Dutchmen, Forest Men, and the (Blurry) Line Between Western and Indigenous Knowledge

I was recently in Sabah, on the island of Borneo, were someone told me that the local name (in Malay) for proboscis monkeys is “blanda” (or “orang blanda”) which means “Dutchman.”

orang blanda

I laughed when I heard this, as there does seem to be a bit of a resemblance. . . But it made me wonder how such a term came to be used. Today I think many of us would like to imagine that Malay-speaking peoples on the island of Borneo started to call proboscis monkeys “Dutchmen” at some time in the past as a way to “resist” or “talk back to” the power of these Europeans who were conquering and colonizing parts of the region.

In reading a wonderful new book on the history of Western writings about, and representations of, the orangutan, however, I have come to realize that the situation in which the proboscis monkey came to be known as a “Dutchman” was probably much more complex than this.

Wild Man

This book – Wild Man From Borneo: A Cultural History of the Orangutan (University of Hawaii Press, 2014) – was written by an historian (Robert Cribb), a professor of theater (Helen Gilbert), and an scholar of postcolonial theory and literary studies (Helen Tiffin). In combining insights from their diverse areas of expertise, these three scholars have created a fascinatingly rich and illuminating work.

While these authors reveal that an enormous number of writings about the orangutan have been produced over the past few centuries, they argue that by contrast, “In their tropical homelands, however, orangutans appear to have attracted much less attention from indigenous people than they did from Europeans.” (5)

proboscis monkey

This might seem like an exaggeration, but their discussion about the origin of the term “orang utan” (or “orang hutan”), which in Malay/Indonesian literally means “man [of the] forest,” made me think about this issue.

These authors trace this term to some writings by Dutch scholars in the seventeenth century, and argue that it must later passed into local usage. They note, for instance that:

“There is no literary record, however, of the Malay-speaking peoples of the Indonesian archipelago using the term ‘orang utan’ or one of its variants to refer to the ape before the middle of the nineteenth century.

“The web-based Malay Concordance Project, located at the Australian National University, contains many references to ‘orang hutan,’ but before the mid-nineteenth century they all refer, sometimes in a derogatory tone, to human beings who inhabit the forests. . .

“In fact, the first recorded Malay use of a term resembling orang hutan to denote the ape identifies the word as a Western term. The Hikayat Abdullah, written in the 1840s, recounts that ‘The Ruler of Sambas sent Mr. Raffles a present of two apes of the kind which the English call orang-utang.’”

Hikayat Abdullah

I find it particularly interesting that these scholars found that the earliest Malay-language usage of the term “orangutan” to mean an ape appeared in the Hikayat Abdullah. This work was written by Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir, a Melaka-born scholar who was well-versed in Western knowledge and who is credited with starting to transform the intellectual world of Malay-speaking peoples by exposing them to Western ideas.

And while he is famous for having introduced various ideas from the West about governance and society, apparently he also introduced to his readers the “Western” term, “orangutan,” as well.

This gets us back to the “Dutchman.” I have no idea how the proboscis monkey came to be referred to as a “Dutchman,” but after having read about the etymology of the term “orangutan” in Wild Man From Borneo, I’d be willing to guess that it was likewise a complex process.

In the end, what I find significant about all of this is that it shows that the line between “Western” and “indigenous” knowledge is rarely as clear as we often imagine it to be.

Darkness and Javanese Soldiers in Australia during World War II

On 5 September 1945 the acting premier of New South Wales, J. M. Baddeley, sent a letter to the prime minister of the Commonwealth of Australia to report about complaints that the Aborigines Welfare Board had made concerning the behavior of Javanese soldiers who were based at the town of Casino, New South Wales.

Apparently there were some Dutch soldiers based there from the Netherlands East Indies (N.E.I.). I’m not sure how they got there, but they must have evacuated to Casino as the N.E.I. fell to the Japanese during World War II. When they did, they brought with them some of their colonial forces, namely Javanese and West Indian soldiers.

Those men, it turns out, started to interact with Aboriginal women, and that did not please the Aborigines Welfare Board.


In his letter, Baddeley reported the following the information about these interactions:

“For some considerable time the Aborigines Welfare Board of New South Wales has received very adverse reports regarding conditions at Casino where there is situated a Camp of Javanese and West Indians, under the control of the Netherlands East Indies Forces.

“The reports disclosed that the presence of these coloured troops in the vicinity of Casino had attracted a considerable number of young aboriginal women to the town, resulting in immoral behaviour, drinking and gambling.”


