A Bird’s Eye View of Potions and Paper Cranes

From Part 1: Sulis

After we got married, Mas Sujono moved into my tiny room with Grandma. The room seemed smaller with three people. As my stomach grew bigger, I still sold jamu and went from one street to another along the sidewalk. The scorching sun made my body wet with sweat.

Meanwhile, Mas Sujono worked for Babah Oen carrying textile rolls for a monthly wage. The money never reached me because he spent it on cigarettes, getting drunk on rice wine at the end of the alley, and gambling. After working for about two or three months, he wanted to quit.

“I’m tired of being a coolie. I want to be a soldier defending the country,” he said when I asked why he did not go to work.

The country was in a mess with the war going on and the Nippon invading our islands. I had heard the Nippon wanted to help Indonesian soldiers get independence from the Dutch. They said they were the elder brothers of the Indonesian people.

Maybe what the Nippon said was true. Their eyes and hair are black, just like Indonesians and not the Dutch, who have blue eyes and hair like corn silk. I also heard the Nippon ate rice instead of bread and potatoes like the Dutch. They were not as tall as the Dutch, and looked more like us except with narrower eyes.

Shootings and bomb explosions happened everywhere, and every day. We were always ready for evacuation when the siren wailed. Surabaya turned into a dead city. No one went out of the house. Newspapers and the radio said the Dutch were cornered but they did not want to give up Indonesia to the Nippon, so we lived with the sounds of whizzing bullets. It was not clear who fought, the Dutch against the Nippon or the Dutch against Indonesians. It was also not clear whether the Nippon were fighting with the Indonesian soldiers or they fought on their own.

None of this was important to me, but very important to Mas Sujono.

He liked to sit all day listening to news about the war from a neighbor’s radio while smoking his cigarettes. He made comments on the Dutch troops, who were losing. It seemed the Nippon would soon take over Surabaya. He was very enthusiastic about the Indonesian youths who joined the armed struggle.

“The people fighting for independence are heroes,” he said.

“Will we no longer be poor when this country is free?” I asked cynically. “Can the people you call heroes give us food? We will still have to work to feed ourselves, won’t we? That’s why you need to go to Babah Oen soon and ask him for work. You haven’t worked for a month,” I grumbled.

“What’s most important is this country’s freedom. Indonesia is much bigger than a jamu peddler’s basket,” he replied nonchalantly.

“I’m giving birth soon. We’ll need money.”


My pregnancy advanced, my legs became heavier, and I could no longer carry the basket on my back to sell jamu. My feet were also swollen, but I did not see any change in Mas Sujono. He did not care about my condition or that we fasted when we had nothing to eat.

I finally gave birth to a boy. With much fear I pushed him out of my womb into our poverty.


From Part 2: Tjoa Kim Hwa

I became a geisha when I was fourteen, after undergoing the mizuage to auction my virginity. Three rich and well-respected men in Kyoto bid on me. The housemother took me to them, and stripped off the layers of my obi and kimono until I stood naked.

The men looked like tigers ready to jump at their prey; their wild looks devoured my body.

Feeling uncomfortable, I moved my arms to cover my breasts, but the housemother jerked them back.

I was very surprised when my mizuage fetched the highest price among all the geishas of my graduation year in Gion. Yuriko-san said it was higher than hers.

“I told you already you’d be the most desired geisha, the most popular. I saw you grow up with an almost perfect body and face. Now you need to learn how to make men happy and give them ultimate satisfaction,” she said, laughing heartily.

Indeed, I became one of the most popular geishas not only in Gion, but also in Kyoto. I was attractive, young, and fresh, and good at playing the shamisen, singing, reading poetry, making conversation, massaging, and making my guests reach yonaki. Glamorous kimonos and obis, glittering hair ornaments, face powder, and perfume made my appearance perfect. My childhood dream had come true.

At the peak of my fame as a geisha, Yuriko-san suggested I follow Shosho Kobayashi to Java. She said it was a golden opportunity I should seize since he had an important position there. If I joined him, I would also be an important woman. Besides, I heard that Surabaya and Jakarta were well-known ports where ships from many different countries such as the Netherlands, England, Portugal, and Japan docked. There were bound to be many entertainment places, and as Shosho Kobayashi’s woman, I would receive special treatment.

At least I would not be just a geisha who had to compete with many others in Kyoto, and one day be removed because of old age. Being with Shosho Kobayashi meant I would only serve important guests with fat wallets.

