Batavia, Friday, October 14 1740
Five Days After the Chinese Massacre
From her bedroom window, Sari saw the herons circling high up in the sky. Their squeaks echoed the terrified screams below them. Their red and orange streaks in the sky emulated the steadily burning fires around her.
It had been five days since Mrs. Carolien, her mistress, had sent her home, without specifying how long she was to stay there. Sari had spent the time at home listening to the ear-piercing noises that filled the air: a cacophony of angry shouts in Malay and Dutch, anguished screaming in Chinese, clashing swords, and rattling gunfire.
Mrs. Carolien had told Sari that the Chinese were being butchered — during a riot the Chinese had killed fifty Dutch people.
Now, Sari thought of Xiao Li, her best friend. “Oh, Xiao Li, where are you now?” she whispered.
Sari had only worked a few weeks for Mrs. Carolien when she met Xiao Li last year. Usually, fifteen-year-old girls were already married, but no one wanted to marry Sari because of her cleft lip. Even worse, no one would hire her, until one day, her neighbor, who worked as a maid in the Dutch barracks, offered her a job in Mr. Willem’s household. Mr. Willem was a high-ranking Dutch officer, and Sari was assigned to serve his wife, Mrs. Carolien.
Mrs. Carolien loved to collect silk cloths. According to her, silk enhanced her beauty.
Every Saturday, after Mrs. Carolien finished her breakfast, Sari accompanied her to the Tanah Abang Market.
Xiao Li’s family owned a fabric shop in the eastern part of the market, near the grocers. On the day that Sari met Xiao Li, the store was not crowded. Other than a plump Chinese woman, there were only Sari, Mrs. Carolien, and her friend.
Sari rummaged through the remnants bin near the cash register while waiting for her employer and her friend to finish their shopping. After the shopkeeper gave the plump Chinese woman her change, the shop boy, who had been standing next to him at the cash register, quickly picked up the roll of cloth the lady had purchased and started to carry it to a waiting carriage in front of the shop.
As they were leaving the shop, Sari heard a soft clink — a silver coin rolled across the shiny ceramic floor tile. If that coin is not inside the owner’s purse, anyone can pick it up, right? Sari spontaneously walked toward the coin while thinking of things she could buy with it later on.
She was just about to pick up the coin, when the shop boy, who had finished carrying the lady’s purchase, beat her to it. But the boy didn’t put the coin in his white shorts’ pocket. Standing in the store’s door opening, Sari saw him run after the carriage and return the coin to the plump Chinese woman.
Sari turned and walked to the back of the shop. Leaning against one of the showcases, she watched the boy take a seat on a tall stool near the cash register. He used the tip of the towel he wore around his neck to wipe the perspiration off his face. His cheeks were as red as the sliced tomatoes Sari put on Mrs. Carolien’s sandwich.
When their eyes met, Sari quickly looked away to a bolt of red cloth in front of her. Hot flashes ran through her when she saw, from the corner of her eye, that that the boy had climbed off his stool and was approaching her.
“Hi,” he said.
Sari blinked and looked at the boy in disbelief. There weren’t many people who wanted to talk to her. She knew that some people believed that looking at her disfigured face for too long could bring them misfortune. Outside of her family, this Chinese boy was the first person who had ever started a conversation with her.
“I’m Xiao Li,” he introduced himself. “What’s your name?”
“Sari,” she answered shyly.
“Sali,” the boy nodded.
Sari smiled; she knew that Chinese people could not properly pronounce the “r” sound.
After that day, Sari and Xiao Li spent a lot of time together. In the late afternoon, when Mrs. Carolien had tea with her friends and Xiao Li was done helping his father, Sari and Xiao Li walked to the riverbank of Kali Besar to watch the sunset.
Xiao Li told Sari that life was not easy for the Chinese in Batavia. The law mandated that all Chinese who lived in Batavia had to register themselves. The wealthy Chinese were coerced into giving their money to the Dutch. Some of Xiao Li’s friends, who were so poor they only had only two pieces of clothing, were forcefully shipped to Ceylon. No one knew whether they arrived safely. There were rumors that they were being dumped into the sea.
Xiao Li said that most of the poor Chinese who still lived in Batavia had become laborers in the Dutch sugar mills. But recently, a lot of them were let go because of the declining price of sugar. It seemed many Chinese were disgruntled with the Dutch’s arbitrary attitude and decided to rebel.
Sari remembered that during their last meeting, Xiao Li said that the Chinese were going to attack the Dutch in the near future. He had eavesdropped on an invitation from his father’s friend, who had come in the middle of the night to ask his father to join the uprising. His father blatantly refused the invitation; he never had problems with the Dutch. But from that moment on, Xiao Li knew that Batavia was no longer safe.
At the end of that day, Xiao Li took a piece of red silk cloth out of his pocket. He draped the thin, smooth fabric around Sari’s shoulders. “Keep this as a token of our friendship; as a symbol of my feelings for you.” He quickly placed a light kiss on Sari’s forehead, then walked away and disappeared.
Sari’s reverie was broken when Emak, her mother, called her to help brew coffee for Bapak and Mas Ario, her brother.
In the living room, her father and Mas Ario were complaining. They hadn’t received any wages because the supervisors of the sugar cane fields had not allowed them to work for the past few days.
“My friends are going to town to plunder those greedy Chinese,” Mas Ario said. “Tomorrow, I want to join them. It’s better than staying home.”
“Ah, my leg hurts,” Bapak grumbled. “You go. Bring home lots of valuables. People say they have nice urns. Hopefully they were not broken by explosives, so we can sell them. It is unfair that the Chinese are rich while we continue to be poor.”
