Caring for the poor and needy was part and parcel of the religious vocation of Dutch Catholic missionaries in the Dutch East Indies. Setting up and running large-scale orphanages formed the core of their civilising projects. Through this provision of non-kin support for children, missionaries defined themselves as God’s instruments designed to help these children.2 Western, scientifically informed but at the same time sentimentalised notions of childhood that called for the rescue of these children determined the organisation of their orphanages in the Dutch East Indies in the late colonial period. Recent historiography critically evaluates the universalised notions of childhood operative in such missionary projects that modulated the differences between children worldwide while accentuating the dissimilar opportunities of local children and their parents. The missionary entitlement to ‘save’ the children – from their ‘heathen’ context and their dismal prospects in society – rested precisely on this claim of universal similarity between children. Modern notions of childhood and innocence that travelled from Europe to settler and non-settler colonies alike underpinned child rescue discourses that disqualified parents, kin and community on account of class and race and transformed children into ‘imagined orphans’ in need of non-kin support.3

Missionary discourses on and practices of ‘rescuing’ children produced difference that supported colonial mechanisms of control. As such, they were integral of colonial governmentality, enabling colonial power to create governable subjects.4 Because of such deep entanglements with colonial cultures Claire McLisky urged scholars of colonialism to acknowledge the lasting social and cultural impact of the Christian missions as colonial projects in contemporary postcolonial history.5 Karen Vallgårda demonstrates that the investigation of ‘imperial childhoods’ discloses how racial and social hierarchies have been formed and transformed in modern colonial projects to which missionaries were party. This approach ties in with a solid tradition of scholarship by historians and anthropologists about the pivotal role of gender and family relations in colonising and civilising projects. For the Dutch East Indies, Ann Laura Stoler identified the regulation of sexual practices and gender relations as key to colonial power relations.6 Such ‘intimacies of empire’ solidified into the ‘soft’ colonial rule that was entangled with the ‘hard colonial rule’ operative in the colonial administration. Difference was at the heart of colonial rule, Stoler argued, pointing out the problematic position of the offspring of (Indo-)European soldiers and indigenous mothers as a case in point. Considered European under the colonial code of law, the mixed ethnicity of these children potentially undermined the white supremacy and moral superiority on which European colonial rule rested. Upon the departure or death of their fathers, they were, therefore, often ‘rescued’: separated from their indigenous mothers, transferred to orphanages and forcefully raised according to European standards at the expense of the colonial government.

Religion as a significant marker of difference in late colonial society of the Dutch East Indies is not included in Stoler’s influential analysis. Moreover, her analysis focuses on discourse, not on practices of non-kin support. As such, Stoler pays no attention to the involvement of Christian missionaries, nor on the agency and interdependencies of other parties involved in orphan care, such as local elites. Missionary sources afford such an analysis and indicate, first, that in the late colonial period Catholic missionaries invested in caring for and educating Javanese and Chinese children. In both cases, second, they were able to forge alliances with local elites that testify to colonial complicities that challenge current conceptual approaches to missionary non-kin support for children.7 These approaches emphasise child separation as a racially informed practice through which white missionaries ‘saved’ local children from their parents, kin, community and culture. The care arrangements for underprivileged Chinese children at the orphanage of Kebon Dalem, however, reveal a hitherto unknown and only partially acknowledged partnership between Catholic missionaries and the Chinese elite of Semarang. Catholic missionaries collaborated with Chinese partners who valued European standards of child-rearing and education and financially supported the project, which reveals a sense of communal responsibility for uncared-for Chinese children. This partnership testifies to dwindling rather than intensified boundaries between various population groups in late colonial Java.8

Unprinted missionary sources in the Dutch language, such as interviews with former missionaries, correspondence, egodocuments and photographs, demonstrate that – far from being in complete control – the missionaries had to rely on local Chinese networks and their material support.9 Wealthy and influential members of the Chinese minority took co-responsibility for the orphanage of Kebon Dalem, because uncared-for children in the Chinese quarter could reflect badly on the capability of the Chinese community to take care of such social problems. This potentially threatened their claim to self-rule. For this civilising project they granted the missionaries access to their community, enabling them to build up knowledge about its socio-cultural structures and pressures. Scholars of colonial childhoods draw attention to the harmful consequences of missionary interventions. As these were cast in European terms, such European values and norms explicitly or implicitly disparaged the socio-cultural and religious perspectives of the children involved.10 The involvement of Chinese stakeholders in the orphanage of Kebon Dalem, however, mitigated such effects. To the Catholic missionaries, ‘rescued’ children represented ‘cultural circuit breakers’ that would facilitate instituting Western, Christian principles.11 By taking co-responsibility for the orphanage of Kebon Dalem the local Chinese elite apparently aimed to demonstrate capable leadership of their community as much as they honoured Chinese charitable traditions. Their support enabled European Catholic missionaries to seek out underprivileged Chinese children for missionary care arrangements, not separated from but in the heart of the religiously plural and tolerant Chinese community of Semarang.

