Sunday, December 9, 2012

If You Walk Around With Your Mouth Open, Someone Will Feed You

“You try everything that comes along and are always distracted.   You have no focus and never finish anything...... That’s your big weakness and because of it, you will never go anywhere....”

Six years ago, jealous, controlling, narcissistic ex boyfriend from hell shouted at me – because I was using the internet to look for new job opportunities.

Six years ago, jealous controlling, narcissistic ex boyfriend from hell spat, literally, at me - because I had allowed a male acquaintance to touch my arm whilst saying goodbye after a dinner out:

You are too open to other people – it’s dangerous! And one day you are going to wake up with your legs apart and you will realise that you have been fucked!”

When you are exhausted and sinking so low that you can’t raise your head high enough to search for your own conviction, you grab the bad advice offered to you as if it were a generous lifeline and fail to acknowledge the small piece of good advice, a little bit of sense amongst the madness, letting it slip through your fingers, disappearing, along with your self-respect, into the depths of your now-confused world. And so, I chose to close myself to others whilst continuing on a path that was increasingly chaotic, actively choosing self pity, blame and anger over resolve, positivity and self-belief.

“One for sorrow.....” I had reasoned, whilst deep down I no longer believed that two was necessarily for joy.  I knew that the two of us were standing together yet were completely alone.  Consequently, it wasn’t long before I was unable to hold a single thought, focused or otherwise, in my head at all. 

When he spat in my face, I felt a pain like nothing I have ever known before or since. It was as if he were spitting at my very being – at everything that I am – the good and the bad.   It was a hundred times more painful than the time that he kicked me in the thigh as I was sitting on the ground, putting my shoes on, after he ordered me to leave the house in the middle of another fight. Because at least that time I was able to stand up again and walk away on my own two feet.   

Six years prior to that, Aunty Hendy had seen me off on my new adventures in China with her customary humour and wisdom - a note with very different words of advice:  “Remember, if you walk around with your mouth open, someone will feed you!”

Knowing Aunty Hendy, it might have meant any, or all, of the following:  “Don’t waste any opportunity that comes your way”, “Smile and be open and people will be receptive to you”, “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”, “Expect the best, trust that you deserve it, and don’t be too proud to ask for help”, “Fight like hell for what you want”, “It’ll all work out in the end”,  “Be resourceful, try anything – cheat if you have to!”, “If they don’t like it,  bugger ‘em – someone will!”  

How far I had strayed from what I had been taught.  I wish I still had that note and hadn’t carelessly let that too slip through my fingers. I would put it in my wallet as a reminder to never forget myself again.   

I should have given it to Mum for safe keeping.  She keeps absolutely everything........


“Why the bloody hell do you have a huge box of unused soaps up here?!” I shouted down to my Mum who was looking up from the attic stairs, through a small opening,  into what can only be described as a tardis where a huge amount, and all manner, of crap has been collected, hoarded and put aside for a rainy day.  It apparently hasn’t rained for 20 years.

“Soaps get better as they age” she reasoned, unconvincingly and with a knowing laugh.

“Yeah right, like off-milk is delicious”

“It is!  It’s called karne melk – yummy!”  she teased

“And there’s a big bag full of used xmas paper here... can we chuck that at least?”

 “No, we can reuse those”

 “But they’ve been here for years and you‘ve never reused them.  Besides they are all crumpled”

“I’d forgotten about them. And it’s ok if they are crumpled... Hendy even irons hers!”

During my last trip to UK, I decided to tackle the attic in search of old photographs for this blog.    Just the day before I left to return to Bandung, I finally emerged, filthy and slightly un-amused, with three boxes: one of photos and two full of papers, drawings, telegrams, birthday cards, notes and letters documenting our entire lives.

Having only enough time to go through one box, I hurriedly stuffed some photos of interest into an envelope to take back with me and left Mum – who hates mess as much as I create it – with all three boxes sitting, like an additional three obstinate children, in her hallway.  “I’ll go through it all at Xmas and put them back in the attic Mum, I promise.  We might as well have a look – I’m sure there are some amusing things in there from when we were kids”.

