Friday, December 8, 2023 | 20:16 WIB

The house in Tugu and its literary circle. Part VI: Beb Vuyck and those who love red

IO – My father grew roses in Tugu but they were not his favourite flower. Those were the flaming red amaryllis lilies. When he first discovered them, with the impulsiveness and ardor of an artist he instructed the gardener to replace nearly every flower in the Tugu garden with amaryllis lilies. My mother and I watched in silent distress; silent because we knew it was pointless to argue with him in the midst of an enthusiasm but that did not mean we accepted it. Without any discussion both of us simply waited patiently and then very gradually over a period of months quietly replaced the amaryllis bulbs with the old flowers again – leaving of course, a large bed of amaryllis for my father to still enjoy. He never noticed, or forgot about the lilies as more urgent and interesting matters pressed upon him or perhaps, he simply came to see that many varieties of flowers were really preferable in such a large garden.

Red Amaryllis lilies were my father’s favourite flowers. Photo credit: Sergei Kazantsev, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I think bringing seeds and plants from one place to another was a curious habit of Takdir’s Sumatran family. He had an older brother who was a member of parliament but finally, retreated to Sumatra in disgust at all the corruption in Jakarta. He planted a citrus orchard in Payakumbuh and his wife (who was also his cousin) brought clematis to Tugu and took some cuttings and seeds to disperse in other places she visited. One of the plants that my father brought from a visit to Bengkulu was the striking orangey red Clerodendrum paniculatum with flowers ascending like a mountain. This was planted in a bed of fiery red salvia. Red was so clearly his favourite colour.

Puti Balkis Alisjahbana. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (copyright PT. Dian Rakyat)

Red was also the favourite colour of a younger sister of my father, Balkis Alisjahbana. This favourite aunt went to the extremes of having her whole living room in red including the carpet, curtains, sofa, television and telephone – we always wondered where she managed to find a red television. Balkis began her career as a journalist and won an award for an article she wrote about the children’s prison in Tangerang and STICUSA then sent her on a 6-months press tour to several European countries. Later, she worked for the BBC and only returned to Indonesia many years later. All her life, Balkis wrote short stories and poems for the newspaper and lastly a book about the history of Natal where she and my father were born. For some reason it went down very well in Malaysia, and she was delighted at the invitations she received to speak there about Natal.

Natal ranah nan data by my aunt, Puti Balkis Alisjahbana Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

A close friend of my parents who also adored the colour red, was the Eurasian writer Beb Vuyck who had the same resilience, passion, energy and optimism as both my aunt and my father. She was born in 1905 in the Netherlands where she was raised and began writing short stories for magazines already while in Holland. Beb came to Indonesia in 1929 because she wanted to travel and see the land of her Madurese grandmother with whom she identified. On the ship going out, she met her husband Fernand de Willigen, a Eurasian planter whom she later married. At first, they lived on a tea plantation in Java and she wrote a book, Duizend Eilanden or ‘Thousand Islands’ where some of her experiences on the tea plantation appear.

Beb Vuyck’s book about her eucalyptus plantation on Buru, ‘The Last House in the World’. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

After Fernand lost his job in 1933, they moved to the island of Buru in the Moluccas, and ran a eucalyptus plantation belonging to Fernand’s father. It was a very isolated life with a boat arriving only once in several months but Beb relished it and wrote a book about their experience on Buru called Het Laatste Huis van de Wereld or ‘The Last House in the World’ which won her literary recognition.

After some years, they returned to Java where Beb was a journalist for the journal, Kritiek en Opbouw or ‘Critique and Construction’. It was at this time that Beb began to develop her belief in Indonesian independence. She met the famous Dutch Indonesian writer, Edgar Du Perron in the late 1930s. Du Perron was a Eurasian writer and journalist who was a close friend of Sutan Sjahrir and who supported the Indonesian independence movement. He became Beb Vuyck’s patron and influenced her way of thinking. Du Perron’s most famous book was Land van Herkomst or ‘Land of Origin’. He died of a heart attack in 1940 while on a visit to the Netherlands.  

During the Second World War, Beb was sent to Japanese prisoner-of-war camp with her children but despite being held by the dreaded Japanese Kempetei or military police, for several weeks, it did not kill her spirit.  Fernand meanwhile, was sent to work on the notorious Burma railway in Thailand. The family all survived the War and many years later Beb wrote about her experiences during the War in Kampdagboeken or ‘Camp Diaries’ which was published in 1989.

When the War was over Beb supported the Indonesian cause for independence and joined Sutan Sjahrir and the Partai Sosialis Indonesia or PSI and in 1950 she and Fernand chose Indonesian citizenship, giving up their Dutch nationality in order to do so. In 1945 after leaving the prisoner-of-war camp together with W.F. Wertheim and Jacques de Kadt, she issued a manifesto opposing the policies of Lieutenant Governor General Van Mook and demanding immediate independence for Indonesia. W.F. Wertheim was a Dutch jurist who was in the Netherlands Indies judiciary where he obtained a lot of experience with adat law, later becoming a sociologist; meanwhile, Jacques de Kadt was a journalist and politician.

Beb Vucyk at her desk with typewriter. Photo credit: AnonymousUnknown author, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

After the War, Beb continued working as a journalist and wrote for Dutch newspapers such as the left-wing newspaper, De Baanbreker, as well as for Indonesian newspapers such as Indonesia Raya. Recently, the Dutch government funded a group of Dutch and Indonesian historians to investigate the use of excessive violence by Dutch soldiers during the Indonesian struggle for independence. Many atrocities have come to light in the 77 years since that struggle. It is to Beb Vuyck’s undying credit that she was already writing about such atrocities as far back as 1946, making her amongst the first journalists to expose them. In April 1946 she received information about the Pesing Massacre and investigated it. She wrote the results of her investigations in an article entitled Zuivering van Pesing or ‘The Cleansing of Pesing’ which describes how the KNIL or Royal Netherland Indies Army military police massacred 70 Indonesian troops who had surrendered.  In the article, she accused the KNIL military police of using the methods of the German Gestapo and the Japanese Kempetai. It brought the rage of the Dutch colonial government and military upon her.

