May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024


Published: Jan 31, 2010

Review: Stuart Pearson’s new book offers a rare glimpse into the life of a Chinese Indonesian family

Jemma Purdey

There is something about memoir and biography that captures the attention of readers. No doubt it has something to do with our urge as social animals to know each other’s business, to understand how we came to be the way we are, or perhaps for some, to revel in others’ failures or dirty laundry.

This is a memoir of a Chinese-Indonesian family as seen through the eyes of one of its daughters, Tan Sian Nio, who today goes by her ‘Indonesianised’ name, An Utari Sudibjo. As Charles Coppel describes it in his foreword, it is a ‘warts and all’ story whose central character is depicted as ambitious, uncompromising and resilient. But most valuably for students of Indonesia, the memoir provides insight into the way of life, motivations and morality of a Chinese-Indonesian family – about whom history so often generalises – in the early to mid-twentieth century.

An was born in Kediri, East Java in1912. One of four children, she spent most of her childhood between Kediri, where she attended school and lived with her grandmother, and her father’s home in the nearby village of Ngronggot. At age twelve she was sent to the new Dutch-Chinese Teachers’ College in Jakarta. When she graduated five years later, An’s first teaching placement was in Jember, East Java, near to her family’s new home in Tanggul. She was later transferred to a high school in Salatiga, Central Java, and after marrying relocated to Jakarta in 1947 with her husband, Eddie (Kang Hoo Bie), where they lived until 1967 when they fled into exile in Sydney.

The book is written by her son-in-law, Stuart Pearson, but it reads as though An herself is narrating it. Pearson interviewed An and her husband, Eddie over two years (mostly using a combination of Indonesian and Dutch language), and with them edited, translated and moulded the stories into the form presented here. No doubt a great deal of the historical contextualising is provided by the author, but commendably, An’s voice is never lost.

The narrative of An’s childhood and adolescence in the 1910s and 1920s includes stories of the family’s business dealings with the Dutch colonial government, their employment of indigenous Indonesians in their sugar and rice mills and on their road gangs, their support of higher education at all costs for their children (boys and girls) and rivalries and loyalties within the extended family unit. Several themes emerge, notably entrepreneurialism, the cycle of success and failure (repeated bankruptcy), the strength of a business based on family, education, and adaptability in the face of the changing political and social realities Chinese people were to encounter in Indonesia.

Keeping on the right side

As with all good memoirs, it is the detailed rendering of daily life across time that gives this book its value as an historical text. Though she is at best only a second-hand witness to the ‘big events’ of history, An’s memories provide insight into the ways a Chinese-Indonesian family adjusted its fortunes to the changes it faced under successive Dutch, Japanese and Indonesian authority.

The ability to ‘get along’ with whomever was in power was a well-learned family trait. For the period 1942-44, An’s family engaged her then future husband Eddie to manage one of their coffee plantations in the village of Pelalangan in the mountains behind Tanggul. In these last years of the Japanese occupation, the Japanese trained units of Indonesian soldiers known as PETA (Pembela Tanah Air: Defenders of the Homeland) to defend against allied invasion and the return of the Dutch, and many Indonesians believed, perhaps, the chance to ultimately take power in their own right. However, as it became apparent that Japan was going to lose the war, some PETA soldiers turned against the Japanese. Some took to the mountains around Tanggul, from where they launched guerilla raids against the Japanese garrisons in Jember and Bondowoso. Eddie developed a mutually beneficial patron-client relationship with the soldiers. But the family was also aware of the need to hedge their bets. As An explains, ‘It has always been prudent to keep on the right side of men with guns in Indonesia.’

An’s memories provide insight into the ways a Chinese-Indonesian family adjusted its fortunes to the changes it faced under successive Dutch, Japanese and Indonesian authority

During the Japanese occupation they befriended and benefited from good relations with the local representative of the feared Japanese secret police, a notoriously violent man whose ‘preferred method of operation was the occasional amputation, strangulation or decapitation’. The ability of the family to court and work with ‘new masters’ of any kind was, An explains, for the sake of self-preservation, although it was undeniably to protect and develop their business interests as well. Likewise, in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Jakarta, the foresight An and Eddie displayed in forging mutually beneficial relations with ‘people of influence‘ in government and military would similarly afford them some degree of protection during the turmoil in 1965-66, until these people themselves lost their ability to offer protection any longer.