A month later, I received an excited Skype call:

Waving a piece of paper in the air - out of camera shot - she shrieked “Look at this!  It’s your Oma’s ID card and it’s dated 29th December 2602 [Japanese year which means 1942].  I can’t read much of it but it says Tjihapit Camp on it and there’s an address:  126 Riowstraat.  There are a couple of other documents here but it’s all in Indonesian or in Japanese.  I’ll have to get Andrew to scan them to you.  He’s coming on Wednesday for dinner.  Darling, I have to go to Tai chi now – call you soon.”


Wandering around the Cihapit area, with a map of the old Tjihapit camp and a modern map in my hand, feels all the more poignant because I now know that they walked these same streets, under the outstretched, protective, arms of the same sturdy Grandfather trees.
“We walked around in the camp, which was like a huge, leafy, estate, wearing dresses made out of old sheets. Nothing was wasted – everything had value and was reused and reincarnated time and again.  Our dresses were tied with big bows at the shoulder because Tikus, bless her, wasn’t very good at needlework! She was a conversationalist, a linguist, very intelligent and extremely charming.  That was her strength”. 

Tjihapit Kamp (North and East section of this map).  The gedek (bamboo and barbed wire fence, marked by a dotted line) ran along Jl Riau (Riowstraat),  Jl Ahmad Yami (Groote Postweg), Jl Cihapit (Tjihapitweg) and Jl Supratman (Houtman straat);    The Southwest section is the Bloemenkamp, a camp for men and women who were deemed useful to the Japanese administration  – and their families.  Eventually the men were sent away and the women were relocated to Tjihapit Kamp proper.

Walking south on Jl Riau, I approach the North Western corner of what was the Tjihapit camp, arriving at number 125 which stands near the intersection where Jl Cihapit meets Jl Riau.  Eerily, a temporary fence, partially hiding a small building site, runs North up Jl Riau and turns right onto Jl Cihapit in exactly the same spot where the gedek once stood.

The builders respond to my curiosity with enthusiasm, posing for photos and showing me around the site.  The building, I am told, is “keeping the old style”.  In fact, part of the old house still stands, and a newer, larger structure is being built around it.  “Ada Hantu!”  I am then told.  I know this word, I have come across it many times already in Indonesia:  “There are Ghosts!”. 
Part of the old house at #125 still stands  

  One builder is making “ghost” actions with his hands

In my head I am recalling Bart’s response when Boudewyn and I had asked him his opinion about Mum and the executions that she said she had seen over the gedek fence:

“ The [north western ]area of the camp  was a favourite place for the Camp women to go “biliken”, also called “gedekken”. It meant that Indonesian traders would approach the fence and cut a hole in it, whereupon waiting camp women would buy food and soap etc. in exchange for gold or jewellery [that they had managed to smuggle in and hoard]. Afterwards, they would run away, but often the Japs and Hei-hos [Indonesian guards] lay in waiting to arrest them: the women were taken to the Kempeitai [Japanese military police], beaten, and returned with their heads shaved. What happened to the trading Indonesians I don’t know, but it is possible they were executed”.

“Hunger Psychosis... the chicken that was too fat” – drawing by Corrie Van Grondelle  (
I notice that there are some old, two storey buildings along Jl Riau, the road along which ran the Western gedek wall,   whilst almost all of the older buildings in the area are bungalows.  “We were told to black out the windows on the 2nd floor so that we couldn’t see the men being executed and thrown in the ditch. But we saw it anyway.” – Mum’s statement no longer seems so unlikely.  

On the opposite side of the road I expect to find number 126  – but strangely the number is way off.

A small group of becat drivers are sitting, casually, in the back of their vehicles, lazily smoking Gudang Garam clove cigarettes.

Apart from a few of the main roads, most of this area is un-harassed by Bandung’s noisy and obnoxious Angkots (minivans), and becats are still used by some locals to get around.  I decide that Pak Pandon, from Garut, who has the friendliest face and biggest laugh, will be my companion, and hopefully guide, for the day. 