 Beb had contributed to Pudjanga Baru and after the War, also wrote for and sat on the editorial board of Konfrontasi. She was secretary of the Konfrontasi Studi Klub and she was a regular visitor to the house in Tugu. She wrote about the typical lecture discussions held at the house in Tugu and described them as follows:

“The discussions would take place after dinner on Saturdays and sometimes lasted well into the night. The next morning, we would take a dip into the ice-cold water of the swimming pool and then sit in the sun to get warm. Little groups of people would form on the terraces and lawns around the pool, keeping up the discussions and cementing personal contacts.”

The port hole bedroom in Tugu. Photo credit: Rubin Kartohadiprodj.

The Sunday swim would later be followed by a feast for lunch. Pak Udin, the house man would slaughter a goat and roast it over a spit and make platters of sate (meat skewers). These sate lunches were a tradition and the only thing my mother changed was that she asked not to have the goat’s head on a platter as well. That went a little too far for her German sensibilities. Beb wrote that the study club would stay at the villa until about 4 o’ clock on Sunday afternoons before all pilled-up into the pick-up truck and headed back to Jakarta.

Beb and Fernand were amongst my parents’ closest friends and my mother used to say that my father and Beb who had many similarities (they even had the same birthday) would get into hot debates and arguments and then a few days later make-up again once more the best of friends. Like my father, Beb Vuyck adored the colour red. My mother once told me, “Can you imagine, Beb Vuyck bought a writing desk and painted it flaming red and was happy and productive working there!”

She was full of admiration for Beb whom she described as being filled with vitality, enthusiasm and completely fearless. “Once I came to her house and the maids told me that she had been sleeping for three days,” my mother remarked.  “I found out that taking a machete Beb had decided to clear up the dense growth of banana trees in her back yard. As she was doing so a small snake bit her and instead of going immediately to a doctor she said, ‘what nonsense’ went to bed instead and fell into a sleep for 3 days!”

White stripped amaryllis with red ones in the background. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection).

For my German mother whose one great fear in life was snakes – this was truly awe inspiring – but there was more. “Once I was with Beb in Pasar Baru and it was very crowded. We were in a crowd, being pressed by people on all sides when Beb felt a thief take her purse and utterly fearlessly, she turned and grabbed the man by the shirt and shook him till he dropped the purse. It was quite dangerous. He might have had a knife and stabbed her!”

There was apparently, only one thing that Beb feared. “She was a large woman and she was afraid of walking along the tiny ridges of the rice fields with which the slopes of the mountain were terraced. She was terrified that the whole thing would collapse and that she would go tumbling down – but really that was the only thing she ever feared.”

Beb’s husband Fernand was the complete opposite in personality. He was calm and quiet; a good natured and kindly man. My sister Ria who was a very young child then told me, “I really liked him. He was a very, very nice man.”

Later, as the Communists became more and more powerful, Beb and Fernand felt increasingly uncomfortable in Indonesia. Many PSI members and their sympathizers were bullied and even terrorized by the Communists. They also watched the collapse of democracy in Indonesia with dismay. My mother told me how towards the end Beb told her, “The Communists are taking over. You need to get out too, Margret.”

Beb fell afoul of the increasingly autocratic government of President Sukarno and in 1958, she and Fernand were forced to flee Indonesia.

Beb and Fernand left on the last boat out for the Dutch and Eurasians leaving for Holland. As they had chosen Indonesian nationality they were not able to go and settle in the Netherlands. At first, Beb and Fernand could only live in a German village on the border of Holland. It took many years before she was finally able to obtain her residency in Holland. She and Fernand had risked everything by betting on the young republic, and they had lost everything. Nevertheless, she kept her Indonesian citizenship.

Salvia splendens Empire Red Photo credit: Photo by David J. Stang, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Beb became one of the most important Dutch Indonesian writers and journalists of her time. In her novels she describes with great insight the time when Indonesia was a colony, the transition from the Netherlands Indies to an independent Indonesia and then the first years of that newly independent nation. Some compared her writing to that of Maria Dermout but Beb protested saying that she was one of the only Dutch Indonesian writers who did not write with nostalgia.

What we find in her writings is the longing to be free, for a life that is not boring, and to live it in such a way so as to give it meaning. Like my father and my aunt there was something fearless and resilient in Beb Vucyk that would not admit defeat. Perhaps, my father was able to express something of this in a poem about defeat and victory that he wrote on the 25th of December 1944 while in a Japanese prison uncertain whether they would kill him or not.

Defeat and Victory
No, there is no defeat or victory for me.
For I have decided: victory will always be mine.
Defeat remains for the others:
for those who moan as they fall;
for those who cry as they are torn;
for those who walk in circles in the jungle.

In the wide open spaces where I tread
It is impossible for me to be defeated
Because to fall means to rise stronger
Each blow returns threefold to my attacker.
Even the executioner who severs my head
Will feel decapitated all his life
As he sees my eyes calmly close
And my lips blossom in smile.

Ah, these larger than life people who love red… Every country needs such people, willing to charge ahead and simply refusing to ever recognize defeat… (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Amaryllis (Hippeastrum Kolibri) Photo credit: Jim Evans, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read more about the house in Tugu by the same writer in:
Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

Part IV:

Part V:

Part VII:


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