“Take as much as you can, Son,” Emak added. “Yesterday, I heard that the Chinese want to make us their slaves. If we refuse, we will be killed, like they are being killed today. They know now what it means to be slaughtered.”
Sari brought the coffee to the living room and placed the tray on the table. She timidly sat down next to Emak and looked at Bapak and Mas Ario, who sipped their coffee. Her voice trembled when she asked, “Why do you hate the Chinese so much? Have they ever disturbed us?”
Three pairs of eyes filled with judgment shifted to her.
“You’re a girl. What do you know?” Bapak snapped. “The Chinese dominate the city center, taking what’s ours. Did you forget that we used to own a sugar mill? Even if it was small, it was ours. They have a lot of money, but still, they pushed us to the outskirts. How much greedier can they get?”
“Hush! How dare you talk back to your father?” Emak interrupted shrilly.
Sari had no intention of talking back to Bapak. She knew that he was hurt because the Chinese had taken over his business, and, consequently, he and Mas Ario now had to be field hands at the sugar cane plantation. Sari only wanted to point out that not all Chinese were bad, and that the family should not blame all Chinese for their current situation. But, before she could speak her mind, someone knocked on the door.
Emak rushed to open it.
The cane plantation supervisor and two Dutch soldiers stood in the doorway.
“Good evening, ma’am, sir,” the supervisor said. “I’m here to inform you that the Dutch government is offering two ducats for every Chinese head.”
Bapak and Mas Ario quickly rose from their seats, eager to find out more about the offer.
Sari froze as she listened to the announcement.
“This is not right,” Sari muttered after the supervisor and the Dutch soldiers left. She had never seen Bapak, Emak and Mas Ario’s eyes glitter like that before.
Bapak grabbed a machete while Mas Ario took a hoe. Sari grabbed Mas Ario’s hand and tried to keep him from going out of the house. Emak pulled her back.
“You’re a girl!” Bapak yelled. “Don’t act up! Sit down and be quiet!”
Emak forced Sari to sit in the chair, even though she continued to struggle.
That night, Bapak and Mas Ario did not come home.
The next day, Sari went into town. Every step she took was sticky and splashed blood that was pooled on the ground. The blood was redder than the sunset. It was redder than the brick walls of Mrs. Carolien’s house. The Kali Besar that flowed between the footpath and rice field had changed color — it, too, was now red. Sari trembled as she stepped over dead bodies. Her tears flowed faster when she saw a lifeless baby in the embrace of his mother’s corpse.
Dutch soldiers jabbed bayonets into every body lying on the ground. There were no groans — no shrieks. The dead children she saw were not killed by accident; they were murdered. She pictured those children running around on the streets and getting shot in the head, and those who hid in the bushes getting stabbed in the heart. Nauseated, Sari bent and vomited.
There was just a little bit of daylight left. In the neighboring village, where Xiao Li and his family lived, many more Chinese corpses lay scattered on the ground.
Village locals, friends of Bapak and Mas Ario, and Dutch soldiers watched Sari suspiciously. Some of them looted houses. Others set houses on fire. Still others stabbed the corpses on the ground.
“Hey! What are you doing here?”
Sari jumped when she heard Mas Ario’s voice calling out to her. He was standing on a porch, his arms filled with ceramic plates and silver spoons. His clothes and skin were splattered with blood.
“I … I was looking for you and Bapak. We were worried about you.” Sari trembled. She hoped that her brother would not catch her lie.
Mas Ario shot his sister an infuriated look. He went back into the house and came out carrying more loot.
That evening, as Sari walked home behind Bapak and Mas Ario, who carried valuables for Emak, the village was completely consumed by fire. Sari finally couldn’t take it anymore and screamed, “Why? Why did everyone need to be killed, Mas? Why?” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “What did they do wrong? Why were those children murdered too? Children, Mas. Children!” Sari sobbed.
“It’s better to eradicate pests at their roots, “Ario shouted without looking back at her.” That way, they can’t grow anymore. Let this teach them not to mess with us.” He hurried away leaving Sari in the middle of the chaos.
That night, Sari couldn’t sleep at all.
On Saturday, October 22, 1740, Adriaan Valckenier, Governor-General of the Netherlands, issued an order to stop the Chinese massacre.
One week later a Dutch soldier knocked on Sari’s door. He said that Mrs. Carolien had sent him to pick Sari up to return to her house.
Carrying some clothes wrapped in a sarong, Sari followed the man to Mrs. Carolien’s house.
The metallic odor of blood was gone. The soil was no longer drenched by blood. There were no more dead bodies lying on the ground.
Mrs. Carolien greeted Sari. Gently, she asked Sari to do her usual chores, but she never again asked Sari to go shopping with her at Tanah Abang Market.
During her break time in the early evening, before she had to serve Mr. Willem and Mrs. Carolien their dinner, Sari went to watch the sunset from under the cottonwood tree on the bank of Kali Besar, where she had so often watched the sunset with Xiao Li.
Holding back her grief Sari closed her eyes. The red sunset reminded her of blazing fires, flowing blood, screams of fear, and Xiao Li. Since Sunday, October 9, 1740, when the Chinese Massacre happened, since she lost Xiao Li, sunsets were no longer the same. The sunset now was just a wound that drained her soul.
Sari leaned against the trunk of the cottonwood tree. She pulled out a red silk cloth from the folds of her cummerbund. She slowly wrapped the cloth around her shoulders. Xiao Li. Sari stroked her shoulders and her arms. She was sure, one day, even if she did not know when, she would stand beside Xiao Li again.