The Chinese of Semarang

In the mid-1950s, the American sociologist Donald Earl Willmott analysed the Chinese minority in Semarang.12 For the pre-war period he relied on the work of the local historian and journalist Liem Thian Joe.13 A seaport located on the northern coast of central Java, Semarang was defined by commerce, migration and population growth.14 Its Chinese quarter was situated in the hotter and more humid lower part of the city, near the harbour. In 1955, Willmott observed, it was still one of the most crowded areas, with very narrow streets, rows of very small houses and hardly any open recreational space. In 1930, the approximately 27,000 Chinese inhabitants represented the largest ethnic minority of the over 217,000 inhabitants of Semarang. Accounting for over twelve percent of the population, they doubled the proportion of Dutch and Eurasians in Semarang and greatly outnumbered the two percent average of Chinese inhabitants in the Dutch East Indies.15 This predominantly urban minority earned its living through ‘trade’ in the broadest sense: from small peddlers to keepers of convenience shops (tokos) and executives of large, international businesses. In case of economic instability or adversity, those in ‘trade’ proved to be vulnerable. Family ties determined the structures of business, whereas business in general determined the structures of local leadership and communal responsibility.16

This picture of pupils from the orphanage of Kebon Dalem was probably taken by a Jesuit in the late 1930s. Whereas the boy on the right looks at the photographer, the others seem to observe a small picture, possibly a prayer card (in Dutch: devotieprentje) that Jesuit missionaries had a habit of handing out to children.17

In Willmott’s study, the term ‘Chinese’ comprised Indies-born or Peranakan Chinese of mixed Chinese-Javanese descent, as well as totok Chinese born in China. The more recent totok migrants from China were distinguished as singkeh. This difference gained significance in the Dutch East Indies during the first decades of the twentieth century as the colonial government attempted to end the existing Chinese self-government. In Semarang, business ties and interests with China accounted for more peaceful relationships between Peranakan and totok Chinese.18 Historically, Chinese self-rule wielded by a Chinese Council of officers reflected the practice of racial segregation in local administration in the colony. The officers were appointed by the Dutch, who generally preferred members of old, distinguished Indies-born Chinese families. They maintained order in the Chinese quarters and safeguarded Chinese interests and social welfare.19

The complex legal position of the Chinese in the Dutch East Indies reflected racially determined colonial ambivalence, as the Indies-born Chinese became Dutch subjects under the Nationality Act of 1910 – without full citizenship, however – retaining the status of ‘Foreign Orientals’ that distinguished them from the Javanese and the Europeans in the colony.20 This inconsistency infused different orientations in political emancipation from the 1910s between Peranakans displaying colonial leanings to the Dutch, and China-backed totoks demonstrating a pan-Chinese activism. Such antagonisms intensified after 1911, when the proclamation of the Chinese Republic drove out opponents and economic migrants and led to an increasing number of Chinese immigrants to the Dutch East Indies. These newcomers considered themselves disadvantaged compared to the Peranakans under the officer system. Such socio-political tensions within the Chinese community coincided with a burgeoning anticolonial nationalism that sparked anti-Chinese sensitivities among the Javanese. Close connections between Chinese officers’ families and the Dutch stirred such hostilities, as did Chinese activities in money lending, tax collecting and the sugar and rice business, which the Javanese identified with colonial power structures they suffered from. Their resistance supported Dutch aspirations to replace Chinese self-government with a new European municipal administration at local level that assumed control over all subjects.21