We proceed South down Jl Riau in the direction of number 126.  After around 700 metres, we reach the gated semi-circular Pramuka park – previously named the Orangeplein and where the camp gates used to be, opposite which I find number 126 - now a pizza hut.    It stands diagonally opposite a tall, colonial-era building, now housing The British Institute (TBI).   This was the old Japanese office, just metres away from Chinook bar where the “BBC” gig had been held not so long ago.  


Inside the TBI / Japanese office building

Whilst the house opposite 125 would have been just outside the camp, 126 as it stands today would have been within the Bloemenkamp, directly opposite Tjihapit and separated only by the gedeks and by Jl Riau. 

Some daring young women used to cross from Tjihapit into Bloemenkamp to “visit” friends via one of the selokans (open drains that became used for sewage and waste disposal due to the deterioration of public services during the Japanese occupation).  Others, via another selokan that emerged outside the camp, volunteered to get medicine and food for the very sick and also to try to deliver messages to friends of internees who might have still been on the outside.
“Paying a visit.  Riowstraat Tjihapit Kamp;     Riowstraat Bloemenkamp”
Jl Riau  Tjihapit side 2012
This selokan, to the West of the Pramuka park ends up on the other side of Jl Riau, at the edge of the Bloemenkamp.
Bart continued:   “Through the [larger] creek/sewer running into the camp underneath the Tjimanoek street [and the Tjiliwoeng St, not far from jl Riau / jl Cihapit], occasional brave smugglers would enter the camp and deliver food to people they had been referred to”.
“My mother was one of these.  The men came in the middle of the night, stark naked, their skin rubbed with coconut oil (to make their arrest difficult!), rapped on the window and deposited their heavy “bukusans” in our little room on the Brantasstraat. My mother gave them jewellery and they disappeared into the night again. If people like these were caught they were executed, so they told my mother”.    
Tjiliwoengstrasse Selokan.  Views from both sides. Today a white wall stands in the same place as the gedek would have been, as shown in the above drawing by Oliemans-Statius Muller J. The selokan still runs underneath the road at the end of the narrow Cibeunying park and the same two trees, one on either side, are clearly distinguishable 
Anneke Bosman, 16 years old when interned in Tjihapit, wrote in her diary:
“When [men] (from our army) visit the [area of the] camps, the Japs, with their bayonet on their rifles, always accompany them.  Once in a while, they punch with those knives through the [bamboo gedek or] bilik to scare away those women standing there trying to get a glimpse of their men.  Once, someone had put a pair of shoes right under the [gedek]. Soon they arrived.  The jap noticed the noses of the shoes and thought: “Ahh!” and started shouting in his own funny language that they had to move away from there.  Thereafter, he punched vigorously through the [gedek].  The shoes stayed there.  So he punched and he punched again.... Finally he grabbed the shoes and noticed that nobody was in them.  Angrily he threw them over the fence.  We had a good laugh.”
The following warning was posted on the bulletin boards within the camp:   “Do not climb trees or on roofs in order to speak with men of the 15th battalion [working outside the camp wall]” (From Tjideng Reunion by Boudewyn Van Oort)
There are references also to men being sent to work within the Karees women and children’s camp nearby:  Anak Bandung recounts the following story on the BBC People’s War website forum:
In the beginning some men were allowed occasionally into the enclosure to do some repairs and when that happened the women were ordered to turn their backs towards them to prevent any contact.   One day my mother recognised one of the men walking past her. From the corner of her eye she saw him throwing a crunched up piece of paper at her feet. Surreptitiously, [....].. she knelt down to pretend to adjust her shoelaces to pick it up.  Below follows the anonymous poem dedicated “to all the decent women in the Dutch Indies”:

