Published in the Sunday Jakarta Post, 3 September 2006

My cousin Rick Lieftink poses in front of a Muhammadyah flag

On Challenging Paradigms

I recently went to Western Australia to advise some Hawaiian Chinese on the correct placing of a 2 ton quartz Buddha. While there I discovered an unusual bit of family history which linked my family, ever so indirectly, to octogenarian Javanese maid-servants still serving nasi goreng to ancient Dutch meneers in Eastern Holland!
It transpires that my cousin, Rick Lieftink – a former marine commando in the Australian army’s crack special services division – has a long family connection to the K.N.I.L. (Royal Dutch Indonesian infantry).

“My blood is red and not to be colonised!” – an Indonesian revolutionary poster in the Lieftink family’s collection of Indonesian ‘souvenirs’

My Aunt Karol, Rick’s mother, had passed away that week and we were sitting at a dining table with a box of photographs – as Anglo-Saxons do after loved ones die.

Now, I knew that my cousin’s father, Henk, was Dutch, but I didn’t know that he had been interned by the Germans in a Hitler Youth Camp in Holland during the Second World War. Henk had managed to escape to England by killing a guard on a bridge, at age 15, and had stayed in England for the remainder of the war. His elder brother, Win, had been in Indonesia serving with the K.N.I.L when the Japanese invaded. He had been caught trying to escape from Padang, West Sumatra and was promptly put on a ship to Japan. His boat was bombed by allies on its way and limped back to Singapore. There Wim was interned in Changi prison and eventually forced to work on the Burma railroad. In 1942 he was shipped to Tokyo where he worked in the mines until he was too weak to walk. True to Tojo tradition he was soon ear-marked for execution. When his day came the executioner’s gun malfunctioned and he was given a reprieve (“Some Japanese honour thing” my cousin said). The next month he was down a mine in Nagasaki when the atom bomb went off.
He survived that too.

After the war, frail and disoriented, he was shipped back to Sumatra where he wallowed for years in a Tuberculosis Clinic in Sumatra. His family had long assumed he was dead.
In 1944, Henk travelled back to Indonesia to clean up after the Japanese and by chance discovered his brother, during a tour of army hospitals.
Today Rick’s uncle is ninety and lives in a Dutch retirement community called Bronbeek near Arnhem. It is a former royal palace, given by Willem III to the Dutch East Indies Army in 1859, for the housing of retired soldiers and their souvenirs. It is like the famed Chelsea Pensioners home, in London, except at Bronbeek they all speak Indonesian, eat Indonesian food and are waited on by ancient Javanese and Sumatran ladies.

"Bronbeek" retirement home in Arnhem, Holland - (Courtesy of "Kumpulan Bronbeek")

It is an incredible slice of Dutch East Indies colonial history, and there it was, right there in the family photo album.
Rick next produced a recent photo of himself, from the local Perth newspaper. There he was in earthquake rescue gear in front of a green and white Muhammadyah flag. The photo is captioned “Rick Lieftink’s Relief Efforts in Indonesia have been rewarded.”
Rick is now a confirmed Java-o-phile, in the tradition of the Dutch side of his family – and plans to bring his wife Isabella and boys – Wim and Anders – back to Java next month. Isabella is head nurse at one of Perth’s biggest hospitals. She told me how all the hospitals in Perth send left-over medicines and operating equipment to the Sanur-based YAYASAN KEMANUSIAN INDONESIA (founded by Perth-born philanthropist John Forsyth).
There’s more to Western Australian-Indonesian relations than the Bali Memorial in King’s Park it transpires.

• • •

Flying home from Perth to Singapore, on Singapore Airlines, I notice that the art on the menu cover is by my old Singapore neighbour, Milenko Prvacki. It’s a lovely painting and perfectly suited for mass-production. There is a blurb about the artist – “a dislocated Serb” – on the inside cover of the menu.
“Prvacki challenges paintings representational paradigm,” it says.
“Jesus!” I thought, “If I knew he’d been next door challenging paradigms I would have kept my windows locked!!”
The same day, in the Jakarta Post, I read a review by Rachel Greaves on photographer Gill Marais’ new book, “ Bali – Secret and Sacred.”
”Mz Greaves tells us that the book “challenges the observer to delve beneath the veneer of commercial tourism.”
That it certainly does! One has to come up for oxygen the images are so challenging! And heart-warming.

Poster for Baron von Plesson’s “ Island of Demons”

But all this challenging is exhausting. Why do regional hacks have to make art appreciation sound so heavy?

• • •

On that note I must apologize for a huge mistake in my last column (Bali’s August aristocrats are up in arms!!). Famed ethno cinematographer and self-confessed demonologist Baron Victor “Bali-Island of Demons” Von Plesson did not do “Boys in the Sand”. That was Baron von Gloedon (“When the Germans weren’t making wars, darling, they were out photographing pretty Arab boys in the desert,” Marlene Dietrich once famously said).
Baron Victor von Plesson is a big hero in my books. He was in Bali in 1936 filming a Sang Hyang trance dance in Batubulan village when German painter Walter Spies invented the Ketjak dance!

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