“What about me seems Dutch?” I asked my husband, thinking he’d say something like ‘you’re a hard worker’ or ‘fairness is important to you’ or ‘you’re an innovator’. He thought for a moment.
“Well, you’re quite tall,” he said. Another thought came to him. “And you like cheese.”
I have an indistinct memory of a conversation with a childhood friend who’d been to The Netherlands.
“Oh,” I said, feeling that as a half-Dutch person I should be an expert on the subject. “I hear it’s very… hilly.”
She gave me a funny look, and I realised I’d made a mistake. With almost a third of its land below sea level, The Netherlands is famously flat – but I didn’t know that then.
I might not have known much about my fatherland, but I had a sense that it was special. I knew it was a place of clogs, canals and great painters. I knew I liked eating spiced windmill biscuits, and the vegetable soup with tiny meatballs that Oma made.
Oma and Opa lived in a neat brick house in Rangiora with a grape-draped pergola and a chiming grandfather clock. A tapestry of tulip-tending women in winged bonnets hung over the dining table. Aside from Oma and Opa’s accents, and the way Oma said ‘dinga’ when she couldn’t find the English word she wanted, that tapestry was the clearest marker of my Dutch heritage.
Growing up in Christchurch, the colonial British influence was everywhere – in the name of the city we lived in, the Anglican cathedral at its heart, and the reverent tones in which ‘The First Four Ships’ were still spoken of. Despite being a multi-generation Kiwi, Mum tried to impress our English heritage upon us, fighting a one-woman war against the Americanisms infecting her children through the TV.
Dad was too busy with his trampoline factory, his dog food factory and a variety of spiritual quests, to impart any Dutch culture to us, and it wasn’t until after Oma and Opa passed away that I started to read about post-War Dutch immigration to New Zealand.
I learnt that the Dutch were chosen as potential immigrants because of their ‘good Germanic genes’ and that would-be immigrants with Indonesian heritage were excluded from applying. The new arrivals were ‘pepper-potted’ around the country to prevent them from forming communities, were made to carry identification papers, and had local unions up in arms for working too hard.
I learnt that by the late 1960s, the Dutch were our biggest group of non-British immigrants. And they’d assimilated well (too well?). Of all non-English speaking settlers, the Dutch were the least likely to pass their language down to their children. In high school, my language options were te reo Māori, German and French. Looking back, it seems strange that Dutch wasn’t in the mix.
I learnt that Dutch restauranteur Otto Groen changed New Zealand’s liquor laws so that he could serve wine to his diners, that immigrants Suzy van der Kwast and Eelco Boswijk kickstarted café culture, and that Vogel’s bread, Verkerks salami, Mercer cheese and Royal Gala apples all came from Dutch immigrants. But despite everything I’d learnt, I still felt no closer to Dutch culture.
I longed to visit The Netherlands, but my traveling ambitions were curbed by my budget. Our finances couldn’t stretch to Europe – but they could get us as far as Bali. Researching Bali, I read about its history of Dutch occupation. I wondered what legacy the Dutch had left. Would baroque buildings line the beaches? Would street vendors sell bitterballen alongside nasi jinggo? Would there be tulips in the jungle?
In Bali we saw copper-coloured street dogs and giant rats. We heard the talking and laughter of caged birds. We saw carts dragged by ponies through the heat of the Gilli islands, and small, lumpen cats deformed through inbreeding. For a fee, a man on the side of the road let me hold a bat and stroke an iguana. At Uluwatu Temple, obese monkeys cajoled bananas from sarong-wrapped tourists. I almost stepped on a snake on an Ubud street.
Animals were everywhere – but the legacy of Dutch occupation was harder to find. And when I did find it, it had a tail.
Luwak – also referred to as palm civets, or civet cats – look like Burmese cats crossed with brushtail possums. They have large eyes, rounded ears and raccoon-like markings on their faces, and lead solitary nocturnal lives in the forests where they feast on insects, fruit and coffee.
Coffee beans, it turns out, are actually seeds, and they form inside red fruits known as ‘cherries’. Coffee trees thrive in Indonesia, where tourists are encouraged to try an unusual type of beverage called kopi luwak.
Also known as cat-poo-cino, kopi luwak is made from the partially digested coffee beans found in luwak scat. Touted as the most expensive coffee in the world, the beverage is sold to tourists who want to try an unusual or ‘authentic’ experience.
