April 15, 2009

1. The Stick and the Piano (1916-1934)

Frank and Han Samethini (Bondowoso, Java, 1917)
Frank Samethini Collection

Henri Jacques (Han) Samethini was born in the Netherlands East Indies, on the island of Java, on September 4, 1916. He was the younger son of Henri Alexander Samethini and Emma Wilhelmina Frederika Wychgel. Han's elder brother, Francesco Karel (Frank), was born on June 6, 1915.

Of Henri Sr. (born 1889 in Surabaya) we know little, save that he had a military upbringing and that he made his living as a business manager, first in the sugar industry and later in freight shipping. It is possible that he had early musical aspirations, and if so, this trait proved to be the decisive paternal influence on Henri Jr. [1]

Emma (born 1892 in Magelang) busied herself as a zealous promoter of drama and dance. Inspired by the performances and costumes of famed Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, she eventually founded her own dance studio. Photographs of Han and Frank in stage costumes show how far the boys were induced to share their mother's enthusiasm. Doting and even domineering in her affections, she nevertheless enjoyed the full measure of her sons' love and devotion.

The Netherlands East Indies (click map to enlarge)
Sugar Cane
Photo Source: Zoo Leven Wij in Indie
The Samethini home on the sugar plantation (circa 1920)
Han Samethini Collection

The family home was situated on a sugar plantation in Bondowoso, and appears to have been more or less true to the type of Dutch colonial residence described by a contemporary American travel writer:

Their houses are usually big, one-storey buildings occupying a great deal of ground and set in the midst of the plants and flowers and trees of the tropics. There are no cellars in Java, but nearly every house has floors of cement or marble, raised to several feet above the earth. This is to guard against the little animals and insects which get into the houses despite every precaution. Meals are served in a large room in the centre, while the bedrooms are all open on a paved gallery....In front of this inner gallery is a large outer veranda that is roofed but open on both sides to catch any breeze that may blow. This is used as a reception room, and often another one parallel to it serves as the living room. The verandas are furnished for comfort and coolness. [2]

Frank and Han (circa 1920)
Han Samethini Collection

In this home, at the age of five, Han commenced his first piano lessons under the stern supervision of his father. Han's daughter, Margie, comments:

[Henri Sr.] wanted Han to be a concert pianist, not realizing his hands were too small. When Han would miss notes he would be beaten with a small stick. [3]

Han's sister-in-law Elisabeth elaborates:

Once there was a performance planned in Malang and Han was to play his piano. While [he was] practicing his father would stand over him with a stick. If he made a mistake he would hit him on the head. He had hit Han so much that he was unable to play that night! His father of course was very remorseful and hadn't realized he had hit him so hard. [4]

Map of the eastern half of Java, showing the location of Bondowoso (click map to enlarge)

The green, terraced hills of Bondowoso
Photo Source: www.eastjava.com

This is not to suggest that Han's childhood was somber or oppressive. He and Frank grew up in what was, for them, a virtual paradise: the beautiful land of rural East Java. This was a lush country of cane fields, forests, hills, and small streams, a realm fit for boyhood adventures. Tigers still roamed there in the 1920s, and around 1930, at the age of 16 or 17, Frank shot one with his rifle. [5]

Though unlike in appearance and temperament - Han being more reserved and studious, and Frank more outgoing and adventurous - the Samethinis were devoted brothers who stuck together through many scrapes and shenanigans. A few stories of those times are handed down by Elisabeth:

If one got into trouble, the other would immediately come to his aid. There wasn't the competition as one would expect, just the strong bond of love for one another. This bond remained throughout their years....

As young brothers on a large sugar plantation in Bondowoso, Java, they got into plenty of mischief. Their father was busy working and they had a guest house. Mother loved cooking for the guests, and her dishes were famous. They were a social couple and Frank recollected stories to me from those happy early childhood days.

Railway yard at a Java sugar plantation
Photo Source: Netherlands Institute for War Documentation

There was a railway track across the plantation to transfer the sugar from one end of the property to the sale yards. It had a "hand pumped trolley car". One day the boys decided this could be fun and pumped the trolley car along the tracks, unaware that a train was coming! Their father raced toward the boys, and when the boys saw their father coming, cursing and waving his arms, they ran away. In a panic, Frank climbed the nearest tree, and was so afraid of his father's reprimand that he piddled from the tree onto his father's head. His father looked up and was so astounded that he laughed and laughed. There was a huge sigh of relief from their father that his boys were safe, and the boys were relieved that Father had laughed and had not spanked them!