Already in 1907 the Chinese elite of Semarang considered the officer system obsolete and refused new appointments. This, however, did not mean that it relinquished its authority over the Chinese community. Traditionally, this leadership regarded administration, politics, commerce and organisation related to schools, mutual aid and religious societies, and charitable institutions.22 Communal responsibilities concerning the Chinese quarter shifted to the local Chinese chamber of commerce (Sianghwee, founded in 1907), cultural associations and mutual aid organisations. Wealthy Chinese families generally invested money in education and communal charitable projects. In this context, the orphanage of Kebon Dalem exemplifies the quest for new strategic alliances by the Chinese elite as the Dutch questioned Chinese autonomy.23 For the Chinese, religious and ethnic boundaries between population groups seemed to matter less in this pursuit than effective solutions to urgent social problems while retaining administrative control. With respect to the Chinese of Semarang, Willmott observed religious tolerance as well as religious eclecticism, also among Chinese who converted to Christianity and easily combined Chinese and Christian religious rituals and devotions. Care for the poor and needy was part and parcel of both religious orientations.24

Of the Catholic missionaries, the Jesuits took a particular interest in the Chinese minority. The Jesuits in Semarang, as will be elucidated in the next section, welcomed Chinese financial support for their missionary activities while striving to maintain as much operational control as possible. Moreover, they proved to be sensitive to aspirations of the Chinese elite for the preservation of their cultural identity combined with European standards of living and education. In the late colonial period, these corresponded to new markers of identity that accorded with modern Western lifestyles and forms of sociability, mobility, technology and Western education and dress codes that were adopted by wealthy, mostly Peranakan Chinese elite.25 They engaged in what Tom Hoogervorst and Henk Schulte Nordholt define as ‘cultural citizenship’, which took shape through the Dutch language and a Western lifestyle. Through their positions in trade, commerce and media, the Chinese community of Java played a prominent role in these processes of modernisation that revised the socio-cultural stratification of the Dutch East Indies during the late colonial period.26 For their ambition to raise and maintain their social and cultural status in colonial society through European education, Catholic missionaries seemed suitable allies.

Catholic missionaries seeking new allies

In Jesuit sources the orphanage of Kebon Dalem is portrayed as the personal project of the Jesuit Simon Beekman (1896-1972).27 He arrived in Semarang in January 1925, three years after his ordination, seemingly inspired by his training at the British Jesuit College Stonyhurst which also fuelled the militant zeal of Dutch Jesuit pioneers of the indigenous mission in Java.28 Jesuit sources portray Beekman as the Father of the Chinese (‘Chinezenpastoor’): a dexterous organiser and fundraiser, well connected in the Chinese community.29

The Society of Jesus had been charged since 1859 with the organisation of the Dutch Catholic mission in the Indonesian archipelago. The colonial administration was mostly concentrated in Java, which also served as the power base of the Christian missions. These were kept in check by the colonial administration, which, first of all, was cautious of religion as a potential source of social-political instability. For this reason, Christian missionaries were obliged to refrain from active proselytising among the Javanese, of whom about ninety-five percent were Muslim. Second, the colonial administration was wary of interconfessional rivalries between Protestant and Catholics in the metropole spilling over to the Christian missions. From 1902 onwards, the Jesuits started to share administrative responsibility for the Catholic mission with other male religious institutes.30 They also enlisted congregations of Brothers and Sisters, which, since 1917, had money and manpower to spare for the colonial mission, as the Dutch government funded their schools in the Netherlands on an equal footing with state schools.

These pictures are included in a photo album compiled by Sisters of the Divine Providence, documenting their version of the history of Kebon Dalem and its inhabitants. Top of page: Simon Beekman SJ on the porch of the orphanage at the back of Mrs. Goei’s villa. The Dutch caption reads ‘1936. Orphanage for Chinese children’, whereas the sign above the entrance reads in Dutch ‘Home for Chin(ese) children’. Bottom of page: Kebon Dalem, the new location of the orphanage for Chinese children after its purchase in 1936.31

