From Chapter 1:
Bandung, Indonesia/The Dutch East Indies, 1932.
Carolien scooted deeper into the seat of the delman. A cold January wind rushed through the feathery leaves of the tall jacaranda trees lining the streets. She adjusted her woolen shawl to wrap once more around her neck and tried to relax as she was usually able to during her daily buggy ride home from work. Water drops cascading onto the canvas carriage roof sounded like a light drum roll. Pushing her hands deep into her coat pockets, Carolien rehearsed the question she planned to ask over dinner. She knew her mother and oldest brother would not be pleased and their attitude would set the stage. Carolien sighed. Why had she been born into such a traditional family?
The Malay driver clacked his tongue and flicked a whip lightly across the back of the horse as it trotted up the steep incline. They passed mansions surrounded by rolling lawns, colorful flowerbeds, and large trees. The late afternoon rain had left the streets dark and steaming. The outline of Tangkuban Prahu, the sleeping volcano, filled Bandung’s northern skyline with the image of a capsized boat. Today, the familiar sight seemed ominous. Carolien shivered. She wasn’t going to allow her boat to be overturned. Her boat was going to skim across the water with full sails.
All in all, she was fortunate. Her father had fallen into the good graces of the mayor of Bandung in the early 1900s, when he helped close a major opium den. He was shot during a raid, and the Dutch Dutch education, he also helped them secure positions in the colonial government. Chip, the oldest, had moved the family into this exclusive neighborhood and made sure that Carolien received a Dutch education as well, but she chafed against his rule. Did being the oldest male in a traditional Chinese family give him the right to decide her life?
The buggy driver urged his horse into Koninginnen Boulevard. “Stop at the gate by the big tamarind tree,” Carolien said in Malay, pointing ahead of the buggy.
The driver reined in his horse under the sprawling canopy of the old tree. Carolien paid the driver and rested her hand on the heavy latch of the wrought-iron gate before lifting the lever to open it.
The barking of German shepherds welcomed her as she walked toward the house. Dusk had begun to fall and, one by one, lights flicked on behind the windows. The outside lights painted broken shadows of shrubs and trees on the whitewashed walls. Carolien walked up the wide steps leading to the porch that wrapped around the house. Her mother and brothers would most likely be sitting in the livingroom. Nanna, whose hands were never at rest, would have some bead-work. Her brothers would be reading the evening paper. Sue, her older sister, was probably in the kitchen overseeing the finishing touches of dinner. Married at 16, Sue had moved back home after her husband died in a typhoid epidemic and she was pregnant with Eddie.
“Hurry! Hurry! Get the door! Carolien’s home,” the myna bird squealed.
Carolien hung her coat on the coat stand in the vestibule, next to the ornate mirror. She put her umbrella in the old Delft blue umbrella door along with a tantalizing mélange of scents coming from the kitchen. She knew going forward with her plan meant giving up this warm security. Could she do it? Would it be worth it in the end?
At dinner that evening Carolien scooted to the edge of her chair, her heart was racing. The light from the crystal chandelier reflected in the edged glass of the buffet doors. The rosewood of the altar table glowed with a deep warm sheen. Nanna quietly presided over the family dinner from her seat at the head of the table. The steam rising from the rice bowl carried the aroma of the golden chicken resting in a pool of coconut milk and turmeric, side dishes of braised tofu and stir fried vegetables.
Chip and Ting carried on a conversation about world politics and economics while the rest of the family remained silent out of respect. As the meal came to a close, Sue served the coffee and Carolien took a deep breath, smoothing her skirt. It was now or never.
“When can you receive Po Han?” Carolien’s voice dropped to almost a whisper and she kept her eyes on her cup. She had not directed her question to anyone in particular, but everyone would know it was meant for Nanna and Chip.
The steadfast tick-tock-tick-tock of the grandfather’s clock was the only sound piercing the sudden silence. If only she could come up with one thing her family would find favorable in Po Han.
Nanna excused her grandchildren from the table. The teenagers threw curious glances at the adults. Chip’s two daughters, Emma and Els, rushed out. But Eddie lingered, looking at Carolien. She met her nephew’s concerned look with a feeble smile.
“I think so. He didn’t say.…” Carolien bowed her head and turned her water glass on its crystal coaster.
Sue put down the coffee pot and rejoined the table. “Is it true that he doesn’t have any family other than that drunken grandmother? Why isn’t the old woman coming with him?”
Carolien bit her lip. Things were playing out just as she had expected. She had hoped that her sister might support her, but Sue had spent a lifetime catering to the wishes of the family. She would never go against Nanna, Chip, or their younger brother, Ting.
“We sent you to Dutch schools so you’d be an asset to some decent man’s household,” said Chip. “Your education would enhance his position and, in turn, secure yours. A typewriter salesman has little security to offer.”
