The Decades Between January 2nd and 21st

Interview by Daniel Lie with their aunt Nio Lian Lie ( a.k.a. Aunt Yani), at São Paulo/Brazil on January 22, 2016.

In memoriam of Nio Lian Lie :  January 1947 — January 2020

Pappie = Lie Djoen Liem
Mammie = Ong King Nio

Daniel Lie (D): Your birthday was recently, wasn’t it?

Yani (Y): Yes, January the 2nd.

D: Congratulations!

Y: Also yesterday… January the 21st, do you know why?

D: Why?

Y: When I left Indonesia, we left in January on the eve of my birthday. I believe that the papers for traveling were made in December. I just don’t know if they realized that I was not the one they requested for in the identity papers, of course, but instead of January 2nd 1947, it was January 21st 1947.

D: Was this here in Brazil or in Indonesia?

Y: In Indonesia. It was written on my passport. When I got here, I tried to correct this in the naturalization process. Because at immigration nobody saw it and I didn’t see it either. For me, my birthday was always January 2nd, then in 1977, when I was naturalizing myself as a Brazilian, I was working on this process for myself, my sister Ineke, my mother (Mammie) and my father (Pappie) and then, I tried to correct it. I attached the necessary documents and birth certificate. I don’t know what happened, when my naturalized document arrived, it was still there: January 21st. Someone told me to leave it as it is, because it  would take a long time to correct it. It really took almost one year to get this document ready, and I had to make it in another city. With family and friends, I celebrate it on the 2nd, but in formal situations my birthday is on the 21st.

[Yani died in January this year, and her funeral and cremation ceremonies were also held on January 21st, 2020.]

D: It is very common in immigrant stories that dates are wrong and names are wrong.

Y: That’s right. I went to the immigrants’ center to make the change, which happened when the family farm was purchased, in 1962. I was still using my old name which is Lie Lian Nio, and then I was naturalized in 1968.

D: And then you inverted the family name? [In Brazilian standards, the family name is at the end.]

Y: Actually, I just put Lie at the end of my name — Nio Lian Lie. Did you know that your grandmother gave a Dutch name to everyone?

D: I didn’t know, why was that?

Y: She and Pappie were educated during the Dutch colony. It may be that she thought it was beautiful, but I never asked why she did it.

D: But there is no one in our family who is Dutch or of direct Dutch descent, is there?

Y: No, everyone is Indo-Chinese. The ancestors, I don’t know how many previous generations before us were really Chinese. Your grandfather’s grandfather was Chinese and after that only Indonesian.

Regarding the Dutch name — for example, your uncle Chessy has the Dutch name Chester.

D: But where? In the document?

Y: No, to tell you the truth no one ever called Chessy as “Chester”, but the abbreviation from the Dutch name. They call me Yani, because Pappie calls me Liani, not Yani, as if it was a nickname. I don’t know why your aunt Ineke (Ing) is called like that, but I saw her other name Inglin somewhere. Yonky, really Yonky. Benny, really Benny. Your father stayed with Genky. After your dad, the other children were not given Dutch names but just nicknames. Benny’s name is Bie, then Bie became Benny.

Ana’s nickname is Jeanne and she has Ana as her social name.

D: So you actually have three names?

Y: Yes, three names: house name — the nickname; The Dutch name and the Chinese name which are the official ones.

D: Actually there are four because everyone is called Lie here in Brazil, right?

Y: But Lie is a surname.

D: When you naturalized, you reversed your name. My father did not reverse it according to the Brazilian rule, so Lie became his first name.

Y: All your other aunts’ nicknames came from the Chinese name, but not all the children had the Dutch name.

D: What is the story of Pappie and Mammie? How did they meet …?

Y: I don’t know their story exactly. I heard some excerpts; I didn’t ask and they didn’t tell me, but I heard and remembered some parts. I didn’t get to ask them this question like you are asking me. Maybe today you would ask them, but what I know is this: both were studying, I don’t know if they met at school, both were taking a middle course called MULO [1] [More Advanced Low Education school during the Dutch occupation][2]  — the level of Dutch, I don’t know if it’s an abbreviation. They got married in the middle of World War 2. Before the bookstore, they had a library that lent books, so they knew Dutch soldiers who gave us canned goods imported only for soldiers, which in Indonesia at that time was a luxury. This was something they got from them and they and the Dutch soldiers became friends. Maybe this was a way of protecting the library. Over time it became the bookstore and they worked there until we left. The bookshop was the most known in the city of Semarang, as it was in front of a church (Blenduk church), so famous that when I was at school, they called me the daughter of the Liong bookshop — Toko Buku Liong.

D: Did Pappie and Mammie also produce the books?