Although she reserves a level of affection for the Dutch – or perhaps more precisely, their language – An has no emotional or sentimental allegiances or attachments to any institution or ‘unit’ other than the family. She viewed Indonesian nationalism as potentially full of danger, commenting that, ‘During the entire Revolutionary period not one of our relatives supported the pro-independence movement. Most were either neutral or pro-Dutch, but definitely no-one was pro-independence.’ And she adds, ‘Privately, we referred to the Nationalists as ‘rebels’ … though we were careful not to use this expression in public.’ An remembers the revolutionary period (1945-49) as a time of considerable fear where their ‘physical safety was under threat in Tanggul’ and recounts that members of her family were murdered by Communists, and a close friend by an Islamic youth group. It was at this time that she, Eddie and their first child moved to Jakarta.

Working and waiting

An was highly ambitious and competitive from a young age, and the achievement of success and status were correspondingly important. After beginning her career in the 1930s as a school teacher of physics and mathematics in East Java, An rose rapidly through the ranks to a position of principal when she was still in her twenties. She later served as principal of the Teacher Training College in Setiabudi, Jakarta, and as a senior staffer in the Department of Education. In 1957 at her home in Menteng, An started her own school, Harapan Kita, after all Dutch schools were closed by presidential decree. She made this decision primarily because she had started to teach her own son at home and soon discovered there was interest from other mostly Chinese but also foreign families.

An enjoyed the connections and good reputation she had amongst some of Jakarta’s ‘influential people’. Her career, reputation and ‘well-paid job in education’ together with her family, were of greatest importance to her. And although some of her family, including her sister, took out Dutch citizenship in the early 1960s, at that time she and Eddie (who worked for Garuda) saw futures for themselves in independent Indonesia.

This vision of their futures shifted dramatically, however, with the killings in 1965-66. For a while their relations with senior military and political figures gave An and Eddie some protection, but they became increasingly afraid, first sending the children to school in Australia and then eventually themselves emigrating in 1967-68.

Chinese-Indonesian identity?

The last third of the book deals with An’s and Eddie’s lives in Sydney where they took on the new role of ‘Indonesian ambassadors’ as owners of their restaurant, ‘Warung Indonesia’. It is here, in her new life in exile perhaps, that the truly ambiguous nature of An’s relationship with the Indonesian nation is revealed. Despite this ambassadorial role in exile, An is described on the book’s jacket as ‘a fifth generation Chinese resident of the Netherlands Indies’. An and Eddie never took up citizenship of the Republic of Indonesia (as, despite being born in Indonesia, her Chinese ethnicity made necessary), and although she was a resident of Indonesia and an employee of its government from its inception until her exile, her sense of belonging lies with the old colonial, not the ‘new’ independent state.

In the greater historical narrative of Chinese-Indonesian society, the story of this family resonates because it reveals the complex and often unresolved nature of questions of identity and belonging; and the critical importance of security, bonds of trust and fundamentally therefore, the assurance of mobility. One wonders how different a family memoir of a Chinese-Indonesian family in the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first would be. The attachment to the idea of Indonesia may be much greater for these subsequent generations of families who have lived through and participated in decades of nation-building. But my hunch is that themes of citizenship, fear, adaptability, security and seeking out connections with people of influence, as revealed in this (auto)biographical account, would still have a place.

Stuart Pearson, BitterSweet: The Memoir of a Chinese Indonesian Family in the Twentieth Century, NUS Publishing: Singapore, 2008. 320 pp.

Jemma Purdey ( is an ARC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Centre of Southeast Asian Studies and School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University.

Inside Indonesia 99: Jan-Mar 2010

Latest Articles

Labouring in vain?

May 03, 2024 - HASNA A. FADHILAH

The Labour Party (Partai Buruh) was revived in the wake of opposition to the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, but failure in the 2024 election shows they failed to connect...

Book review: Uncovering Suharto's Cold War


Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.