Carolien crumpled the napkin in her lap. Chip never missed an opportunity to wield the authority that came from being the oldest son in a fatherless Chinese household. She threw her brother a sideways glance. It was no use arguing with Chip.
“I never agreed to take the risk that comes with exposing girls to the Western way of life,” Nanna said turning to Chip. “I warned you against Lien’s stubbornness.”
Only Nanna called Carolien by her birth name. She had been named Ong Kway Lien at birth. According to Chinese custom her family name, Ong, came first. The teachers of the Dutch School for Girls had altered the name to suit their tongue and habit. Thus, Ong Kway Lien became Carolien Ong.
“You turned down good suitors,” Sue said. “Why do you now want to marry someone who has neither a degree nor comes from a wealthy family?”
“I love him. I don’t need a husband with a degree who’d treat me like an exotic household fixture.” Carolien jutted out her chin. “Do any of you know what it means to be happy instead of just financially secure?” A deep condemning silence met Carolien’s outburst.
“Po Han says that if one is happy, all good things in life will follow, and I believe him.” Chip, Sue, and Ting remained silent, but Nanna spoke. “Happiness is peace. You won’t find peace unless you are secure. And you won’t find security in an unstable situation.” She reached for the small silver bell by her plate and rang for Mundi, the native houseboy. Then she walked across the room to the Buddhist altar where she worshipped the gods and family ancestors.
Nanna lit a few bunches of incense sticks and placed them in the urns. The curling smoke carried her prayers toward the ceiling and Nanna turned to Carolien. “What do you know of love?” she asked her daughter. “Love is what stands through misfortune. There is love when a woman’s loins have grown tired and a man still finds rest beside her.” Nanna’s words had such gravity that Carolien bowed her head. “Love is when a man chisels a cavity in a woman’s heart and the woman fills the gaping hole with concern for his well-being.” Nanna straightened her tall, wiry body. “Lien!” Carolien looked up and Nanna held her eyes. “After you’ve experienced any of this, then come and talk to me about love.”
Mundi entered the room with a large wooden tray and began to remove the dirty dishes.
Chip leaned across the table toward Carolien. “I forbid you to see him again.”
Carolien looked to Ting for support, but he looked away. “Next time I’m at the club,” Chip said, “I’ll drop the word that my pretty, intelligent sister is ready to settle down, and that the man she chooses to marry is lucky.”
Carolien rose. “You have no right to prevent me from seeing anyone. I’m thirty and you’re not my father,” she shouted, holding back tears.
“As long as you live under my roof, you shall respect your brother,” Nanna said as soon as Mundi had left the room. Then she turned to Chip. “You’re wrong to consider anyone who marries your sister lucky. The poor man will have a big headache!” Nanna left the room, the conversation was finished.
From Chapter 2:
Ocho dragged herself out of bed with a sigh. She had spent the night tossing and her hair had become undone. She gathered the long silver strands and twisted them into a knot she fastened on top of her head.
Roosters crowing and early vendors calling out their wares gave the morning familiarity, but this was not an ordinary day. Her awareness sharpened as the patterns of sunlight progressed along the wall. She glanced in her vanity mirror and massaged her face, but her drawn look remained.
Po Han had decided to marry Carolien. What could he possibly see in her? No self-respecting Chinese family would allow a girl to work in a Dutch office. A girl like Carolien would never know how to
Ocho lit the two charcoal stoves in the kitchen and began preparing steamed pork buns and coffee. She had tried to prevent the marriage by refusing to ask for Carolien’s hand on Po Han’s behalf, but her plan had failed. In their striving to emulate the Dutch, Carolien’s family had become shameless. How could they allow Carolien to leave the house and marry without permission? Even teahouse girls didn’t just take off without the proper exchange of visits between the proprietress and the man’s elders. Carolien’s behavior was worse than that of a prostitute or concubine.
When she heard Po Han in the dining room, Ocho brought him breakfast. Pouring his coffee with an unsteady hand, she spilled onto the saucer.
Po Han touched his grandmother’s arm. “Please try to understand. Carolien makes me happy. I don’t want a housekeeper, I want a wife.” Ocho pulled away from him. “You had a choice of many girls. Good families. But you have to choose some useless woman whose head is filled with Dutch nonsense.” Her voice broke as she took two pork buns out of the bamboo steamer and placed them on Po Han’s plate. “I just hope I’ll stay around long enough to take care of you.” Po Han pushed his plate away. “If only you’d listen–”
At the short blast of a claxon in front of the house he rose. “That’s Jaap. He’s picking me up. He’s my witness.” Po Han grabbed the handle of a small leather suitcase sitting on the floor by his chair. He stood for a moment, the suitcase dangling against his side, then rushed out of the room.