[.............] We see their shoulders held up straight
despite the war waged against them
and the language of these women’s eyes
stills our heart and touches deeply.
For by their courageous and hard work
amidst this dire, darkest hour,
they mean to strengthen us as well!
That is powerful, that is great!
Oh, if we would only realise this
and also really comprehend,
then a debt arises
that never can be settled.
Now nothing more does rest us
than do our tasks, small they may be
compared to theirs. Yes, we shall,
we must be worthy of Her.
They ask us not to fail them
whatever life may throw at us.
…that debt, we will have to repay
once we are outside again
We must give what they ask for
and stay United, Courageous and Faithful
God, willst Thou support the vigour
of our strong and brave Women!"
 Both Mum and Aunty Hendy have talked about Max, a very sweet and gentle young Dutch man who would somehow manage to  “throw little parcels of food over the gedek” for little Henny and Lottie and their mother Tikus.  They knew him while they were on the outside and they think that he was somehow linked to my Oma’s dear Indonesian friend whom she nicknamed Moesje. 
At some point, he was sent to work, digging within their camp, not far from the garden of the house in which my family occupied a single tiny room – their little nest where they watched over and protected their remaining few belongings.  Hennie and Lottie would stand with their backs to him and pretend to talk to each other whilst receiving and delivering messages – messages they believe were between Tikus and Moesje, who remained at liberty. 
Such was the impression of his courage and kindness that the two sisters always believed that it was because of what he did for them that he was “forced to do hard labour in the camp”.   It is possible however that it was his internment in a nearby camp, and the work that he was sent to do within their camp, that gave him access to help them in the first place during that early period of internment when the camps were still “Civilian” rather than “Prisoner Of War” and weren’t yet under a formal Military regime - before everything got unimaginably worse. Whatever the chronology of these events, the inevitable did happen - a savage contempt that struck the disbelieving eyes of two young girls like a bullet, fragmenting a guilty memory that has lasted for 70 years:
  “The Japs got him and they put a hose in his mouth, forcing fast water down his throat.  They continued for a long time, holding him down.   And then one of them jumped on his stomach”.
Riding along, the chicken and the duck comfortably vocalise two parallel inner dialogues.  By now Pak Pandon is resigned to the fact that I’m not quite normal.  Pak Pandon, who is a little bit wide, has accompanied me to jump over a locked park gate in search of an empty hole in the ground;  He has made a surprisingly quick getaway after I am ordered out of the Military barracks I wonder nonchalantly into;  He has waited patiently for me to take photos of street signs, builders and other people’s homes; He has watched with a little confusion whilst I survey drainage systems; He has heard snippets of curious stories about Dutch ghosts and a Japanese prison; And he has followed me hesitantly into the homes of two random strangers for a cup of tea and a bit of a natter. 
If I didn’t have the old camp map, (provided by Anneke Bosman and adapted by Boudewyn for his book “Tjideng Reunion”) to help me locate the Orangeplein and the Japanese office, if I hadn’t known already about the selokans, there would be no sign that anything ever existed here other than the nice residential neighbourhood that I see today.
I look for the signs. 

I see a palang (barrier) and guard hut at the end of Jl Jamuju and assign them, immediately, a wicked past. In fact their purpose is merely to keep the people inside safe and the streets quiet at night.
Hut and “palang” (barrier) at the end of Jalan Jamuju- the street that runs south from the former Houtman Plein.  The gedek ran just in front of the long building opposite, where Jl Jamuju meets Jl Anggrek (Orchideelaan) before turning a corner, North, onto Jalan Supratman (Houtmanstrasse). 

My Oma’s nickname, TIKUS, echoes repeatedly off the concrete walls – but merely as advertisements for “Electronic Mouse Repellent Appliances”.
My heart jumps when I see a sign with the word “Jepang” and I imagine how their hearts would have jumped whenever they saw a Japanese soldier riding his bike along the streets of Tjihapit.  But the sign is simply advertising courses in Japanese!

I find it impossibly difficult to reconcile this place with what it once was.  How could such a lovely place be so cruel?  How can such a cruel place appeal to me so thoroughly?
Within Anneke Bosman’s Diary I find a similar contradiction :  “The weather is beautiful now: blue skies, white clouds, a gentle breeze, a slowly setting sun and the trees of the Bengawanlaan, that carry such a nice green foliage, that it just looks like spring”.   

