Guido Schenkhuizen is currently documenting his life's story. It's not a war story but rather a tale of his mischievous adventures in the Dutch East Indies, going to the movies and running through sugarcane fields. He writes it down in English for his cousins, so they can see what life was like in the Dutch East Indies. But while writing, Guido was confronted with another view of his golden childhood, which raised many new questions.
Text Vivian Boon / Photos Ashley de Groot
We meet in sunny Azusa. Guido Schenkhuizen's (83) home in West Covina is being remodeled, so, for now, he lives in a tidy apartment complex with a ‘wooftop terrace.’ And yes, that's not a typo. The rooftop terrace of the complex has artificial turf with a fence around it so that residents with dogs can walk their four-legged friends there; thus, it is a Wooftop. ‘Yes, amazing, isn't it?’ Guido chuckles, ‘The things they come up with.’ We're standing on the terrace, gazing at Azusa's main street. ‘Do you know how this place got its name? Apparently, the founders named it after the alphabet, starting from A to Z, and then added "USA" to it - hence, Azusa.’ It can be as simple as that.
Guido is the son of Marguerite Lanzing and Henry Schenkhuizen. The Schenkhuizens are a household name in the Indo community in Los Angeles and neighboring regions. In the 1960s, they played a very active role in the Soos, the Indo-society founded in 1963. ‘I didn't like it at first, the Soos. However, my mother was the secretary, and she kept insisting: “You should come along; there are also a lot of volleyball players. It's a lot of fun.” So, I started playing volleyball. And a lot more happened at the Soos, there were performances, for example, and the drama and theater caught my attention. Your grandfather, Tjalie Robinson, who also lived here then, kept telling me, “Guido, you should out what you’d like to do; I'm sure you can write very well.” So that's what I started doing. After a while, we had a great group of people between 16 and 40 years old. We called ourselves the Young Indo Circle; we were really the dynamo of the Soos. René Creutzburg asked me if I wanted to be the stage manager, so I became "the man in charge of entertainment." I taught people acting, wrote entire plays, and together we made the most beautiful sets. We drew packed houses. As many as three hundred people came to a performance, all Indos, yes. We strove to be much more than simply an association where you would only eat and socialize, partly inspired by Tjalie. I look back on those days fondly.’
In the 1980s, the Soos ceased to exist. After all those years, inspiration had run out, and there was no one to continue the tradition. ‘I do believe the Kumpulans will remain here, but when my generation fades away, the Indo presence will be much less prominent. However, my cousins have shown a keen interest in Indo things’ That's why Guido decided to write his memoirs, although he considers that a big word. He wants people to know what he experienced when walking through the firebreaks, what going to the cinema was like, and the mischievous things he did. These are essentially stories about his life, so his cousins can read what it used to be like in the Dutch East Indies. He looks back on the most turbulent and beautiful years of his youth.
Guido Schenkhuizen was born in 1940 in Surabaya, a war child. His father was enlisted in the KNIL, captured just a few weeks after the war began, and taken to Changi in Singapore. He remained outside the camp with his mother and two older sisters until they were taken to a camp for protection during the Bersiap. ‘I have a clear memory of walking down the street in the middle of the night along with hundreds of other people towards the Simpang club. Once we arrived there, we boarded trucks headed to the camp. At that time, I was just five years old, and all I had with me was my guling, which I carried under my arm.
Now that I am older, I frequently reflect on my mother during that period. I hold great admiration for her. She was 38 then, had three children, and her husband was a prisoner of war. She has always been the most cheerful, optimistic woman I have ever known, not only toward us but to others as well. Whenever we had to relocate to a new camp, she would encourage us by saying, “Don't lose hope. Where we'll end up next, there will be waterfalls and rivers, you'll see.” She reassured everyone. And you know what? When we arrived at the next camp, there was a river running through it; it was green and cool, beautiful.’
After the war, the Schenkhuizen family moved to West Java to the Kadipaten sugar factory. ‘Those were my best years,’ Guido says. ‘From the age of 7 to 10, we lived there. My father became the chief accountant of the sugar company. And what a life we had there. My mother taught all three of us in the morning, and in the afternoons, we were allowed to roam freely in the beautiful gardens. We swam in rivers, there were mango and cherry trees, and we had all kinds of animals there, like goats, pigeons, and a monkey on a chain.’