Standing in the doorway, Ocho watched Po Han hurry toward the this,” she whispered. “You’ll regret marrying a woman who doesn’t know when rice turns to porridge.”
From Chapter 10:
On a hot day in August of 1945, Nanna and Jenny were sitting at the back porch table, picking debris out of rice. They looked up when Ting flung the garage doors wide open and the tones of the Dutch national anthem blared through the air. “Listen! Listen! Ting waved his arms wildly and ran back into the garage.
Jenny jumped up and ran after him.
Nanna placed the basket of beans on the table, frowning. What was happening? Why was Ting giving away the radio’s hiding place? She followed Jenny to the garage. Sue, Emma and Els came running from different parts of the house.
In the garage, Ting stood by the soap crate he and Chip had used to camouflage the radio when the Japanese ordered all radios to be turned in. A Dutch voice boomed through the air. “As a result of the American bombings of Hioroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, the Japanese have surrendered to Allied Forces. The British forces are now in charge of the Netherlands’ Indies.”
“Listen to the news!” Ting shouted. Turning to Nanna, he continued, calmer. “I think the POW camps will be opened. Can you have Mundi get the cots out of the bomb shelter and fix up Chip’s room? Eddie and Carolien will be bringing home their camp liaisons.”
and the war was over. But did Ting really expect her to allow strangers in his brother’s room?
“Mundi. Quick. Bring a ladder and get the flag pole.” Ting ran into the house and returned with a folded piece of cloth, which he attached to the staff Mundi handed him. When Ting pulled the string, a big Dutch flag unfurled.
Nanna watched the red, white, and blue sweep over her roof with an ominous feeling of loss. She knew danger still lingered close.
The whole family gathered in a circle around the ladder while the servants watched from a small distance. Nanna overheard Rina, the old cook. “Bendera Belanda!” she whispered as the Dutch flag fluttered in the wind.
Her daughter Mia, the laundry maid, remained quiet, but Mundi murmured, “It won’t be for long.”
From Chapter 11:
Sukarno’s feverish orations reached Nanna’s servants’ quarters as well.
One afternoon Nanna was sitting on the front porch picking debris from a bag of mung beans when Mundi approached. He crouched to his haunches a respectable distance away and asked, “Grand Madam, may I please leave for a couple of hours after dinner? I’d like to attend the Progressive Meetings in the nearby native village.”
Nanna gave Mundi a once over. “Why do you have to do that?”
Mundi bowed deeper and said, “Grand Madam has been good to my family and me, but the population is suffering. You allowed me to go to school. I can read and write, but most of the people are kept in
Nanna reluctantly granted Mundi’s request. “Stay out of trouble and keep safe,” she warned.
“I will.” Mundi raised his head slightly. “And I’ll also try to keep harm from coming to Grand Madam’s household,” he said, and left as quietly as he came.
Nanna wondered what Mundi meant. The young native had spoken with a strength she hadn’t felt before and she had seen a faint glow around his head while he talked to her. From her seat she could hear low voices coming from the side of the house. She rose to see what was going on.
Mundi and Rina were engaged in a whispered conversation in the shade of a flaming poinsettia. As soon as he saw Nanna, Mundi walked off.
“Grand Madam, please forgive my son.” Rina fell to her knees. “He’s young and foolish. He doesn’t realize his own good fortune. Please keep him away from harm.”
The sound of Mundi’s garden broom scratching the path with rhythmic drags as he raked the dry leaves of the tamarind tree cut through the afternoon. Nanna thought of Chip and felt a strange closeness to the native woman who had served her for so many years. “Sometimes, Rina, we can’t keep our sons from moving forward on the path they choose,” she said.” All we can do is support them.”
During the next weeks Nanna paid extra attention to the news. The Dutch millitary expected native riots and a major uprising. Eddie’s unit was on alert, the entire city was on edge.
One afternoon, picking over rice on the front porch bench, Nanna noticed that Mundi kept sweeping along the frontage of her property, back and forth over the same section of dirt. Every so often, he paused to peer over the hedge of oleanders. She stiffened when Mundi threw his broom down and ran toward the gate.
Eddie pedaled through the gate and Mundi grabbed the bike to stop him. Eddie planted both feet on the ground. They were close enough for her to hear their conversation.
“Young Master, please…” The two young men had grown up together. Mundi, four years older than Eddie, had taught the boy how to climb trees and ride bikes. As a youngster, Eddie had shared his snacks with the native.
“What’s the matter?” Mundi took off his petji and ran a hand over his bared head before replacing the black cloth cap. He dropped a hand on the bike’s back fender. “I think it would be good to make sure people can’t climb over the back wall.”
Eddie leaned into his handlebars.
“I don’t want harm to come to Grand Madam’s household.” Mundi picked up his broom and went back to sweeping the garden with no further explanation.