Life

John H.G. Soe: Nobody's
child, everybody's man

(JP/Matheos V. Messakh)

Some blame their parents for their misfortunes, others blame God. But John H.G. Soe has never blamed anyone for mistreating him, or for the polio that shaped his life.

It was because of this polio that his parents abandoned him at a hospital in Medan when he was four months old. The nurses took care of him for a few years, before sending him to a Catholic orphanage in the same city.

But when he was in the third grade, renovations to the dormitory meant families had to take the children home. No one came for John, who was then called “Kong”; he was nobody’s child.

“Not only that day, but every school holiday, other children were picked up by their family, but nobody ever asked me even to go outside the orphanage’s dormitory …,” John told The Jakarta Post.

A nun found his parents, but his mother rejected him, but the nuns couldn’t take him back because of the renovations.

“I was crying because I felt more comfortable with the nuns. I had no feelings whatsoever for my parents.”

He spent “a very bitter week” with his family. They kept him in the small backyard and he was not allowed to play with his sisters and brothers. He slept on the floor where the others had beds, and was fed differently.

“I was given rice and a bit of vegetables while my brothers and sisters got chicken or duck,” John recalled. He also remembers an occasion when he was dragged to the back of the house when a guest asked who he was.

After 10 days, his brother took him back to the orphanage. The nuns, shocked at his condition, never sent him back to his parents again.

In 1973, Dutch-Italian businessman Ted de Ponti, a Singapore-based Rotarian and former Red Cross volunteer, visiting one of the nuns at the orphanage, said he wanted to adopt an orphan who was “really abandoned but academically bright”.

“I want him to be someone,” he said.

The obvious choice was the boy who was crippled by polio, a boy who had never had anyone visit him, but was so clever he could repair his friend’s broken radio. “I remember it was Sunday June 13th. The nuns said ‘an uncle’ would come and meet me to adopt me.”

John put on his best clothes and dragged himself to the parlor to wait. “I felt so happy when he hugged me. He took me to the shop to buy me my first new clothes ever and a Timex watch, and held a dinner at a restaurant where he introduced me as his son to his friends.”

De Ponti covered all the boy’s expenses and visited him regularly, before arranging for John to be taken to Singapore for surgery.

When the nuns got papers from John’s parents for the passport, he finally learned his birthday — June 17, 1959 — the names of his parents and his eight siblings, and his own birth name: Soe Hian Ghe.

In December 1973, De Ponti brought the boy to Singapore. The Rotary Club had decided to pay for the operations and Rotarians in Zevennar, the Netherlands, sponsored the trip.

He underwent four operations; after eight months in the hospital, his right leg, which was bent like a bow, began to improve. His ankles started to function, and now he can even drive a car.

After the first operation, The Strait Times ran a story about him, including a picture of him munching chocolates. The chocolate company, pleased with the free advertising, sent him dozens of boxes of chocolates, which he sent to his friends in the orphanage in Medan.

Everything was done at no cost — even Singapore Airlines provided a return trip for free. The money Rotary had committed for his operations now went to his education.

A month after the final operation, John returned to school in Medan. As he was 14 years old and had a disability, only a girl’s school would accept him. “Only two of us were boys, we both had polio.”

He later studied architecture in Singapore and interior design in London. He planned to return to Singapore but because of the 1985 economic crisis, his foster father advised him to go to Jakarta instead.

The first thing he did was to look up his family, who had moved to the Indonesian capital. His mother was still cold to him. “I told them that I only wanted to make a family bond and had no intention of making them feel bad.”

A year later, his family asked for forgiveness. John felt the request was unnecessary. “The past is the past, let’s look to the future,” he said.

John soon began his career in an architecture firm, and within five years had set up his own architecture and interior design company, which he still runs.

He married in 1988 and has two children. Ted de Ponti died in 1990, two month after John’s first child was born.

“I still remember he was very happy when my son was born. My son was like a first grandson to him,” John said. “Ted gave me confidence and love. He changed everything in my life.”

Because of the help Rotary gave him, John wanted to become a Rotarian, a dream realized when a client recommended him for membership in 2003.

Since he was indicted in 2004, he has held several important positions, including club secretary and club president; he is now the assistant governor for the Jakarta region.

He was been active in Rotary’s fight against polio, especially during the joint Rotary–Health Ministry campaign for the national immunization program in 2005 and 2006.

Looking back, John has no regrets or bitterness.

“I always think there is always someone who is experiencing something worse than me,” he said. “Everything is a blessing in disguise. I wouldn’t be what I am today if my parents did not leave me at that hospital.”

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