Jul 22, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

Remembering Ong

Remembering Ong

About cooking, studying Java, and other serious pleasures

Heather Sutherland

Ong post-stroke 2002 with friends
David Reeve

I seem to have forgotten so much, and when I began to try to organise my memories of Onghokham, there was no narrative. But as it happened, one of the very few diaries I still have runs from September 1968 to January 1970, and the first part (up to January 1969, when I left for research in the Netherlands and Indonesia) covers a time when Ong was one of my closest friends. I do recall his presence at the very 1960s parties we held in Ed Price’s big apartment before that, but there seems something unreal about the combination of Ong and Jefferson Airplane’s ‘White Rabbit’. However, this uncertainty could be due to the spirit of the times. The 1968 diary is a disappointingly shallow document: the continuing threads seem to be financial (how little can I spend on daily living in order to cover travel?) and a list of films seen, two or three a week, since the Yale Film Society was only a few hundred yards from my flat at 36 High Street in New Haven.

Nevertheless, the diary does contain many incidental notes indicating an active social life within the small world of Yale’s Southeast Asian Studies students. The first reference to Ong dates from the 27th of September: ‘Dinner for eight, Ong, Angus (MacIntyre), Ron (Hatley), Barbara (later Hatley) etc.’ I and my fellow students ate together frequently: ‘dinner at Lance (Castle)’s, Ong’s and Ron’s place’; and references to meals for 15, 17, 12 at my place on different dates; a get-together at Lance’s, and for 18 October ‘Southeast Asian Studies drunken party’. Other names appear from time to time, either as they passed through New Haven (Soehokgie), or as we met on trips to Cornell or New York. Ong’s name was always on the list.


What will surprise anyone who knows either me or Ong is that I was the one doing the cooking. He was just beginning to learn the kitchen skills which were later to become such a characteristic feature of his life and friendships, and at this stage in his career accepting hospitality from others was a necessary part of his survival strategy. I, on the other hand, seem to have entertained recklessly, uninhibited by limited ability and funds. But we were all familiar with living on restricted budgets, so everyone accepted yet another chicken curry or spaghetti Bolognese with good grace. Ong, in fact, seemed grateful for what he could get. He was a regular at our parties, but he also often appeared, alone, at my door, round about dinner time, and never complained about the quality or quantity of the food. I think he was often lonely, as well as hungry, and friends recall his passionate attempts to interest even non-Southeast Asianists in the wonders of wayang, bringing the sound of Java to an often cold New Haven.

Admittedly, Ong did not present well. But his judgement was shrewd, he was a serious man with a well-developed sense of irony

It was a very different situation about 15 years later, when Ong came to stay with me in my apartment on the Prinsengracht in Amsterdam, where he had to fold himself up into a small attic under the tiles in order to reach his mattress on the floor. Being an intensely social person, Ong found the six weeks he stayed with me an ideal opportunity to embark upon a campaign of dinner parties, at least two and usually three a week. We quickly sorted out our respective responsibilities: Ong would invite the guests and cook, I would shop and clean up. This enabled him to lapse into an amiable state of gentle inebriation as the evening advanced, with no worries about refilling guests’ glasses, or the need to face the washing up. I also found this social season very agreeable: I had more informal contact with my Indonesianist colleagues in the Netherlands than I had ever had before (or since), and entertaining seemed so very easy. This sense of simplicity came to an abrupt end when Ong left. In a lingering reflex, I asked some people around for dinner, under the illusion that cooking a good meal would surely not take much time or effort. I produced a culinary fiasco, and since then I have tended to take people out to nearby restaurants.

Over the decades I saw Ong regularly whenever our paths crossed: usually in Jakarta or the Netherlands. But I remember once I was lying in the hammock under the tiled barn at La Casella, in Montisi, when I had the hallucinatory experience of seeing him walking across the grass towards me. This seemed impossible, and utterly incongruous, but he had decided to drop in and stay with our neighbour there, Ruth McVey. Tuscany’s very attractive version of the good life evoked an immediate and enthusiastic response from Ong. The occasion of his visit was again celebrated with a meal, but this time based on Ruth’s home-farm products, rather than Ong’s excursions to Jakarta’s markets.

