Mr. Tan
by Lucien Knoedler

For Carl

Peace and serenity plunged in a quiet South Sea sweetness. These words crossed my mind when retracing two small watercolours from Fak-Fak, in the olive-green cabin trunk bearing my dad’s name in big white block letters. Each depicts a small wooden house on tree-trunks and a manned proa: one is set in hazy moonlight, the other at sunset or daybreak, but since the Arafura Sea reaches westward it should be the evening glow. These idylls were made by Mr. Tan. Fak-Fak is located in a territory of 323,000 km², which was Dutch New Guinea formerly. For 50 years it has been Indonesia’s easternmost part, since divided into West Papua and Papua. The small town, in West Papua now, was widely spread on the steep slopes of the Fak-Fak Mountains, and its rough and unpaved roads hardly allowed any motorized traffic, except for the military vehicles from the barracks at the top. I lived here from my third to ninth year, with a break of six months in Holland, in 1955.

Amongst the goods and chattels my dad left me, I found a variety of ethnographic objects from remote tribes in the southern areas called Mimika and Asmat, then still living in the Stone Age: amulets, a scary wicker mask, daggers made from the bones of wild boars and nose pieces’ skilfully carved from bones. I also pulled an axe out, a cut stone wrapped with bamboo cords onto a tree branch, a forked limb, to obtain the scarcely nourishing insides of the sago palms, as well as various-sized penis gourds. In between these mostly male-chauvinist edifying works and, sure enough, a woman’s petticoat-like skirt of straw, I discovered an oil by Mr. Tan. This represented a Papua property on dusty russet-coloured ground with a coconut tree and banana trees on both sides, each delicately painted, with, in the foreground, a skinny old woman with a naked torso. In the background, roughly depicted, the Arafura Sea and, in the distance, Pulu Panjang, many miles of a long, wooded island offshore ending at the bay of Fak-Fak. On the back of the painting, in elegant calligraphy, was a dedication to my mom. Signed K. T. Tan, 1955.

Though this oil doesn’t express any presumption, in spite of its refinements and excellent sense of colour, it still isn’t a product of an innocent pastime. Don’t we humans develop our conscience and empathy by inadvertently training the coordination between our hands, eyes and ears? While practicing on a musical instrument, through handwriting, drawing, painting, carving, creating sculptures anyhow or by just playing freely, we do, meanwhile, connect and liberate the others and ourselves simultaneously. Mr. Tan too enabled himself to relate to his surroundings, with taste and care; with mindful attention to addressing his imagination this way, he also gained the courage to endure the prospect of being hospitalized for years to come.

I sometimes think of my early childhood involuntary, when it starts raining after a hot summer’s day when the air is all at once filled with a spicy, hallucinatory aroma that almost makes me sneeze. The pores of all organisms open up, I have been told, to receive water from heaven with insatiable hedonism, completely scented. Aren’t taste and smell by far the oldest senses? All memory is stored therein, in order to survive. Quite functional, isn’t it? It’s pure magic in just that instant, to be vainly searched for on demand. Our memory is most limited, however, in contrast to what we usually pretend. Traveling in the past depends upon our innate resourcefulness to easily by-pass and bridge chasms and clefts, most of the time confusing dates and the order of events, and unscrupulously inserting inaccurate stories belonging to other people as well.

While leafing through my dad’s papers, I caught sight of a few letters Mr. Tan had sent my mom on typewritten aerograms. Amongst them was a handwritten card on which he reported he was definitely cured of leprosy as he travelled to Sorong by ship, 150 miles northward from where he had undergone a successful surgery on both his feet. Little by little, I was able to call Mr. Tan to mind. I was six years old when I first met him—I think it must have been in January 1958, during the dry season when temperatures regularly exceeded 40°C at midday.

It was in the afternoon when my mom said that she wanted to take me to Mr. Tan. She called me right after siesta, a deadly dull siesta for me that ended at four precisely. Impatient, I once set the clock in the living room half an hour forward, but just before I wanted to leave, my dad turned up from the bedroom noticing in surprise that time had flown. As he saw my fright right away, he didn’t give me a stern look in return, instead, pointing out that I should stay inside as a punishment just as the time when I had once climbed out of my bedroom window too early. On the contrary, he burst out laughing and let me go. I was so relieved I decided to never ever repeat this short cut either.

