Hunebedden op Scheveningen

alfred birney Gaat het nou goed of slecht met Neerlands grootste grutter Appie Heijn? Een enorm reclamebord bij een abri schreeuwde me onlangs toe dat AH 1000 producten in prijs gaat verlagen. Ik geloof dat dit keer de drogisterijen de pineut zijn van AH’s prijzenslag. Die zullen wel met een antwoord komen, met gratis zuurkool met worst bij een dozijn tubes tandpasta of zo. Kunnen ze wel betalen, want genaaid zijn we toch al ruim sinds de invoering van de euro. In het pre-eurotijdperk gebeurde dat natuurlijk ook, maar wat minder hard, softer, kortom: lekkerder.

Ik zag dat de door mijn zoontje gewenste middelbare school het vak geschiedenis niet op het lesrooster heeft staan. Ik weet niet meer welk bezopen kabinet dat onderdeel ooit heeft geschrapt, maar de gevolgen zijn om van te huilen. Kijk maar eens naar AH’s koffie. In AH’s assortiment zit een koffiesoort genaamd Gunung Blau. Koffie met een peperachtige smaak, afkomstig van Oost-Java.

Toen AH met die koffie aan kwam zetten, bracht onze grootgrutter het genotmiddel in een bruin pak, waarop de afbeelding prijkte van een mistig bergachtig landschap. Dat was namelijk het Idjen Plateau, ooit door mijn oudoom David B. in cultuur gebracht en reeds in 1895 door de koffie-inkopers hier te lande ontdekt. Het hele gebied rond Djember is trouwens door mijn voorouders in cultuur gebracht. Ik lijd niet aan de tempo-doeloe-ziekte hoor, maar u heeft het nu vast wel te doen met zo’n arme schrijver als ik die voor straf columns moet schrijven om zijn huishuur te kunnen betalen en natuurlijk om die heerlijke koffie van Gunung Blau te kunnen kopen.

Maar ach, snik snik. AH gaat mee met de vormgevingswoede van amateurs die onze echte grafische kunstenaars brodeloos maken. Er komt een nieuwe manager met een flashy laptoppie bij AH aangewaaid en hup het moet weer allemaal anders, want de hersenloze ijdeltuit ziet later graag zijn hoefafdrukken terug in de modder waar hij ooit gelopen heeft. Dus de inhoud moet gelijk blijven, maar het uiterlijk moet anders. En zo wordt het vertrouwde bruine pak van Gunung Blau vervangen door een zilverkleurig pak. Okay, kan ik nog wel inkomen, bruin is wel errug hippiedom jaren zeventig. Maar dan… De historische informatie die op het oude pak stond is botweg geschrapt! En wég is de snoet van de bebrilde meneer in het zegel, dat het pak zo’n mooi historisch Indisch tintje gaf. Nu zit er zo’n lullige antidiefstalbutton op.

Het allerergste is het nieuwe etiket. Een plaatje geschoten vanaf de beroemde Boeddhistische tempel de Borobudur! Die ligt op Midden-Java, Appie Heijn! Nogal een eindje tuffen van daar naar Oost-Java! Als jij straks je Noordzeevis in de vriezers van een grootgrutter op Java wilt gaan leggen, doe je dat dan in oranje doosjes met plaatjes van hunebedden langs de kust van Scheveningen? Ja? Dat noem jij dan zeker ‘de geschiedenis in een ander perspectief zetten.’

Haagsche Courant, vrijdag 4 februari 2005

Hartono was here

alfred birney Vandaag speelt Hartono voor het laatst in Toko Oen, dus wie hem nog wil horen en zien, moet rennen. Lekker bordje nasi gudek erbij, die is erg lekker daar, al is Toko Oen in de eerste plaats befaamd om zijn loempia Semarang, die inmiddels overal geïmiteerd wordt.

Morgen is er een afscheidsfeestje ergens in een achterafstraatje in de Schilderswijk, waar Hartono zijn logeerkamertje heeft. Hij vroeg me of ik mijn gitaar mee wilde nemen, maar eh, ik hoor liever hem spelen. Zijn repertoire omvat zo’n 100 jaar populaire muziek, van krontjong via jaren twintig blues naar jazz, bossa nova, rock & roll, pop en allerlei Jawa Pop, want Hartono is van Java.