In 2014, we were two of those tourists.
We went on an agricultural tour where we tasted kopi luwak and a range of sweet teas. The beverages were underwhelming, but we enjoyed seeing the cacao trees, coffee shrubs and vanilla vines–and a caged luwak.
Caught up in the excitement of our overseas adventure, I didn’t think critically about the lives of bats I’d held, the monkeys I’d fed, or the civet I’d cooed over. But my bubble of ignorance was popped when we visited a waterfall and came across a cage in the carpark. Inside it were two soft baby luwak who looked as though they wanted to play. From behind crosshatchings of wire they sniffed the forest fruit they’d never eat, and surveyed the trees they’d never scale.
That night I googled the history of kopi luwak. I learnt that the Dutch introduced coffee to Indonesia in the 1600s – and to maximise profits, they forbade Indonesian farmers from consuming the produce. As legend goes, if the farmers wanted coffee, they had to scavenge beans from civet scat. Kopi luwak became a local delicacy – and the Dutch soon got in on the act, making improbable claims about the taste of cat-poo-cino that persist today.
Human interest in animals almost invariably comes at a high price to those animals. The demand for cat-poo-cino has led to civets being kept in small, uncomfortable cages with nowhere to exercise or rest. Sleep-deprived, stressed and malnourished, they bite themselves in their attempts to self-soothe.
I’d finally found a Dutch connection in Bali – and it was a legacy of cruelty.
Pākehā know we’re the uninvited guests who crashed the South Pacific party, ate all the snacks and crapped in the pool. Perhaps some of us carry a sliver of fear in our bellies – fear that we’ll be asked to go back where we came from. But those of us with complicated or lost family histories don’t know where ‘where we came from’ is. I still haven’t been to England. But in 2018, I finally made it to The Netherlands.
The Dutch spirit of gezelligheid – cosiness and conviviality – was everywhere. It was in the perfectly maintained ancient streets that allowed cyclists and pedestrians to weave beneath the spires of medieval buildings, the flower-festooned bridges that curved over green canals, the hot stroopwafel sold by street vendors, and the bakkerijen with creamy cakes heaped with fresh berries.
The most special part of the trip was staying with Dad’s cousin Jos in pastoral Dongen, near the tiny town of Terheijden where Dad was born. Determined to find Dad’s old house, Jos and his wife Antionette walked up and down the main street, questioning locals until we were directed to number four – a cream-coloured house with a tiled roof and net curtains. The bell was answered by an elderly lady who smiled and said she’d bought the house from Opa and Oma when they moved to New Zealand.
Further down the street we visited De Arend, a pretty, ivy-covered windmill that dates back to 1742. We also visited cemeteries where my ancestors are buried – including a great-grandfather. Gazing out from one of Jos’s photo albums, old Cornelis looked almost exactly like Dad.
That night, in a scene that could have come straight from the Missing Pieces whānau reunification show, Jos’s extended family gathered to meet me. In their looks and mannerisms they were just like my uncles – but more stylish in their crisp shirts, oatmeal-coloured pants and navy jackets. My overalls-wearing Dad had never returned to The Netherlands. Later, at a market, I bought him a ‘Made in Holland’ cap.
I joked that visiting De Arend was like visiting my maunga – but I didn’t feel the special connection to Terheijden I’d expected to feel. Though I felt at home in Holland, I never felt that sense of ‘coming home’. When it came to understanding what being Dutch meant for me, I returned to New Zealand with even more questions.
In 2023, I finally rang the man who might have some answers – the 77-year-old bean sprouter and fellow Missing Pieces enthusiast who runs Christchurch-based company Sleepouts Galore.
“Hi Bun,” said Dad.
Dad’s homeland occupies a long-contested space – a site of war for the Romans, the Celts, Germanic tribes, and later, the Spanish. Though the Dutch declared neutrality in the Second World War, the Germans invaded in May 1940 and razed the medieval city of Rotterdam before killing most of the country’s Jews and instigating the Hunger Winter.
After the war, as many Dutch people looked to escape their broken country, New Zealand officials sought ‘suitable aliens’ to make into ‘vectors of the British way of life’.
Two such aliens were Johannes and Cornelia van Beek.
Opa would have been about 30 when World War Two ended, and about 40 when he came to New Zealand. Oma was two years younger. I asked Dad why they decided to move to the other side of the world.
