Meet the Protuket: Of Proud Faith, History & Memory

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

It was along the banks of the Chao Phraya River, the true heart and main artery of the city of Bangkok that, in not too distant times, everything happened: from the hustle and bustle of river markets to cultural and religious manifestations, because it was by navigating it that you could reach the main temples and palaces of the Siamese city. It is not surprising, therefore, that everyone wanted to settle there.

This would happen with the Portuguese-Thai community (Protuket) coming from a collapsed kingdom (Ayutthaya, 1767) and which, since the beginning of the 16th century, had signed a treaty with the local sovereign, providing him with firearms and military knowledge in exchange for the right to live there, procreate and freely practice their worship. The nascent Catholicism would survive in Siam thanks to the marriages between these men-at-arms and the local women, who adopted the religion of their husbands and bequeathed it to their children. Faithful to the end, these mercenaries would accompany King Taksin to the new capital, Bangkok, where they were allotted land to rebuild their lives. In Santa Cruz (Thonburi), one of the four parishes of the Thai capital, many of the descendants of those people live today, who in the 17th century reached a total of four thousand souls.

“When the Protuket arrived, there was a Chinese community with a strong mercantile character here. The Protuket immediately began to interact with them, thus ensuring their survival,” says Anucha Predee, a prominent member of the local community, a sacristan, a schoolmaster by profession and the result of this Sino-Portuguese-Siamese encounter. “The pragmatism of the Chinese led them to choose this location because government officials responsible for international trade lived there.” The rosary that Predee holds in his hands identifies him as a Catholic; as for his facial features, they reveal well the mixture of Asian and European blood.

This tripartite ethnic contact would also appear in the general appearance of the church built there around 1770 – “with a clear Chinese architectural influence” – hence the whole neighborhood came to be known as Kudi Chin, that is, “Chinese Church district.” From it, for those who navigate the Chao Phraya River, the red dome of the Church of Santa Cruz stands out, “one of the main ones in the Thai capital,” seat of the Apostolic Vicariate of Siam until 1821, when the now well-known Assumption Cathedral was erected. In truth, until then, the French priests of the Paris Foreign Missions (who came to replace the entirety of the religious of the Portuguese Padroado do Oriente) had not achieved any conversion among the locals. In other words, and as stated by Predee, “the survival and even the growth of Catholicism results mainly from it being perpetuated as a family tradition over the centuries among the Protuket,” that is, Luso-descendants.

The Church of Santa Cruz would undergo restoration works on two occasions. The first in 1835 and the second in 1916, during the reign of Rama VI (1910 – 1925). This time, with the prestigious signature of the Italian architects Annibale Rigotti and Mario Tamagno, responsible for the Renaissance and Neoclassical style, decorative elements that rival in beauty the biblical scenes of stained glass windows. Outside, the usual grotto with the statue of the Virgin Mary with the Child Jesus on her lap and a small cemetery where the memory of former parish priests is immortalized in marble tombstones. As with other Thai Catholic churches, two schools were also associated with the Santa Cruz Church: the Santa Cruz Suksa School and the Santa Cruz Convent School.

On September 14, local Catholics celebrate their most beloved festival: the feast of the Holy Cross. On that day, in 336 AD, Saint Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, made a miraculous discovery of the Holy Cross during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. “You should visit us then,” suggests Predee. “In addition to being able to confirm the devotion of our community, you will be able to taste many of our traditional dishes.” The friendly sexton mentions  Portuguese chicken curry and custard tarts, and, above all, khanom farang kudi chin, a typical cake created by the Portuguese in the heyday of Ayutthaya, during the reign of King Narai (1633-1688). Currently, it seems, only three families in all of Thailand can make this type of cake topped with raisins, considered “a unique dessert of the Kudi Chin community,” although it can be easily found “in the markets of Bang Lamphu or Wang Lang,” as my interlocutor informs me. “If you talk to people in Bangkok, they will probably tell you that the Santa Cruz Church and khanom farang kudi chin are all that remain  of the Lusitanian influence in Bangkok, forgetting the most important thing: us, the proud descendants of the Protuket, who served our kings in Ayutthaya,” recalls Predee.

(Photo credit: Joaquim Magalhães de Castro)