“Halo mister!”  “Ke mana?” strangers ask us.  Pak Pondon answers with a chuckle and a shrug “tidak tahu” “I have no idea where we are going”.  I continue my quest to find someone, anyone who can tell me something about the camp.
The guys who run the Delmans for kids around Jl Cimanuk don’t know......
Three generations of women on Jl Rasamala don’t know.......  
Evita on Jl Salem (De Rijpwijk) doesn’t know, but invites me in for a cup of tea anyway.........
The snack seller (oleh oleh Bandung!), outside the busy fashion boutiques on Jl Kamuning doesn’t know.......
 The coffee "shop" guy doesn't know....
The Mobile Monkey man I meet on Jl Pasang - who travels around entertaining the kids – doesn’t know....
The young people I meet certainly wouldn’t know.............
The children who play here so happily..... 

And the children who work here, with smiles just as big,   shouldn’t know about such things.
No one seems to have any idea what is beneath here, what ghosts might walk these lanes.   How can they not know?  Did no one care to remember? 
An answer can be found amongst the evocative words of an ancient Javanese prophecy (The Joyoboyo Prophecy) which describes, with stunning accuracy, a predestined course and willed outcome that would have overshadowed all other considerations:
For ten generations a great white buffalo will plough the rice fields of Ismoyo (Java).  This will be a time of suffering and deep sorrow. When the people have finally accepted the Divine Will as their own, God, in his mercy, will send them an ally.   A little yellow monkey from the island of Tembini will rule over Ismoyo for the life of one maize plant. Only then will Ismoyo return to its people, to its right rulers, to the sons of the earth*.
(*From “The Forgotten Ones” by Shirley Fenton Huie )   
Some might argue that we need to keep the memory alive, to ensure that it doesn’t happen again – isn’t that why we make these pilgrimages?   I have continued to follow the discussions on the BBC’s People’s War Forum where a group of formerly interned children, now in their 70s and 80s and scattered all over the world, tell their tales – and those of their parents.   What is it in our nature that drives them to relive and me to seek and read their stories?  Why, when for so many years they blocked it out in favour of “just getting on with life” are they here, now, helping each other to navigate new technologies, to chat to each other, to connect?   
“Rose of Java”, chatting to “Anak Bandung” reasons:   The mental torture that comes with consciousness would have come later in life”. 
However, what strikes me is how readily they move on to discuss lighter memories - Javanese treats, the odd word in Bahasa, funny stories about settling into a new culture in NZ, Australia, USA, UK or Canada - as well as the present: their families, their daily lives, their hopes and frustrations, their forgotten Dutch.  And I am amused and heartened to see that their fighting spirit remains very much intact:  “What you think, are we taking up too much space here on this site?”  We can take as much space writing as we want. If they throw us out, we can e-mail!”
This place is living, breathing, evolving.  It’s not lost.  It’s not for nothing. It’s not some macabre prison site.  It tells you that life goes on, things get better.  Tomorrow’s another day, as my Mum always says.  
As the war progressed, the Japanese position weakened and a renewed fear of allied attacks meant that air raid sirens started to be heard again.   On the sites where meagre rations of unpalatable boiled rice, sajur and starch or thin, tasteless soup were doled out from makeshift kitchens carefully, each portion strictly controlled from an ever dwindling supply, now the call to prayer from a Mosque at the end of Jl Saninten competes with one on Jl Mangga at the other end of the camp, echoing those siren sounds.  It’s 3:15pm – time for the Asr prayer - and by now Pak Pandon and I have parted ways.
Mangga Kitchen (now a mosque), not far from which the old Ellenbroek Bakery still stands. Instigated by the internees themselves, the Bakery was reopened to make and distribute bread. This part of the gedek marks the Southwestern corner of Tjihapit, where Jl Riau (Riowstraat) meets Jl Ahmad Yami (Groote Postweg)
Jl saninten, site of another former makeshift kitchen (now a mosque), near jalan Rasamala, Jl Bengawan, Jl Manglit and Jl Kihiur.  The gedek delimits the North Eastern boundary of the camp, where Jl Cihapit runs south onto Jalan Supratman.
 In this area, the houses are smaller, more densely compacted. 

