The Last Nyonya.

By Bianca Dias-Halpert, Washington, USA

An article appeared in the magazine NOW! Bali August 2010 about a Dutch lady who has lived in Indonesia her entire life.  They were kind enough to let me share their findings with you readers.

Milly

On the outside she looks Dutch but on the inside she is Indonesian.  Milly is one of the few survivors of the Dutch colonial era living in Indonesia.

Her real name is Emily Langlois van den Bergh.  Her nickname is “Milly”.  She was born on 28 August 1923 in Batavia.  Her father, Frans Langlois van der Bergh is a full-blooded Dutchman born in East Java in the village of Kertosari.  Her mother, Emma Johanna van Geelen, passed on Indonesian genes to Milly.  Emma’s father is of mixed Dutch-Sumatranese born in Padang in 1851.  Emma’s mother is a full-blooded Dutch woman, Emma Van Vrijberge van der Does.  The name Langlois van den Bergh was actually acquired for socioeconomic reasons.  The original parternal name was Langlois de la Montagne, as her father’s grandfather was a Frenchman.  In the 1930’s her [ Sumatran ] grandfather aspired to be promoted in the banking business but was required to be a Dutch citizen.  Hence, he changed the family name to Langlois van den Bergh.

It appears that family surnames changed all the time in that era to fit the prevailing socioeconomic and political conditions.  Whoever was in power and controlled the purse strings influenced the family name.

Milly’s lineage goes back to the VOC (Dutch East India Company) era and is proposed to have one-eighth Sumatra Malay blood within her.   The article states her “forefathers were many generations of Dutch living in Indonesia” so it may be safe to say she is at least 10th generation.  This gives one a sense of Milly’s place in the world.

Holland

At the age of 16 her family went to Holland for a year and stayed at her grandfather’s house.  She cried every single day and said she did not like it there and asked to go back home to the Indies.  Her brother was handicapped and her mother chose to stay with him in Holland to care for him.  Milly returned to join her father in Jakarta – her mother never returned to the Indies.  Later, her mother  frequently traveled back and forth between Holland and Jakarta.  In 1990 her mother died at the age of 109 years.

War

Milly graduated from high school in 1942.  The independence movement of Indonesia was starting to pick up momentum.  During the Japanese Occupation she worked for a while at the radio station BRV (Bataviasche Radio Vereniging).  She had to stop because a warning went out through the Nederland-Indische Radio that all working at the station would be picked up and put into internment camps.  Through the difficult times she made a living smuggling all kinds of goods and products; nails, cement, textiles, soaps, perfumes.  She and some friends went around on bicycles selling wares in utmost secrecy.

After the war and independence in 1947, she landed jobs at several Dutch companies still in existence.  What type of work she did was unclear.   Her work took her traveling extensively throughout the archipelago and she had a wide network of friends and associates.

Love

In 1957 Milly the tall Dutch woman married the love of her life Karel Gouw, a short stocky Chinese man of Dutch citizenship. They clicked with each other right away.  Karel was known for his sense of humor and huge smile.  In 1958 they decided to become Indonesian citizens.  They changed their surname to Gandanegara (two countries).  Here’s that name changing again.  Often Chinese had to change their names to an Indonesian name for survival.  Karel worked for Coca Cola and they traveled often to India, home of Coca Cola headquarters.

Life Journey

In 1963 she opened an art shop called the Banowati Art Shop in Jakarta which was beside their house on Jalan Semarang 18.  She received President Soekarno’s  blessing to open this shop and it’s hailed as one of the first of its kind.  Milly developed an interest in arts and crafts.  The Gandanegaras couple were hosts to many guests from all over and became so popular that they entered the hotel business.  Karel decided to rent the failing Hotel Narmada in Sanur (Bali) with ten bungalows.  Milly managed the hotel herself.  In the early 1960’s Sanur became a popular resort for tourists and hotels were starting to develop along the beaches.   After 10 years she made an important move and obtained the license of the hotel in her own name.   After a decade she then acquired Baruna Hotel at the Sindhu Road.  Later she expanded Baruna Hotel to another side of Sanur at the Segara Ayu Road.  It is the Hotel Baruna that still exists today with six bungalows available to rent.

Milly outlived her husband and had traveled extensively over the years.  On her travels she explored new handicraft and art for her shops.  Now in her eighties, she lives on the Hotel Baruna premises surrounded by beautiful plants and all kinds of birds.  No longer able to walk due to a bad fall, she still oversees the daily operation of the Baruna Hotel which is managed by the daughter of her long time cook.  She enjoys visits from relatives in Holland and friends from all over the world.

What a remarkable story of this Last Nyonya.