The Aborigines Welfare Board had apparently first learned of this problem in November 1944, and local officials in Casino had decided to prevent the interactions between Javanese men and Aboriginal women by banning the Javanese soldiers from going to the area where the women were.

However, in July 1945 there were again reports of interactions between these two groups. To quote from Baddeley’s letter,

“Between 16th and 21st July, thirteen persons of aboriginal blood were convicted on charges of drunkenness, obscene language and resisting arrest, and it has been alleged that one of the main causes of this misconduct is the traffic in adulterated liquor between the Javanese and the aborigines.

“In the streets after dark and in the picture shows, numbers of aboriginal girls are to be seen in company with Javanese and West Indians although, apparently, the same also applies to many white girls.”


The Aborigines Welfare Board, originally founded in 1883 as the Board for the Protection of Aborigines, is an institution that regulated the lives of Aborigines. Today it is perhaps most well known (or notorious) for its role in the taking of Aboriginal children from their families in an effort to assimilate them into white Australian society.

This child removal policy was based on various motives and beliefs, but they were tied together by a shared conviction, on the part of white Australians, that it was in the best interest of the country that the “darkness” of the Aborigines (be that perceived as cultural backwardness or the actual darkness of their skin) should ultimately be eliminated.

The Aborigines Welfare Board was therefore concerned that the relations between Aboriginal women and “coloured” Javanese would perpetuate “darkness.”

I wonder, however, what the Board felt about the white women who were apparently interacting with the Javanese soldiers in the streets after dark. Their activities didn’t seem to concern Baddeley all that much. Were they seen to be reducing “darkness”?

[The letter is from the National Archives of Australia = NAA: A1066, IC45/54/5/1, and the image is from the KITLV Digital Media Library = Title: Een soldaat van het volksleger op Java; Image code14048]

Bengawan Solo Forever

Bengawan Solo,” a song about the Solo River in eastern Java, was first composed by Gesang Martohartono in 1940. Recorded as a Kroncong song, it became popular on Java during World War II.

Japanese soldiers then apparently brought the song back with them to Japan where a version was recorded by Toshi Matsuda in 1948.

Poon Sow Keng/Pan Xiuqiong 潘秀瓊, a Chinese singer from Malaya, then recorded the song in Hong Kong in 1957. This was followed by a version that Hong Kong singer, Koo Mei/Gu Mei 顧媚recorded:

Around this time Shanghai-born singer Rebecca Pan (Pan Dihua 潘迪華) also recorded a version:

In 1961, Chhun Vanna recorded a version in Cambodia:

Then there was a more upbeat version recorded by Indonesian-born Dutch singer Anneke Grönloh:

The Crescendos in Singapore gave it a pop twist:

And Poon Sow Keng/Pan Xiuqiong recorded another version in 1968:

Since that time, this song has been recorded many different times in many different ways, such as this bossa nova version by Japanese-Brazilian singer Lisa Ono:

And it continues to be performed:

Singers may come and go, but it looks like Bengawan Solo will probably last forever.

Hawaiian Music and National Culture in Indonesia

A while ago I wrote a blog piece on “Hawaii in Southeast Asia” in which I mentioned that there was some influence of Hawaiian music on a kind of music from Indonesian called Kroncong (or Keroncong). In particular, Kroncong ensembles started to use the ukulele in the late nineteenth century, and I know that I’ve heard Hawaiian steel guitar melodies in some Kroncong songs from say the 1950s or 1960s.


What I did not realize until today, however, was the fact that bands that more or less exclusively played Hawaiian music were very popular in the Dutch East Indies during the interwar period.

There is a great dissertation available online that covers this topic (Philip Yampolsky, “Music and Media in the Dutch East Indies”), and in it the author points out that one of the reasons why a “foreign” music like Hawaiian music became so popular in the Indonesian islands is because it wasn’t rooted there. Given how ethnically and linguistically fractured the Dutch East Indies was, it was only by promoting forms of music that transcended those divisions that record companies could maximize the sale of their records.

Hawaiian music was able to do that, and it sounded good too. And what is more, people in Indonesia were good at playing it, as this lovely rendition of “Aloha ‘Oe” (“Farewell to Thee”) from the 1970s demonstrates:

The main singer in this video is General Hugeng (also spelled Hoegeng) Imam Santoso. General Hugeng served in the 1960s as the chief of police in Jakarta. And from I think about 1968-1980 he had a TV show in which he performed Hawaiian songs.