The Jesuits came to consider the Chinese as relevant to their missionary ambitions, but had no clear strategy concerning the complex socio-political position of this minority.32 Their mission comprised over 8,000 Catholics, of whom Chinese and Eurasian Catholics represented about twenty percent.33 On account of its substantial Chinese minority, they envisioned Semarang as the centre of their mission in Java. In this multi-ethnic and multilingual context, Beekman considered the Chinese well suited for an intermediary position between the local, Javanese population of the Islamic persuasion and the Europeans.34 The wealth of Chinese merchants and business owners enhanced this suitability.35 For his orphanage in Semarang, Beekman found an ally in Mrs. Goei Ing Hong-Be Soen Nio, whose late husband ran a large trading company and belonged to one of the oldest and most respected Peranakan Chinese families in Java. After his death in 1920, his widow became a patroness of many causes. Historian Peter Post explains that ‘becoming a patron or patroness of a society or an institution was an honorable but also responsible position in the hierarchical and status-minded Peranakan Chinese minority of colonial Java. Patrons and patronesses were expected to help in times of (personal) crises, psychological and material discomfort, and financial problems’.36 Raising money for the education of Chinese children proved to be a core activity of wealthy benefactors such as Mrs. Goei.37

Remarkably her name and those of other benefactors go unmentioned in the missionary sources. Beekman apparently did not consider their names relevant to the readership in the Netherlands. Also, in accordance with the clerical leadership structures of his Church and ethnic sensitivities, he possibly wanted to avoid the impression that Chinese laity unduly affected Jesuit missionary projects. Nevertheless, thanks to Mrs. Goei, Beekman probably gained access to a broader network of Peranakan Chinese, who helped him purchase Kebon Dalem in 1936. Personally, she supported the establishment of St. Mary’s Hall, a school where poor Chinese girls were instructed in good housekeeping. Although this was a Catholic school, it was open to Chinese girls regardless of their denomination. Mrs. Goei also rented out the back of the family mansion at Plampitan 9 to Father Beekman, where he started his orphanage in 1935 that was transferred to Kebon Dalem in 1937.38 According to Beekman, this institute helped the Chinese community to face the economic and social adversity to which Chinese newcomers, the singkeh, proved to be particularly vulnerable. The orphanage was, Beekman stated, a ‘magnificent advertisement for our faith and our Mission’, as well as a project that – although dear to it – the Chinese community had not been able to carry through by itself.39

Religion as a ‘splitting’ device

Whereas the Christian tenets of charity infused the ambition of the missionaries to provide aid and relief, their actions reflect a complex mix of moral superiority and ‘positive differentiation’ that defined their power over those they deemed worthy of their help. Vallgårda defines these ‘specific imperial habits of sensibility’ in terms of sympathy through which missionaries defined, embodied and practised a ‘humanitarian mode of difference’.40 ‘Splitting’ is the term that Catherine Hall uses in Civilising Subjects, referring to the process of defining difference by splitting those conceived as ‘others’ into ‘bad’ or ‘good’; the ‘bad’ group is identified in terms of absolute differences, whereas the ‘good’ group conditionally qualifies as potential allies.41 To missionaries in the Dutch East Indies, religion did not merely serve as a marker of difference, but also as a ‘splitting’ device, differentiating between potential Christians and hopeless heathens. In the view of the Jesuits, the Chinese in general belonged to the prospective converts. Beekman actively contributed to this ‘othering’ of the Chinese in his articles in the Jesuit mission journal Claverbond, by discursively enforcing both positive and negative racial stereotypes that served to distinguish them from the Javanese population, and identifying them as suitable Catholic prospects. They were labelled as industrious and dedicated people, endowed with a mercantile spirit and respect for religion. As the Chinese ‘lacked’ a specific religion of their own, they needed to rely on what Beekman called ‘outside import’ (in Dutch: ‘import van buiten’). Although the Catholic mission could boast hardly any converts from this group, Beekman’s confidence was apparently boosted by occasional conversions that were duly reported in the Claverbond.42