Zoals veel Indonesiërs is Hartono een etnische mix, eigenlijk zijn het een soort Indo’s. Maar om in Indonesië Indo te zijn moet je blank zijn uitgevallen, liefst met een carrière in de showbizz. Om in Nederland Indo te zijn ligt veel ingewikkelder, laten we daar maar over ophouden, want als Indo’s hier er al zelf niks van begrijpen, hoe kunnen ze dan verwachten dat Hollanders dat wel doen?

Hartono noemt zich Chinees, maar hij heeft ook Javaans bloed en misschien iets Europees, dat is vaag. Wat dat betreft loopt het spoor al dood bij zijn vader, die ooit bij het KNIL werkte (in de garage). Chinese christenen zijn de allochtonen van Java en leiden soms een wat angstig bestaan in Indonesië, ze hebben het zwaarder dan wat hier voor allochtoon doorgaat, Nederland is zo extreem nog niet.

Toch voelt Hartono zich Javaans, diep van binnen. Komt door de muziek. Als hij een gamelan hoort, zwijgt hij ontroerd. Krontjong is voor hem geen muziek van tempo doeloe maar een dynamische muziekvorm, die hij steeds nieuwe gezichten geeft in zijn eigen muziek. Hij is de huismuzikant van Toko Oen in Semarang en soms stuurt de bedrijfsleider hem naar Nederland om de zustertoko alhier ook eens van zijn spel te laten genieten. Je moet hem eigenlijk zien spelen: kretekje in zijn mond als hij in een jazzy improvisatie zijn tanige vingers over de toetsen laat dartelen.

Hartono was ooit scheikundeleraar – zijn vader had hem de technische kant op geduwd – maar in de avond maakte hij altijd muziek, als gitarist, pianist en op zondag als organist in de kerk. Op zekere dag zei hij zijn leraarsbaantje vaarwel. In Indonesië is het allemaal anders dan hier: daar kun je met muziek maken geld verdienen, hier niet. Hier kun je met schrijven geld verdienen, daar niet.

Toch is hij aan een boek bezig. Over de repatriëring van Indo’s uit Indonesië. Dat waren toch vrienden van zijn vader. En zijn muzikale voorouders. Wie weet komt hij hier ooit nog terug om zijn boek te promoten. In het Nederlands, want hij is een van de zeer weinige Indonesiërs die onze taal nog willen leren. Ja, die zijn er nog.

Haagsche Courant, vrijdag 27 augustus 2004

Zus Soemini

alfred birney Zus Soemini was jarig, ik bedoel haar warung was jarig. Hollandse restaurants vieren hun zoveeljarig bestaan, maar de warung van Zus was dus jarig. Ze werd vijf. Nogal roerige jeugd, vijf inbraken in drie jaar tijd. Haar warung, op de hoek van de Weimarstraat en de Franklinstraat, had een volglazen deur van een Jamin-zaak geërfd en gemeenteambtenaren wilden dat onding met die pompeuze nepgouden deurknop behouden voor ons armzalige cultuurgoed. Er vliegt een steen doorheen, inbrekers nemen een paar duiten mee en Zus zit met een paar duizend gulden schade. Glazen deur hersteld, weer een steen erdoorheen, inbrekers kapen een doos AA-sportdrank en na een derde inbraak kan de deur niet meer gerepareerd. Maandenlang moet Zus het stellen met een deur van sinaasappelkistjeshout, terwijl gemeenteambtenaren zich buigen over de richtlijnen inzake het straatbeeld. Na veel bureaucratische soesa heeft Zus nu een glazen deur met sponningen, iets tussen Jamin en ABN-AMRO in, met het zegel van onze gemeenteambtenaartjes. Ze kwamen niet eten op de verjaardag van de warung. Ik zou ze stellig hebben herkend. Humorloos type, zuinige lolliemondjes en een historisch besef dat niet verder teruggaat dan de deuren van Jamin: een snoepwinkelketen die ooit hele legers tandartsen wist te mobiliseren. In mobiliseren is Nederland altijd goed geweest, met name in verband met slavernij en ronselarij. In de periode van 1890 – 1939 werden ruim 30.000 Javaanse contractarbeiders van Nederlands-Indië naar Suriname verscheept, waar de slavernij in 1863 was afgeschaft en de ‘vrije slaven’ en masse naar Paramaribo waren getrokken. Het ontstane tekort aan arbeidskrachten had men eerder geprobeerd te dekken met Portugezen uit Madeira en Chinezen uit Java en, onder handjeklap met de Engelse regering, met Hindoestanen uit Brits Guyana. De aanwas van Javanen stopte bij het uitbreken van de Tweede Wereldoorlog. Een derde van hen keerde na de oorlog terug naar Java. De onafhankelijkheid van Suriname in 1975 dreef groepen Javanen met Hindoestanen, Creolen en Chinezen naar Nederland. De Javanen hebben nog het meest weg van Indo’s, je hoort ze het minst van allemaal. Beetje broertjes en zusjes, zo voelt dat voor mij. Daarom noem ik de eigenaresse van Warung Soemini ‘zus’. Ze werkt van ’s morgens vroeg tot ’s avonds laat. Als ze eens vakantie heeft gaat ze naar Jakarta, waar ze nog familie heeft wonen. Misschien zit er nog een oudje bij die zich destijds niet door de Hollanders in de maling heeft laten nemen met een armzalig contractje voor ontberingen op zee en harde arbeid op de plantages, allemaal onder het toeziende oog van Hollandse gouverneurs van het slag dat nu mag bepalen aan welke eisen een deur van een Javaans-Surinaamse warung moet voldoen. Hogere functies vereisen geen bijzonder talent maar een mentaliteit, begrijpt u?

