One Chinese Family under Japanese Occupation in Indonesia

From: Bittersweet: The Memoir of a Chinese Indonesian Family in the Twentieth Century, by Stuart Pearson (National U. Singapore Press & Ohio U. Press, 2008), pp. 79-81:

One member of the Kempeitai who had the rank of Captain visited us regularly from the district headquarters nearby at Jember, where the main bulk of hundreds of soldiers were in barracks.

While the infantry soldiers busied themselves protecting assets of value to the Japanese war effort, including our rice mills, he took charge of the civilian administration in our district. He assumed control of the existing system of colonial administration and the Wedana (District Head) reported directly to him. He also quickly established a network of paid informers to report to him on any anti-Japanese activities. Being both investigator and adjudicator in one, he had unlimited power to punish individuals, families or entire communities. Punishment ranged from fines, withdrawal of privileges such as food rations and imprisonment to, in extreme cases amputation or execution.

Our Kempeitai officer favoured occasional public displays of violence to maintain order. He was not interested in minor forms of punishment. Being the only man responsible for civilian order in a population of hundreds of thousands, his preferred method of operation was the occasional amputation, strangulation, or decapitation. Yet he was kind to us. We looked after him every time he visited and he could see we were treating the billeted soldiers very well, never provoked them, and always ensured that an agreed amount of rice was delivered to the Army.

The regular presence of the Kempeitai officer did produce one unexpected benefit. Previously, our rice mills had experienced losses due to grain theft. In fact, most mills across Indonesia suffered similarly. However, with the arrival of the Japanese, the overall crime rate dropped dramatically, including theft of grain from rice mills. For this action alone, most people including my family were grateful.

Because there were more Chinese in Indonesia than Dutch — two million compared with about a quarter of a million — the Japanese could not arrest and intern all Chinese. Moreover, they needed our expertise to run things just as the Dutch had done before them. The majority were allowed to continue working as they had before, but were now answerable to new masters. The unstated rules in our household were simple and rigidly adhered to: respect the Japanese, treat them well, and do as they say without question. Then, hopefully, they would not harm you.

Nevertheless, the treatment of the Chinese was purely arbitrary and was entirely dependent on the local Japanese commander. In some regions of Indonesia I heard that the Chinese were brutalized, tortured, and even killed, but around Tanggul we made sure that the Japanese were treated well and we never had any problems. The family heard that my brother Tan Swan Bing, who before the war had been promoted to a senior position with Kian Gwan Trading Company in Semarang, had been interned and his house ransacked. We were all worried about his safety and that of his wife Huguette, who had just given birth to their third child.

We were told later that, by a strange twist of fate, a senior officer of the Kempeitai came across my brother when Tan Swan Bing had been imprisoned for about six months and learned that my brother spoke fluent Dutch, German and English. The Kempeitai officer was busy pursuing a PhD, which required the translation of German documents. He released my brother on the condition that Tan Swan Bing would help him complete his thesis. From that point on, my brother and his family received preferential treatment and they lived out the duration of the war without coming to any further harm.

Like me, my younger brother, Siauw Djie, returned to Tanggul from Semarang when all the Dutch schools were closed by the Japanese. He married his long-term girl friend, Khouw Mi Lien, in 1942 and turned to my parents for financial support. He said he could not find any paid work, did not know what to do and expected our father to help him. This dependent attitude was so unlike that of my sister and older brother, who never asked for parental assistance, even though they suffered much hardship on their own, including internment. I found this particularly weak of Siauw Djie but my father, who had always spoilt him, gave Siauw Djie a paid position in the rice mill to help him.

I never thought for one minute that the Japanese actually liked the Chinese. There had simply been too much bloodshed in the decade-long war in mainland China for that to happen. In Indonesia, I guess they tolerated the Chinese out of necessity. However, in our specific circumstances in Tanggul we managed to cultivate a friendly relationship with the Japanese that was like being a good and faithful servant. We were never equals, but at least the Japanese were kind and pleasant towards us, as long as we never did anything wrong.

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Filed under China, Indonesia, Japan, war

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