As they left the place where they were born, the roots they pulled out maintained some of their ramifications;
from these sprouted plants that turned into trees. Today, I harvest the fruits from its branches.
Lie Djoen Liem and Ong King Nio had a 10th child, one whose body was materialized only in paper and ink: my uncle Wiro.
The first time I met uncle Wiro, I was thirteen years old. When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would always say a comic book artist. This decision was influenced by the comics I was surrounded by at home. It was only later, after I’d begun studying to be a comic artist, that I encountered Wiro. My father told me that my grandparents had made comic books as well, and from his archives he presented to me my unknown uncle: the second edition of Wiro Anak Rimba Indonesia (“Wiro, the Jungle Boy of Indonesia”) — an original copy from the 50’s and the only one that survived the migration and the many floods in his house in São Paulo.
The importance of this comic only made sense as I grew up and started to search for ways to understand the complexities of my family stories — how did I start to exist in Brazil and not in another place? What was the trajectory of the lives of those who came before that made my existence possible?
As I grew into adulthood, the first time I came to Indonesia was the first time I figured out how the life of this paper and ink uncle kept going. I listened to how Wiro became famous and stayed popular across three generations of youth in Indonesia. He became more and more present in the imaginations of many people — while all this time his parents, the authors, were gradually being left out.
I wondered what happened to erase Wiro’s authorship? By being republished many times, and growing in popularity, I understand it had a political relevance for its constant reappearance — Wiro represented a model of what a cisgender Indonesian man was supposed to be in this new era of patriarchal capitalism.
How much could someone with a Chinese name shape the identity of the new Indonesian? How much were the ones targeted for exclusion from the new national identity-building project also ironically contributing to it? What happens when a “minority” impacts a “majority”?
At the same time, none of my relatives knew about the fame of this “tenth sibling”. My father and my aunts did not know the proportions that Wiro would reach in their birth land, nor the range and the impact of the word famous in this context.
Emotionally I was impacted: to think that even Lie Djoen Liem and Ong King Nio erased themselves as artists and creators as they left to migrate to Brazil. Ong King Nio, in particular, suffered a double erasure due to gendered professional barriers of the time that stifled her as a female artist.
Did the changes from the migration cause so much trauma, to the point where the only possibility for beginning again required forgetting their own past?
In Brazil, they were the only family from Indonesia. From formerly wealthy and successful book entrepreneurs, to food vendors fighting for basic survival. In Semarang, they were creators of cultural artefacts that still influence Indonesia to this day, while in São Paulo, they were a group of migrants who were discriminated against by the racist and exclusionary gaze of Brazil. They had to choose between trauma (it reads Brazil) or non-survival (it reads Indonesia). Remembering was not useful because everything that took place post-immigration was the result of a destruction of what was before: a post-end.
It is ironic that the people who helped shape a narrative about the new post-independence Indonesian identity could not take part in their own construction. After Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands, it became urgent to forge this new profile in a massive way, and here Wiro worked well as national propaganda, by being a pop culture device. The values present in my grandparents’ biggest success, their biggest graphic creation, turned against who they were, creating a conflict between the new Indonesian identity vs. the pre-independence identity.
Wiro needed to forget about his parents in order to have the success that he desired since childhood: to dominate the wilderness of nature, conquer territories within the archipelago, fight his enemies with guns, ally with the West, and be rewarded with riches.
Today I consider that neither his parents, the authors, could know about what happened to its creation. All the republications of Wiro were made without their consent, perhaps due to communication barriers of that time which made it difficult to converse between Brazil and Indonesia, or perhaps because the absence of the authors made it easier to appropriate their artwork.
I look for non-binary ways to see all of this. Beyond the duality of light and darkness.
As artists, Lie Djoen Liem and Ong King Nio were able to create a work that survived by itself — Wiro, as a child, ran away from home after being slapped in the face by one of his parents and then looked for refuge in the jungle where he lived by himself, there, he was able to have his adventures. When he returned to human society, the ship with his authors had already set sail towards Brazil, while Wiro stayed in Indonesia. As time went by, new roots grews — Wiro’s in Indonesia, the Lies’ in Brazil.
As I also work with art, I’m an artist, I see this story as a contribution. To create something artistic that contributes to society and does not need to be constantly nourished by the artist as a reminder that their work exists. Differently from the contemporary world, where artists cannot be separated from their art, if they want to maintain relevance.
I see this as an echo, a legacy without intention, but yet, a legacy.
The question that walks with me for years referring to what I do is: How to create something that can contribute?
I feel that this was made by my grandparents — the legacy from what they did went beyond the limits of Toko Buku Liong and took dimensions that influenced, shaped and guided the desires of many — a reverberation through the ages.