I followed Yuriko-san’s instructions. Shosho Kobayashi bought me from the housemother of the okiya, who in turn trusted Yuriko-san with a sum of money one could buy a house with. Yuriko-san organized everything for me, including my departure to Java.

“You’re going with ten Chinese girls. Itsuka-san will take care of you when you arrive in Jakarta. You’ll stay there until Shosho Kobayashi gives further instructions. He has left for important business in Surabaya.

“One thing to always remember: Itsuka-san may have changed your identity but you remain Japanese. We always return. No matter how dark the sky, Japanese seek the sun because the sun is life. As Japan represents the sun, Japan is life,” Yuriko-san said when she saw me off.

“You must obey Shosho Kobayashi. Your duty is to serve him, make him happy, and provide him with ultimate satisfaction. He really likes you and bought you for a very high price. You are a very lucky geisha.” Yuriko-san ended her farewell with, “May good fortune always be with you.”

I diligently followed the arrangements Shosho Kobayashi had made. I stayed at Itsuka-san’s shop in Jakarta for two months before moving to a big dormitory in Surabaya as Tjoa Kim Hwa.

Shosho Kobayashi took me to a kurabu, or club, owned by Hanada-san on Kembang Jepun, an area mostly populated by Chinese. Many were merchants but some ran the restaurants and clubs only rich people could afford.

Along Kembang Jepun stood the biggest, best, and most expensive clubs. The women were young, pretty, and carefully selected. Most were Chinese and Javanese. The Chinese were not like those who were kidnapped and sent from the war zones to Java, but women from cross-marriages between Chinese and Javanese priyayis. The Javanese women used to be Dutch mistresses. Only the women taken as spoils of war from Chinese, Korean, and Javanese villages were put into the kurabus.

“Just stay here until everything is fixed. Whatever happens, don’t go anywhere. Everything will be all right. I’ll come back for you,” Shosho Kobayashi said when leaving me at the most expensive club on Kembang Jepun.

What did he mean by “until everything is fixed”?


From Part 3: Matsumi

Once I established myself as the top hostess, my rates increased. I carefully picked the guests I spent time with. I drank sake with ordinary guests, sang and played the shamisen for them, but I gave extra service to the important ones referred by Shosho Kobayashi. And of course, I received extra payment. Yuriko-san’s advice was deeply entrenched in my mind—make them happy and give them ultimate satisfaction.


I always followed what Yuriko-san told me when I served a guest.

Did I? My eyes burned and a sharp pain filled my chest.

Since meeting Sujono, I no longer paid attention to Yuriko-san’s lessons. Sujono changed my life. He gave me joy, but also grief when he turned my life upside down.

I started to chat with him because I didn’t have anyone else at Hanada-san’s club. The guests who bought my service were not interested in a genuine conversation. All the women at the club were jealous of each other, especially me because I received preferential treatment from Shosho Kobayashi and Hanada-san. They suspected me of being Japanese. However, they couldn’t prove it as everyone at the club had to speak Japanese and wear a kimono.

“I’m actually Japanese,” I admitted to Sujono. “My true name is Matsumi. Tjoa Kim Hwa is the name given to me when I was smuggled into this country. It is an absolute disgrace for a Japanese woman to work as a hostess in a foreign country. Japanese men don’t want to disgrace their own women in a foreign country.”

It happened naturally. I started to trust Sujono, and from him I learned to speak simple Indonesian. I had kept my true identity a secret until I revealed it to him. I needed someone I could talk to without fear. Before I kept this feeling to myself. As long as Shosho Kobayashi was there, life at the club remained easy and safe for me. But I felt so restless that I became afraid.

Who could bear such feelings alone?


Sujono was like sake—sweet, intoxicating, and making me fly. He was a dream.

Even as a geisha, I never knew what falling in love, loving, or being loved felt like. No man had flattered me. My duty was to satisfy every man who slept with me, and this obligation was firm in my heart and mind.

The more guests I satisfied, the higher my rate.

Sujono introduced me to a new world, one I never knew in my life as a geisha.

He was a seducer, romantic and passionate. He was like fire. He made me feel I was a woman. He made me fall in love.

“Matsumi, you’re like a princess. You’re beautiful, gentle, and desirable. I’ll never let you leave me. I want you to be mine,” he told me every day after showering me with his fiery kisses.

He not only worshipped me with words as sweet as honey, but also made me relish the sensations he created when he touched every part of my body. He was wild, fierce, and lustful—very different from my guests, older men with big stomachs and rolls of sagging fat; who were slow and had difficulty moving; who lay on their backs and gave orders for what they needed to reach yonaki.

