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From the Dutch East Indies to San Diego

The Dutch government doubted whether they could integrate, and many Dutch Indonesians did not feel at home in the Netherlands. Nearly 35.000 moved to the U.S. in the late 1950s. How did the 'Amerindos' fare there? A tour of 'kumpulans' in California.

*This article was translated by the author. Some information was added and some lines altered to clarify the story for non-Dutch readers. Originally published in Dutch in De Groene Amsterdammer nr 37, September 13, 2023

Woman and young boy in front of food stand that says 'DURF Oriental Food'
Brenda MacMootry Gruber and her son Brian Gruber at a DURF club food stand in San Diego, 1978

It was cold, unbelievably cold. Shivering Dutch Indonesians made their way down the gangway of ship De Oranje and onto the Amsterdam harbor in early January 1958, as Dutch volunteers handed them warm trousers, sweaters, and jackets. “We layered everything on top of each other,” recalls Priscilla Kluge-McMullen, now 74. At the contract boarding house in Hilversum where she, her parents, and three older sisters were housed, Kluge-McMullen slept with her hat and mittens on, the blankets pulled up to her eyebrows. It hardly helped. “The cold penetrated everything,” she says. “You just couldn't ignore it.”

Priscilla Kluge-McMullen was born in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, in 1949. During the Second World War, Japan had invaded the Dutch colony and put white Europeans in internment camps. The mixed Eurasian community Kluge-McMullen is part of, known locally as Dutch Indonesian or “Indo”, was mainly left to live under strict Japanese rule outside the camps. When the war ended, native Indonesians declared independence from the Netherlands and a violent conflict known as The Bersiap ensued. White Europeans were repatriated, while Dutch Indonesians were largely left behind. Seen as traitors by Indonesian freedom fighters, many were violently targeted.

Kluge-Mcmullen was seven years old when, on December 5, 1957, the Indonesian government declared that all remaining Dutch citizens were now considered enemies of the state and should leave the country. Anyone who wanted to stay had to become Indonesian, taking on the Indonesian nationality, language, and customs. The Dutch government encouraged people to stay in Indonesia, but nearly fifty thousand Dutch Indonesians decided to leave for the Netherlands. Until 1967, about 25,000 more followed. An estimated total of 350,000 emigrated to the Netherlands in the war's aftermath.

Of her childhood before the Netherlands, Kluge-McMullen remembers running barefoot through green rice fields, the smell of beetles and moths roasting on campfires in the village behind her house, and the sweet taste of bubur ketan – an Indonesian rice desert. In Hilversum, she lived in a cramped house with several other Indo families. A Dutch farmer in boots brought pans filled with watery oatmeal for breakfast. Her mother had to take Dutch cooking classes with the other Indo women who lived there – cooking Indonesian food was not allowed, because it would make the house “smell”.

Arriving in the Netherlands was not what most Dutch Indonesians had expected. While many white Dutch people or 'Totoks' were repatriated after the war at government expense, Dutch Indonesians had to repay all government aid. Housing was scarce, and some were even housed in Westerbork – a camp where Jews had been rounded up and deported during the war just years earlier. Because of a national job shortage, work was difficult to find, and in the homogeneously white Netherlands of the 1950s, Dutch Indonesians were seen as outsiders.

Kluge-McMullen's father, who was of German descent and born in the Dutch East Indies, could only find work in a bike saddle factory; a big step back from his job as a manager at the hydroelectric works in Java. Her Ambonese mother found work in a laundromat, where her Dutch colleagues soon asked if she could play “Black Pete” during the holiday of Sinterklaas. “She didn't say anything, but I know she felt deeply humiliated,” says Kluge-McMullen. Insecure about her dark skin color, her mother had always worn white powder on her face to make herself look lighter.

Kluge-McMullen remembers being called a monkey at her Dutch school, and asked whether she lived in a cave. “I eventually told everyone I was adopted,” she admits. “At least they found that interesting.” But although life in the Netherlands wasn't easy for her, she believes it was much more difficult for her parents to adapt to their new reality. They had emerged from the war deeply traumatized, had been forced to leave their home country, and now had to start all over again in the Netherlands.

“They did what they could and never complained, but I saw both my parents break there,” says Kluge-McMullen. How challenging this new life truly was for Dutch Indonesians became apparent when one of the women in the contract boarding house was found with her head in the oven. The woman survived, but for Kluge-McMullen, the event symbolizes the unspoken and unacknowledged pain of Dutch Indonesians.