The Jesuits considered children’s education to be the most effective instrument for the transformation of Chinese into ‘proper Catholics’.43 Here too, their interests met the existing awareness of the Peranakan Chinese elite that European education was a prerequisite for ‘proper citizenship’ on an equal footing with the Europeans in the Dutch East Indies. Historian Ming Govaars has documented the prolonged struggle of the Chinese community for equal opportunities through education, interspersed with competing identity politics through resinification or Europeanisation.44 The establishment of the Dutch-Chinese school (in Dutch: ‘Hollandsch-Chineesche School’, HCS) in 1908 fulfilled the conditions of the Peranakan Chinese community, albeit not on the scale needed. In Semarang, the Franciscan Sisters of Heythuysen opened such a Dutch-Chinese school. The Sisters successfully enlisted the daughters of wealthy Chinese for their academic training in this privately funded school. With respect to religion, the school was less successful as only 17 percent of the pupils were Catholics.45 Although Beekman considered this school the ‘seed’ in terms of contact and conversion, he wanted to reach what he called the ‘true masses’ in the Chinese quarter of which Kebon Dalem would be the Catholic heart.46 Until 1931 this estate was the home of the Captain of Semarang. Beekman was able to first hire Kebon Dalem in 1933 and subsequently purchase it in 1936 with the help of Chinese benefactors, the Society of Jesus and a mortgage of over 30,000 guilders.47 Restoration preserved the Chinese architectural elements, as well as delicate woodcarvings with which the buildings on the complex were decorated.48 This respect for the cultural characteristics of the Chinese community reflected the missionary modus operandi of the Jesuits.49 Its orphanage could accommodate about 200 Chinese pupils – girls as well as boys. In Claverbond, Beekman alternately described its target group as uncared-for children (1933), Chinese boys (1935) and, finally, Chinese children (1935), tacitly admitting to the mixed composition of its population in terms of gender as well as of their social status: abandoned, neglected, exploited or orphaned.

Missionary sources depict the search for children for a missionary upbringing as a hands-on affair. Beekman roamed the narrow streets of the Chinese quarter, defying the stifling heat, in search of homeless children, children without parents to take care of them, and children who were put to work by ‘distant relatives’ who took advantage of them.50 The sources describe his interventions as justified because of the incapacity of the Chinese community to care for these children. Catholic missionaries portrayed themselves as perfectly able to meet this community’s specific need, acknowledging only partially and reluctantly, it seems, the involvement and investments of the Chinese community, which testify to the concern that uncared-for Chinese children would reflect badly on this minority and its leadership. Beekman acknowledged that three prominent members of the Chinese community served on the board of governors of the foundation which administered the orphanage. Beekman presided over this board and here too, the names of the governors, who were part of a local network of benefactors that donated money, rice or oil, went unmentioned. They entrusted Beekman with the selection of the children in need, their upbringing and education. Beekman, in turn, enlisted the help of the Sisters of the Divine Providence in 1937. Although their professional engagement in the orphanage was defined in a contract with the board of governors, they were, in their own words, basically working for the Jesuits.51

Care and control by Catholic Sisters

As caregivers and educators, Catholic Sisters guarded and enforced racialised differences between colonisers and colonised. They functioned as gatekeepers of sexual relations, reproduction and child-rearing practices according to normative conceptions of race and class. Stoler rightfully identified white wives of European men as well as white professional women such as teachers, nurses and Protestant missionaries as such gatekeepers.52 Yet she overlooked Catholic Sisters who charged themselves with the regulation of bodies and sexuality in their missionary projects. The Sisters of the Divine Providence aspired to ‘civilise’ the pupils of the orphanage of Kebon Dalem; a missionary upbringing would serve to somewhat soften the boundaries that distinguished them from the Europeans, while simultaneously sharpening the social boundaries between them and the Javanese.

This congregation was established in Germany in 1842 and branched out to the Netherlands in 1879 on account of the anti-Catholic Culture Wars (Kulturkampf). Caring for orphans and providing primary education represented its core business. The Dutch branch took charge of an orphanage and a school in Bandung on Java in 1934, followed by Kebon Dalem in Semarang in 1938. These projects fitted the Jesuits’ policy of transforming Semarang into the centre of the Catholic Chinese mission.53 The sources in their archive allow for an analysis of the discursive operations underlying the Sisters’ practices of caregiving, differentiating between caring and needy parties and defining practices of child separation as both necessary and natural.54 They moreover testify to the internal contradictions of what theologian Annelies van Heijst defined as ‘charitable care’ provided by Catholic Sisters.55 This care contributed to social justice and humanity, whereas it also enforced an assumed moral superiority of the caregivers, based on race and faith – being white, Christians and core members of the Catholic Church.56 The ambitions and standards of care were bound by time and place, and mutually constitutive with contemporary social and cultural conceptions of gender, class and age. In the missionary setting too, care arrangements reflected power structures, as well as negotiations between the providers and the recipients of charitable care.57