The leprosy hospital, my mom and I went to, stood under coconut-trees by the sea, just outside the shopping centre of Fak-Fak. This kota was just another unpaved, bumpy and stuffy road about a mile long, flanked by low houses of mostly stone along the cliff face at the left, and on the sea side, wooden houses of which the irregular back parts leaned on a forest of pales sticking into the beach. Among the stores was a large Chinese caboodle with a small department offering a lot of toys, mostly cheap and fragile ones made in Japan, but attractive since quite a few were battery-driven. There were big-sized trucks and cars, planes and a UFO too, tricked out with little colourful lights. Imagine my surprise once I recognized the face of the owner of this shop emerging from the broad stone staircase while I was celebrating my birthday with my friends on the lawn in front of our house. As he stood on the platform it appeared that he carried a lot of toys, the ones I had pointed to at his casual request a few months earlier. “Which do you like?” he asked. And I remember well my dad’s face then; at first he looked embarrassed, then he sighed resignedly. He very much disliked me to be involved with anyone because of his position, this shouldn’t have happened in front of my peers anyhow, as these toys could have been part of a contraband, he explained to me later. Wasn’t this a disguised request for a favour? This happened indeed more often later on.

Fak-Fak’s shopping street, onto which the leprosy hospital faced, ended in the wooden dock of the bay standing in turquoise seawater dotted with coral and tiny colourful fish. Over the water, some 500 yards farther, next to a huge rock wall lay Danawaria, a kampong hidden behind mango trees next to a huge multi-branched bayan, also called waringin, which according to indigenous belief, represented the tree of life. Wasn’t there in the distance on the white beach, next to the mangrove, a big American landing craft rotting since it had been left in the aftermath of the Second World War too, as several near Hollandia, the capital? In Fak-Fak, a similar vessel belonging to the navy was still in service.

My mom had visited the leper clinic since we’d arrived in Fak-Fak, back in mid 1954, and now she wanted to introduce me to Mr. Tan. He had asked for me, she’d explained on the way. A 15-minute walk down along a steep, irregular footpath next to rocky wasteland below our house at the left, the general hospital and the hard courts at another lower plateau on the other side, the lepers’ stay lay beyond, behind high bushes. Before we walked up the wooden stairs to the front door, three steps up, my mom told me that Mr. Tan had lived here for many years. I looked at his house: a large wooden shed of about 50 x 80 feet on pales put on the beach during the war, I learned, inside a lime-washed open space with on top, probably the original zinc roof turned weather-beaten, darkly, glowing in the burning sun. Under the shutterless high window frames covered with mosquito nets, about 20 beds stood equally split over both sides of the ward.

The leper village near Merauke, the town of about 2,000 inhabitants where we lived next—along the coast of what is called Papua nowadays, 750 miles south-eastward of Fak-Fak—was incomparably better equipped: a central clinic with private houses and rooms for singles and families. My mom officially opened this missionary-work, initiated village. After all, she was the wife of the resident commissioner, now the head of the second largest of the five provinces of the Dutch overseas territory of West New Guinea, as he formerly was of the smaller province of Fak-Fak. While my mom cut the tape in the burning sun observed by quite a crowd, my dad stood at her left side and on her right side, in a white cassock, Mgr. Tillemans, the Bishop of Berissa seated in Merauke—an ample man with restless eyes.

