In early 1900’s, a young man named Tan Siong Tjoen sailed from his native place in Fujian, mainland China to the islands of Dutch East Indies. He was also known as Tan Tiong Soey. God only knows what drove him to go against the water and the wind – perhaps it was the promise of a better life or a chance to escape his misery. That man was my Grandfather. He landed in Teluk Betung, Lampung, in the southernmost tip of the island of Sumatra. He must have been blessed with an enterpreneurial mind, because he prospered in establishing a tobacco plantation there and quickly grew to be an affluent man in the area. He married his first wife called Jo Tjoan Nie and led a happy and prosperous life.
They were blessed with the arrival of their daughter, called Tan Giok Hoa – unfortunately she passed away when she was only two or three years old. Her death crushed my Grandfather – he must have loved her very much. In his futile attempt to mask his sorrow, he spent more time in gambling dens, wasting the wealth that he had built over the years. The habit led him to bankruptcy and he was forced to sell all of his plantation. He decided to leave Dutch East Indies and return to China, leaving his wife behind with 200 Dutch guilders. At that time, my uncle, Ishak Tanusaputra, had already been born. He was probably a young boy then, as he was born in 1923.
Maybe it was also homesickness that brought him back to the motherland. However, he brought back a young bride, a girl who was arranged to be married to him by his family in China. The young peasant girl was called Tjoa Tit Nio from the town of Amoy (Xiamen) in the Fujian province. It was rumoured that he confessed to the girl that he was a bachelor when he married her. Funny how the same excuse can be found regardless of era and culture! Tjoa Tit Nio was my Grandma – an illiterate maiden, but blessed with the wisdom to treat her husband’s first wife well and maintain the harmony in the family. She carried herself as an obedient girl, and quietly assumed her position as the second wife.
My Grandma even took in my uncle to live with her, because his mum couldn’t handle him anymore. By my uncle’s own admission, he was a spoilt little brat when he was young. My Grandma instilled in him good values and discipline – he ended up living with her for eleven years.
In 1939, my Grandfather was killed by a horsecart in Bandung, where the family settled down. By that time, my Grandfather already had a daughter from my Grandma – Tan Koei Lian, was born in 1933, as well as my dad (Tan Tjeng Hoa), who was born in 1937, and my uncle, Tan Tjeng Liang, who was born in 1939. After his death, my Grandma single-handedly raised her three children whilst still honoring and respecting my Grandfather’s first wife. My Grandfather also had two children with the first wife – my uncle who I mentioned earlier, and my aunt (Tan Koei Siok).
The children grew without a father, but were well-protected and cared for by my Grandma. She started her business in Jalan Kiaracondong, Bandung with a little shop selling all sorts of necessities, from tobacco to sugar. Many said that my Grandma was a pretty lady, but because of her dedication and love to her husband and the children, she never remarried.
Dad grew up to be a handsome, smart and hardworking young man. By then, Grandma needed to slow down a lot and needed somebody to help her with the shop. She asked my Dad to quit school, just as he finished middle school. Being an obedient son, he obeyed her, even though he was a smart student and enjoyed studying very much. It was this that made him determined that all of his future children should be better educated and that he would spend his money not on material possessions, but on his children’s education.
My Grandma passed away when I was six years old, in 1978. Everybody in our family holds her in high regard – she single-handedly raised a young family, instilling good working ethos and family values, whilst also respecting her position as the second wife and reaching out to the children of the first wife.
At around the same time, my Mum (Kho Hok Nio) grew up in the town of Bogor, about 60 kilometres or so, south of Jakarta. My Mum’s family had been in Dutch East Indies for generations, and had assimilated well to the area.
Her family were very well-off, owning many acres of land just outside Bogor, in an area called Nanggewer. My maternal Grandfather (Kho Tian Sioe) was born in a town of Rangkasbitung in 1911. My maternal Grandma (Lauw Lian Nio) was born in 1902 in Nanggewer. She was fondly known in our family as ‘Ema Bogor‘ (The Grandma from Bogor). Her father was born in the Guangdong Province in China and later on settled down in Kedunghalang, around Bogor, whereas her mother was born in the city of Anhuai in the Anhui Province in China. She subsequently settled down in Jakarta. Ema Bogor came from quite a musical family – her mum reportedly owned a set of gambang kromong – a set of musical instruments akin to the Javanese gamelan. She could play gambang really well, and now I know where Mum’s musical ability came from.
Ema Bogor was once bethrothed with a local Indonesian native, even though she was against the idea and got divorced later on. They had two little children who sadly passed away in their childhood. Ema Bogor met my Grandpa and fell in love. Grandpa Tian Sioe was an adventurer – and perhaps I inherited this side of him. He was a driver who explored large areas of Sumatra and Java in his truck. They got married shortly and had four children. Unfortunately two of their children passed away in their childhood, leaving only Mum and her younger brother, who is known in our family as Ngku A’am (Uncle A’am).
Grandpa Tian Soe was a hardworker as he had to support his five younger siblings as well. His father did not have a fixed profession, so he had to work hard to keep his own family afloat.
When Mum was young, Grandpa Tian Soe often brought her along in his truck. Mum would sit right in front behind the steering wheel, pretending that she helped her dad driving the big truck around. Mum reminisced that they would drive around to the harbour area in Jakarta (Tanjung Priok) to buy some fish or to Tambun in Bekasi to get some oranges.
