Dutch Indonesians' search for home
THE JAKARTA POST
Many stories of Dutch Indonesians who left Indonesia shortly after Independence are lost in the passage of time. Legend has it that they went to Holland. But some found a second home, or perhaps a third, in the USA.
Michael Hillis, a part-time teacher and history buff who resides in Portland, Oregon, estimates there are around 200,000 Dutch Indonesians, or Dutch Indos as they call themselves, living in the United States.
"Not many people in America know about them," Hillis, who is making a film about the Dutch Indos, told the Sunday Post during a recent research trip to Indonesia.
"They left Indonesia and headed to The Netherlands shortly after Independence. But when they got there, they faced racial issues."
The Dutch Indos repatriated to Holland between 1945 and the 1960s. But it seemed that Dutch society was not ready for an influx of postwar Eurasians hailing from the former Dutch East Indies colony.
As Eurasians, the Dutch Indos' physical features vary greatly, with some having blond hair and blue eyes, and others having a dark complexion and black eyes. Many of these were believed to be Hispanic immigrants and so faced racial slurs.
However, their ability to speak fluent Dutch raised questions from people who were not aware of their origins. Hillis said that the Dutch Indos simply answered that they had learned the language during the journey by ship.
"In my opinion, I think they probably realized that they had gone through terrible things," he said. "They lost their homes and their money in Indonesia. On the other hand, they had to cope with new issues, such as eating potatoes, instead of rice, and racial issues."
He said that after arriving in Holland, most Dutch Indos learned martial arts to defend themselves, such was the extent of the attacks on them. Unable to bear the continuing discrimination, an estimated 60,000 Dutch Indos immigrated to the United States in the 1960s.
"Once they arrived in the US, they took any kind of job they could get and they worked really hard," Hillis said.
"For them, the US was a place where they could work and live in freedom. They did not have to worry about people trying to kill them."
Nowadays, he said, the Dutch Indos in the United States are into their third generation; Los Angeles is home to the largest Dutch Indo community, with some 100,000 people.
The first generation of Dutch Indos still speak Dutch, as it was the language they were born with, Hillis said, adding they also speak Indonesian because they spent a lot of time with their nannies, servants and helpers.
"Most of the first generation came from wealthy families. They used to have 10 maids in their houses. When they reached the US, they decided that they had to make it there so they learned English. Most of them are around 80 years old now," he said.
"These people would have loved to stay in Indonesia but they had no choice, they had to leave. Many of them still live in Holland but I believe there many who left for the US or perhaps other countries."
Members of the second generation, now aged up to 60, speak English; the third generation, aged between 20 and 30, no longer speak Dutch and are unaware of their Dutch Indo roots.
The Dutch Indos quickly assimilated into their new country, marrying people outside the community; most never returned to Indonesia.
Hillis first came across the issue of the Dutch Indos when he read Jan A. Krancer's The Defining Years of the Dutch East Indies 1942-1949. He contacted the writer, who introduced him to Bianca Dias-Halpert, a Dutch Indo residing in Seattle. Dias-Halpert invited Hillis to a Dutch Indo community gathering.
The Dutch Indo community often holds gatherings where they cook Indonesian food and do line dancing to Indonesian music played on small guitars, which, Hillis said, sounded to his ears like Hawaiian music. They also publish a bulletin about their community activities, all written in Dutch.
"When I first saw them, I was wondering who these people were," Hillis said with a smile. "They look like Hispanic people, speak Dutch, eat Indonesian food and sing Hawaiian-like songs."
As the younger generation immerse themselves into America's melting pot multicultural society, the older Dutch Indos are concerned that the young ones will forget their roots.
As Hillis learned more about this concern, he was inspired to make a film about the Dutch Indos.
After Hillis met filmmaker Marlin Darrah, the project began. They financed it privately and invited selected people to invest in the project.
"I have a strong relationship with this movie, because I'm married to an Indonesian woman," Hillis said. "I want my daughters to understand the history of Indonesia during hard times."
Hillis said that the movie would paint a new picture of Indonesia for Americans, most of who know little about Indonesia apart from terrorism threats and Bali. He said that the movie would take audiences to the World War II base of American general Douglas MacArthur on Morotai Island, as well as to other places of interest.
"Most Americans know little about Indonesia. We hope this movie can show them that Indonesia and America have a historical relationship," he said.
"We also want to see Garuda Indonesia flying to the US again. The US is the second largest country, Indonesia the third but there is no direct flight between these two countries."
Hillis and Darrah visited Indonesia last December to do research. During their stay in Jakarta, they met and interviewed historian Des Alwi. They also met with a former Army official, who agreed to help with security during filming.
"We will begin filming in April, shoot for 35 days and leave for other shooting places in May," Darrah said. "We plan to go to Holland to track down the Dutch Indo community there. Perhaps we will return to Indonesia in June for extra shots."
Darrah, an experienced documentary filmmaker, said that the documentary would be shot in high definition format and would be 90 minutes long. He plans to submit it to this year's Jakarta International Film Festival as well as to other international film festivals.
They also plan to distribute the movie through PBS, BBC and Discovery Channel.
"I think the film will help the Dutch Indos to be at peace with their past," Hillis said. "They will be happy to see the film. It's going to be a legacy, something they can pass on to their children."
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