“I know very little about my parents’ past really,” said Dad, who has always been more interested in exploring self-help than Dutch history. “There wasn’t a lot on offer in Holland after the war. Thousands of people left because they felt there was no future for them, and New Zealand was about the wealthiest country in the world at the time, because the Korean war was going on and we were supplying wool to America.”
I asked Dad what he remembered about living in Holland.
“I went to the market with my father one day in the horse and cart, and we went over a bridge that went up for boats to pass,” he said. “I remember someone getting a black puppy which we used to play with. I remember coming out from Holland we all had coats made for us by a tailor. We’d go in all excited to see how our coats were fitting. In the photos of us arriving in New Zealand, the coat I’m wearing was the one I had made for me.”
There’s a family legend that Dad almost fell off The Waterman – the ship that brought him to New Zealand. Dad thought he was five or six when he came over, and that it was ‘the old man’ who pulled him to safety – but he wasn’t sure. He had stronger memories of trying to assimilate once he’d come ashore.
“School was good but it was embarrassing because I couldn’t speak the language,” he said. “Once in class, I needed to go the toilet. Another kid put their hand up and said, ‘please ma’am, can I go to the toilet?’ and they were excused. So I put my hand up and said, ‘please ma’am, can I go to the toilet?’ But the teacher said I’d have to wait until the other kid came back. And by the time they came back, I’d forgotten the words. So I crapped my pants in class.”
Dad wasn’t the only one who struggled with the language barrier.
“My father found a job, but he didn’t get on very well with the boss there,” Dad said. “The boss would send him to the shop to ask for ‘one pound of fucking butter,’ so the old man would ask for ‘one pound of fucking butter’.’” When he realised he’d been the butt of a joke, ‘the old man wasn’t very amused.”
Dad and his family eventually settled in Rangiora, where Opa realised his dream of becoming a dairy farmer.
“We had about 125 cows, which was big for those days,” Dad said. “We milked the cows and sold the cream, and fed the rest of the milk to the pigs and sold the pigs. We had a couple hundred chickens and sold the eggs. We used to grow peas and potatoes – anything to make a bit of extra money. We did nothing else but work on the farm. I was always outside, every day.”
Working outside the house and speaking to his brothers in English, Dad soon lost his mother tongue.
“If I turn the radio on and it’s the Dutch news, I can’t understand a thing,” Dad said. “But if it’s two people talking, having a cup of tea, then I can understand quite a bit.”
“What’s a Dutch word you still know?” I asked.
“Eén,” he said.
“Eén? What does that mean?”
“It means one. Één… twee… drie, vier, vijf, zes, zeven, acht, negen, tien, elf, twaalf, dertien, veertien, vijftien, zestien, zeventien, achttien, negentien, twintig!” he recited, triumphantly.
There are plenty of unflattering English idioms about the Dutch: Double Dutch, crazy as a Dutchman, the Dutch cure. But I was surprised to learn that growing up, Dad felt some shame about his heritage.
“I didn’t tell people what my surname was for years and years,” he said. “I’ve only been using it proudly for the past ten to twelve years.”
I was shocked by Dad’s revelation. I’ve been proud of my unmelodious, hard-to-spell-name my whole life.
“There was always a bit of stigma to being Dutch,” Dad explained. “A lot of people used to run Dutch people down. As a young child you take it seriously. People are frightened of people who work day and night like the Dutch did. The Dutch knew they had to get stuck in, or they weren’t going to make it. People used to fear them a wee bit – taking their jobs, and that sort of thing. A bit like how people treat the Indians and the Chinese now.”
There was genuine concern at the time that the Dutch would establish a colony, but the ‘pepper-potting’ of immigrants did its job of erasing customs and rituals. In a country that’s named after a Dutch province, the Dutch are curiously absent from the culture. No wonder the Dutch in New Zealand have been called ‘the invisible immigrants’.
Even Dad’s memories weren’t particularly Dutch – they were more about farming, or the 1950s. But at last, he told me a story about something visibly Dutch: clogs.
“When the old man came from Holland, he brought a bag of clogs with him,” Dad said. “We were so embarrassed, but he used to love wearing clogs. Clop-clop-clop-clop as he walked. You didn’t want to be seen with him.”
In 2019, Dad finally returned to The Netherlands.
“I knew I was going to cry when I arrived,” he said.
Along with re-establishing connections to people and places, Dad wanted to verify his childhood recollections.
“I wanted to prove to myself that some of the memories I had were real and not just made up.”