Haagsche Courant, vrijdag 21 mei 2004

Blacklisting

alfred birney De meest gestelde vraag in de afgelopen weken op Java: ‘Was u niet bang om te komen?’ Een journaliste opende haar interview met de woorden: ‘Het verheugt me dat u ondanks de commotie rond de Bali-bombing toch bent gekomen.’ Op een podium in Semarang opende de gespreksleider schalks de discussie rond mijn roman als volgt: ‘Wij heten de schrijver Alfred Birney van harte welkom en hopen dat hij zich een beetje senang voelt met al die bommeldingen om zich heen.’ Waarop de zaal dubbel lag van het lachen. De grappen rond bommeldingen waren niet van de lucht, want ja, sommige waren zo idioot dat je ze onmogelijk serieus kon nemen. Zoals: ‘Vannacht om twaalf uur zal in Toko Oen een bom afgaan vanwege te veel ketjap over de gurami.’ Waar onrust heerst, steekt humor de kop op. Nou wordt die onrust eerder aangewakkerd door de negatieve reisadviezen uit het Westen dan door de angst voor een volgende bomaanslag. Geen toeristen: armoede. Hotelpersoneel staart lege eetzalen in. Een enkele student waagt zich voorzichtig aan kritiek op het dominante Westen. Vooraanstaande schrijvers en intellectuelen laten zich duidelijker horen: Amerika sloot na de aanslag op 11 september verleden jaar het luchtruim, maar heeft zichzelf nooit tot onveilig gebied verklaard. Amerika verklaarde de rest van de wereld tot onveilig gebied, bepaald voor Amerikanen, tot aan Den Haag toe. Inderdaad kent ook Europa terreur, weet de Indonesiër. Rusland ligt er niet ver vandaan. Tsjetsjenen voeren hun ‘new war’ in Moskou. Intussen schijnt op Java de zon.

Haagsche Courant, woensdag 6 november 2002

Vrije seks

alfred birney Het feminisme rukt op in het grootste moslimland ter wereld, met als kruidvat Djokjakarta op Centraal Java. Volgens de Indonesian Expat Newsletter is in de culturele hoofdstad van Java de afgelopen drie jaar een onderzoek uitgevoerd onder 1660 studentes in de leeftijd van 17 tot 23 jaar. Slechts 46 van hen zeiden nooit seks te hebben gehad, en drie waren nog nooit tot zoenen gekomen. Liefst 97 procent is geen maagd mee en een kwart van de ondervraagden had seks met meer dan één partner. Het matras ligt overwegend in de huizen van het manvolk, gevolgd door goedkope hotelletjes en de pensions en kosthuizen die studentes uit heel Indonesië herbergen. De grasmat in het park is er voor de dappersten: twee procent. Het is niet meer zo dat hospita’s de huursters als de eigen dochter behandelen, ze laten de meisjes min of meer hun gang gaan. Conservatieve moslims smeken bijkans de drie kilometer dikke gifwolk die boven Zuidoost-Azië hangt (ten gevolge van bosbranden en een enorme toename van het autoverkeer) richting poel der losbandigheid. Pragmatischer moslims willen af van de wet die vrouwen verbiedt te huwen zonder toestemming van de ouders, zodat de studentes legaal de liefde kunnen bedrijven. Er is een koude oorlog aan de gang tussen feministen en fundamentalisten, een seksuele revolutie die men wil gaan stoppen met strikte regels in de pensions en politie-invallen in de nacht. Gaat dat gebeuren, dan lezen we over drie jaar dat vijftig procent van de politieagenten regelmatig vreemd gaat op het Djokjase matras.

