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date: 26 May 2018

Cultural Citizenship and Modernity in the Netherlands Indies

Summary and Keywords

By exclusively focusing on the agency of the Dutch, colonial historiography ignored the pivotal role of indigenous middle classes in sustaining the colonial regime. Conventional nationalist historiography, on the other hand, presumes a linear development from urbanization, the rise of the indigenous middle classes, education, and the spread of modernity toward nationalism and revolution as the logical outcome of this process. This article aims to disconnect modernity from nationalism by focusing on the role of cultural citizens in the late-colonial period in the Netherlands Indies, for whom modernity was in the very first place a desirable lifestyle. The extent to which their desires, capitalist strategies, and the interests of the colonial state coincided is illustrated by a variety of advertisements and school posters, which invited members of the indigenous urban middle classes to become cultural citizens of the colony. The image of the cultural citizen was framed within the confinement of the nuclear family, which had a conservative impact on gender relationships.

Keywords: Netherlands Indies, Netherlands Indonesia, late-colonial state, middle classes, modernity and progress, advertisements, cultural citizenship

Introduction: Middle Classes in Colonial and Nationalist Historiography

Around 1900 several important processes were changing the structure of our world.1 Rapid economic and technological development went hand in hand with population growth, urbanization, the globalization of capitalism, and the increase of state capacities and military power as colonial expansion spread around the world. Facilitated by steamships, railroads, and new communication technologies, the mobility of people, goods, and ideas accelerated worldwide. These changes were accompanied by the emergence of new time regimes that implied a global standardization of clock time. The Western world was in many respects the motor of these developments, but not exclusively, as the case of Japan demonstrated.

New notions of equality, emancipation, and individual freedom challenged established hierarchies, and new urban middle classes undermined traditional bonds as they forged new social alignments. These new middle classes found employment in the expanding state bureaucracies and capitalist enterprises, and inhabited new social spaces, such as offices, boulevards, cafés, and restaurants, where they participated in a new mass culture characterized by trans-imperial consumption patterns and a shared desire to be modern. Shopping arcades, department stores, and advertisements celebrated a new consumer society, which offered both individual freedom and a new uniformity in terms of dress, taste, habits and leisure.2 In the late-colonial period, notions of modernity gave shape to new lifestyles among the new indigenous middle classes in the Netherlands Indies, and Java in particular, which in turn facilitated the emergence of cultural citizenship.

Colonial Historiography

Colonial historians considered the late-colonial state the Dutch established in the Indonesian archipelago after 1900 as self-evident, needing no further explanation. Yet it is amazing that such a vast archipelago, stretching from North Sumatra to halfway New Guinea and in 1930 populated by more than sixty million people, could be governed by only a handful of Europeans. At that time Europeans formed only 0.4 percent (240,000 people) of the total population of the Netherlands Indies, and the colonial administration consisted of a civil service of approximately one hundred thousand people, of whom 15 percent at the most were Europeans.

The so-called Ethical Policy the Dutch adopted in 1901 as a guideline for colonial expansion was aimed at developing the “native” population, but it went hand in hand with large-scale military expeditions. The idea was that the Dutch mission civilisatrice to “uplift” indigenous societies could only be achieved by eliminating traditional rule and establishing firm colonial control. The introduction of the Dutch “white man’s burden” was therefore accompanied by intimidating violence, creating a regime of fear that would resonate in local memories for decades to come.3

The establishment of a climate of violence does not explain why a small European minority managed to control with relative ease the vast Indonesian archipelago till the Japanese invasion in 1942. Two other factors helped to establish a relative stable colonial regime. The first was the efficient way in which a system of indirect rule was employed in both Java and most parts of the so-called Outer Islands. As Heather Sutherland explained in her study on the indigenous administrative elite in Java, this incorporated aristocracy provided colonial authority with a familiar “traditional” face and offered the indigenous elite enough incentives to remain loyal to their Dutch overlords.4 Although indirect rule gave the impression of maintaining the status quo, the second factor revealed the interventionist and innovative capacity of the late-colonial state. Jacques van Doorn has outlined the Dutch colonial administration as a technocratic developmental project in which education, healthcare, expansion of irrigation, agriculture extension, railways, and credit banking were key elements. Moreover, the colonial administration aimed to systematically rearrange social relations through a paternalistic form of social engineering. According to Van Doorn, the leading role model reflecting the ambitions of the late-colonial state was no longer the conservative administrator, who relied on traditional forms of authority, but the innovative engineer, who was eager to implement developmental blueprints.5

Taken together, violence, indirect rule, and an interventionist technocracy seem to provide a sufficient explanation why the Dutch succeeded in maintaining their hold on the Netherlands Indies. Central to this approach is that the success of the colonial state is exclusively attributed to the agency of the Dutch authorities. This top-down perspective fails to consider the essential role played by indigenous (lower) middle classes in sustaining the colonial system.