Sujono made me feel seductive. He touched me like an artist sculpting a statue and caressed me like a painter stroking his brush on a piece of paper. He was a poet writing his poems on every part of my skin.

His attention made him a great lover. He embraced, caressed, kissed, and grappled with me in the clouds, on the crest of rolling waves driven by the wind. It was like the moon making love with the night, like the sun courting the light. We breathed, drenched in perspiration, passion escaping from the pores of my skin. He was intoxicating. Erotic. Irrational. He made me float, until one day I said to him, “I’m pregnant.”


My baby was as radiant as the first rays of the sun. Her skin was as soft as the snow on Mount Fujiyama, and her round clear eyes framed by thick dark eyebrows resembled those of a Javanese princess. I named her Kaguya.

“In the Japanese folktale, Kaguya is an angel who changed into a human,” I told Sujono.

I wished that my daughter would grow into an angel blessed with supernatural powers, and turn all that is ugly into something lovely with a simple chant. Maybe Kaguya’s presence would make my life enjoyable again. I wanted her fate to be as beautiful as her face, and life to treat her kindly. My fate did not match my face.


In my memory I went back to the evening I took Kaguya to the Hok An Kiong Temple and left her there.

Darkness had blanketed Surabaya’s sky as I walked with Kaguya in my arms through the silence of the night. My chest ached and my heart pounded so hard I could hear its beat. Tuan Tan walked quietly beside me. We passed the deserted Kembang Jepun; all the shops were closed, no sign of people, and no lights. We continued to walk to the temple at the junction of Slompretan and Coklat Street.

The temple’s gate and doors were locked when we arrived. It was very quiet. Tuan Tan knocked loudly. Soon, a teenage girl came running to open the gate and welcomed us inside.

The dim candlelight flickered from the wind when the door opened. There were huge candles as big as adults, little candles, and oil lamps. I also noticed the strong fragrance of incense sticks. I felt the eyes of the temple’s gods upon us. Two tall statues of wide-eyed guards stood at the front door, and in the room behind was a big altar and a statue of the goddess of Thien Shang Sheng Mu. In the back room was the goddess Kwan Im Po Sat, who has one thousand hands. The Chinese worship her as the goddess of compassion, who hears the cries of people who are suffering. She is known as kindhearted and helps those in distress.

Would she hear my cries?

Would the holy goddess the Chinese worship, be kind and help me—Matsumi—a Japanese woman, despised by the Chinese?

Kaguya tightened her grip. She seemed to sense a new chapter in her journey; she was going to have her own encounters with Life. God only knew if she would flow, float, fly or drown. I knew she was afraid because I had the same fear.


I asked her for a piece of paper and wrote KAGUYA in kanji. I handed the paper to my little girl, tears flowing down my face.

“Here is your name. Keep it. You’re Japanese. You have to return to Japan,” I sobbed.


From Part 4: Sujono

After that meeting at Hok An Kiong Temple, I visited Kaguya every morning and late afternoon, but the situation worsened. Kaguya became ill and refused to eat, drink, or play. She did not want to speak. All she did was cry and sit dreamily waiting for me to come, and every time I left her, she would blubber, scream, and struggle. She became a sad child.

Mama Nio, Tuan Tan, and I tried hard to comfort Kaguya but the little girl only stared at us miserably. She did not say a single word and tears streamed down her face. She did not understand how difficult life was outside the temple. All she wanted was just to be with me, her father, as she did not know where to find her mother.

As Kaguya’s condition worsened, we had to give in.

With Mama Nio and Tuan Tan’s permission, I decided to take her to my small and stuffy room. I had often cursed the Chinese because they were notorious for being stingy, yet these people had helped my daughter. Mama Nio and Tuan Tan’s generosity and humanity made them much richer than the Chinese who were only concerned with money. Not all of them were as bad as I thought. I owed them.


My chest hurt when I heard myself call for Matsumi inside my heart: Matsumi, where can you be? Kaguya is looking for you. She needs her mother.

The response was only the empty echo of my own voice.

But Sulis’s voice was loud and clear.

“Where’s the Nippon slut? Why did she leave you? Has she gone back to Japan? She’s left the suffering to you. What did you expect of a whore? Once a slut, always a slut. You take care of the slut’s daughter. Only an angel would do that.”