Haagsche Courant, woensdag 14 augustus 2002

Verdwenen

alfred birney Onze literaire voorloper van Osama Bin Laden heet Oemar. Hij verschijnt plotseling ten tonele in een vredig stadje op Java en begint met de koran in de hand de Indonesische bevolking op te stoken tegen het Nederlandse gezag. De Javaanse regent ziet het wat calculerend aan. De Indo-Europese controleur waarschuwt de Hollandse assistent-resident, maar die kijkt niet verder dan de papierwinkel op zijn bureau. Intussen versiert Oemar de mooiste jonge dochters van de Javaanse dorpshoofden. De broer van de controleur, een Indische Don Juan, zoekt het wat hoger op en verleidt de minnares van de regent. Vergelijk: een portier van de Tweede Kamer duikt in bed met de minnares van een minister van Binnenlandse Zaken. Oei! In Nederlands-Indië van een eeuw geleden staat daarop de doodstraf door middel van tovenarij. Ziezo. De minnares wordt door de regent afgedankt en valt in handen van Oemar. Die vrijt lang zo lekker niet als onze Indische Don Juan en krijgt de minnares tegen zich. Ze wordt een dubbelspion. De controleur is nog net op tijd om het stadje te bewapenen tegen Oemar’s legertje. Oemar’s luitenants worden geëxecuteerd. Maar waar hangt Oemar zelf uit? We zagen hem voor het laatst ergens op een berg… Aldus de schrijver J.E. Jasper, een tijdgenoot van Couperus. Jammer dat zijn boek De diepe stroomingen onbekend is gebleven. Anders hadden we die in vertaling kunnen aanbieden aan president Bush jr. Het is afwachten of we Jasper een ziener onder onze schrijvers kunnen gaan noemen. Maar kan ie alvast op de boekenlijst, dames en heren neerlandici?

Haagsche Courant, maandag 21 januari 2002

Without a face

My only memory of my grandmother is the one of her grave. My father’s only memory of his grandmother is the one of her funeral. I don’t know what I received from my grandmother by way of heredity. My father doesn’t know what he received from his grandmother, and couldn’t ask her anymore by the time I asked him about it.

Maybe I inherited my grandmother’s moods. My father recalled his mother was moody. He wrote this once in a letter to somebody, a carbon copy of which I later read. Nowadays moodiness is called: sensitivity to moods. Moods are subdivided into depressions, fears, and melancholy. Melancholy is probably the finest among these three moods. Homesickness in a minor key. Maybe my grandmother was homesick for a country she didn’t know, her mother’s country: China. Homesickness handed down from her mother, who was from there. Or inherited from her grandmother, whom she in turn perhaps also hadn’t known.

My father recalled that his grandmother still had those little bound feet. As a Chinese woman she had thus complied with the old Chinese ideal of beauty. My great-grandmother came to the Dutch East Indies from Canton a long time ago, probably with part of her family, because Chinese uncles and aunts wandered around in the stories my father told. Exactly when she came to the Dutch East Indies, I don’t know. She would have been born after 1860, when slavery in the Dutch East Indies was abolished and the Indies had to struggle with a lack of personnel.

The Dutch went to the Mediterranean to scour up guest workers during the sixties of the last century, as they did on the Chinese coasts back then, 100 years earlier. Many guest workers settled in Holland for good, as they did in the Dutch East Indies. There they arrived in rickety little boats, and they were called koelies. I don’t know what she was called, my great-grandmother. She may have had Nio in her name: girl.