'Milk! It made us gag'
The sugar company was attacked almost every night by extremists, many of whom were from that area. They set fire to the fields. ‘It got so bad that we had a contingent of the Huzaren van Boreel regiment stationed there. So those were the so-called Politionele Acties (police actions), but as a little boy, I had no idea. I mainly thought it was exciting and wonderful, very rousing. They were stationed in a large house across from us, all young men between the ages of 18 and 19. They didn't even know what they were there for, who we were, who the enemy was, or how to recognize them.
When we were attacked at night, we jumped into bed with my parents. I thought it was mainly exhilarating, but it truly traumatized my sister. If you had to go to the bathroom at night, you had to get out all the way in the back. A real Indo house, you know, with the toilet outside. Well, you couldn't pay us anything to go out, there were momoks everywhere there! My father had a commode made specifically for my mother. It's a cabinet with a door, which includes a bucket and some phenol. My mother was then allowed to pee in there, and fortunately, so were we.’
Despite the social tensions in the area, the years at Kadipaten were very happy ones. But that ended when the Schenkhuizen children had to attend a regular school and were boarded by a Dutch family in Bandung. ‘That family had just arrived from The Netherlands. Raising an Indo child vis-à-vis a Dutch child is completely different. They didn't understand it at all. We had bread for dinner in the evening. Well, you didn't do that in the Dutch East Indies. And we had to drink milk. Are you kidding me? Milk! It made us gag. We were no longer allowed to eat street food, no more toekang saté, which was supposedly dirty, and the food was full of bacteria, so they said. We felt utterly restricted. It was horrible. Only on Sunday evening were we allowed to sit in the upstairs room, with one of those dark red carpets on the table, and there we would get a glass of chocolate milk, which we liked. Afterward, we stood around a small organ, carefully brought over from The Netherlands, and we sang Reformed songs. The experience was quite bizarre for us.’
'I want to believe that they loved us'
Guido Schenkhuizen always looked back fondly on his happy childhood in the Dutch East Indies. Even while writing his life story. Until he read Revolusi by David van Reybrouck. ‘Suddenly, I got a completely different view of our history. I was really shocked. I thought: what happened over there? Were we that stupid that we didn't notice? Were we so self-absorbed that we only looked at what concerned us, never stopping to think about others? I read about the atrocities of the Dutch military and the KNIL, the dangers, and the extremists who wanted us out or dead. We had no knowledge of that at that time. I am referring to us, the children. My childhood was golden, but now I wonder if it truly was. I really wish I could talk about it with my parents.
I find the current debate about colonial times very complicated. Not everything colonial was inherently wrong. The Dutch really did do some beautiful things there. So much was built, for example. And no, the Administration had not been great, especially after declaring independence. In hindsight, I find those police actions unbelievable; how could an independent state be infiltrated by Dutch troops? How arrogant is that, really? If that were to happen today, a world war would immediately break out. So many promises were made and broken, so I can certainly understand why those Indonesians wanted the Dutch out. But I struggle with it a lot.’
The Schenkhuizen family embarked on the Oranje to The Netherlands in 1957. They were allowed three months' leave. ‘I was 17, but I remember thinking, “Something strange is happening; I don't think I'm coming back.” When we drove away from Bandung, our three servants were lined up in the driveway, standing at attention. And we waved, “Bye baboe, we'll be back!” But I will never forget their faces. They looked at us like: you are not coming back. As if they knew more. These days I often find myself wondering, did they hate us too? Was it only about the money? I want to believe that they loved us.’
‘We arrived in IJmuiden via Southampton, and the first thing we disliked was the overwhelming smell of fish. Terrible, we thought, “Is this The Netherlands, that fish smell?” We only stayed in The Netherlands for five years, then my parents told me they wanted to emigrate. And I was so tired after my service that I decided to come along rather than study at Nijenrode, which is what I really wanted to do. July 4, 1962, we arrived in Pasadena. It was hot; I was soaked in sweat. My sister and her friends were waiting there; she had made the crossing before. I thought it was terrible, hot, and annoying and wanted to return immediately. But well, my father died after only six months. So I stayed.’
'Im not an outspoken Indo'
After six years, things turned around. By then, Guido was used to American life and thought The Netherlands was simply small-scale. But he doesn't feel entirely American. ‘I also feel Indo. I can't deny that. Although I'm not an outspoken Indo. When the Soos started, I didn't like it at all, but the language, the Petjoh, oh, I love it. And the food, of course. But then again, I'm not too fond of Indonesia; I wouldn't want to live there. I feel that I am thinking more and more like an American. I feel 'in between,' really.