Nationalist Historiography

When viewed from a different angle, the important role of these very same middle classes has been underlined because they were the breeding ground of the nationalist movement. By pursuing a colonial education, they left their local surroundings and moved into a new, modern, urban world and the colonial state became their natural habitat. When the nationalist movement emerged from within these urban middle classes, the boundaries of the colonial state became the natural borders of their future nation.

In most of the literature on nationalism in Indonesia, there seems to be a consensus about the logical and linear connection between urbanization, the rise of the indigenous middle class as an engine of modernity, and the emergence of a nationalist movement.6 This historical sequence, however, which eventually leads through revolution to independence, obscures two important features concerning the very nature of these indigenous middle classes. Firstly, the radical nationalist movement of the 1920s and 1930s represented a minority amid many other organizations that were also striving for emancipation. The historiography of Indonesian nationalism, nationalist historiography in particular, gives a teleological picture of a secular nationalism as a coherent and inevitable development. It thus tends to overlook many moderate organizations that represented a much more fragmented field of culturally, regionally, or religiously oriented interests. In an important but little noticed article from 1980, William O’Malley questioned the dominant monolithic view of nationalist historiography, but the nuance he wanted to bring forward was overshadowed by Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which appeared in 1983. Anderson offered a rather streamlined narrative in which regional organizations, such as Young Java and the Young Sumatrans’ Association, eventually gave way to successful secular nationalism under the leadership of Sukarno. O’Malley, however, pointed out that among many followers of the nationalist movement there was primarily an anticolonial attitude rather than an outspoken pro-nationalist conviction. He also showed that at the regional level, moderate organizations with a strong cultural orientation were able to mobilize many more followers than radical nationalists did.7 Based on the winner-takes-all principle, Indonesian nationalist historiography eventually monopolized the past exclusively for itself. It obscured the diversity of and internal differences within the nationalist movement and ignored less radical organizations with large, regional, mass bases, such as the Pasundan Association in West Java and the Pakempalan Kawoelo Ngajogjakarta (Association of Inhabitants of Yogyakarta) in Central Java.

Secondly, the linear nationalist historiography also conceals the fact that the majority of the indigenous middle classes were not primarily interested in joining the nationalist movement. Instead, they were primarily interested in exploring modern urban life. Their goal in the first instance was not an independent nation, but a new modern lifestyle, access to which could be obtained by joining the framework of the colonial system. In doing so, they unintentionally helped to consolidate the colonial regime.

Middle Classes and Modernity

The Ethical Policy the Dutch adopted in 1901 coincided with the rapid expansion of the colonial state, which resulted in the establishment of many new government institutions, such as schools, health clinics, police stations, railways, post-and-telegraph offices, pawnshops, agricultural and forestry extension services, and people’s credit agencies. All these institutions employed a rapidly expanding and primarily urban indigenous middle class. The colonial state posited itself as the key source of employment for these emerging urbanites. Toward the end of the colonial period, 40 percent of the mid-level administrative jobs, and 64 percent of the lower ranks of the colonial bureaucracy were occupied by indigenous employees.8 In addition, they found employment as clerks and skilled technicians in private trading and transport, banking and insurance companies, factories, the mining and oil industries, on plantations, and at newspapers and publishing houses.

“Middle class” was an open and fluid category and thus notoriously difficult to measure in the late-colonial period. In practice, consumerism and the associated urban lifestyles were crucial in facilitating the configurations of class identity. For this reason, the designation “middle class” is not used in a narrow and strictly defined sense, but as a device to examine newly emerging in-between urban groups in late-colonial society. From a colonial perspective, these hybrid non-European urbanites escaped the familiar categories of “peasants” or “aristocrats,” and were indiscriminately counted as either “natives” or “foreign Orientals.” Because the middle classes did not exist as a distinct category in colonial statistics, the following calculation of their size takes a particular set of figures as a starting point, on which a hypothetical argument is built. An income of two hundred guilders a year provided people with the minimal means to acquire a lower-middle-class lifestyle; people earning more than a thousand guilders belonged to the more affluent indigenous elite. Income-tax statistics show that 414,271 people earned between two hundred and a thousand guilders a year in 1930.9 Excluded from these figures are unregistered skilled laborers who earned eighty cents or more a day. Assuming they worked six days a week for fifty weeks, they would earn at least 240 guilders a year, which gave them access to the lower ranks of the middle class. There are no exact figures, but it is safe to assume that at least two hundred thousand people belonged to this category. That would bring the total number to more than six hundred thousand. So far, only employees with a fixed salary are included. Assuming, again, that a majority of about 450,000 were married, we should add their spouses well (450,000), and add on average two adolescent children per couple (900,000). Based on these numbers, we may then hypothesize that almost two million people, or 5 percent of the population of Java, belonged to the “lower-middle” and “middle-middle” classes in 1930.