My father was about four years old when he lost his grandmother. She must have been slight of build, but in his memory her coffin was big and made of djati-wood and heavy to lift. Under his mother’s supervision, Chinese dishes were prepared and offered to the gods. My father, his two brothers, and two sisters got chalk smeared behind their ears. Those chalk smudges were to protect them from evil spirits at the funeral service.

Who else would have been at the funeral? Did my Chinese great-grandmother leave a husband behind, had he already passed away, or was he living with another, a younger woman meanwhile?

The bier was loaded onto a tjikar, an oxcart. The procession went to the Chinese cemetery in Soerabaja. With Chinese ceremony, the woman with the little feet was consecrated to the earth, flowers were strewn, and the little boy’s mouth watered as he looked at the way the dishes with offerings were being placed around the grave. He escaped the notice of the mourners, and sampled all that deliciousness around his grandmother’s grave. Maybe the gods would be so good as to tolerate a little boy in their midst for a moment?

If they were there, those gods, and if they became wrathful because the little boy had stolen a taste of their foods, then perhaps here lies a clue regarding the bitter fate that later awaited the boy. But I do not believe this. More precisely: hardly. That’s a little more than not. Because you can’t be sure, if they exist or not, those gods, or if they were present at my father’s grandmother’s funeral.

I hope that they were there. That it was the gods who took my father’s fate into their hands. I hope so, because I look for the innocence in people, my family.

As for my great-grandmother on my grandfather’s side, I know her face from photographs. I even know her name: Rabina. According to my father she was Madoerese. According to an aunt of mine, who wrote a private family chronicle, she was East Javanese, the daughter of Pa Grimin and Sayeh. Many East Javanese are of Madoerese origin. Rabina most likely lived somewhere in the Eastern part of Java, when, a decade before slavery was abolished, a young man by the name of George Birnie left Holland and sailed for the Dutch East Indies. He was to bring a portion of East Java under cultivation by planting coffee and tobacco. He married Rabina, pretty exceptional in those days, and Rabina presented him, as that was called, with eight children: Indisch children: Indos. They were sent to the Netherlands to be raised and educated. Later, George also took Rabina to the Netherlands, from where he ran the Birnie empire. There this woman took control of the kitchen in the family home, located somewhere in the basement. God only knows how she felt over there.

In the family chronicle it is written that George passed away in the Netherlands, but it doesn’t state how things ended up for Rabina. The writer only charts the Birnie empire. So I know what the men did. I know that they brought tracts of land under cultivation in the Dutch East Indies. I also know that my great-grandmother Rabina cooked for her husband and children and spoke comically broken Dutch. For the rest I know nothing. Again: how did she feel in the Netherlands? Uprooted? Or did she feel at home anywhere in the world, as long as she was with her husband? I take it that after her husband’s death, Rabina returned to the Dutch East Indies, and that she passed away there. I hope so, because, as the older Indos say, the ground is warmer there.

The fourth of George and Rabina’s children was named Willem, and entered the world in 1868 in Djamber, East Java. This pure-blooded Indo first married his cousin, a woman of another branch of the Birnie family. They had two children. I don’t know how long their marriage lasted. Legally probably their entire lives. But they ended up living apart. That was when Willem met my grandmother, one of the two daughters of the Chinese woman with the little feet. He lived together with her, as my father would say. Others would say: he took her into his house as a maid. Then took her as a consort, a njai , the intriguing Indisch word for concubine.

According to my father she was born in 1893 in Kediri, East Java, and was named Sie Swan Nio, the family name at the beginning. However, the 1925 certificate recognizing him as their child reads: Sie Swan Nio, without profession, residing in Soerabaia, Koninginnelaan 3, according to her admission, thirty-five years of age and unwed. Was the year of her birth 1890, then? It could be that for some reason or other, maybe money, she lied to the notary about her age.

If she is of the year 1890, according to her admission, then she is of the Chinese Year of the Tiger. If she is of the year 1893, then she is of the Chinese Year of the Snake.

There is a big difference between women born in the Year of the Tiger and those born in that of the Snake. Tiger women are born feminists, and therefore the least liked among the old Chinese. Snake women are mysterious and sensual. What is certain is that the date of her birth: July 23, is on the cusp between the zodiac signs of Cancer and Leo in Western astrology. Undoubtedly my father remembered her birthday well later, when he was all alone in the Netherlands, separated from his family for good because he was forced to flee the Indonesians after the war.