Another story was of a fight at school between Frank and some other boys. Han, hearing the commotion, came of course to Frank's rescue by jumping on the back of the offender. When Han was consequently sat upon, Frank came to his rescue, and so the fight continued until the headmaster intervened. This story was told and retold because it was quite a big fight, and their father had to come to school the next day to sort things out. I daresay the boys enjoyed it thoroughly. [6]

The tale of the school fight gives us our first glimpse of Han's inner toughness and doughty sense of humor. The latter quality, especially in its playful and self-mocking forms, was to become his signature trait as a performer. It balanced his serious side and enabled him to overcome every adversity. For all the harshness of his early piano lessons, Han took to music as his first love, studying and practicing diligently (in contrast to Frank, who gladly bowed out whenever he could). Music became his abiding comfort and the language in which he best expressed himself. We may imagine the fearsome little stick held ever more loosely in his father's hand, the taskmaster's frown upturning to a smile of pride and delight, as Han's playing grew steadily more skillful and confident. There was no denying the boy had talent.

Frank and Han in The Hague (mid 1920s)
Frank Samethini Collection

Encouraged by this progress, and determined to give him the best training they could afford, Han's parents sent him to Holland. There, from 1930 to 1934, he studied classical music (performance, composition, and arrangement) at the Conservatory in The Hague.[7] These classes must have been contemporaneous with his general education, taken in the late afternoon or early evening after a full day of regular school. [8] The particulars of Frank's education are not known. The photo taken in The Hague, when he and Han were around the age of 12 and 11 respectively, suggests that both brothers studied in Holland. [9]

Frank and Han (circa 1930)
Photo probably taken in Malang
Frank Samethini Collection

More Family Photographs:

Han's parents: Emma and Henri Samethini (circa 1912)
Frank Samethini Collection

Later photos of Henri Sr. and Emma (probably mid-1930s)
Han Samethini Collection

Dance teacher Emma poses in two of her ballet costumes (1920s)
Han Samethini Collection

The boys costumed as fishermen
Frank Samethini Collection

"Beggar and Gentleman"
Frank Samethini Collection

Han and playmates wading in the river Brantas
Picture taken in Malang, circa 1925
Han Samethini Collection


[1] There is no direct evidence of Henri Sr.'s musical accomplishments. But in describing Han's mature skills, Joop Postma (who worked with him as a POW entertainer) remarked that the younger Samethini's talent "was in his genes because his father played in a dance hall." H.L. Leffelaar / E. van Witsen, Werkers aan de Burma-spoorweg (1982 Uitgeverij T. Wever, bv Franeker), p. 249. Excerpt translated by Margie Samethini-Bellamy.
[2] Frank G. Carpenter, Java and the East Indies (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1923), pp. 158-159.
[3] Margie Samethini-Bellamy, personal e-mail.
[4] Christine Chapman, "Thoughts and Recollections of Elisabeth (Lisa) Samethini", personal e-mail, January 2008. Christine Chapman (nee Samethini) is the daughter of Frank and Elisabeth, and Han Samethini's niece.
[5] Frank's successful tiger hunt had a humorous but potentially tragic aftermath. Elizabeth relates:

"There were many tigers in the area at the time, and the boys had learned to shoot a rifle. Frank loved every opportunity he could get. One day Frank (who was 16 or 17 years old at the time) ventured out by himself and actually shot a tiger who was caught off guard in the nearby woods. He ran home proudly to tell his father, who was horrified and asked his son, "Is your rifle cartridge now empty?" To which Frank replied, "Sure, Dad!" and pulled the trigger. A bullet fired from the cartridge and narrowly missed two guests who were sitting nearby." Christine Chapman, Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Werkers aan de Burma-spoorweg, p. 249. Postma does not specify which of the two Hague conservatories Samethini attended. There was the famous Royal Conservatory (Koninklijk Conservatorium), which still exists, and a less prestigious music school that has since closed.
[8] A 1946 Personeelsstaat (army personnel record) lists Han's education level as MULO II, with a diploma in stenotypy. MULO is a Dutch acronym signifying More Extended Elementary Education, equivalent to American high school. Copy of this document kindly furnished by Mr. L.H.G. Belleflamme of Stichting Administratie Indonesische Pensioenen (SAIP).

Judging by the varied historical and philosophical allusions in The Sky Looked Down (Frank Samethini's World War II memoir, published in blog form in 2009), he received an education as good as Han's, if perhaps less specialized.

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