She sounded very satisfied. I was usually in control of our fights, but now she had won. She smirked, happy she could hurt Lestari and tuck a burning coal in the child’s little heart. I felt it, because the assault was meant for me.

Sulis never took care of Lestari. She refused to give her a shower and the girl who had always looked pretty and smelled nice turned into a filthy and shabby looking child.

Sulis let Lestari cry all day from hunger. She filled her own stomach before she let the child scrape the soft part of rice crusts. She let the two-year-old feed herself. When Lestari dropped food on the floor, Sulis roughly pulled the metal plate from her hands and hit the youngster in the mouth.

The plate’s bottom cut the corner of her lips. Blood drizzled from the cut. Lestari screamed. She was obviously in pain.

“That’s punishment for making the floor dirty.” Sulis clearly enjoyed the girl’s wailing.

To me, her words sounded like, “Look, I can make your child’s mouth bleed just like you do to me.”

There was much satisfaction and glory in each word she said.

I knew Sulis took out her anger toward me on Lestari. She also threw her hatred for Matsumi at the child. She had the heart to hurt a little girl like Lestari. Sulis often made up reasons to hurt Lestari while I was at work because she did not dare do it in front of me. I would not hesitate to hit her with my fists and give her the same bruises and cuts she put on my little girl. Although I tried to refrain from fighting with Sulis in front of Lestari, I could not help doing it when she had gone too far. But Sulis was a sly scorpion. She knew how much would be too much for me.

Knowing how much she had to suffer, my love for Lestari grew deeper. I got up early in the morning to give her a shower and feed her before leaving for work at the harbor. I did not want to see her dirty and starving, or for Sulis to hit her mouth with a plate. I always came home with cassava or fried banana because I knew she would not have had enough food.

Since I did not want Lestari to lack anything, I no longer worked only when I felt like it. I was willing to do any work to fulfill her needs and smoked fewer cigarettes to buy her a bag of candy. I liked seeing her happy after waiting for me at the door of our room and jumping up gleefully when I gave her the candy.
My love for Lestari was not the same as my feeling toward Joko. I never loved him like I loved her. I always put her needs before his, not because she was my daughter or because Sulis always mistreated her, but because she was Matsumi’s daughter. I loved that woman very much.

I always hoped that one day Matsumi would return to Indonesia and look for Lestari and me. I could not give her anything when she lived with me, even though she had given up her rich world where she never lacked anything. I had adored her too much, and loved her too much. I had been too selfish and I did not deserve her. What I did was drown her in a long suffering.

Now I wanted to prove that I could be responsible. I wanted to show Matsumi I could raise Lestari properly. Although I was poor, I would do my best, according to my feelings and abilities.


From Part 5: Lestari

Now I had found my mother, I poured out my terrible past. My real mother felt for my heartaches and injuries; any mother cried when her child cried and laughed when her child laughed. It is never too late to cry in front of one’s mother. After living for years like a thirsty pilgrim, I finally found an oasis in my mother.

Okasan’s tears streamed down as she listened to me. We cried and hugged each other. We shared the wounds inflicted over other wounds.

“Gomen nasai, forgive me. It was my mistake,” Matsumi repeated. “Kaguya, it wouldn’t have happened if I had kept you with me. I’ve done you wrong. I have sinned.” She wept, her lips trembling.

I took a deep breath and gasped. The tumult in my chest raged after I exposed the darkest part of my life. It felt as if a burden weighing more than a thousand tons had been lifted from me.

“Is that why you never married?” Okasan asked, sobbing.

I did not answer the question. It would only make my bleeding wounds hurt more. While the wounds would always be there, they would scab with time.

During the thick silence that followed we were left with our tears drying on our cheeks. After that, as if we had agreed, Okasan never talked about the scars on my face. It was like what I did with Father. We all had the same word in mind: forget. And there was only one way to forget, and that was not talk about it. And time would help us.

Maybe I could forget what happened to me, but I would not forget Father. He was the only man in my life. I did not know how he had loved or hurt Okasan, but I knew his love for her was very deep. He carried this love filled with regrets until his last breath.

I wanted her to know about him, and his love. I knew how much Father had pined for her. I had watched his yearning thicken and crystallize until he died. He had waited for Matsumi throughout his life. He only shared his longing with the sun and talked about it with his paper cranes. All he hoped for was to see her again.


Perhaps there is truth in the words of a poet that claimed love and hate to be as thin as an onionskin. Are they like two sides of the same coin that can be turned at anytime? Can hate instantly turn into love, and can love suddenly turn into hate?



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