According to one scholar (David Jenks, Suharto and His Generals: Indonesian Military Politics, 1975-1983, pg. ), the show was criticized for political reasons in 1980 by the minister of information “on the grounds that Hawaiian music ‘does not reflect the national culture,’” and was cancelled.


It is interesting that the minister of information stated in 1980 that Hawaiian music did not reflect the national culture, because from the information that Yampolsky provides in his dissertation, one could argue that Hawaiian music helped form the nation of Indonesia, as it was a force that in some ways united diverse peoples from across the archipelago (subconsciously through the creation of shared musical tastes).

And along those same lines, one could probably argue that in the 1970s General Hugeng was continuing to bring the nation together with his Hawaiian music show.

So I say good job General! And Aloha ‘Oe.

Win Min Than as a Hapa Actress

Today someone posted a picture on facebook of an Anglo-Burmese actress by the name of Win Min Than who made a movie in the 1950s called The Purple Plain.


A British production starring American actor Gregory Peck, The Purple Plain takes place in Burma near the end of World War II. Peck is a pilot who is depressed because his wife was killed in the German bombing of London. He crashes his plane in Japanese-occupied Burma and struggles to survive. There he meets a “native” woman, Win Min Than, and she helps him regain his emotional stability.

This was apparently the only movie that Win Min Than ever made. Her husband was Bo Setkya, one of the “Thirty Comrades” whom the Japanese trained to form the core of the Burma Independence Army that accompanied the Japanese forces in their invasion of Burma. I’m not sure what happened in their lives, but according to Wikipedia it looks like Ne Win’s rise to power in 1962 caused trouble for both of them.

Win Min Than

When I first saw that Win Min Than was “hapa” (the Hawaiian term for “mixed-race” or “mixed-blood” – I prefer it over those terms as they make me think of eugenics. . .) it reminded me of the fact that in several Asian societies some of the first female movie stars were hapa.

My understanding of this has been that the movies were viewed as too “Western” and that “good girls” should therefore not participate in that profession. As people who occupied a middle space, both culturally and biologically, between the local society and the West, hapa actresses were somehow more acceptable to viewers.


I’m assuming that this would be the case, for instance, with the late great Indonesian “queen of horror,” Suzanna Martha Frederika van Osch (known popularly as “Suzanna”).

Win Min Than, however, acted in a foreign film, and therefore her hapa-ness probably played a different role there – it made her less Asian and therefore more acceptable to Western audiences.


Then you have actresses like Laura Gemser, an Indonesian-Dutch hapa actress who grew up in Holland and played roles in which she represented the exotic/erotic Other of Western (male) fantasies.

What all this adds up to meaning is that hapa actresses from Southeast Asia have occupied a very complex space “in between” lots of different worlds, perceptions, biases, etc.

I’m sure that there must be more actresses and actors that we can add to the list, and examining their careers and lives would make for a fascinating comparative study.

Down-and-Out Americans in 1902 Batavia

I came across a letter that the American consul in Batavia (now Jakarta) sent to the US secretary of state in 1902 to seek approval for spending $16.06 to pay for the passage of four destitute Americans to Singapore.


The four men had served in the US military in the Philippines and had then been (apparently honorably) discharged.


According to their sworn deposition, they went to Singapore to find a ship bound for the US. Unable to find one, they were told that there were steamers leaving Java for the US, so the went to Batavia.


However when they got to Batavia they could not find a ship and ran out of money.

The consul said in his letter to the secretary of state, “The [four] men in question had spent their last dollar, had sold all their clothes but what they stood in and were in a most pitiful state, therefore under the circumstances and considering the unhealthy state of the place at the present time, I considered myself justified in assisting these men to leave the place.”

In mentioning the “unhealthy state of the place at the present time,” the consul was referring to the fact that there had recently been an outbreak of cholera in Batavia.


So that’s great that these guys got a free trip to Singapore, but. . . I wonder what happened to them after that.

Modern Indonesians and Medieval Việt

I recently started reading the famous Indonesian novel Never the Twain (Saluh Asuhan) by Abdoel Moeis. Written in 1928, it is about a young Minangkabau man, Hanafi, who has become very Westernized, so much so that he rejects the “traditional” Minangkabau world where he comes from.

never the twain

He lives in a town, Solok, with his mother in a Western-style house. This is how their house is described in the novel:

Everything about the house was European, from the front veranda to the kitchen and the bathroom. Hanafi’s mother could not feel at home in such a house. Like most village women, she preferred sitting on the floor; her betel-nut case, spittoon, and cooking utensils in the kitchen were the only objects in the house she felt comfortable with. They were her world.

