The Chinese of East Timor: Identity, language and society


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This study is mainly an ethnography of the Hakka Timorese Chinese and the languages they speak, based on the author's long fieldwork in East Timor. They are the descendants of Hakka who migrated to the Island of Timor in the 18th and 19th centuries, mostly from Macau. Until the 1980s the Chinese Secondary School of Dili was active and helped to preserve Chinese culture. The Hakka of Timor currently identify themselves as Timorese Chinese or simply “Timorese”. The last term identifies them as sons-of-East Timor, but to be Hakka is also a source of pride for them. Following Wang Gugwu’s (1976) thesis of uniqueness, I am inclined to believe that Timorese Chinese are unique? First because they are homogeneous, they are ethno-culturally Hakka 客家 (kejia). Secondly because Hakka are resilient and had the courage to go to Portuguese Timor and stayed there. The climate was a barrier, Hakka were the unique Chinese who migrate there. First evidently, the Timorese Chinese of East Timor speak their own mother tongue, Hakka. They have strong commercial networks which established their residence for more than three hundred centuries. Their facility to study languages allowed them to keep their Portuguese knowledge, not so common at present in Macau among Cantonese families. They quickly spoke fluently Bahasa Indonesia, during the Indonesian occupation (1976-1999), a former lingua franca in the Malay trading world. Language is an important part of the culture of any individual and of its identity. Timorese Chinese speak many languages: Hakka, Mandarin, Tetum the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, older generations know Portuguese and sometimes another of the 14 different languages of the country in particular if they lived out of the capital, Dili. If they returned to Timor from Australia in the years 2000s, or if they were educated in Australia, they are evidently fluent in English.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2015


Berlie, J. A. (2015, December). The Chinese of East Timor: Identity, language and society. Paper presented at The Hong Kong Sociological Association 17th Annual Conference: Sociological Imagination in a Pluralist World, Hong Kong Shue Yan University, Hong Kong.


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