Sie Swan Nio already had a previous child, a daughter by a Chinese man. I don’t know if she was ever married to that man. I only know that he was addicted to gambling. Could also have been something my father made up. There is a theory that says that after a divorce, you look for somebody who is like your previous partner, or who at least substantially shares this partner’s traits. My grandmother found another gambler in her second husband.

He, Willem, a privileged descendant of the Birnies’ meanwhile rich and renowned plantation-owners’ empire, had 12 hunting rifles up on the wall according to my father. They say that Indos enjoyed the hunt. They hunted tjellengs, wild pigs. My grandmother definitely would have seen him set off on regular trips into the jungle, to go hunting there. But perhaps his jungle was mostly a mishmash of private addresses, with lovers, and that these were the tjellengs he hunted.

According to my father, Willem owned a steamship, a laundry, and a legal practice. Later, I read in my aunt’s family chronicle that the man had been the enfant terrible of the family, that he dreamed up enterprises with respect to his family, to borrow money from the family funds. A coal mine in Borneo, that kind of thing. Traveling between Holland and the Indies, he always stopped in at the casino in Monaco.

The bon vivant did not walk in his father George’s footsteps, and never recognized the five children he had fathered through her. For this reason she herself had gone to report the birth of my father, a late arrival. According to the certificate, she waited until the last moment to do this, because he was already three months old. The law did not permit a longer period of time. Maybe she tried all that time to move her husband to recognize his son, so that at least her anak mas, her favorite child, could become an heir with the prospect of a privileged future.

Maybe my grandmother was a Tiger and quarreled about legitimizing their last child, and maybe the hunter kept saying that he would think about it but kept on forgetting, a bottle of whiskey at his lips. In the family chronicle it is written that at the end of his life my grandfather was placed under family supervision. He received an allowance of 600 guilders per month and furthermore was not to involve himself in family affairs anymore. When the gambler died, just before the Second World War broke out, he left nothing but debts.

Maybe my grandmother was a Snake and suffered during the regular absence of her man. Maybe he didn’t give her enough money to be able to live decently. I don’t know if they loved each other. If it is the case that he first took her on as a maid, she became his lover afterward. As a lover you could say, or believe, that you were no longer a maid. That you were the wife of a big man, a toean besar, somebody with money, power, and standing.

The toean besar did not have the power to divorce his cousin. This first wife, with whom he had two legal children, refused to divorce, and maybe that had something to do with shares in the family stock. Or did my grandmother feel that his heart had always stayed with his cousin? True intimacy is only possible between two persons, says the I Ching, the Book of Changes, an old legacy of Confucius and his students, my only passport to my Chinese forebears’ thought: Where three are together, jealousy arises, and one of them will have to yield.

My father said that during the war years his mother switched from Confucianism to Christianity. This means: she began to read the Bible, in Malay. Maybe she sought comfort for the sadness that her youngest son caused her with his needless, pro-Dutch, political ideas and particularly with his actions during the war.

When the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies, during the first bombing of Soerabaja, half the house was demolished. The family had to find shelter elsewhere in the city. My father’s oldest brother, who had been appointed his guardian, managed to get Chinese identity papers, so the family made it through the war years reasonably well. Thinking pretty much in Indonesian fashion, the entire family clung to Djojobojo’s prediction: that after three years the yellow domination would give way and the Indonesian people would be free. However, my grandmother’s anak mas had lost his father too early, and he had started romanticizing about him, this “real European” Willem, with his Dutch passport. It was now three years after Willem’s death, and he himself had meanwhile turned seventeen. He was neither Chinese, nor Indo, nor Dutch. He walked around with a Chinese brooch pinned to his chest, but at home he hung a portrait of the Dutch queen above his bed. He had acquired a hatred of the Japanese, and for many years would still grieve the loss of twelve enormous Chinese vases during the bombing.

What else did my grandmother do during the war besides read the Bible? She earned her money by preparing ketjap in her back yard. During the Japanese occupation her twin daughters went out to work as serving girls in an establishment catering to Japanese officers. They brought home money, and when my father protested, she said, “Shut up. We have to eat.” When, as a young man in his early twenties, he came home with his first soldier’s pay, ready to hand it to his mother, she said, “I don’t want that money. It’s soaked in blood.”