Three women and one girl holding full grocery bags in front of an American grocery store in the 1960s
MacMootry family in New Jersey, 1960. Photo by Herman MacMootry.

Meanwhile, Dutch politicians openly doubted their ability to successfully integrate. A government report from 1952 claims that "Indischen" would likely disrupt Dutch society in the long run. Especially “Oriental” people from the Dutch East Indies, or Eurasians such as the Kluge family, were considered unlikely to adapt to Dutch culture because of their different lifestyle, and ultimately set to become a burden on Dutch society. The government therefore diligently looked for a way to prevent this.

A solution came in the aftermath of a flood that hit the south-west of the Netherlands in 1953. Tens of thousands of American visas were made available for flood victims through a special refugee law. Although these visas were intended for affected Dutch farmers, the Dutch government hastily put thousands of Dutch Indonesians on the list of “displaced persons”. Initially, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service balked that no more than ten percent of visas should go to so-called "half-casts". With the support of American Congressman Francis E. Walter and Senator John O. Pastore, the Dutch government managed to circumvent that requirement.

For Dutch Indonesians, the refugee act offered a unique chance. During the 1950s, the United States had strict requirements for immigrants of Asian descent. To be eligible for a regular visa, they had to prove, among other things, that they had at least 75 percent European ancestry. This meant most Dutch Indonesians had little chance of obtaining an American visa. However, these rules did not apply to the refugee visas, opening the doors to America. Through the Pastore-Walter Acts of 1958 and 1961, an estimated 25,000 to 35,000 Dutch Indonesians emigrated to the United States, primarily California.

The Dutch government actively encouraged their emigration, organizing special information nights and producing a film titled “Een Plaatsje in de Zon” (A Place in the Sun). The documentary film follows several Indo families on their journey and portrays America as a distant paradise “where the sun almost gives a continuous representation of what you have always imagined your new home to be.” In America, the film states, good jobs await, as well as luxury cars, nice weather, fruits and vegetables that you are used to from the Dutch East Indies, a backyard with a swimming pool and weekend trips to the Rocky Mountains.

Not everything is sunshine and rainbows, however: you also have to learn English, find a job, work hard, and as opposed to the Netherlands, you can lose your job in an instant without any government support. “America is cutthroat, tremendous, and also, merciless,” the voice-over says over swelling violins. But ”those who can cope with this will find true happiness within their own hearts.”

“That typical Indo lilt, with a rolling r, is pure nostalgia for me. I want to enjoy that for as long as I can”

Priscilla Kluge-McMullen's parents decided to emigrate to America in 1960. They were sponsored by her uncle's church, who already lived near Boston: one of the requirements for Dutch Indonesian immigrants was that a specific person or organization sponsored them. The church arranged an apartment and furnished it with second-hand furniture. They paid the rent three months in advance. “In a sense, we did arrive as refugees,” says Kluge-McMullen. “We came with absolutely nothing.”

This time her father finds a job as a janitor. Her mother goes to work in the infirmary of a local university. Once again, Kluge-McMullen is one of few children of color at her school, and to American eyes, ambiguous-looking. “They didn’t care where I was from,” she recalls. “To them, I was Black, Mexican, Filipino, Chinese, Native American. If there was a swear word for it, I heard it.” Kluge-McMullen is still regularly addressed in Spanish by strangers. She usually responds by saying she doesn't speak Spanish. “Otherwise, I first have to give a half-hour history lesson,” she says. “Because hardly anyone here knows what Dutch Indonesian is.”

After graduating high school, Kluge-McMullen wanted to find a job to contribute to the family income. Her mother put a stop to that idea. She had to go to college first. Kluge-McMullen opted for business administration and can now look back on a successful career in the international non-profit sector. The fact that her parents managed to make a success of it all despite all the adversity they faced in their lives still fills her with pride: "When I look at my own family, I really do believe in the American dream."

The MacMootry family looking out of the window of a train, 1960.
Andrea Matthies' family on the train from New Jersey to San Diego, 1960. Left to right: grandfather Herman, mother Brenda, aunt Lea, grandmother Paula, unknown passenger. Photo by Brian MacMootry.