At Kebon Dalem, the Sisters were part of a multilayered collaboration under the supervision of the Jesuits, who financially relied on Chinese benefactors. A lack of government funding made the project ‘truly missionary’ according to the Sisters, emphasising that they did not have to abide by any government regulations.58 Through long-distance financial ‘adoption’ of pupils, they attempted to acquire extra funds from fellow Sisters in the Netherlands, their relatives or other relations who donated money to help raise orphans. Only sparse records of these donations are extant, specifying the status of the children either as a ‘heathen child’ or registered under its Christian name. Their benefactors were kept abreast about their progress.59

Sheet of the photo album dedicated to the history of Kebon Dalem, compiled by the Sisters of the Divine Providence. It shows the tidily and uniformly dressed pupils (‘Internen’), especially the boys on the left, of the orphanage in 1938, under close supervision of the Sisters.60

To the Sisters, the poverty of Kebon Dalem and its orphanage manifested itself in the lack of clothes for the orphans, the absence of clean household linen, and the shortage of beds that forced the children to share them with three or more children. The Sisters were instructed by their Mother Superior that cleanliness and neatness would demonstrate their missionary capability.61 They invested in order, discipline and cleanliness as the pillars of their regime. They applied their norms by introducing fixed times for getting up, having meals and going to bed. Equally disruptive to the children was the practice of collective bathing, in groups according to age and gender.62 According to the Sisters, the fundamental reorganisation of their daily routines amounted to the mental discipline that would transform the children into industrious subjects for colonial society.63 Pictures taken in 1938 – and presumably sent home to the Sisters’ superior – show tidily and uniformly dressed pupils, the accomplishments of the Sisters reflected in the ordered compositions and the children’s serious facial expressions.

The Sisters reported that the children seemed to be anxious when they first met them, as they wore a habit and a dauntingly big wimple that covered their hair and part of their faces. As the children grew aware that the Sisters meant well, things ran more smoothly from the perspective of the Sisters.64 Such assessments need to be put into perspective, as the Sisters did not speak Malay or Chinese. They learned to say the Lord’s Prayer as well as the chaplet in Malay, although proselytising was expressly forbidden. It can be assumed – although the sources do not specify this – that Beekman issued this prohibition. Equally unclear remains whether he did so by order of his Chinese partners. The Sisters hoped nevertheless to contribute to the conversion of ‘their’ children by caring for them physically, emotionally and spiritually. Converting an unknown but in any case small number of pupils lived up to these hopes, perhaps strengthening their sense of belonging to the emotional community the Sisters and the Jesuits tried to form at Kebon Dalem.65 In any case, the Sisters were well aware that Catholic converts represented but a small portion of the religiously pluralistic Chinese community of Semarang.66

Sheet of the photo album dedicated to the history of Kebon Dalem, compiled by the Sisters of the Divine Providence, with various (posed) pictures of pupils and their living conditions. The captions identify some pupils not only by their names, but sometimes also by their status as orphan (in Dutch: wees). This information has been made illegible for the purpose of publishing this album sheet in this article. The captions generally testify to the Sisters’ perspective of ‘their’ children, revealing a complex mix of familiarity, responsibility, joy, care and control.67

Their professional experience in the Dutch orphanages where they were trained had taught the Sisters the flexibility of the term ‘orphan’. Some of the children they took in were indeed orphans or abandoned children, whereas others were children in ward.68 Beekman was in charge of enrolling and dismissing children from the orphanage. The Sisters assumed that he found most of their pupils on the street and that most of them were indeed abandoned or destitute. Yet they were aware that Beekman also brought children who had a family, albeit one that could not take care of (all of) its children. In some cases, economic hardship had unsettled them, as the recession made itself felt in the Chinese community after the First World War through unemployment and loss of income.69

The available sources do not allow for further assessment of whose standards were applied in judgements about the extent and quality of childcare. In retrospect, two Sisters referred to poverty and tragic family circumstances as common reasons why parents or guardians would relinquish their children.70 They vehemently objected to the suggestion that the Chinese readily surrendered their children, implying force majeure, and the orphanage as an appropriate solution. Their objections do not preclude the fact that they took in children who had nowhere else to turn to. Even if the Catholic missionaries did perhaps not particularly welcome this, the majority of their pupils were at their mercy. The Sisters emphasised that the care arrangements provided by the Catholic mission were of a temporary nature, outlining that these neither meant nor required a definite surrender.71 Indeed relatives sometimes came to collect older ‘mission children’ (missiekinderen), who ultimately came to represent an asset instead of a burden.72 Beekman was in charge of examining such claims before pupils of the orphanage were turned over to these relatives.73 Precisely these claims and the missionary response indicate that the Chinese community considered the orphanage of Kebon Dalem as part of its support network to and from which needy children could ‘circulate’.74