That story was told to me dozens of times by my mother, a Dutch correspondent of my father’s, introduced to him by a southern Dutch soldier.

The Japanese had capitulated, and the Dutch army tried to grab power over the Indies with what were called Police Actions. The Indonesians did not desire guardianship anymore, took up weapons, and the Indies turned into a chaos that would finally be called Indonesia. My father chose the side of the Dutch-as his late illegal father was after all Dutch-and participated in the First Police Action. He drove over a landmine, and during the Second Police Action had to remain in the barracks.

I got all of this from his memoir, which he wrote at my request some time ago. One day he went home on leave. He was, according to his own writing, in uniform and had his pistol with him. I don’t know if that’s possible, because when on leave, the men had to leave their weapons behind at the barracks. He heard a baby crying, took a peek into the back room, and saw a little child with Japanese features. He took out his pistol, loaded it, and aimed the barrel at the baby. The babus (nannies) wailed, and begged for mercy. He walked away, deeply offended that one of his sisters had had the baby of a Japanese officer, of the enemy.

Where did he go, where did he spend his time? At the barracks? According to his memoir he hung around a lot in the city, where factions were starting to fight one another. He does not write that, or in what manner, one night in the city during that chaotic period, his sister’s boyfriend, the Japanese officer, was murdered.

Later, in the Netherlands, whenever we sat around the coal stove, listening to the war stories that were on his lips every evening, he called his sister Ella a collaborator, a hostess, a Jap-whore. As a young boy I tried fruitlessly to understand what he was always going on about. It was many years later that I started writing her, my aunt Ella. I was to become one of those Second Generation Indos who would take a roots trip to Indonesia. Aside from which, writers need a framework for their stories, as many different voices as possible on the same subject, from different perspectives.

I visited my grandmother’s grave and stayed five weeks at my aunt Ella’s, who was closest to my grandmother because her mother had lived in with her practically until her mother’s death. Now she was living in a new house somewhere in a “corridor,” a street in the Kertajaya, a district in Surabaya. Aunt Ella lived there with her half-Japanese daughter, whom she had called Yosta, after her father, the Japanese officer Yoshida.

Yosta had three children with a Chinese man, a hardworking contractor who came by a couple of times a week, and sometimes stayed over. He had a first wife somewhere in the city. Imitating our grandmother, Yosta was also a consort, a concubine, albeit a Chinese-Buddhist variation.

Yosta’s son, Yongky, had one great desire: to see Japan, the country of his unknown grandfather. His ideal of beauty was the Japanese woman. There was a calendar above his bed of Japanese fashion models. Yosta’s daughter, Lily, had a liking for things Chinese and had a Chinese boyfriend. Every evening she would come home from work chattering busily, and would rattle on about everything she had seen, what she was going to do, what she liked, and what she didn’t like. They said that she resembled my grandmother, Sie Swan Nio. But Lily laughed a lot, and my father said that his mother rarely laughed. My cousin Yosta’s youngest child was a girl and she was called Ervina.

When you list the names in a row, descending by age, you can taste the differences: Yongky, Lily, Ervina. The first carries traces of his unknown Japanese grandfather in his name. The second is a nice name for a modern Chinese girl. The third sounds Indonesian.

I didn’t feel at home out on the street in Indonesia. I did on my aunt’s front veranda. Maybe because the veranda was more reminiscent of my father’s stories about the Dutch East Indies. I spent my evenings there and looked at the tjitjaks on the walls for hours. These lizards were always up in brass on the walls of Indo homes in the Netherlands during the sixties, and maybe still are in the homes of older Indos.

Aunt Ella had her spot in the kitchen where she listened to her wajang-radio play every day and preoccupied herself with light household duties. In the evening she would visit me out on the porch, stand behind me, and always greet me with her pidjit-ing hands on my shoulders and my neck, which was stiffly Dutch in tense anticipation of her stories.

I had to wait for days, for weeks for her story about Yoshida, the Japanese officer who was so hated by my father. The story came to me in two versions. First in my cousin Yosta’s version, after that in my aunt Ella’s version.