Compared to the estimated workforce of twenty million people at the time, this is not a large part of the population, but it was this group in particular that sustained the colonial system by being an integral part of it. The relations between a regime and its subjects are complex and cannot be understood in strictly institutional terms. Anthropological studies on the nature of the state emphasize the informal interface between state and society and, in particular, the way in which the state is embedded in society.10 This approach is relevant to understanding the political importance of the indigenous middle classes in the Netherlands Indies. They were positioned in a border area between the state and society, where they anchored the colonial regime in society. It was in this same border area that they were confronted with the advent of modernity, to which they actively responded in their own lives and households.


“Modernity” is a fashionable and problematic container. It refers to ideas derived from the Enlightenment, and it is often closely connected to the development of capitalism. It foregrounds the primacy of the individual and the ideal of equality, and emphasizes notions of development, progress, and social mobility.

It has been suggested that, apart from a hegemonic Western modernity, separate and alternative colonial modernities could exist. Historian Frederick Cooper rejects this differentiation because it suggests that these alternative forms were derived from an original and superior Western modernity. Instead, he suggests investigating how certain groups of people in very specific situations claim particular aspects of modernity and give shape to it.11 In the Netherlands Indies, models of modernity were appropriated from not only Europe and the United States but also Japan, resulting in hybrid urban lifestyles that could be acquired though consumption. Writing on Japan, Harry Harootunian emphasized that the middle classes experienced modernity in everyday life, as it took shape in fashion, media, transport, work, leisure, and family life. It was here, according to Carol Gluck, that modernity emerged as “a sense of ever changing up-to-datedness of the contemporary era.”12

To grasp the nature of this new mass culture among urban middle-class people, we should turn to visual sources through which they started to reflect on the world they were part of. In his study on the emergence of mass culture in the Netherlands around 1900, Auke van der Woud emphasizes that that this culture was a materialistic and, above all, visual one.13 In contrast to the elite culture of the 19th century, which explored and explained abstract spiritual qualities through the written word, this 20th-century mass culture manifested itself foremost in the visible urban world. Consequently, authority was no longer primarily vested in texts, but in images. As Walter Benjamin argued, the act of observing, by walking through shopping arcades and in parks and sitting in cafés and restaurants, became a new kind of reading. The Netherlands Indies, Java in particular, experienced this turn simultaneously. Visitors to the movie theaters that had sprung up in major cities all over the archipelago islands felt for the first time what it was like to be members of an emerging mass audience, consuming a global mass culture.14

Despite their historical significance, members of the emerging middle classes left few traces in terms of family pictures, diaries, or other ego documents, which leaves us with little direct evidence to show how they saw themselves in society. In addressing this gap, it is necessary to resort to references to their lifestyles. Advertisements reveal idealized depictions of how life should be, expressed in desires that the sponsors projected onto the non-European middle classes but marketed in ways that resonated with mass audiences.

These advertisements were accompanied by a new vernacular Malay, which also appeared in newspapers and short stories, offering clues how life was experienced. As Henk Maier wrote:

Malay was the language of youth and modernity, of newness and experiment, and the forms of Malay that was used on Java in writing and printing were leaning on the Malay that was spoken in the urban centres of Batavia, Semarang, Solo, [and] Soerabaja rather than on the written forms that were preserved in manuscripts in the Malay heartland15

Modernity and Cultural Citizenship

The articulation of modern lifestyles was the result of print capitalism, a new language, visual merchandizing, and mass consumption. Advertisements and, to a lesser degree, school posters, became in this respect a new curriculum of desire as they presented images of archetypical middle-class people enjoying the benefits of modernity.

In addressing the problematic nature of the idea of colonial “citizenship,” Elsbeth Locher-Scholten has argued that it should not be understood in a political sense because both political representation and the civil rights of colonial subjects were very limited. The Volksraad (People’s Assembly) had only an advisory role, and European rulers and indigenous subjects were subject to different systems of law that excluded the so-called inlanders (indigenous people) from access to citizenship. Therefore, Locher-Scholten placed colonial citizenship in a wider cultural context by approaching the colonial state as a cultural project in which modernity played a key role.16 This approach is helpful because it looks at the way in which the emerging middle classes aimed to participate in a new urban culture as it existed within the framework of the late-colonial state. It thus offers an alternative to the teleological perspective of nationalist historiography and the total neglect of indigenous middle-class culture in colonial historiography. This notion of cultural citizenship can be used to understand the position of these middle classes in-between European rulers and indigenous subjects and the extent to which they were part of the colonial system.

