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.