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My Personal History

Returning to a homeland under Dutch rule: Mochtar Riady's story (4)

In Malang, I received a Chinese education and saw colonial arrogance firsthand

| Indonesia

It was in Surabaya, a port city on the island of Java, that I saw a Dutch person for the first time in my life.

The Dutch began colonizing what is now Indonesia in the early 17th century. They first established a foothold on Java and then colonized the surrounding islands one by one, eventually bringing the entire archipelago under a colonial rule that was to last for more than three centuries. When I was a boy, Indonesia was called the Dutch East Indies.

Our family left my father's home in China's Fujian Province to live in Java. After a two-week trip by sea, we arrived in Surabaya. To go through immigration, we had to wait in a long line in the sweltering heat.

That was when I saw a Dutchman for the first time. I was stunned by how much taller he was than the average Chinese person. To a young boy like me who had never seen a Dutch person, he looked scary.

The Dutch immigration officer was very rude to me and other Chinese. I started crying. I missed my grandmother in China dearly.

My mother tried to comfort me, hugging me tightly and telling me not to worry.

After we cleared immigration, we got into a car and headed to Batu, located in a highland region known as Malang, in the southern part of Surabaya. Malang had grown into a popular retreat and health spot for Dutch people working in Surabaya.

After spending some time in Batu, our family moved to the city of Malang. Between 10,000 to 20,000 ethnic Chinese lived there, most of them working as retailers and restaurant owners. There were elementary and junior high schools where classes were taught in Chinese, and I ended up going to a school called Nan Qiang.

Classes at these schools were taught in the Beijing dialect, the standard back in China. Because they had come from all parts of China, the Chinese living in Malang spoke a broad variety of dialects. Even those from different areas within Fujian Province had difficulty in communicating with each other.

Our family spoke the dialect of Xinghua (now Putian city).

Me in 1937, when I was attending a Chinese school in Malang (Photo provided by company)

Every day after school, I spent countless hours learning Chinese characters under my father's watchful eye. I practiced calligraphy regularly, using the handwriting of Liu Gongquan, a great master of Tang calligraphy, as a model.

My father was one of the few people in his home village of Xinghua who had received an education. My grandfather, who was passionate about education, brought teachers to the village and opened a private school, where my father studied.

My father also read Chinese classics to me, explaining the stories in simple terms. In this way I became acquainted with "The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars," a classic text of Confucian filial piety, and the sayings of Fan Li (also known as Tao Zhu Gong), who is worshipped in China as "the God of Wealth."

My father bought me a children's illustrated version of the historical novel "Romance of the Three Kingdoms," too. Thanks to my father, I gained wide knowledge about Chinese culture.

There was also a Chinese temple in Malang. Its architecture was a mixture of Buddhist and Taoist styles. I believe the temple was dedicated to Mazu, a Chinese Sea Goddess worshipped as the protector of seafarers in Fujian Province. The temple was always very lively during the Chinese New Year, when it would be thronged with worshippers.

The food we ate in Malang was no different from what we had in China. Our family often ate rice porridge. Local Muslims did not eat pork, but we could buy and eat it, as there were Chinese pig breeders in Malang.

One day, I was playing with a friend whose family ran a Chinese restaurant when I heard someone inside the shop suddenly start yelling.

It turned out to be a Dutch customer raising a fuss after he saw a waiter touch the inside of a dish with his finger. There was no need for the customer to yell like that. A quiet admonition would have been enough.

That was the moment I saw firsthand the arrogance of the Dutch.


Mochtar Riady is the founder of Lippo Group.

Click here to read Mochtar Riady's full "My personal history" series.

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