Academic research tends to portray the immigration of Dutch Indonesians to America as a success, says Jeroen Dewulf, professor of Dutch & German Studies at the University of California in Berkeley. “Within five years, most of them achieved a standard of living that was above the American average, with their own home, a job, a social circle, and children who went to school.” Impressive, claims Dewulf, especially when you consider that most of them lived through the Second World War, the Bersiap, and two international migrations.

Moreover, their success in America was not self-evident. Most did not speak English upon arrival and although California was not as homogeneously white as the Netherlands in the 1950s, some still faced discrimination. Moreover, there was no 'Indotown', as there were Chinatowns, Koreatowns and Little Italys, with a built-in network for jobs and social contacts. Even though many Dutch Indonesians settled around Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, each family was basically on their own.

People did meet one another in church and at associations for Dutch immigrants, several of which already existed due to a wave of Dutch immigration to America in the 1950s. Friends regularly met and organized kumpulans (social gatherings) with Indo dishes and music. Hardly anyone spoke about the past: their focus was on the future. Still, it helped that others knew the complex history of the Dutch East Indies. Dewulf: “Only someone who experienced the same things could really understand what Dutch Indonesians had endured.”

In the Bay Area, a group of first-generation 'Amerindos' still meets every other month or so. On the last Saturday evening of February 2023, the Hill and Valley Club House in Hayward is decorated in a carnival theme from top to bottom. Beads and gold masks adorn the walls. Clowns and flowers are positioned carefully among the coffee, tea, and wine. In the kitchen, sausage rolls, stew, lupis (an Indian rice dessert with brown sugar syrup), and tjendol (a refreshing drink with coconut and sugar) are prepared.

Although guests are well into their seventies, eighties and even nineties, the dance floor is never empty. A group of square dancers who call themselves The Indo Stompers indulge in My Achy Breaky Heart, Roll Over Beethoven and All My Exes Live in Texas, played by the live band. Couples slow dance to The Girl From Ipanema and The Way You Look Tonight. Benjamin Willemsz-Geeroms, or 'Benny' as he is known here, looks at his iPhone at the end of the evening. “I've already danced more than a mile,” he laughs. “Not bad for a 92-year-old!”

Willemsz-Geeroms has been going to gatherings like this ever since he first arrived in Berkeley in December 1961. He sometimes spends hours in the car to attend. In the past, these evenings were organized by the Netherlands Society of Northern California (NESO). Later, Henny Neys, a local Dutch woman, took over with the Netherlands American Cultural Heritage Association (NACHO). In addition, Neys regularly holds a smaller “get-together for Indo friends” at her home.

When her husband Alan Neys, who was Dutch Indonesian, died in 2000, Nyes founded the Alan Neys Memorial Fund in his name to support Indo people in America and those who remained behind in Indonesia. The kumpulans and dance evenings are part of that support: a way to let off steam and have a good time together.

Henny Neys therefore warns me not to bring up the past tonight. But the war comes up anyway when Willemsz-Geeroms hands me an envelope with the story that his wife, Yvonne Sonja Willemsz-Geeroms-Croes, wrote down to qualify for a Dutch pension for civil war victims. Her Dutch Indonesian father was a KNIL (Royal Dutch Indonesian Army) sergeant and was recruited by the Japanese to fight as a heiho – an auxiliary soldier in the Japanese army. He refused and was executed in 1943. In 1949, he was posthumously awarded a Star of Resistance East Asia. Benjamin Willemsz-Geeroms admits that he never wrote down his own story. Too hard, he says. He prefers to dance his worries away: "If I talk about it, I get nightmares again."

Henny Neys doesn’t know how much longer she can continue organizing these evenings. “I am already 85, my partner Gijs is 87,” she says. Moreover, of the hundreds of guests once in attendance, about fifty regulars now remain. Some no longer come since their partner died. Others can no longer make the drive. Many are no longer here. In an emotional speech at the end of the evening, Max Lokollo, who came to America with his wife Jeane in 1963, says: “After us, the Indo will have left America. Our children are American, just like their children. They don't know our culture. We are the last of the Mohicans.”

A group of Dutch Indonesian men and women sitting in a living room in the 1960s.
The meeting where the DURF began, in the living room of the Attinger family, 1961. Indo author Tjalie Robinson in white shirt in the middle. Photo courtesy of Attinger family archive.

It's a vision of the future that Indo writer Tjalie Robinson, born in 1911 as Jan Boon, wanted to prevent. He saw the Indo identity and culture as a unique fusion of East and West that should be celebrated, not suppressed or adapted. For Robinson, being Indo was a source of pride. He made it his mission to inspire others to do the same and to put Dutch Indonesians as a group on the map. According to him, America was the perfect place to do that.

