One of the most common questions I’m asked as a PhD candidate isn’t the usual ‘why did you choose this topic’ or ‘why are you investigating race/memory/other academic term from that perspective’. Rather, it’s ‘how does it feel to be living your research?’ The reason is simple. For the past three years I’ve researched the history of Indos – Eurasians, or people of mixed Indonesian and bule descent – who are mostly famous in Indonesia today as Sinetron stars. I’m married to an Indonesian man from Manado, so of course the children we are expected to have will be labelled Indo. A few people have laughingly commented that I’m doing personal, rather than academic research, for my own future family.
The comment that comes up most frequently is wow, you’re bule and your husband is Manadonese – you’re going to have gorgeous children who’ll become celebrities! Many Indonesians are delighted that I have an Indonesian husband, even if some warn me he could be a bit nakal¸ because apparently that’s what Manadonese people are like. My husband’s been warned that his wife will probably divorce him and is also nakal, because that’s what bule women are like. A few concerned Australians warned me before getting married that Andika was probably only interested in me because he wanted to migrate to Australia for a better life – never mind that he’s from a much wealthier family than me! And then there are our unborn children, who don’t really seem to have much choice in the matter; they’re going to be good-looking and probably terrible Sinetron actors, as the stereotype goes. At times we’ve had to negotiate these stereotypes on a daily basis, sometimes through three language mediums: Indonesian, Manado Malay and English. We’ve learned to smile patiently and laughingly report to each other the ways in which we’re supposed to behave based on our ethnicity and/or race.
I might be living my research, but I became interested in the history of Indos in Indonesia before my husband and I were ever a couple. The historian in me wanted to find out why an older generation of Indos, almost all of whom (about 200,000) left Indonesia after 1949, settling in mostly the Netherlands, had such different stories and different ways of identifying to the younger generation in Indonesia today. The term remained the same, but many of the meanings associated with it have changed. The older generation mostly identify as Dutch speaking children of European men and Indonesian or Indo women, born in the Netherlands Indies (colonial Indonesia), who found themselves outcasts in the new Indonesian Republic and forgotten by the former Netherlands Indies government, the Dutch government and the Indonesian government. During the early years of the National Revolution (1945-1949), thousands of members of this generation were killed on the islands of Java and Sumatra, notably in several mass slaughters carried out in East Java, because they were perceived by fervently nationalist pemuda groups as loyal to returning colonial troops after Japanese surrender. This period (1945-1947) is called the Bersiap by Indos who left Indonesia, and was one of the main catalysts behind their decision to leave the country.
My research looked mostly at what happened to those who remained in Indonesia, though I did some oral history interviews in the Netherlands in late 2012 and also Queensland, where some Indos of this generation had emigrated. I lived in Jakarta for almost a year in 2013, and during this time met young and elderly Indos across Java and in the Minahasa region of North Sulawesi. Then, to try to make the long wait for an Australian partner visa more bearable, I lived in Manado for a few months with my husband in 2014, and worked through the documents I’d collected from the Dutch archives about the 1950s. These documents talked about the breakdown of Dutch-Indonesian relations over the West Irian issue, which didn’t become part of Indonesia until 1963 (today the provinces of Papua and West Papua). The result was the complete expulsion of all Dutch citizens in December 1957, in what’s called the Black Santa Claus Incident (Peristiwa Sinterklas Hitam). All Indos remaining in Indonesia with Dutch citizenship left. The small number who took Indonesian citizenship assimilated, particularly during the Suharto years, and for many, it wasn’t really until after 1998 that they began to gather with other Dutch speakers and recall the days of their youth.
My research has taken me to some fascinating places – old Dutch cities with cobblestoned streets, modern retirement homes on the Australian Sunshine Coast, coastal fishing villages consisting entirely of people tracing their descent to Portuguese and Spanish traders four hundred years ago, and Pacific Place, one of the most elite shopping malls in Indonesia. People have been kind enough to share their stories with me, from humble fishermen to Dutch Indo activists to famous Sinetron stars to housewives serving me delicious snacks to retired soldiers expressing their complete loyalty to Indonesia. Possibly the most interesting tie-in between my own circumstances and the history that I’ve researched is the fact that I found out my husband’s great-grandfather was Indo, of Dutch and French descent, and I was able to interview Andika’s great aunt about the family history before she died last year. When we attended the funeral, I was able to provide relatives who were present at the interview with a copy of the recording, perhaps contributing to living family history. Some of my interview participants have kept contact with me, and they are awaiting the inevitable book that I’ve promised them. The networks I’ve made across three different countries, not only because I’m married to an Indonesian, but also thanks to the kindness of the people I’ve met, have made the whole PhD project a joy to undertake. They have all contributed, much more than I have, to the writing of a forgotten piece of Indonesian history.