Sta Maria will launch his book 'The Malacca Portuguese: Saving Our Culture & Traditions' at the festival on June 30. Photo: Joseph Sta Maria On the literary front, Kristang heritage advocate Joseph Sta Maria will launch his book 'The Malacca Portuguese: Saving Our Culture & Traditions' at the festival on June 30. Photo: Joseph Sta Maria

“There will also be a procession on June 29 - after the mass - with the fishermen parading through the settlement with St Peter’s statue. It will be an important gathering to bless and unite the Kristang community,” says Danker.

Looking into cultural identity

In the past two decades, land reclamation and coastline projects by the Melaka state government and property developers have increasingly threatened the livelihood of the fishermen community in the Portuguese Settlement.

The Festa San Pedro might be seen as a merrymaking event, but there are topical issues such as erosion of cultural identity and the traditional ways of life of an ethnic minority that need to be brought into a wider conversation.

In 2010, Unesco, which lists languages in peril, also classified Kristang as “severely endangered” and reported only about 2,000 people speak it.

On June 30, Joseph Sta Maria, a Kristang culture and heritage advocate, will launch his book The Malacca Portuguese: Saving Our Culture & Traditions at 5pm (at the festival venue). It is a publication to coincide with this year’s back-to-roots festival.

“This is a story of my community and my traditions or in my native tongue, Nos sa Jenti Nos sa Tradisang. The fear of losing one’s identity is real. If we fail to recognise this, we will fail in our duties as members of our community,” says Sta Maria.

“Ignoring this reality will result in the community’s eventual disintegration and disappearance or being assimilated into other communal groups. A community can only claim to be one if it upholds a culture, traditions and a language which it can proudly call its own,” he adds.

On July 1 and 2, the day-long programmes will culminate with live cultural performances (from 8pm), with tradition dance groups from the Portuguese Settlement, including 1511 O Malio Malio, Dommarina and Troupe De Sta Maria.

"There is no Festa San Pedro if there is no dancing. The stage has been quiet for over two years. Despite the challenges, it's time to put the (pandemic) sadness away and to look forward to better days. I feel cultural activities must be given a role in the recovery process.

"Take the first step, we'll help you find your (dance) rhythm. To feel the crowd's love again in the Portuguese Settlement, that's the energy and motivation we need," concludes Gerard de Costa, the leader and keyboardist of the 1511 O Malio Malio dance troupe, who is looking ahead to a memorable and meaningful festival.

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