The two men, acquaintances since they had met in Melbourne and Brisbane during the war, were often involved in a fierce demarcation dispute. However, the prelate was fond of my mom, a vicar’s daughter, and this amended the antagonists’ conflicts, it seemed. What’s more, my father did acknowledge that missionaries, both Catholics and evangelicals of diverse nationalities, started developing aid projects in New Guinea long before the war. In contrast, the Dutch government actively appeared there after 1949, after it acknowledged Indonesia’s independence. This part of the former Dutch East Indies was assumed would become a nation by itself in due course (adjacent to Papua New Guinea, no longer belonging to Australia, but an independent state since 1975). However from above, this was done in a stepmotherly way, also disparaging the experienced and dedicated officers on the spot, meanwhile equipping them marginally and paying them very badly for their demanding work, even though life was very expensive due to the long supply routes. As a matter of fact, to the Bible-driven pioneers and to the usually highly-educated government officers later on, living wasn’t without risk, if not downright dangerous, deep in this vast and sparsely populated territory of largely impenetrable rainforests, crisscrossed by huge, meandering rivers and an extremely rough mountain chain, the centre peak of which, Puncak Jaya, is one of the world’s seven highest summits. Even though my dad respected Mgr. Tillemans’ authority and anthropological insights, the prelate’s efforts to interfere with government affairs made his eyes sputter with fire. He found he had little in common with the Catholic authorities. After all, as an 11-year-old, a priest had told him his Madura-born mom didn’t deserve a place heaven because she was a Muslim. His Catholic baptized dad—a Javanese whose grandfather, originating from Southern Germany, cohabitated with a native Muslim woman soon after his arrival as just a 19-year-old—of course did. My great-great-great-grandparents’ 13 daughters and four sons were all upstanding baptized Catholics, as they got German first names as well—onto the fourth generation. Born on the Indonesian island of Madura, my dad wasn’t baptized, though. (His father didn’t care about it and only acknowledged his only child at the town hall). As he didn’t adhere to any creed and considered all religions equal, this may explain Mgr. Tillemans’ quiet dismissive attitude towards him, too. Anyhow, in my dad’s cabin trunk I found a shoebox containing all kinds of snapshots and a stack of handmade invitations for Christmas and Happy New Year from Merauke’s leper village, each entirely Catholic inspired.

Back to Mr. Tan. He was of Chinese-Indonesian origin and used to be a school teacher, then, I guess, in his late 40s, more than 10 years my mom’s senior. I still see him before me: both feet contorted, thin as a rake, with a grimace around his mouth. My mom hinted at him with her chin, accompanied by a wide-eyed and stern expression that I knew too well when I had to keep low right away. An unnecessary warning, as usual. Without pointing, she referred to the row of beds on the left side. Returning her look with the same expression, I indicated that I had noticed him already. Come on, he was the only patient in the room! Lying at the centre, he had turned to the entrance, huddled, on a bed covered with a white sheet. He stared ahead, musing, it seemed to me, his coal-black eyes wide open.

At this time of day, about five o’clock, the residents preferred to stay outside, below the barracks where chickens and a rooster scratched. Except, Mr. Tan did not. Did he expect us? At the back of the ward, the double doors were wide open and through them I saw the island of Pulu Panjang. Next to the doors, two nurses whispered in each other’s ears. They had—if I remember correctly—pale grey suits on, high fitting to just below the knee, with long sleeves and a white apron over it, their bare feet in solid brown shoes. From a small cap on their heads, an equally tinted headscarf hung halfway down the back, the front trimmed with a white, starched edge. Both missionaries waited at the entrance when my mom and I entered, their hands folded above their waists while nodding with a smile, bowing their heads graciously. They stood next to a much younger doctor, a relaxed leper specialist with soft brown eyes in a narrow and pale face under black straight hair. He wore a long white jacket with short sleeves; around his neck, a stethoscope.

My mother waited at the foot of Mr. Tan’s bed. As soon as he noticed us, his face brightened; he clambered and then sat up, delighted as children in a classroom awaiting their turns, it seemed to me. His frail body in an open pyjama top looked so fragile. With a soft, yet warm and clear voice he spoke, as now and then he crowed with pleasure, his almost toothless mouth wide open.

In the blazing heat, the salty breeze barely offered cooling. In an hour, night would fall and the mercury would drop rapidly to about 30°C. Farther on, the breakers continuously pounded on the reef, and since it was high tide, the seawater slid on the sand under the hospital floor, slowly sighing. I wondered what might happen during the monsoon when the fronts of sky-high, pitch-black clouds arrived over the turbulent Arafura Sea and, once over land, gushed their huge loads with thundering violence on this building. These downpours often caused banjirs also flooding the deep, cemented gutters along the covered porches around our hilltop house. A deafening pandemonium it must be under this hospital’s zinc roof time and time again. Could it withstand so much rain?