Robinson was already successfully working on his mission in the Netherlands. In 1957 he took over the editorship of monthly magazine Onze Brug. The magazine was meant to build a bridge between Indos in the Netherlands and New Guinea. Robinson changed the name to Tong Tong and increased the circulation from four hundred to eleven thousand within five years. He also started Indo festival Pasar Malam Besar in collaboration with others, now known as the Tong Tong Fair and still one of the largest annual festivals in the Netherlands.

While the pressure to adapt was great in the Netherlands, Robinson saw America as a country where other cultures were given space to exist freely. "People in America are allowed to remain themselves (only in Holland do people still believe in the folly of assimilation) and - no matter how crazy it sounds - they are all American," he wrote about this. After an exploratory visit to America, Robinson left for California with his family in 1963, with big plans for the Indo community there. “If there ever is a future for Indos as a group, that future will be born here. Assimilated into oblivion after one generation? Nonsense.”

Even before arriving in America, Robinson and his wife Lilian Ducelle began publishing The American Tong Tong. They settled in Whittier, California, just outside Los Angeles. In Pasadena, a half-hour drive away, Robinson and a number of others started the De Soos community center for cultural meetings and educational activities. They even secured a stand at International Day in Los Angeles, where the Indo community was presented as a distinct ethnic group with its own unique clothing, food and an Indo Hall of Fame.

"People in America are allowed to remain themselves, in Holland people still believe in the folly of assimilation"

However, in the five years that Robinson lived in America, he watched his grand plans slowly go up in smoke. The American Tong Tong received no more than three hundred subscribers and although De Soos attracted quite a few members, they generally did not see the importance of a strong Indo community as Robinson did.

When he returned to the Netherlands in 1968, Robinson's vision of the future of Dutch Indonesians in America had shifted dramatically: “I believe that researchers would be surprised to find that there is no group in America with so little steadfast principle, with as little success in joint production as us. That our group is one of thirty thousand people with thirty thousand minds, who all go their own way so stubbornly and with such fragility that nothing is truly achieved by either the group or the individual.”

According to Priscilla Kluge-McMullen, most Dutch Indonesians, like her parents, did their best to fit into American society as well and as quickly possible. “When we arrived in America, my mother said: Now you are American,” she recalls. "In the Netherlands, I was told I was Dutch. As an Indo you are taught to constantly adapt." She puts her hand on her neck and pushes it down slowly, saying “It always feels like you have to push something down. As if part of yourself shouldn't exist.”

She eventually married an Irish-American man and raised her two children as Irish-American. Kluge-McMullen had learned from her mother that it is better to “act white.” When her daughter had a child with an African-American man, Kluge-McMullen began to wonder what kind of example she was setting for him. “I wanted to show my grandson that he could be proud of who he is, including his Indo roots,” she says.

However, sources about the Dutch East Indies and Indo culture were hardly available in English. “Everything was in Dutch, Bahasa, or Malay, but the younger generations here don't speak that,” says Kluge-McMullen. In 2007, she and her cousin Bianca Dias-Halpert started The Indo Project, a non-profit organization that makes Indo stories and information available in English.

Their website offers historical overviews, explanations of terms, interviews, oral histories, translated literature, news from the Netherlands, and more. They are currently also working on a podcast: Echoes of the Archipelago. “Our goal is to preserve Indo culture in the English-speaking diaspora by making knowledge freely accessible and connecting people,” says Kluge-McMullen, who emphasizes that she could not have realized The Indo Project without the help of her team and volunteers.

The timing of The Indo Project was perfect: younger, English-speaking generations who were looking for the stories and culture of their grandparents online, easily found the website or Facebook group. Some became volunteers and started their own groups. Michael Passage for example, who emigrated to America in 2002, started SoCal Indo in Southern California, with its own website, T-shirt line and a YouTube channel with English-language interviews. Others started blogs and podcast series, organized meetings, or got Indo-themed tattoos. Kluge-McMullen admits she wouldn’t soon do the latter, but says “it's good to see that young people feel proud of the fact that they are Indo.”

Man and woman at a dinner table on the SS America, 1961.
Benjamin Willemsz-Geeroms and his wife Yvonne Willemsz-Geeroms-Croes on the SS America to the United States, 1961. Photo courtesy of Benjamin Willemsz-Geeroms.