The term “Nyonya” is said to be a colonial era expression which means a foreign woman who lives as a local native Indonesian.  Terminology changes with time and the winds of change.  If you have another interpretation of the term Nyonya, please share by leaving a reply comment below.  Do you know of a “Nyonya” too ?

 

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11 Comments on “The Last Nyonya.

  1. Hi, just wanna highlight one important thing in your post. Indonesia’s independence is recognized by the whole world to be on August 17, 1945. Indonesia’s independence did not occur in 1947. I said “the whole world” because even the Dutch government had recognize this important fact.
    But above all, independence is more a declaration than a recognition, therefore, 1945 it is..

    • Hello Baso,
      The year 1947 referred to the year Milly got jobs at several Dutch companies which was the period after the war and independence – it was not a reference to a specific event or date. With that said, thank you for highlighting August 17, 1945 as Indonesia’s Independence. Regardless of the rhetoric surrounding this date, the nation of Indonesia was born and today it stands.

  2. CHANGE OF NAME

    After independance in 1949 – the first Indonesian President , Soekarno. MADE everybody who did not have an Indonesian surname change their surname to an Indonesian surname. Hence all Chinese and Dutch people had to change their surname into an Indonesian name , so I have been told by Chinese friends in Jakarta. Soekarno also had all the Dutch Street names changed !
    This made it difficult to find our house in Malang in 2008 when we went back to Malang where I was born in 1940.

    Sincere regards,
    Gerard

    • If one checks the names of some ministers in the Indonesian governments in the last decades one will find the ‘original’ family names, both Dutch and Chinese.
      I personally have friends in Indonesia who became Warga Negara in 1951 and still have their Dutch names today, also in their Indonesian passports.
      Changing family names had indeed socio-economic reasons most of the time. As with ‘de la Montagne ‘ and ‘Kouw’ in this story.

  3. It is a bit puzzling. Nyonya is a salutation for mrs and not only towards foreign women, a lot of mothers of my Indonesian friends were also adressed as “Nyonya (I am talking about the early fities).
    The salutation “Nyonya” later disappeared and was changed into “Ibu”. But since “ibu” in Indonesian means “mother”, Indonesian children nowadays call their mother “bunda”.

    • According to this article Nyonya was referred to a foreign woman dressed like a native woman. Perhaps its meaning has changed with circumstances and the passing of time, such as the transition to Ibu..

      • The salutation of “Nyonya” is in my view mainly related to the social standing of a woman in the previous society of Nederlands Indië.
        In my family even ‘Indonesian women in European dress’ were addressed with “nyonya”.

  4. In 1996 A. van Schaik released through the publishing company Asia Maior “Malang, Beeld van een Stad”, a wonderful reference book on this historic city, with beautiful (old) photos and maps. In the back of the book there is a list of street names from the Dutch period with the present day Indonesian streetnames . Though it’s too late now, if you want the Indonesian streetname of a “Dutch street:, maybe I can help you.

    • Thank you for your offer of help Lucille. That would be wonderful. It sounds like a wonderful book. Now we know where to go for Dutch street names of old Indonesia.

      • Besides ‘Malang, Beeld van een stad’ also available by the same publishing company Asia Maior:

        R.P.G.A. Voskuil ‘Batavia. Beeld van een stad’.
        R.P.G.A. Voskuil e.a. “Bandoeng. Beeld van een stad’.
        A.C. Broeshart e.a. Soerabaja, Beeld van een stad’.
        M.P. van Bruggen e.a. ‘Djokja en Solo. Beeld van de Vorstensteden’.

        Further: R.P.G.A. Voskuil ‘Batavia/Djakarta. Beeld van een metamorfose’;
        ‘Soerabaja 1900-1950. Havens, Marine, Stadsbeeld (Port, Navy, Townscape)’.

        Note: mainly available through bookantiquariats.

        Of great value and interest: Grote Atlas van Nederlands Oost Indië.
        Comprehensive Atlas of the Netherlands East Indies.
        by Drs. J.R. van Diessen, Prof. Dr. F.J. Ormeling.
        Uitgeverij Asia Maior.Atlas Maior, Zierikzee. NL.
        Note: also with maps of main cities.

  5. It’s odd that nonya in most of the Malay world means the opposite — a Peranakan or immigrant Chinese married to a local woman — from Wikipedia:

    “Female Straits-Chinese descendants were either called or styled themselves Nyonyas. The word nyonya (also commonly misspelled nonya) is a Javanese loan honorific word from Italian nona (grandma) meaning: foreign married Madam. Or more likely from the word Donha, from the Portuguese word for lady. Because Javanese at the time had a tendency to address all foreign women (and perhaps those who appeared foreign) as nyonya, they used that term for Straits-Chinese women, too, and it gradually became associated more exclusively with them. Nona in Javanese means “lady”.”

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