A complicated journey: Chinese, Indonesian and Australian family histories

by Dr Stephen Gapps

Black Armada

Curator Dr Stephen Gapps explores the life stories of Anthony and Helen Liem. Anthony is a member of the Australia Indonesia Association and was instrumental in conceiving and proposing the Australian National Maritime Museum’s Black Armada exhibition. His and Helen’s family histories reflect many of the tangled twists and turns of Australia and Indonesia’s shared histories.

Anthony Liem
Anthony Liem at the opening of the Australian National Maritime Museum's exhibition Black Armada on 20 August 2015.

Photograph: Andrew Frolows

Anthony Bian Koei Liem was barely three years of age at the end of World War II in 1945. But he still recalls the sounds and smells of war today — indelible memories of exploding bombs, sniper fire, and the panic of diving into air-raid shelters.

Anthony was the eldest child of a Chinese—Indonesian family living in Semarang, a shipping port township on the north-central coast of Java, Indonesia. His parents were well-educated professionals — his mother a school teacher, born in Semarang, and his father a doctor, born in Madium. As such they were comparatively well off in pre-World War II Indonesia — then known as the Netherlands East Indies, a Dutch colony for over 300 years.

Chinese traders had settled in Indonesian ports long before the Dutch arrived in the 17th century. The Dutch colonial government contracted many skilled Chinese workers in the construction of their great trading centre, Batavia (now Jakarta). Anthony’s family had been in Indonesia for many years — as best he knows his distant ancestry, Anthony’s father was a fourth-generation migrant from Fukien, China.

Photo of Thunderbolt fighter-bombers in formation in 1945.
Thunderbolt fighter-bombers in formation in 1945.

Credit: Australian War Memorial, SUK14452

During the harrowing years of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia from1942 to1945, Anthony’s father continued to treat his patients from his home-cum-surgery and, on weekends, in a nearby village, Bandungan. Anthony recalls accompanying him on home visits, propped up on the handlebars of his bicycle — and regularly having to dismount the bicycle and bow to any Japanese military sentries they passed.

Anthony vividly remembers one particular Sunday afternoon in July 1945 that was shattered when the port of Semarang was bombed by Allied aircraft. The Allied forces were hoping to destroy any remaining Japanese shipping in the harbour, but there proved to be none, as it had already been forced back to Japan.

The village behind Anthony’s house was heavily bombed. Anthony recalls his father, despite his family’s fears, donning his white doctor’s coat and a Red Cross helmet and venturing out to treat the wounded when the bombing raid had ended.

By August 1945, after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese armed forces surrendered. But Indonesia was still occupied by Japanese troops.

An Indian soldier covers the advance of British Stuart light tanks towards the railway marshalling yards at Surabaya.
An Indian soldier covers the advance of British Stuart light tanks towards the railway marshalling yards at Surabaya.

Credit: Imperial War Museum, SE 5663

In October, Allied land forces arrived to take over from the Japanese. But instead of the expected British and Australian troops, Anthony’s family was completely surprised by the arrival of turbaned, black-bearded troops, mostly Sikh Indians and Ghurkas, who were fighting with the British forces. Their mission was to supervise the surrender of the Japanese forces still occupying much of Indonesia and prepare for the return of the Dutch colonial government.

Anthony was fortunate not to have witnessed other major conflicts that occurred in Semarang at this time. The power vacuum after the surrender of the Japanese gave Indonesian nationalists a brief window to organise an independent Indonesian republic before the Dutch returned. In Semarang, Pemuda and Heiho (military organisations) were formed and seized weapons from the Japanese soldiers. In some cases the Japanese willingly gave their weapons to the nationalists or didn’t contest their confiscation. But at Semarang docks the Japanese refused and struck back in a reprisal attack, killing up to 2,000 Indonesians.

Independence: four years of struggle

With the war’s end, the Dutch were anxious to return to the colony they had lost in the Japanese invasion of 1942. But the Indonesian nationalists had other ideas. After the declaration of independence on 17 August they began to organise armed forces. But it was the British who were first in, not the Dutch. And in some areas, the British used Japanese forces to help them to gain control for what they assumed would be a smooth transition back to Dutch control.

Photograph of Anthony Liem's family home
Anthony’s family's house that also served as his father's surgery on Jalan Gadjah Mada in Semarang in the 1950s.

Photograph Anthony Liem

In late 1945 a joint Japanese—British patrol on the streets of Semarang came under attack from Indonesian independence fighters. After leaflets were dropped from Allied aircraft urging the fighters to surrender, Semarang was attacked by six British Thunderbolt dive bombers. Anthony’s family scurried to the safety of a crudely built wood and earth air-raid shelter in the back garden. Bombs landed a few hundred metres behind the house.

The nationalists centred their defence of their fledgling republic around the town of Surabaya and after the desperate and bloody battle for Surabaya in November 1945, the British realised the Indonesian nationalists were a force to be reckoned with. From May 1946, British forces departed, leaving Semarang to become the base for the Dutch army’s famed Tiger Brigade. With superior military power, from 1946 to 1949 the Dutch regained control of much of Indonesia. The Republicans still fought a guerrilla war from the countryside, but the Dutch held the cities and towns and controlled the commerce and infrastructure of much of the island of Java.