An insensitive person, meeting Ong for the first time, might have made the mistake of seeing him as something of a clown, particularly if they met during the later stages of a convivial evening. Such a snap judgement would have been a gross misreading of both his personal and intellectual qualities. Admittedly, Ong did not present well, he tended to arrive everywhere dishevelled and on foot; he was eccentric, and not always articulate, incapable of the manipulations required by institutional and political power-gaming. However, his judgement was shrewd, he was very well-informed, and he was a serious man with a well-developed sense of irony.


Ong was much more than a cook and a good friend. He was a thoughtful colleague and, above all else, someone who had not only experienced, but also had thought deeply about the fundamental issues facing Indonesia. These included matters central to my own research. I am sure that my PhD thesis on Java’s Pangreh Pradja would have been a culturally impoverished piece of work if it had not been for Ong’s comments. These were not always presented as particularly coherent analyses, but came more in the form of questions or remarks that suddenly made you shift your angle of vision, so that perspectives changed. Talking to Ong was an indispensable preparation - in several ways - for my long, convoluted and often only in retrospect illuminating interviews with members of Java’s old priyayi families. His appreciation of the reality of the irrational enabled him to understand politics, and recognise human foibles, not only in Indonesia, but also in the Netherlands and the United States.

A few years ago I went with him to East Java to visit some of his relatives, who were living in a wonderful nineteenth century house once inhabited by the local Kapitan China, a man famous to generations of Dutch readers as a powerful protagonist in Louis Couperus’ novel The Hidden Force. A formal European garden complete with statues, heavy Chinese-style colonial furniture, a family altar and an inherited gamelan were physical manifestations of the various strands of personal history that informed Ong’s approach to the Javanese past.

At lunch that day, the present and future, not the past, were on everyone’s minds, particularly as anti-Chinese feelings were (again) felt to be running high. Someone commented that Suharto might have been a tyrant, but at least people were safe under his rule. Uncharacteristically, Ong became very emotional, saying that a transition had to be made, that it would be painful and perilous whenever it happened, but it was preferable, as soon as possible, to fight through the difficulties in the hope of improvement. He also commented, somewhat bitterly, of the Javanese political elite: ‘They say the Chinese are obsessed with money, but they are obsessed, beyond reason, with power.’

Ong had arrived in New Haven as a personal protégé of Harry Benda’s, and I believe that to some extent Benda identified with Ong. Benda himself was a Czech Jew who escaped German occupation by going to the Dutch East Indies, and it was there, in a Japanese camp for Jewish internees, that his contacts with academics such as W F Wertheim deepened his determination to study Indonesian society and history. Benda’s commitment was emotional as much as intellectual, and at Yale his past and present fused in his opposition to the Vietnam War and his support for liberal American politicians like Eugene McCarthy. I think Benda was impressed by Ong when he met him in Jakarta, and managed to bring him to New Haven. Besides admiring his intellectual capacity, Benda found Ong’s relative marginality, as an Indonesian of Chinese descent, and his willingness to express unpopular, even dangerous (1966!) political sentiments, deeply appealing.

Benda died, at the age of 51, an angry and disappointed man: disappointed in the politics of his adopted country, and in the failure of Yale University to support his initiatives. His lectures on Vietnamese history were so packed with auditors that there was standing room only; they had the emotional power and mass appeal of an anti-war teach-in, but his requests for funding for Southeast Asian studies were generally dismissed by the university authorities. Had he been able to see into the future, he might have regretted (while recognising) Ong’s somewhat marginal role within the Indonesian establishment, but he would also have been proud of Ong’s integrity. Onghokham was an honest scholar, and a very good, generous and kind friend.     ii

Heather Sutherland (hsutherland@compuserve.com) is professor of non-western history at the Free University, Amsterdam. A slightly expanded version of this essay will appear in a book edited by J J Rizal and Wasmi Alhaziri entitled Mengenang Ong Hok Ham (Remembering Ong Hok Ham) (Jakarta, December 2007). Enquiries can be directed to David Reeve (d.reeve@unsw.edu.au).

Inside Indonesia 90: Oct-Dec 2007

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