But Hanafi hated his mother’s world. . .

Hanafi said every time his mother spread her mat on the back veranda to wait for the visits of her friends: her village friends, “Mother, in the longhouse in Koto Anau you can spread your mat on the floor. . . wherever you like, but this is Solok. All my friends are Dutch.”

Hanafi’s mother then says, “But my back hurts when I sit on a chair, my feet too.”

And Hanafi replies, “That’s what’s wrong. That’s what’s wrong with our people; they’re backward, out of touch with the modern world, sitting on the ground like water buffalo. And that betel-nut chewing; it’s too much.”

Saluh Asuhan

This conflict between Hanafi and his mother is meant to represent the larger changes that were taking place in the Netherlands East Indies in the early twentieth century. There were people like Hanafi who were changing through their contact with the Dutch, but more than that, these people were also rejecting the world that they had come from.

This combination of adopting something “foreign” and rejecting what is “local” led to massive changes; the way people dressed, sat, ate, thought, the language they spoke, etc.

When people change this much, they cease to be the same as their ancestors. They become a new people.

This process began in the early twentieth century in the Dutch East Indies and it is continuing today. “Indonesians” are being created out of various ethnic groups, and over time some of those ethnic groups will decrease in size and importance and become socially marginalized.


If we go to the Red River delta, I think that we would find that the same thing started to happen there roughly 1,000 years ago. At that time there were foreigners that some local people interacted with and a foreign culture that some local people adopted. As they did so, they also rejected the world of their ancestors.

In previous posts on this blog I talked about how the Đông Sơn bronze drums and a musical instrument depicted on them, the khene, were never important to the Việt. And what is more, that the Việt referred to people who used bronze drums as “savages” (man 蠻).

This is because the Việt are like Hanafi. The category of being “Việt” emerged when some people adopted foreign cultural practices and rejected local cultural practices. Also like Hanafi, at first it was just a small number of people who did this, but because they were the elite, over time their ideas and cultural practices spread, slowly creating a “new people” in the process.

Hanafi still had the same blood in him as Minangkabau people, but through his adoption of foreign ways and his rejection of local ways, he was becoming something else – Indonesian.

People like Đinh Bộ Lĩnh and Ngô Quyền probably still had some of the same blood in their veins as Đông Sơn peoples, but through their adoption of foreign ways and their rejection of local ways (including bronze drums and the khene), they were becoming something else – Việt.

Hawaii in Southeast Asia

In the first half of the 1960s, American singer Elvis Presley made three movies in Hawaii: Blue Hawaii, Girls! Girls! Girls! and Paradise, Hawaiian Style.


In at least one of these movies (or maybe in all of them?), Elvis sang a song on the beach while wearing an aloha shirt.

Then in the late 1960s, Thai actor Sombat Mathanee acted in a movie that was filmed on Samui Island called Paradise Island (Koh Sawad Had Sawan) in which he. . .


. . . sang a song on the beach wearing (something resembling) an aloha shirt.


Later in the movie there is a kind of beach party where a band plays Hawaiian music. . .


. . . and topless young women wearing flower leis dance a kind of Hawaiian dance.

I think that it’s pretty clear that there is a connection between the films that Elvis made and this Thai film.


As for how someone got the idea to name a movie theater in Phnom Penh in the 1960s the “Hawaii Cinema”. . . I have no idea. The Chinese writing on the building suggests to me that the cinema was probably built by an ethnic Chinese businessman, as I don’t think people of other ethnicities put Chinese on their buildings. If that is the case, then why did he decide to name his movie theater the “Hawaii Cinema”?


Then there is the genre of Indonesian music call Keroncong. I think I read somewhere that with the global popularity of Hawaiian music in the first half of the twentieth century, Keroncong bands started to use the ukulele.

What all of this suggests is that the story of Hawaii’s cultural influence on Southeast Asia has yet to be told.


The other day a friend told me about a recent book called Aloha America that looks at hula dancers from Hawaii who toured the US in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and argues the following points:

Aloha America reveals the role of hula in legitimating U.S. imperial ambitions in Hawai’i. Hula performers began touring throughout the continental United States and Europe in the late nineteenth century. These ‘hula circuits’ introduced hula, and Hawaiians, to U.S. audiences, establishing an ‘imagined intimacy,’ a powerful fantasy that enabled Americans to possess their colony physically and symbolically. Meanwhile, in the early years of American imperialism in the Pacific, touring hula performers incorporated veiled critiques of U.S. expansionism into their productions.”