Life in Semarang

A turn of the 20th century Dutch map of Java.
A Dutch map of Java from the turn of the 20th century. Semarang (Samarang) is in the north centre. Kaart van Nederlandisch-Indie.

University of Texas, Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Despite the Dutch failure to completely eliminate the Republican forces, things returned to a semblance of colonial normality. For Anthony, as a young child, the tumultuous events in Indonesia seemed remote and the rhythm of daily life in Semarang continued. Anthony still clearly remembers attending a Dutch school until he was 15 years old, and enjoying Dutch friendships. He also recalls his first encounter with Australian foods — wartime supplies of tinned corned beef, Kraft tinned cheese and Bear brand condensed milk — somehow appearing on their dining table.

A view of the Chinese area in Semarang about 1930.
A view of the Chinese area in Semarang about 1930.

Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen

Anthony’s father Dr Khoen Kie Liem (right) after graduating in Medicine in 1941.
Anthony’s father Dr Khoen Kie Liem (right) after graduating in Medicine in 1941.

Photographer unknown. Courtesy Anthony Liem

His family lived peacefully and comfortably in a large colonial house, which also served as his father’s surgery on Jalan Gadjah Mada in Semarang. Anthony remembers a spacious waiting room able to accommodate up to 70 patients, and always a line of becaks (rickshaws) waiting outside under a large banyan tree. Payment was often in the form of fruit, eggs or poultry in lieu of money. Festival days saw the house filled with gifts of cakes and flowers, many of which were discreetly donated to local hospitals and charities. Anthony recalls his father regularly not accepting payment from the poorest people who visited his surgery.

Meanwhile, the guerrilla war continued on in the countryside and on the fringes of the cities, outside the strongly held areas of Dutch control. Anthony heard from his Dutch school friends, whose parents were ever wary of Republican threats, about sporadic fighting in the nearby towns of Amberawa and Salatiga. By early 1949, it seemed to many outside the country that the Dutch had actually regained control of Indonesia, as they disseminated propaganda that the Republican Movement had failed. Indeed, Yogyakarta had fallen and many Republican leaders had been captured or were in hiding.

Despite this, apart from random searches by the Dutch military, and water and power rationing, for most Semarang citizens daily life carried on as usual. But the Indonesian nationalists had not given up. In March 1949 under Commander Suharto, they staged a dramatic attack on Yogyakarta that galvanised Indonesian support. With increasing international focus on the situation in Indonesia, by the end of 1949 the Dutch had come under pressure – led by the Australian Chifley government — from the United Nations and finally recognised Indonesian independence in December 1949.

The Dutch remain in Indonesia

A group from a Dutch-Chinese Catholic school about 1940
A group from a Dutch-Chinese Catholic school about 1940

Credit: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures. Source: Wikimedia Commons

In this post-independence environment in Indonesia, many Dutch or people with Dutch heritage or connections chose to stay in Indonesia to continue to run the big Dutch companies and corporations. It was at first an arrangement that suited the new republic, in need of skills and financial investment. But amid this unusual situation of ex-colonials running the main businesses in the newly independent Indonesia of the 1950s, there was an underlying tension.

Anthony’s father, fluent in the Dutch language (as was his whole family), had the foresight to seek a Dutch-recognised qualification in paediatrics from Amsterdam University from 1952 till 1954. During this time, Anthony, aged nine, and one brother attended a school in Holland, and they continued their education in Dutch-run schools on their return to Semarang. Anthony remembers a rather blessed childhood with his four younger brothers, educated in Dutch schools and mixing in a Dutch social milieu, in an independent Indonesia.

Dutch exodus

But, as Anthony’s father had foreseen, this was all to change. By 1958 the young Indonesian Republic stepped up its claims to control the last remaining stronghold of Dutch colonial occupation, known as Netherlands New Guinea (now Irian Jaya or West Papua). The Indonesian government began to pursue a policy against Dutch interests in Indonesia, provocatively seizing the Dutch shipping line KPM and other Dutch companies. There were mass demonstrations against the Dutch, and the government decreed that the remaining Dutch nationals were to leave Indonesia. Many returned to the Netherlands.

In the midst of this increasing anti-Dutch sentiment and an exodus of Dutch families, Anthony’s Dutch school closed its doors and for several months and he and his brothers attended an Indonesian school. There were only two universities in Indonesia at the time, Jakarta and Jogyakarta, so entry to an Indonesian university was limited. Because they felt there was no future in Indonesia, and anti-Chinese sentiment was escalating as well, in 1958 Anthony’s parents decided to send him to his uncle in Singapore to continue his high school education.

Australian connections

Fred Wong in his vegetable garden in Cobar around 1932
Fred Wong in his vegetable garden in Cobar, western NSW, around 1932

Wong family collection

But Anthony was once more forced to move schools and countries. Confronted with difficulties extending his Indonesian passport, his uncle sent him to stay with a Dutch friend living in Sydney. Here he finished high school in 1962 and decided to study architecture at the University of Sydney. There he met an Australian—Chinese fellow student, Helen Wong. After they graduated, Helen and Anthony decided to marry. Both of their families had been affected by the tumultuous events surrounding Indonesian independence, but in very different ways.