‘Poor sods of Kebon Dalem’

For information about Kebon Dalem in the 1930s and early 1940s from the pupils’ perspective, I have to rely on sources from the 1980s. During this decade, religious institutes fostered historical awareness about the Catholic mission in Indonesia, among Indonesian Catholics as well as Indonesian members of international, originally Dutch religious institutes. The Dutch members of these institutes came to consider their missionary work as development aid avant la lettre, and as such a repository of knowledge and source of inspiration for young members of religious institutes, as well as for foreign aid workers. Links between past and present were hardly contemplated in these loosely defined commemorative projects, but they also resulted in sources written retrospectively by recipients of the charitable care of the Jesuits and the Sisters of the Divine Providence in Semarang during the 1930s and 1940s.75

Two extant sources elucidate the experiences of Chinese ‘mission children’ who converted to Catholicism while living in the orphanage of Kebon Dalem. They indirectly also testify to the socio-economic pressures and structures of the Chinese community that considered wealth the main indicator of social status.76 By implication, poverty entailed embarrassment and humiliation. In her autobiography, Tan Wien Bie describes how her family, newly arrived from Singapore, suffered severe personal and financial losses.77 After the death of her mother and paternal grandmother, the family Tan Wien became ‘so poor that we did not have any food. We used to bind a tight chord around our bellies, in order not to feel the hunger’. Without parental supervision, four children started to roam the streets and ran into a Jesuit, who took them to the vicarage and gave them small presents. His religious teachings struck a nerve: the personal losses of the family and their dire circumstance required them to make a sacrifice and made them ‘choose the path from Buddhism to the true God’.78

Whether conversion was a prerequisite to be placed in the orphanage of Kebon Dalem remains unclear. Tan Wien Bie remembered that the relocation at the end of the 1930s ‘was not easy for us’, although the Sisters did their best to make them feel welcome. Significant changes – such as having to share their space with about 120 other children, being forced to live by the bell that regulated their daily life, and the stringently restricted amount of time they could spend with relatives – account for their initial personal and emotional discomfort in the orphanage.79 Tan Wien Bie did appreciate the opportunity to go to school and study. She, like her elder sister, decided to join the Sisters of the Divine Providence, adopting the name Margaretha Marie.80 Presumably their chances of finding a suitable husband had dwindled with the family fortune. The missionary milieu in which they were socialised and enculturated offered an alternative that would raise their social status: becoming a Sister. Sr. Margaratha Marie affectionately mentions the Dutch Sisters as inspiring examples to whom she was indebted for what she defined as a happy and secure childhood. The correspondence and (fragments of) diaries of the Sisters disclose that their collective and personal happiness was closely entwined with that of the children under their wing. Directly and indirectly, these children learned what to feel and which emotions to express.81

Although proud of new vocations, as in the case of Tan Wien Bie, the Sisters were in general highly ambivalent about the local candidates.82 First, they acknowledged that these candidates usually came from their orphanage and were indeed orphans, indicating that other girls had other opportunities as well as family pressures. Second, racial prejudice seems to have been a greater impediment, as the Sisters feared that the vocations of Chinese candidates would be too shallow and would not last under resistance from their community. This disqualification was rooted in racialised perceptions of the Chinese community as well as in the Sisters’ deeply engrained opinions about the requirements for religious life. The demand to be humble and obedient in particular did not go well together with the cleverness, professional ambition, class-consciousness and desire to better oneself they thought to recognise in the pupils of Kebon Dalem.83

This picture of the Sisters with their first pupils of Kebon Dalem probably dates from the late 1930s. The sisters Tan Wien were part of this group: the eldest, Kie (Sr. Virgini) standing, second of the left, and Bie (Sr. Margaretha Marie), the girl in the white dress standing behind the boy kneeling in the front row.84 In contrast to the other illustrations in this article, many pupils are smiling to the photographer, and appear to be more relaxed.