The role that Hawaiian culture played in Southeast Asia in the twentieth century was different from what is discussed in this book, but it would be interesting to explore exactly how the image of Hawaii and/or aspects of Hawaiian culture were used in local Southeast Asian contexts.

Ah Chong and Tomato on the Tam O’Shanter

Whenever there is something in the news (and admittedly it’s not very often) about a ship running into some kind of trouble, it always amazes me to hear how international the crew of a ship is, because invariably we learn that although a ship might be registered in one country, many of the crew members are often from somewhere else.

When I hear that, I always wonder what life must be like on a ship. What do guys do when they are stuck on a ship in the middle of the ocean and they are from completely different cultures and probably can’t communicate all that well?


I was looking at some records from the American Consulate in Singapore the other day and in November of 1900 the consulate reported to the US government that the crew of a wrecked American ship called the Tam O’Shanter had arrived.

It looks like the ship must have wrecked somewhere off of the coast of Java, as the seamen arrived in Singapore from Batavia (i.e., Jakarta), and much of the crew was apparently going to be repatriated to Hong Kong and China because that is where they came from.

In the letter from the consulate, the names of the crew members are provided, and it’s a fascinating list:

1st Officer A. Boulter

2nd Officer Fred Steller

Carpenter Alfred Tromblean

Steward Ah Chong

(Chinese) Cabin Boy Willson [!! A Chinese guy’s name was “Willson”??]

Seaman Yesgoosh [??]

Manual Basiz

John Rivers

Mori Pies

K. Sikito

Tomato [Is there really a Japanese surname pronounced “Tomato”??]

K. Dogoods [?? I’m guessing that this was a nice guy. A “do-gooder.”]


K. Hirota


K. Kondo

Nesh Morro


S. Heraoka


K. Osohe


Ok, so we can assume that some of these names were just not recorded accurately. Nonetheless, they clearly give the sense that this was an “interesting” group of people.

Imagine being stuck on a boat with Ah Chong, Tomato, Yesgoosh, K. Dogoods and a Chinese cabin boy named “Willson”. . .

On a more serious note, the “international-ness” of ship life can also be seen as an early form of transnational economic exploitation. So for all we know, Ah Chong and Tomato might not have liked people like A. Boulter and Fred Steller all that much.


The Divided Fight Against Colonial Rule in Southeast Asia

One of the main myths that nationalist historiography creates is that the people of the nation all unite together for a common cause. During the period of decolonization, the common cause was the fight against the colonizers.


In reality, of course, this is not what actually happened. And the reason why the nationalist version of the past gets repeated over and over is because its claim to the truth is so weak. It needs to be repeated until people have heard it so much that they come to believe it.

Some of the colonized fought against the colonizers, and some worked together with them. Some of the colonizers suppressed the colonized, and some supported the colonized in their effort to gain independence from colonial rule.

Then within each of these basic groups there were other divisions as well.


I was reminded of this the other day when I watched a recent movie from Indonesia called “Merah Putih 2 – Darah Garuda.” The English name of this movie is “Blood of Eagles.”

This is how I found the film summarized on the Internet: “Set against a historically authentic backdrop of Indonesia’s struggle for independence in 1947, during the Van Mook offensive into the heart of republican territory in Central Java, Darah Garuda is a story about young Indonesian cadets who bond together despite their differences in religion, ethnicity, class and culture, to become guerrilla fighters for Indonesia’s independence.”

darah garuda

Actually, what impressed me about this movie was the ways in which it was very different from what one would expect from a poster like the one above, and from the above description. Rather than showing how people “bonded together” to fight for Indonesia’s independence, I think this movie does a great job of revealing how weak the bonds between people at that time were.

Yes, this film is about a group of people who are fighting for the independence of Indonesia after World War II, but the group is wracked by divisions and conflicting interests.


At the same time that they are united in their fight, they are suspicious of each other. Muslim Javanese do not trust Hindu Balinese, Christian Ambonese and rich people from Jakarta.

The children of people from the islands who collaborated with the Dutch join the fight against the Dutch for their own complex reasons, not necessarily out of a sense of common purpose with others.


And then such timeless human traits as jealousy, ambition and love also all intrude and create divisions between the people who are “united” against the colonizers.

To be fair, the film has its weak points, but I really like the way that it treats the complexity of human interactions in a “united” resistance war.