Yosta told me, while mopping the floor, about how her unknown father had gone out to get cigarettes one night. Japan had capitulated and the Japanese soldiers were waiting to be repatriated to their homeland. It was Bersiap: some Japanese started fighting side-by-side with the Indonesians against the Dutch, others hid in the warehouses at the harbor or in houses that they had confiscated before, when they invaded the Dutch East Indies. There were also those who hid out at the homes of their girlfriends, like Yoshida.

Most Indonesians left the Japanese alone, but desperados roamed around, including Indos who still had scores to settle with their former adversaries. Yes, like my father. You would have had to be an idiot to be out on the streets by yourself if you were Japanese. This is why Yoshida didn’t go alone, but in the company of his cousin, also an officer. Aunt Ella had waited, but not seen him come back. She had gone out to look, and learned that someone had been found dead on the pasar . His face had been mutilated, he was hardly recognizable at the identifikasie. It was Yoshida’s cousin.

And Yoshida?

Well, he ran away of course. He doesn’t dare go back, you see? Mama still tried to track him down, until long after the war. All the way to Tokyo, you know how far that is, through go-betweens. But she never got to know anything about him. Kasian, a pity for my mother, it is.

Days later, out on the front porch, right before my departure for the Netherlands, my aunt Ella comes over and sits beside me. She doesn’t greet me with her pidjit-fingers, she has something to tell me. First she looks off in silence for a while at the corridor, the street where it is dark, and quiet. Then she lays her old hands in her lap, and tells me that one particular evening Yoshida went out to get cigarettes. It is dangerous outside, and that’s why he goes together with his cousin. It will be the last time that she sees her beloved Yoshida, because they will not come back. Both find their deaths in the marketplace, their faces are mutilated by sharp weapons.

Both of them?

Yes, both of them. After Yoshida, your aunt never had another man. But I have Yosta, and Yoshida lives on in her, and so he is always around me. Lily resembles your grandma, you know she would prefer to go to China. And Jongky, he looks strikingly like his grandfather, that’s why he dreams of a Japanese girl and Japan.

But Yosta told me that only Yoshida’s cousin had been found dead.

Yes, I didn’t tell her everything. Kasian, it would be a pity for her. But she’s asleep now, so I can tell you. You can have a man who isn’t always there, or a lover who leaves you. But who wants a father without a face?

* * *
Notes from the author:

I utilize the old spellling Soerabaja when I am talking about prior to or during the war, and Surabaya when I’m talking about after
Indonesian independence. The spelling of Malay words I present in the classical Dutch spelling, because many of these words enriched Dutch dictionaries in this form. Moreover, my story is Indisch and not Indonesian. This is why I decided against modern Indonesian spelling elsewhere.

King Jojobojo, the “Javanese Nostradamus,” ruled over one of the Hindu realms on Java around 900. The king had two residences: in Daha (unknown) and in Kediri (East Java). One day he received a visit from the Arabic scholar Maulana Ali Samsujin. Jojobojo was impressed by this Moslem’s supernatural gifts, and steeped himself in the science of the occult. It turned out that he, too, possessed prophetic gifts. By means of seven platters of food, Jojobojo predicted seven periods during which seven great realms would succeed one another. Among them were seafaring nations, the Dutch and the Japanese, respectively, who would transform Java into a cesspit of vice. These would finally be driven out, after which the kings of Java would be able to regain the power to rule. As with all true predictions, Jojobojo’s is capable of more than one explanation on various points. Thus the length of the domination by the strange yellow people (the Japanese) was compared with the time corn needs to mature, namely three-and-a-half months. But the faded handwriting in which the prediction is written has become illegible in some places. Was the king referring to “djagoeng” or “djago”? Corn or Rooster? If it was “djago,” rooster, then it would take three-and-a-half years before liberation, because this is how long it takes a rooster to reach its full maturity.

Copyright ©2000, Alfred Birney. Original title: Zonder gezicht. From the collection of stories and essays on the Dutch East Indies Vertrouwd en vreemd. Ontmoetingen tussen Nederland, Indië en Indonesië. A compilation by Esther Captain, Marieke Hellevoort & Marian van der Klein (red.). A publication of Uitgeverij Verloren, Hilversum, The Netherlands, 2000. This biographical story is translated from the Dutch by Wanda Boeke. No reproducing is allowed in any form without written permission from both the author and translator.