Helen was the daughter of Quan Dor Lum and Wong Gar Kin — otherwise known as Fred Wong. Her father was born in Cobar in 1906, one of six children of Wong Sing Foo and Ah Kue (nee Kong) who had come to Australia escaping poverty and desperation in China around 1900. After making a successful market garden and mining business, Fred returned to China in 1918 to receive a Chinese education. But with few prospects in China, Fred used his Australian passport to return to Sydney in 1923. He became a successful greengrocer, firstly in Cobar, and then Newtown and Homebush in Sydney. By the 1940s he owned a thriving fruit and vegetable shop on Parramatta Road at Leichhardt – with 18 full-time staff and 10 extras on weekends.

Fred became involved in supporting the Chinese against the Japanese invasion of China. He was prominent in fund-raising to help the beleaguered Chinese war effort. He began to assist Chinese stranded in Australia because of  World War II and Chinese seamen in particular. Fred’s philanthropy was also important to the Indonesian seamen in their resistance to the Dutch returning to recolonise Indonesia from August 1945 — the infamous Black Armada. He helped fund the 1946 film about these events, Indonesia Calling.

Chinese-Australian support for Indonesia

The last formal Wong family portrait with Fred in 1948
The last formal Wong family portrait with Fred in 1948

Wong family collection

The Chinese Youth League (CYL) in Dixon Street, Sydney, founded by Fred, provided assistance to the striking Indonesian seamen in sympathy for their new nation and their refusal to work on Dutch ships. These striking seamen, homeless and hungry, were cared for by the CYL and several Chinese restaurant owners. Fred then established a company, Asian Airlines, and began purchasing Catalina flying boats with a view to flying medical supplies to the new Indonesian republic.

Helen Wong graduating from Sydney University in 1965
Helen Wong graduating from Sydney University in 1965

Wong family collection

In July 1948, and in shadowy circumstances still not satisfactorily explained to family members today, Fred was inspecting a flying boat on Lake Boga in Victoria, when he drowned. Fred was just 42 years old. His daughter Helen was only five.

After Fred’s death, the shop went downhill and the family lost their father’s fortune. Quan Dor, with little English language, raised her three daughters and son on a widow’s pension. Like Anthony’s family, Helen Wong’s family also sought a good education for their children and Helen went on to Sydney University, where she met Anthony.

Anthony’s parents visited Sydney in 1966 and wished to stay with their son and future wife, but were refused under the White Australia Policy. Anthony and Helen married and decided to honeymoon in Indonesia. After a military crackdown and massive campaign against communists in Indonesia, the security situation was tense. They were one of the few guests in brand new, empty, Bali Beach Hotel. Although they had successfully lodged an appeal against their refusal of entry to Australia, Anthony’s parents decided to leave Indonesia to live in Holland.

Shared histories

Anthony’s work as an architect took him overseas but he and Helen eventually returned to Australia.  In 2005, Anthony and Helen stumbled across a dramatic historical connection between them. After Anthony read an article by political historian Dew Cottle about Fred Wong’s activities in Sydney in the 1930s and 40s, they realised there was a long-standing connection between their two family histories.

Helen had known little about her father’s support for Indonesian independence. Now, they both understood how Indonesia’s independence struggle — and Australian support for it — had shaped both their lives.

The Wong family in China in 1932
The Wong family in China in 1932

Wong family collection

The Dutch attempt to reoccupy Indonesia from 1945 and 1949 was — like Anthony’s and Helen’s life stories — a complicated situation. While Indian troops fought a bloody battle against Indonesian independence fighters, Indian sailors in Sydney were refusing to crew Dutch ships that were taking arms and soldiers back to Indonesia. While Dutch troops were returning to colonise Indonesia by force, Dutch film maker Joris Ivens was making a film in Sydney in support of Indonesian independence. While Australian soldiers supported Dutch efforts in Indonesia, Australian maritime workers imposed a black ban on Dutch military ships and cargoes. And while the Australian government was tied to Dutch recolonisation, it was simultaneously repatriating Indonesians from Australia back to Republican-held territory.

The personal stories of Anthony and Helen reflect a time of international conflict as well as cooperation in the confusing period of post-World War II decolonisation across Asia. They remind us how Australia was part of this story, even during the long period of the White Australia Policy from 1901 to 1973. They also remind us that transnational histories and migration stories are a central part of Australian maritime history.

Further reading:

Jackson Wong and Helen Liem ‘The life and times of Kenneth Frederick Wong (Wong Gar Kin) 1906—1948’, unpublished manuscript, 2006

Rupert Lockwood Black Armada: Australia and the struggle for Indonesian independence 1942—1949 Hale and Iremonger, Sydney, 1982

Jan Lingard Refugees and Rebels: Indonesian exiles in wartime Australia Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2008

Charlotte Clayton Maramis Echoes — Book Three: The story of Fred Wong (1906—1948) Charlotte Clayton Maramis, W J Printing, Sydney 2010

With thanks to Anthony and Helen Liem