Finding Indies in The Netherlands

Sunday, January 07, 2018

When my wife and I spent about eleven days in the Netherlands for a trip, we had the chance to meet three Dutch people who found themselves related with Indonesia. One of them had been on our list to meet before we flew to the Netherlands, while the other two were by coincidence.

It is not so strange however as there have been strong cultural and emotional ties between the two countries. I bet there are another thousands of Dutch people who feel the same way with them.

They all shared with us what they feel about being connected with Indonesia, or East Indies as they might have called it in the past. 

Oma Elizabeth van Kampen

We stopped by in Tilburg to meet Elizabeth van Kampen, a ninety year old woman whom I found for the first time in 2009 while reading her story in a blog. Since then, I had looked forward to meeting this woman whom I constantly called Oma, a Dutch word for grandma. Before we flew to the Netherlands, we had arranged a meeting with her.

Oma Elizabeth came to the Indies for the first time as an infant with her parents in 1928. First, she settled in a plantation in Bengkulu, Sumatera for about six years before returning to the Netherlands with her mom and sister during the global economy crisis in 1934. After staying in Holland for ten months she returned to the Indies, reunited with her father.

Of all the places in Indies she had been to, it seems to me that Malang was one of the most memorable for her. In 2016 I flew to that town to trace back her footsteps, visited some spots that she had mentioned in her website and wrote about that here in my blog.

It is not like a fairy tale where the story is happily ended, the ending of her story was more like a catastrophic where she had to leave the Indies, the land she loved in December 1945 shortly after the end of the World War Two and worst, lost her father who was detained in the Japanese prison during the war. She had the chance to return to Indonesia as a tourist in 1996, and tried to find the trace of his father, and yet, was in vain.

Our meeting took place at the living room of her apartment. She was accompanied by her son, Theo, named after her late father, who also lived in the same building. She served us a home made apple pie, which I miss very much, and some Indonesian snacks like krupuk and cassava chips. Turned out that in many grocery stores in the Netherlands, people could find Indonesian snacks and ingredients. As a person who just came for the very first time to that country, this fact was quite a surprise.

I was wondering if Oma could speak Bahasa Indonesia considering that she lived in Java for years before the Word War II. She told me that she could only speak a little. She regret that the Dutch in the Indies hardly ever spoke Bahasa in their daily life. Perhaps that was what had created a segregation in the social life between the Dutch and the natives. I guess that case didn’t specifically happen in the Indies, but also in many colonies ruled by Europeans.

At her age of ninety years old, Oma still keeps up with current news and information from all around the world. She also reads many books, just like how she described herself many years ago when she was young in the Indies. I was extremely happy when she gave me three books from the shelves. In fact, I was free to choose which books that I like. I picked two pictorial books about the Internment Camps in the Indies during the World War II and another one about the thoughts of Sutan Sjahrir, an Indonesian national figure who wrote his vision about Independent Indonesia. Sadly for me, all the books are in Dutch. So I guess I need to take a course of that language.

When I sat in Oma’s living room, I couldn’t help but noticing how she couldn’t let go things related with Indies. I saw a Wayang Golek (three dimension puppet) on the wall, and some old portraits taken long in the past.

The old portraits of Oma Elizabeth's parents taken in the former Dutch East Indies

In Amsterdam, we visited Museum Willet-Holthuysen. Like in any other museum, we had to put our bags and coats before wandering in the museum. When we got there, the museum seemed to run out of space for putting the visitors’ bags and coats. Suddenly, a man in uniform came to me and said in Bahasa: “Tas bisa disimpan di sini” – “you can put your bag here,” while pointing at an empty wooden box.

I was pleasently surprised to hear that and spontaneously replied: “You speak Bahasa?!”

Later when we were about to leave the museum, we had a conversation with him. His name was Andy. He was basically a Eurasian or Indo. He told us about the complexity of race that run in his blood. I couldn’t memorize exactly about it, but I still remember he mentioned Dutch, Chinese, and Javanese.

Andy told us that he could still speak Bahasa because his parents used to speak in that language at home. But then, he rarely spoke in it as there was no one he could talk to anymore. He was happy to meet us, two Indonesians with whom he could talk in Bahasa.

At least once a year Andy visited Indonesia. It might be just for the sake of holiday, but perhaps there was some sort of indescribable longing to see the land where his parents came from.

Me with Andy

One day while I was still in Amsterdam, I got an unexpected message from Pieter-Bas van Wiechen, a Dutch man whom I knew from Instagram. He found that I was in the Netherlands from the pictures I had posted. So we arranged a meeting in an old restaurant at the ground floor of Scheepvaarthuis, a historical building located not far from the Central Station.

The building was magnificent, and quite impressive as it is adorned with sculptures and also stained glass ornament depicting the glory of the past. To my surprise, Pieter told me that this building was erected on the spot where Cornelis de Houtman's first trip to the East Indies had begun in 1595.

Pieter and I share the same interest in history. Pieter’s grand parents and great grand parents used to live in Java during the colonial time. He came to Jakarta in 2014 just to trace back his grandparent’s footsteps in Menteng, Jakarta. He told me that during his four day stay in Menteng, he had felt like he had known the area quite very well. I told him that there was a chance that he lived there in his previous life. Well, it was a joke for sure, but somehow I was amazed how it could possibly happen. What had attracted Pieter to explore Indonesia was because he was curious to find what his ancestors did in there. He would come back to the country anytime he got the opportunity.

Before we left the Scheepvaarthuis, Pieter took us to upper floor to see the stained glass ornament. From the painting on it I could see the picture of the ship that had brought Cornelis de Houtman to the Indies in the 16th century. It was an expedition that would later lead to the coming of the Dutch to the archipelago.

One point of our conversation that I can still remember was when Pieter said: “Of all the major colonies we (the Dutch) had, the tiny Suriname was the only one left for us. We lost the Indies.” Yes, I wondered too. How come the Dutch lost the Indies in such a short period after nearly three centuries ruled the country.

My wife and I with Pieter

Well, after seeing these three people in the Netherlands, my thought of Indies became slightly different from before. I guess the Dutch East Indies hasn’t completely gone. Somehow it remain exist in the heart of some people.

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