Y: So Mammie made the cooking books and Pappie produced the comic books. [Another aunt of mine, Ineke, recalls that Mammie also took part in creating the comic books together with Pappie.] I had been earning my money since I was eight years old. Mammie didn’t like us having friends inside the house, she didn’t like that in Brazil either. I was the eldest daughter and I always obeyed orders, but my younger siblings didn’t care and called the neighbors in to play since Pappie and Mammie were in the bookstore all day. After class my sister Ing would go home, which was on the same street as the bookstore, about 5 or 6 blocks away. I would go there by walking or by bicycle. Imagine I was eight, I rode my bike, with Ing on the back. Today I can’t even take a bike ride anymore because I don’t have the balance to stay on top. [Yani’s health was very shaken by kidney failure from the 90’s until her death in 2020]. I liked the atmosphere books give, I learned English at the age of eight, and every two months a box came from the Netherlands with newspapers inside and I was solving the newspaper games in English. Also when I was eight years old, I worked at the cashier, so my grandfather,  Pappie’s father, was on the other side to check the customers’ change. Mammie’s father died a few days before I was born.

D: Mammie also died a few days before my brother was born.

Y: I was told this information is in a letter that I haven’t had the courage to open yet. A letter from Mammie about her father’s death.

One of Pappie’s productions was comic books, did you know?

D: I do, I have an edition.

Y: Where did you buy it from?

D: It was Pappie’s, then he gave it to my dad and then to me.

Y: Ah, your father took it. He must have taken some from the family’s old home. Is it Wiro?

D: Yes, Wiro. There were some at home since I was a child and one or other from the Pappie’s old home..

Y: There was a cartoonist who drew the comic books [many of Yani’s other siblings recall that Mammie and Ing’s future husband, Om, were actively contributing to the drawings and scenes of Wiro], Pappie wrote the stories, and every month there was a new edition. Then, when the new edition of the month would come out, I would take a small table and stay in front of the store and sell the month’s launch and take 25% commission from the sales. At the end of the day, after making the arrangement, I would go to the stationery section and then choose pens, erasers, paper… and exchange my money for that.

D: Was this stationery section also part of Toko Buku Liong?

Y: Yes, the publisher and bookstore belonged to Pappie and Mammie. There was a part of Mammie’s family who took over the bookstore, I don’t know if it was negotiated or if it was donated.

D: After you left for Brazil?

Y: Before leaving, they already did the deal. Did you know that Pappie arrived here 3 months before the family?

D: Yes.

Y: Even before Pappie came here, he got everything sorted and ready for us to embark as soon as he called, so it was like that.

D: All the other children were already born by then?

Y:  Yes, from me to Swanny — eight children, and Lili [the 9th child] was born here in Brazil in the 60s. But all eight of us were with Mammie ([during the migration]) and that bookstore employee [Om] who came along and later became the father of your cousins.

D: But were you eight years old?

Y: No, I was already twelve years old. Had just turned in January. That difference of 20 days of the exchange of my birthday would have cost me a full ticket, charged for those above twelve. I think that this mistake was because of my age. At the time, the age limit was twelve for the tickets to be free or discounted.

We left Indonesia to Singapore by plane, we stayed there for about seven days until the ship, called Cicalinka (Tchitchalinka) came to Singapore, and from there we came to Brazil by the African coast.

D: But back in Indonesia, how was the exit, the decision to leave?

Y: Actually there is no history of war. At the time when we left, things were in peace, there was no Sukarno as a dictator. We did not feel pressured — or at least as a child, I did not perceive it. I always knew that the story of coming here started with Pappie talking  to a friend about it. He traveled a lot, I don’t know if you saw a photo of the car accident, the whole family was inside, then the car turned… Thankfully, that didn’t hurt anyone. Pappie traveled a lot.

D: Within Indonesia or around the world?

Y: Within Indonesia, on the island of Java itself — one side for Jakarta, or on the other for Surabaya. He lived on the island. He came here, arranging with a friend to come to Brazil, but I do not know what happened that the friend ended up in Canada and he, here in Santos (a city where many migrants arrived in Southeastern Brazil). This friend met him decades later in Canada.

He always said that: it was for the future of his children. Maybe he didn’t see any prospects in Indonesia anymore.

He was right…  You know that Pappie was a visionary. It really was like he could see things before they even happened, so much so that these things that exist today, like the restaurant ticket, was his idea when he opened new businesses.

The main idea of the immigration was for the children’s future, he always said that. And it was, it worked, we have to thank him. Here is slightly better than Indonesia.

D: Because at the same time, as they didn’t have so much political pressure, they managed to sell the bookstore, make the deals, but was this process of coming here legal or illegal?