Mum remembered her mother really fondly – she mentioned that Ema Bogor was a hardworking lady who was blessed with a good business mind. She had her own little shop, as well as bought and sold the local produce from the farmers in the area to build her wealth. She knew that she wouldn’t receive any inheritance from her family – inheritance was only given to sons at that time. She worked really hard, purchasing more farmlands, even when she had to sell her jewelleries. Because of her tireless work, Mum and my uncle received acres of farmlands from Ema Bogor after she passed away.
The love story faced a challenge because Grandpa’s family never really approved his marriage to Ema Bogor in the first place. Ema Bogor was a divorcee and marrying a divorcee was considered a taboo during that period, especially when Ema Bogor was older than Grandpa as well. When Mum was five years’ old, she was kidnapped by Grandpa’s mother and brought over to Citeureup, an area not far away from Nanggewer. Mum remembered that she was enticed by a pretty red dress – an offer that a young girl could never refuse. Ema Bogor found out where Mum was hidden and came to wrest her away from my Grandpa’s family. Mum remembered as well that she was hidden in a rice-thrasher – it was certainly a scary experience for a five-year old!
My Grandpa’s family didn’t give up and demanded that he remarried. They found a suitable girl called Oei Tjoe Lan. With her second wife, Grandpa has four children: Kho Siok Hoa, Kho Siok Eng, Kho Siok Lan, and Kho In Goan. Mum gets along well with her half-siblings and all of the offsprings still keep in touch and maintain good relationship as well.
Grandpa Tian Sioepassed away in 1954 at the age of 43, whilst Ema Bogor passed away in 1970 at 68 years of age. Grandpa’s second wife, remarried afterwards with a man who was originally from the island of Sulawesi (Celebes) named Latehu. With Latehu, Mum’s stepmother has four children: Ronny Latehu, Henny Latehu, Herry Latehu, and Ida Latehu.
If Dad was a simple man, hardworking, with no exposure to the world of art and entertainment, Mum finished her school at “Chung Hua School” in Bogor and became a girl who appreciated art, music, and the beauty of nature. She and her friends often frequented the Presidential Palace in Bogor and her brother’s hobby to take photographs became a way to witness her blooming to become a pretty girl in Bogor.
After her education, Mum became a Mandarin teacher and through one way or the other, my Dad was introduced to Mum.
That was the start of our family … two personalities, two lives, two histories collided to start a new union. On January 18, 1959, they became husband and wife in a wedding in Bandung.
Their first child, my eldest sister, Erly Tresnawaty, was born in 1959, which was followed by my older sisters Lina Tresnawaty (1961), Juli Kartika (1962), Tjoetjoe Soegiarti (1963), and Suzanna (1965). In 1967, my older brother was born, Irwan Kurniawan. I followed suit in 1972, and in 1974, my late brother Handy Sugiharto was born.
Though we have lived all our lives in Bandung, grew and mingled with our neighbours, we were still considered as ‘outsiders’ because of our Chinese ancestry. Through an incident that emotionally scarred my father forever in 1965, Dad decreed that Mum should never teach their children any Mandarin.
Dad wanted to be accepted by the local community so much. Even now he still prefers Sundanese food to Chinese food. He couldn’t use chopsticks even before he had a series of strokes, and his Sundanese is much better than his Mandarin. Yet, he was still considered as an outsider.
When the government banned all Chinese culture, language, and script in 1960’s, our family quietly conformed to the government regulation. In my childhood, I felt as Indonesian as the boy next door, but yet, I was made to feel like a migrant. I didn’t feel Chinese, but my appearance also made me an ‘outsider’ in the society. However polite, courteous, and kind people were, we were still outsiders.
Things changed in 2000, when the president of Indonesia then, Abdurrahman Wahid, allowed Chinese culture to return to Indonesia. I am grateful that my nieces and nephews can feel much more accepted by the society and can feel proud of their Chinese heritage. Discrimination and racism will still exist in the system, but at least they will not grow up feeling like outsiders.
Dad had a stroke about seven to eight years ago, and lost the ability to walk and the use his right hand. Afterwards, he relied a lot on Mum’s assistance even though Mum is also weakened by her age. Dad passed away in 2011 after a gall bladder operation – his ill health and the strokes that he had meant that it was really hard for him to recover after the operation.
The extent of having eight children pretty much back-to-back has finally taken its toll on Mum’s health. In her latter years, she was stooped down with age – but she had never lost her dignity. It’s something that she inherited from Ema Bogor, not to give up and never to be beaten down because of her gender – to work hard, to earn your place in life, and to continuously learn and grow. Mum passed away in March 2021.
I am compelled to gather my family’s history – as the next storyteller in the family to my nieces and nephews and my own children and their future offsprings. I want to tell them that we are really blessed to survive countless generations – from China to Indonesia, and in my case, Australia. We should never forget where we came from. We survived wars, poverty and upheavals,and even though we may lose our own family members – the fact remains that we are in God’s safe hands.
Family Portrait – December 2005:
[MR] Suzanna, Tjoetjoe, Erly, Lina, Juli;
[FR]: My late brother Handy, Dad, Mum, and myself.