The text of Sr. Margaretha Marie/Tan Wien Bie supports the missionary discourse about children in need of rescue, neatly explaining the necessity for intervention. This necessity remains somewhat obscure in the second source, an uninvited letter of gratitude written by a former Chinese pupil of the orphanage, Huub, and his wife, Lucy. How they ended up in the orphanage is unclear. In the letter, addressed to one of the Sisters, they introduce themselves as they were known in the Chinese quarter during their youth: ‘poor sods of Kebon Dalem’. In the letter they use this epithet with pride and irony.85 Huub defines care in terms of learning how to lead a simple and sober life. This was a tough lesson, as they were young: ‘We learned to go without, to make little sacrifices, for God, who should be the centre of our lives’. The frugality of the orphans’ daily lives corresponded with the austerity reported by the Sisters, who, however, had taken the vow of poverty when they opted for the religious life. Huub’s letter indicates that they integrated their religious ideals into the moral training of the pupils, whose impoverished background required them to get used to having little. Sacrificing what one had, or desperately wanted, proved to be an asset for later life, as indeed Huub and Lucy, in their own words, came to realise as adults. Huub’s apparently rough start in life was compensated for by intellectual and professional opportunities for gifted boys in the Catholic milieu. Although his calling to become a priest did not last, he was able to study and become a teacher. Huub describes this as a definite step up the social ladder that guaranteed their family income.

Although thankfulness is writ large in Huub’s letter, the references to frugality and austerity reflect the ambivalence of the Sisters’ civilising and disciplining care. It was only in hindsight that Huub and Lucy came to realise that the Catholic mission offered chances that probably would have been rare for uncared-for children in the Chinese community: primary and secondary education, academic training and a professional career as a teacher. Taking advantage of such opportunities required religious conversion to and accommodation of the way of life of their religious surrogate parents.


The orphanage of Kebon Dalem operated on the basis of a partnership between Catholic missionaries and members of the Chinese elite of Semarang. The Dutch missionary sources do not clearly identify the Chinese allies, but they do clarify shared interests – albeit motivated differently – in the care for Chinese children perceived as needy. The missionaries recognised the Chinese minority as potentially suitable allies for anchoring Catholicism more solidly in colonial society. For the Chinese elite, it was paramount to fortify their entitlement to self-rule with concrete proof of their capacity to solve the problems of their neighbourhood. Moreover, caring for the poor and needy fitted their charitable traditions and proved to be common ground for an alliance with the Jesuit Beekman. Yet apparently the Chinese themselves could not establish an orphanage of the size and scale that Beekman was able to realise with the financial support of wealthy Chinese and the day-to-day support of the Sisters of the Divine Providence.

Whereas these Sisters emphasised that Chinese children were not being surrendered to the Catholic mission, their pupils had nowhere else to go. As poverty reduced their socio-economic options within the Chinese community, the Catholic mission offered education and life options that could enhance their social status. Former pupils of Kebon Dalem mention these opportunities with gratitude; at the same time, they retrospectively describe the required adjustments to a fixed time schedule and unflinching austerity as invasive. As much as care for the children’s physical and mental well-being determined the Sisters’ self-understanding as religious women and missionaries, this care was also rooted in moral superiority based on race and faith – being white, Christians and core members of the Catholic Church.

As a missionary project, Kebon Dalem testifies to colonial complicities between the Catholic mission and the local Chinese community, exposing practices of child separation as strategies to serve communal interests of the Chinese elite. The sources indicate that the orphanage was part of the support network of the local Chinese community, where neglected, abandoned and orphaned children were raised in an orderly, or assumingly European, fashion. Some of them were reclaimed by relatives, which indicates circulation rather than definite separation as a possible outcome of the care arrangement. The ban on proselytising seems to reveal a similar precaution for safeguarding the ties between the pupils and the Chinese community. The willingness of members of the Chinese elite to serve on the governing board, as well as financial and material donations indicate that these wealthy Chinese identified uncared-for Chinese children as their administrative responsibility, which not only required but also authorised missionary interventions in family life and kinship structures. For the Chinese elite, the care and solid European upbringing for the pupils of Kebon Dalem represented a return on investment that reflected their capacity to solve an urgent problem in the Chinese quarter. For the Dutch Jesuits, the orphanage offered a point of entry into the Chinese community that, in their view, could be a new seedbed of potential Catholics who could constructively support the Jesuits’ ambitions to transform Semarang into the heart of the Catholic mission in Java.