Y: Well, I don’t know exactly, someone told me that they left as tourists, or as immigrants, I don’t have the old passport to confirm this. I just know that we were registered legally at the immigration department.

D: Do you remember when you came to Brazil? The whole situation, the whole journey?

Y: When Pappie arrived here, he already had a house in Piraporinha, a huge house, with a huge garden, well-located. Our first home.

D: But I want to be more specific, did Mammie tell you about leaving Indonesia, going to Brazil, to change countries?

Y: This was explained to the children, we could not understand it properly, but I knew I was going to leave, the whole part of the school was resolved and closed. That school year I had already taken three months and left the study. After arriving here almost everyone who was still school-aged was immediately placed in a public school.

D: Without knowing how to speak Portuguese?

Y: We learned Portuguese at school, do you know how I did it? I used to buy magazines, very popular ones by artists to understand what was written. I didn’t have a Portuguese-Indonesian dictionary at the time, now there is Google.

D: But Pappie made a Portuguese-Indonesian dictionary.

Y: No, not at that time, much later. In order to learn, I would take a Portuguese to English, and English to Indonesian dictionary and set up a notebook with the new words. I still do that with new words.

At the time, Pappie opened a small shop in front of our house to sell food.

D: Do you remember the trip to Brazil?

Y: Yes, I remember the apples, which were a rarity and a luxury in Indonesia, and I had it on the ship. On the fourth day I was sick of it and I still can’t eat apples till this day.

D: How long was the ship trip? Forty days?

Y: Forty days, and there was an event when we almost died. One night, while passing through South Africa, water came in. Luckily they managed to get it out, but it was the most suffocating night.

D: Did you take furniture?

Y: No, only clothes. Before coming here, Mammie learned how to make a lot of snacks to prepare so she already had some knowledge to apply. This I remember, that she was preparing.

D: But as a family do you think it was very difficult to come to Brazil, to settle, to move from Asia?

Y: The difficulty was the language, the adaptation, but since we were all children it was not so much. It must have been very difficult for Pappie and Mammie, because before there was more abundance. [The Lie family, previously wealthy in Indonesia, became destitute during the migration process.] For the children who left at two, three and four years old, it was just a change of place. They did not feel any cultural differences beyond the climate, which I think scared everyone, waking up to the cold climate of Southeastern Brazil, something that did not even exist in Indonesia. But the siblings over six or seven years old could realize the change. The younger ones didn’t even feel it.

D: My father is practically Brazilian, as he arrived at the age of two.

Y: I was able to feel more because I was twelve years old. In addition to remembering Indonesia, I have the clarity of this change.

D: I don’t know if you know, after the authoritarian regime started in Indonesia, there were many deaths….

Y: Yes, it was worse, worse than that.

D: Something very nefarious.

Y: It was not the dictatorship that gave rise to racial segregation. It was the fact that the natives attacked the descendants of Chinese. I heard cases of rapes of Chinese descent women by Indonesians. I don’t know if it happened for revenge or for what reason, but it was a lot. When I saw this on television I thought — thankfully we are in Brazil — because otherwise we would have all been subject to that.

I saw the story that shop owners, descendants of Chinese, had to stay in the back of the store, because in the front there had to be an Indonesian to be safe, so that people would think that the store was Indonesian-owned. The real owner needed to stay hidden. I had an uncle from Indonesia who sent me a newspaper, he bought old newspapers and sent me large amounts. I picked them up at my neighborhood’s post office, magazines and newspapers that he gathered for us to read here in Brazil and find out about the facts from Indonesia.

D: Did you have a family member who was murdered?

Y: No… At least what I knew is that they died naturally. That’s why I say, the dictatorship there must have been the same here because it was the CIA that must have infiltrated. The same time, 1964/1965. So the CIA must have infiltrated several countries, but that’s what I know. For the dictatorship here in Brazil, I was very alienated. I saw marches, but I was an outsider.

D: From what I studied, in Indonesia they killed more than 1.5 million people in the Suharto period.

Y:  Who did they kill?

D: Everyone who was considered a communist or who was considered a simpatizante was murdered. What I said to Swanny [my aunt, Yani’s sister], she said that in Semarang this type of murder did not happen.

Y: I don’t know either because I didn’t follow. What I know is what I said. What was striking, again, was the change. The uncles we had to leave behind, brothers of Mammie of whom two are still alive, and one from Pappie’s side also still alive. When we left Pappie’s father and mother, they were still alive. Mammie’s parents were already dead, her mother also died young, she was 55 years old. [Mammie also passed away young, at the age of 61 years old.] This uncle had to change his name, change the Chinese name with the Indonesian name. I don’t know if this is a consequence of the dictatorship. I don’t think it has anything to do with it, because they were after the communists. And I think it wasn’t even for nationalism.