A middle aged woman is pushing a bicycle out of the gate of a small house on Jl Kihiur.
She sees me hesitate, looking up at the buildings and down to my notebook.  I turn to look at her and I smile and introduce myself.  She asks me whether I need help.  I slowly communicate my purpose in simple English.  Without hesitation, Maria tells me to wait and disappears into the house again, mentioning that she has a friend who has lived here a long time, who moved to Tjihapit in 1945 from Cimahi.  Five minutes later, she emerges and starts to push her bike again down Jalan Kihiur whilst another, older lady, dressed comfortably in a long dress and sandals, is locking her front gate.  “Come.  We are going to walk” the older lady says to me in Dutch.   As Oma Korry accompanies me to Maria’s house and we turn left onto Jl Baros, I record the following video.   When I ask about her father, she suddenly turns her face to look intensely into the camera.  Her unexpected words stun me:


 “Achter”, “behind”,  behind the gedek...
She must be referring to one of the men’s internment centres (15th battalion Barracks, Anti Aircraft Artillery Barracks, Dick De Hoog School, Tjikoedapateuh...) that dotted the periphery of the Tjihapit camp.

“So before you lived in Cimahi?”
“Yes, with my Mother”
“And your father?”
“My father was ACHTER (behind), here in the kamp”
“In the Kamp?”
“Yes, he was taken prisoner because he was in the Military”
“ So this area was the kamp?”
“Yes, kamp..... Tjihapit Kamp... “
“And around... bamboo?”
“Yes, around with bamboo... “
“It was a big area, no?”
“It went all the way around, from Cihapit, round to Supratman Street....... very big”.

I have stumbled upon an aspect of the war on Java whose consequences I have not yet considered: The local military men, the Indonesian KNIL (Royal Dutch military), who fought and suffered alongside their Dutch comrades and whose stories – and those of their families - are very little documented.....
.....If you walk around with your mouth open, someone will feed you.
Over Italian coffee and chocolate biscuits, bits and pieces of three different languages manage to find some common understanding:  “Other people don’t seem to know anything” I tell her.  “I have walked around all day, asking almost everyone I have met and no one has any idea about the camps.  Except you”. 
“Tidak tahu”,  she tuts, shaking her head and waving her hand, “Zy weten het niet”. 
They don’t know.
  “Those with [the magpie as] totem[animal] often find that their interests are varied which makes master ship of any one thing difficult, although not impossible”*

I refuse - weakness or not, distraction or otherwise - to shut out, without at least a moment of curious consideration, the chatter of my magpie mind.  With all the focus I can muster, I am getting closer to completing my search and feel privileged by the openness and receptiveness of everyone I have met so far along the way.    


* (Sarah Messina – Animal Communicator)





  1. Hi I'm Ope from Bandung, i just read your experience in Cihapit. Well not surprise most of Bandung residence dont know anything for what happen in Cihapit during World War II. But there's a non profit community named "Komunitas Aleut" (on Twitter: @komunitasaleut) who deeply concerned give people knowledge about Bandung History such as Tjihapit Internir Kamp or other. So if u are plan to knew about histroy of Bandung in Dutch Indies era u can contact them. :D

  2. Nice story. My childhood was in Djalan Tjiliwoeng... Very close to the some street that you tell in this story. They're familiar to me. My sister's naow in Pasanglaan, next to Saninten... Regards.

  3. This is the first time I read an article about the city of Bandung, through a different perspective. Honestly I'm 22 years old, currently studying architecture, naturally I don't know anything about the dark history of Bandung, but I love to learn the history of the town where I was born, not only to know its history, but to look through the city spatial dimension of time as well. I expect more of your stories. Love it!