Memories of the horse and cart and the bascule bridge were corroborated. There was just one memory he couldn’t confirm.
“I did go looking for the black dog, but of course it wasn’t around.”
I’d seen my ancestral windmill. I’d eaten stroopwafel. I’d talked to Dad, and I’d learnt how to say ‘eén’.
But it was the palm civets I couldn’t get out my mind.
I got in touch with Jes Hooper, the English Anthrozoologist who founded The Civet Project, a non-profit research initiative.
“I became really interested in this weird coffee and why people were spending so much money on a product that comes from faeces,” Jes said, when I called her on Zoom. “When I tell people I study civets, a lot of people don’t know what civets are. But when I ask if they’ve heard of civet coffee, they say ‘oh yeah, it’s the cat’. People know it for the novelty – they don’t know it for the animal welfare implications.”
Civets are now factory farmed in heart-breaking conditions.
“It’s probably one of the most detrimental forms of farming for wildlife,” Jes said. “They suffer from zoochosis – psychosis created by poor conditions – and have stereotypic behaviour where they pace up and down.”
And with no evidence that kopi luwak has a particularly unique or delicious taste, the civets suffer for nothing.
“The whole thing is a bit of a marketing gimmick,” Jes said. “Civet coffee is also prone to be fraudulent because there’s no authentication option available.”
Jes confirmed that my experience in Bali was a common one. Many tourists are excited to see vanilla, cacao and coffee plants, but aghast to see the caged civets.
“One of the things I found on Tripadvisor is that tourists are using the platform as a way to warn other people,” she said. “There was a really common theme of ‘I wish I’d known this sooner’.”
Kopi luwak is a relic from a time when the Dutch – no strangers to enslavement and invasion themselves – saw fit to enslave Indonesian people and wrest control of their land. A time when thousands of Balinese people ended their lives in puputan suicide rituals rather than surrender.
“Kopi luwak is steeped in colonialism and inequality,” Jes said. “Coffee was brought in as a way of generating money for the Dutch – but now one of Indonesia’s biggest exports is coffee, and their most iconic coffee export is kopi luwak. Think about how many people are dependent on civet coffee for their income.”
Like cows, pigs, and chickens, luwak are now tied to human tastes and market forces.
“This isn’t new, and it’s not an Indonesian cultural problem,” Jes said. “It’s endemic of how we treat other animals.”
I asked Jes what she thought about the Dutch legacy in Bali.
“It’s a pile of crap!” she said, before adding, “I can say that, being English. The legacy of the English is horrific, too.”
I looked back through the photos from my trip to The Netherlands. There I am, smiling in front of a brick fort, a stone castle, city gates. How much of human history is built on war?
But there was something else in the photos – something gentler. There was wine and beer, comfort food, and friendly faces. Gezelligheid. I remembered what I’d read about the Dutch immigrants who brought us the food and customs we now take for granted. And I realised Dutch culture feels invisible because it’s pepper-potted throughout our own. Perhaps on these islands, almost twelve thousand miles from The Netherlands, we’re all a little bit Dutch.
My husband is right – I am quite tall. Despite my vegan aspirations, I do like cheese. And two baby palm civets led me to discover some missing pieces in a complicated inheritance that’s as dark and complex as coffee, or blood.
Florek, Stan. 2014. “Balinese Expressions: Depicting the Invasion of Klungkung.” Australian Museum. Balinese Expressions: Depicting the Invasion of Klungkung – The Australian Museum Blog
Hooper, J. 2022. “Cat-Poo-Chino and Captive Wildlife: Tourist Perceptions of Balinese Kopi Luwak Agrotourism.” Society and Animals. https://brill.com/view/journals/soan/aop/article-10.1163-15685306-bja10094/article-10.1163-15685306-bja10094.xml
Schouten, H. 1992. “Tasman’s Legacy: the New Zealand-Dutch Connection.” New Zealand Netherlands Foundation.
van Dongen, Yvonne. 1992. “The Invisible Immigrants.” New Zealand Geographic. The invisible immigrants | New Zealand Geographic (nzgeo.com)
Yska, Redmer. 2016. “Dutch.” Te Ara – The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Dutch – Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand
2023 Burns fellow Kathryn van Beek is the winner of the Mindfood Short Story Competition and the Headland Prize. Her work has appeared in Overland, The Spinoff, Newsroom, and in her short story collection, Pet.