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Illustrations by Lam Yik Chun

Every race and culture is home to a unique vernacular—words and slang only a specific community’s members are acquainted with. Yet unlike more recognisable terms like ‘abang’ or ‘ah soh’, Eurasians address each other via a word that has nearly faded from mainstream use.

The word is obscure enough that when 38-year old Brendon Fernandez encountered it twenty years ago while serving his National Service, it took him by surprise.

“I didn’t understand why my Staff Sergeant would use that on me when we had already worked together for a few months and he knew my name,” he says.

For those who aren’t familiar, the word was ‘grago’.

Way back in 1511, when the spice trade first brought the Portuguese to Malacca (then the port and base of the Portuguese empire), businessmen were encouraged to marry locals to establish roots. In order to communicate with the locals, a creole mixing Portuguese vocabulary with Malay grammar structure was developed: Kristang.

At the time, Malaccan locals called the Portuguese businessmen ‘Christians’ and the language they spoke ‘Christian’. Over time, ‘Christian’ came to be heard as and called ‘Kristang’.

Jacqueline Peeris from Singapore’s Eurasian Association tells me that the Kristang language is where ‘grago’ comes from.

According to the Eurasian Heritage Dictionary, ‘grago’ is the Kristang word for ‘krill’, the tiny shrimp that could be caught in the waters of the Straits of Malacca. They were generally used for a relish called cincalok, as well as belachan or shrimp paste, all of which are important ingredients in Eurasian cuisine.

As such, ‘grago’ came to refer to the poor Portuguese Eurasians who made their living from fishing, much in the same way that ‘cina babi’ once referred to the Chinese as many of them used to be pig farmers.

Interestingly, the word itself is a throwback to a time when the ignorance and preconceived biases contained in many racial labels were far less overt than they are today.

As Colin Chee describes in The Electric New Paper in 2005: “We were comfortable calling each other names. Our Punjabi friends became ‘Ba-ees’. Our Indian pals were ‘Mamaks’, our Malay friends were ‘Oi-Ahmad’, and our Eurasian friends were ‘Gragos’. And they would all call us ‘Chinks’ or ‘Paleface’.”

In the past, when people mostly lived in kampongs and communal dwellings, many racial terms lacked the racial biases that they've only more recently acquired.
While ‘grago’ would eventually go on to be co-opted by other races as a blanket term for all Eurasians, regardless of whether or not they were shrimp farmers, the word has now lost much of the derogatory connotations that it once held. An Eurasian friend shares that it’s mostly only the older generation that still uses the term, even though most Eurasians will be familiar with it.

Brendon explains that it’s because the word has been reclaimed by the Eurasian community.

“It’s a little bit like the N word,” he says, “Nowadays only Eurasians use it to address one another. For instance, someone might say: I went overseas and I ran into some grags.”

When used like this, the word tends to refer to Eurasians with “typically Eurasian characteristics”. This may mean that they play in a band, they like to party, they may have a soft spot for sugee cake, or they happen to speak well. These, Brendon shares, are some of the more pre-dominant Eurasian stereotypes.

“An Eurasian might say to another, you’re such a grago or that’s such a grago thing to do,” he says.

Or one might say, “You’re Eurasian? Grago ah?” another friend of mine adds.

As such, if a non-Eurasian calls an Eurasian that they don’t know so well a grago, it might still be mistaken as derogatory, Jacqueline shares.

It was only in the past, when most people lived in communal dwellings and kampongs that “it was supposed to be a “funny” pastime,” she says. “It was accepted and nobody made a fuss about it.”

At the same time, Brendon clarifies that he wasn’t offended when his Staff-Sergeant said to him, “Hey grago!” He was just confused that out of all the less puzzling things he could say, one of which included Brendon’s name (which he knew), he had to resort to using that word.

Today, most people simply don’t know about the word ‘grago’ anymore. A friend’s aunt, who declined to be named for this story, suggests that one possible reason is that when it comes to racial labels at least, their “visibility” is now very much determined by the negativity of the stereotypes they describe.

“Like it or not, a racial hierarchy exists in Singapore. Eurasians are kind of like, a bit above the Chinese but below White people. So we do have Eurasian stereotypes, but they aren’t that bad,” she says.

“If you know your history, Eurasians were the first Asians to hold government jobs after the British left in the 60s. And in the past, because many Eurasians spoke good English, a lot of them got to work in the British Administration.”

She then concludes, “So socially or class-wise, Eurasians were once perceived as “higher up” the racial hierarchy. Maybe this is why we managed to make ‘grago’ our own, into an endearing term we use for each other. Some races in Singapore don’t enjoy that privilege—especially those considered inferior to Chinese. Don’t make me say who!”

Cincalok and belachan are both made from 'grago', and are important ingredients in Eurasian cuisine.
So when exactly can or should you call an Eurasian a ‘grago’?

The simple answer is that if you’re close friends with someone who’s Eurasian, and they don’t mind you using the word, then by all means use it.

Unlike more notorious equivalents like ‘mat’ and ‘minah’, which have come to be imbued with very specific racial biases, ‘grago’ (as mentioned earlier) has mostly lost its derogatory undertones.

This isn’t to say that it can now be used indiscriminately. Such words can still shape our tendency to assume that everyone who belongs to a certain race must be a particular kind of person.  

Sirhan, a friend, explains that both ‘mat’ and ‘minah’ continue to invoke stereotypes of Malays who don’t work, and who hang out in void decks all day smoking and playing the guitar, along with their girlfriends who are supposedly Malay versions of ‘ah lians’.  

This is despite how ‘mat’ is simply a contraction of Muhammad, which almost every Malay male has in his name, and ‘minah’ comes from how Aminah tends to be a common female Malay name. As Sirhan elaborates, there’s a saying among Malay guys, “Every Malay guys is a Mat.”

But the saying is only acceptable among Malay guys, as it’s used without prejudice.

Local playwright Alfian Sa’at once mentioned in a Facebook post that words undergo shifts in meaning. In reference to how the Chinese were once called ‘cina babi’ because many Chinese were pig farmers, he says, “What was once associated with an occupation could later be taken to mean that one is comparing the Chinese to pigs.”

As he goes on to point out, “Somewhere along the way, people were using these terms with an intention to hurt.”

So when it comes to racial terms, the not so simple answer is always that if you’re not sure where a word comes from or what it means, just don’t use it. Sure, ‘grago’ might be less offensive than ‘mat, but the reality is that there are endless alternatives that are far less controversial. So why not just lean on the safe side?

After all, depending on one’s cultural knowledge, the line between a slur and an endearment can often blur.

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