Rituals of Moving Home

1  Introduction

My father, mother and I as a baby in 1926
My father, mother and I as a baby in 1926
I, Paul Ferdinand Abels (preferred name Ferry), was born on the 4th of January 1926 and, much to my mother’s dismay, almost right in the middle of headhunter territory in Singkawang in Borneo, which is now known as Kalimantan. In those days, the Dayak headhunters still had the tradition of displaying their defeated enemies’ skulls on bamboo stakes in front of their homes in the kampong. The more skulls they possessed, the greater their prestige as warriors.

In 1926, when my father was posted in the area as a public servant of the Colonial Administration of the Dutch East Indies, the (?)first discrete attempts were made to end this Dayak tradition. For decades, the population of the capitol city of Pontianak and its greater surroundings, i.e. also including my place of birth Singkawang, had consisted not only of the indigenous population but also of a very large group of Chinese people. They had relocated to this area from their much impoverished home country, seeking a new and more prosperous life in northwest Borneo. Inevitably, the many Chinese mixed with the indigenous population, which is still evidenced by the Chinese facial features of many people in the present population.

Although I was born in Singkawang on Borneo, my father, with his wife and child, got transferred to another post as a public servant in Banyuwangi on East Java before my 2nd birthday. In 1995 - i.e. 70 years later - I returned to my birthplace Singkawang on a holiday, visiting the places my mother had been familiar with and to which she had provided me the directions in spite of her old age. In accordance with an old East Indian tradition, I took a pot of soil from my birthplace home as a souvenir.

 Our babu, my parents, I, Olga on my mother's lap and Edwin
Our babu, my parents, I, Olga on my mother's lap and Edwin

Although Singkawang was no longer the ‘sleepy’ village it used to be, it was and still is a quiet and peaceful town, which is not really surprising given its rather remote location in the north-west of Borneo near the East Malaysian border, the former British North Borneo. However, Pontianak, situated along the banks of the Kapuas River and the capital of this Indonesian province, had become a hustling and bustling city/capital. When I was in Pontianak, I paid an extensive visit to the palace of the Sultan of Pontianak. Since the thirties, Sultan Hamid Alkadrie (generally known as Max), who had had a European education, was very popular amongst his Dutch friends; at that time, he filled the rank of Adjutant with the Special Forces of our then HM Queen Juliana.

My parents

My mother, Eveline Bastiaans, was born on 31 July 1900 in Pekalongan, Central Java, and my father Ernst Quirinus Charles Abels (preferred name ‘Tjoh’) was born on 29 January 1901 in Semarang, also on Central Java. During the early days of his career, my father, being a Public Tax Servant, was subject to regular transfers. .

I spent a mostly carefree childhood with my parents, first briefly in Banyuwangi where my younger brother Edwin Abels ('Teddy') was born on 5 July 1927 and subsequently in Bondowoso, East Java and in Pekalongan on Central Java, where my younger sister Olga Elena Abels ('Olly') was born on 23 May 1929. With the family now being complete, we lived in Medan on Sumatra for the next three years, until mid 1934.


My father started off with a monthly salary of about 60 guilders and by mid 1934, after 9 years of loyal service, he had made it to Public Tax Servant 2nd Class. With a monthly income of approximately 150-175 guilders, he belonged to the so-called middle class. In order to get this far, my father had passed a Lower Public Service Examination a few years earlier. During the Depression, people were considered middle class if their father had a job. Back then, the mothers didn’t go to work yet and would at best do some baking and such, selling their goods to earn some extra income. By spending their money wisely, many families managed to live reasonably well and to provide their children with a good education.

The Tax Inspector's human side

As a tax inspector, my father was a man of unimpeachable integrity. He was a great believer in the commitments and responsibilities that came with his position. As such, he instructed my mother never to accept any kind of presents from people she didn’t know. He wanted to prevent any semblance of slur on his professional integrity. However, he was also a very socially engaged man, and he'd found his own way to give a human side to the task assigned to him. Many a time he had to confiscate the household furniture of some poor Indonesian family as they were overdue paying their taxes. Prior to the confiscation, he would therefore order his faithful Indonesian assistant to type up the order for confiscation on a type writer. As was to be expected, after work this good man would hurry to the family involved to inform them, while - officially - my father wasn’t involved in any of this… This way, the father of the family could, for instance, take his bike (which he needed badly) elsewhere and his wife could move her sewing machine (with which she could occasionally earn a little extra by sewing or repairing garments for others) to a safer place.

Certificate saying I have passed the equator
Certificate saying I crossed the equator
My father could only be pleased about what his faithful assistant did behind his back for this poor family. This way, my father met his obligations as a tax inspector in every way, and, as for the rest… what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over!

Prank by friends

In 1995 I was staying in a hotel in Pontianak. Singkawang, the village where I was born, was approximately thirty kilometres to the North and in order to get there, I would be crossing the equator. My dear friend Captain Pranowo of Garuda Indonesia, who always used to fly to Amsterdam in his Boeing 747, had a very influential younger brother in Jakarta. So, as I crossed the equator on Sunday 26 March, I was awarded a certificate with a lot of hoo-ha. It stated that on that particular day, I had crossed the equator on my way to my birthplace. It even specified the time. The Indonesian officer informed me that the Mayor of Pontianak never signs
 documents on Sundays. It was the very first time he saw anything like it.
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