The revival of Indo culture in America is particularly evident at the annual Holland Festival in Long Beach, California. What started in the late 1980s as a family picnic for Dutch immigrants - organized by Dutch immigrant associations such as the Holland Soccer Club, AVIO, NAF, Neerlandia, Voice of Holland and Wapenbroeders - has turned into the largest gathering of Dutch Indonesians in America.

Young and old come to the festival for Indo-rock, poffertjes (small Dutch pancakes), nasi goreng, satay, ngrobol (conversation) and fun. The eldest bring their own folding chairs and find a spot in the shade early in the morning. To get the best spot and good Indo food, you have to be quick: the line usually reaches beyond the parking lot before the gates have even opened.

Cor van Overeem, who emigrated to California as a teenager in the 1960s, still remembers the very first Holland Festival in 1989. “Let's go to the Dutch picnic!” his mother had said. His grandfather and grandmother cheered up immediately, meeting old friends from the Dutch East Indies and the Netherlands at the festival. “Now my generation are the grandparents,” Van Overeem says. He realizes that it is more difficult for their (great) grandchildren, who have no direct memories of the Indies or the Netherlands, to feel connected to the Indo culture. “I hope they feel at least a flicker of an Indo flame here,” he says.

29-year-old Christiaan Verbeek is standing in line for a portion of nasi goreng and shares that his grandfather was a KNIL soldier and that his father was in a Japanese internment camp. “They never talked about the Dutch East Indies, only about the Netherlands,” he says. Curious about both sides of his Indo identity, he searched for more information online. Through The Indo Project and SoCal Indo he learned more about his ancestral culture and met others with the same experience and questions. “I didn't know any other Indos,” he explains. “Here, I really feel part of a community.”

The Holland Festival was also a kind of homecoming for fifty-year-old Andrea Matthies. Her mother came to San Diego as a teenager and married an American man. Andrea’s grandparents, her opa and oma, never spoke about the Dutch East Indies. “For a long time I even thought we were simply Dutch,” she laughs. When she first visited the Holland Festival in the early 1990s, she realized that "the things I knew from my grandparents were not Dutch, but Indo."

For Matthies, her Dutch Indonesian background has become increasingly important. She started researching her own family tree and eventually founded the group Dutch Indos in San Diego, for which she organizes a local kumpulan/potluck twice a year. She and her husband are also working on a documentary about DURF: the Dutch Recreational Fellowship, which was founded in 1961. DURF organized cultural evenings with dance performances, food and theater for Indos in the San Diego area. “They also invited local politicians and featured in local newspapers,” says Matthies, whose own family was actively involved.

But although she is passionate about her Indo background, Matthies also struggles to connect with it as an American. Twice a month she goes to a buffet lunch for older Indos, started by 95-year-old Daniël Ungerer to catch up with his friends and eat at a senior discount. “I mainly go to hear Dutch in an Indo accent,” Matthies says. Her own grandparents died when she was young. “That typical Indo lilt, with a rolling r, is pure nostalgia for me. I want to enjoy that for as long as I can.”

Andrea Matthies recently began running the American branch of Moesson together with writer Willem-Jan Brederode. Moesson is the Indo magazine once started by Tjalie Robinson as Tong Tong and now run by his granddaughter, Vivian Boon. In 2020, she decided to revive her grandfather's English-language project as Indo International, a magazine for the Indo community in the English-speaking diaspora. When the magazine nearly stopped printing after a year and a half due to a shortage of subscribers, Matthies offered to help.

“Indo history is so complex,” says Matthies. “Almost all literature is in Dutch or Bahasa and the debate about it is constantly evolving. If this magazine were to disappear, it would be the beginning of the end of Indo culture in America. We would be completely cut off from new developments and research. We’d only have the little that our grandparents left behind.”

Matthies does not blame her own grandparents for wanting to let go of the past. From the few stories she’s heard, she knows that they emerged from the war severely traumatized. “America offered them an opportunity to start with a clean slate,” she says. It is now up to her generation to build a positive bond with their Indo heritage: “There is still so much to celebrate and learn from." In the place where her grandparents saw an opportunity to let go of the past, she sees an opportunity to breathe new life into it.

*Inge is looking to expand on her research with more interviews and personal stories. If you would like to share your own or your family's story, you can send an email through the contact form on this website.


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