In their conversations my mom called him Mr. Tan, as he addressed her with “madame.” She also encouraged him with crayons, oil and canvases she ordered from Holland. No wonder, I later heard my father explain, since she attended art school, as did her grandfather. I can’t draw at all, he would continue, but she does. Did I ever see her doing so? Hardly. In a rash moment, perhaps. The materials for Mr. Tan arrived with the Kaluku, the Karossa or the Kasimbar. With an interval of a few months one after the other, these Singapore-loaded, 2,000 BRT cargos with passenger accommodation from the Dutch Royal Shipping Company lay at anchor in the lee of Pulu Panjang, near the bay of Fak-Fak. From the view from the lawn in front of our house, I could see the boat lying in the distance. Big chests, piles of boxes and bags of rice and other victuals were loaded into barges and transported to the jetty in the bay. As all letters came by Beaver, a single-engine water plane with which we had arrived and would leave again, a parcel by sea always contained a gift to me from my grandma: a dinky-toy or coloured pencils or a meccano kit.

Mr. Tan’s resilience amazed me, as if the increasingly mutilating leprosy didn’t bother him. Once drawing he was in his element, forgetting everything around him. Now and then he asked my mom for advice while seemingly covering his drawing pad from me—which I found strange, because he was sitting high on his bed, so I couldn’t see what he was depicting, or was he just fond of teasing me?—meanwhile keeping a couple of pencils in his battered fists and a pair clamped between his lips. I was not allowed to touch those pencils anymore, my mother had warned me at the front door. In the meantime, Mr. Tan sized me up swiftly, and I noticed, while he was looking at my mom, he seemed to nodding approvingly. He could smile too, or did I imagine this? In her presence, he felt senang, happy, and that pleased me.

Mr. Tan didn’t return to Fak-Fak. After he was cured, he had found a job in Sorong involving missionary work and leprosy control. We lost contact after the sudden death of my mom ten years after I met him. From his letters emerged a person of remarkable determination and accuracy, as well as of elegance. What’s more, he was very well able to handle the typewriter, despite his handicapped hands that were missing quite a few fingers. In any case, his writing shows hardly any error, his command of the Dutch language was exemplary—as certainly was his Ambonese and Cantonese as well, I suspect.

After first writing to express his gratitude for the letter my mom had written him on December 20, 1965 and for the goods that had reached him unopened, he continued his reply of January 18, 1966. Starting with a description about the weather in Sorong, just south of the equator, he imagined winter in Holland would be much too cold for him. In the dead of winter in the Southern Hemisphere, the daily temperature in Sorong didn’t drop below 25°C, he explained. The date of this epistle showed that two years and nine months had passed since the government of the western part of the island of New Guinea had been transferred to Indonesia. In the next passages, he commented on the worsening living conditions since the Dutch had left. Food shortages occurred regularly, while even remote luxury goods were either unavailable or stolen right away. It obviously lacked a general authority, he underlined, as anyone showing the courage to complain to the police of any crime, was likely to disappear in jail himself. Shipments by post had proved unreliable, since parcels were often opened before delivery or simply disposed. Any goods from Holland should be packed and sent separately, he stressed, also recommending safer alternatives, such as sending goods in the luggage of missionaries traveling to Irian Barat (as the western part of the island of New Guinea was first called after 1 May 1963). He painstakingly put down both their names and congregations.

A considerable part of his letters contained extensive lists of the equipment he needed, such as a tape recorder—a Philips EL 3585—as well as 1 Adaptor AG 7022, 1 Adaptor cable EL 3768/06, 1 Connecting cable EL 3768/00 and 1 Connecting lead EL 3768/02. All this was to be financed by his benefactresses, among whom was my mom. He also emphasized not to confuse apparently similar equipment, explaining how to avoid this, as the tape recorder would be used to spread the Gospel in remote territories of New Guinea. It’s quite amusing to see how carefully detailed Mr. Tan expressed himself; he must have been a strict but fair teacher, keeping everything under control, now eagerly liaising close contact with people far and wide.

Finally, I found a black & white photo he sent to my mom, taken in Sorong after his foot surgery. He appears sideways, a man of small stature wearing a dark jacket over a tieless white shirt and probably khaki trousers. He wears glasses in a light frame and holds a tiny, rolled, tobacco cigarette in his left hand. It appears that he has gained quite some weight. He signed the oil dedicated to my mom with the initials K.T., his letters closed with Ch.T. Tan—Christiaan Tan now apparently—as he wrote in a small, but self-confident signature.