Citizenship in a liberal sense is usually understood as a relationship between the state and the individual citizen that is based on mutual recognition and framed within a set of mutual rights and duties. A more communitarian approach to citizenship emphasizes the importance of collective identities.17 It is along this line that Renato Rosaldo coined the term “cultural citizenship” to identify the position of ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups in the United States, as well as in Southeast Asia.18 If we move the notion of cultural citizenship back in time to the late-colonial period and from marginalized ethnic minorities to the indigenous middle classes who inhabited the urban centers of the colonial state, we see that in contrast to the small and predominantly white minority who controlled the colonial administration and dominated the colonial export economy, the indigenous middle classes were denied access to power. In 1960, Robert van Niel had already pointed to the fact that, Dutch colonial policy in the 1920s aimed to make a deliberate distinction between the indigenous masses and a westernized middle class. This middle class was denied political rights but allowed to enter the Western cultural sphere.19 Through educational programs and commercial advertisements, these middle classes were explicitly invited to abandon traditional habits and to become the new cultural citizens of the colony. In contrast to the conventional linear historiographical narrative of educated urban middle classes, modernity, and nationalism leading to anticolonial resistance and revolution, an alternative approach highlights urban middle classes, new everyday modern lifestyles, and the colonial state facilitating the birth of the cultural citizen. Upward mobility and emancipation from traditional hierarchies were key elements in this process. Java’s indigenous middle classes used the term kemerdekaan (freedom), not only as a protest against the burdens of colonial taxation, but also to indicate the desire to break away from traditional bonds of submission and to achieve upward social mobility.20 Through advertisements and school posters they were not only introduced to the new modern lifestyles, but these images also reinforced capitalist interest and the dominant position of the colonial state.21 It is therefore important to sense the extent to which large parts of the indigenous middle classes sustained the colonial system through their upward ambitions to participate in it.

Mirrors of Modernity

Mobility, Cigarettes, and Dress

The following snapshots aim to illustrate the curriculum of desire that was presented to the emerging middle classes as mirrors of modernity.

Locomotives were the engines of progress in colonial Java, and they set the world in motion for millions of people. In 1920, 173 million train tickets were sold in the Netherlands Indies; train stations became bustling nodes of mobility and modernity, and the railway companies offered a variety of prestigious jobs for the new middle classes. Both the modern-dressed travelers and railway employees who wore uniforms tended to erase the strict ethnic boundaries of the colonial regime.22

At the local level, mobility was enhanced by bicycles. Advertisements eagerly stimulated men and women to increase their personal mobility by buying bicycles.

As capitalism became crucial to modern urban life, large companies were constantly in search of new markets for their products. Cigarettes were one of the most successful commodities linking capitalism to modernity, and the act of smoking itself became a global sign of being modern. An advertisement for Van Nelle tobacco suggested that smoking in the modern environment of a railway station also had a leveling effect on ethnic differences (Fig. 1). Against the backdrop of an arriving train, we see a line-up of the main ethnic categories—European, Javanese, Chinese—who are seemingly united in the act of smoking. The cigarettes are presented by a young Javanese man in a typical hybrid middle-class dress, wearing a European jacket and tie with a Javanese sarong and headdress.

Cultural Citizenship and Modernity in the Netherlands IndiesClick to view larger

Figure 1. From Pandji Poestaka, various issues (Batavia, Netherlans Indies: Landsdrukkerij, 1937).

The cigarette-smoking man in an advertisement for Droste cocoa represents the new self-consciously cultural citizen in several ways (Fig. 2). To be well-dressed and drinking Droste cocoa in a public place was an undeniable performance of modernity. (“Don’t bring the wrong brand,” he tells his server, who answers, “Yes sir.”) The way the man is dressed (wearing a tie) and sits (cross-legged, displaying his fancy shoes, also important vehicles of modernity, denoting the social distinction between natives and upward-moving middle classes), in the company of an educated women (signaled because she is wearing spectacles), is in sharp contrast with the barefooted waiter, whose dress and body language represent tradition and submission. His black headdress (peci), which was made into a nationalist symbol by Sukarno, does not seem to carry a strong political message here. Instead, we see a dandy-like cultural citizen of the colony, who has adopted, in a relaxed manner, the habits of his white overlords (including the impolite left-handed way of addressing servants).

Cultural Citizenship and Modernity in the Netherlands IndiesClick to view larger

Figure 2. Source: Pandji Poestaka 85, 1932.

Hygiene and Household Efficiency

The increased emphasis on the role of the individual and the body in the discourse of modernity fueled new concerns with personal hygiene and caused a flurry of advertisements for toothpaste and soap. Fresh breath, a nice smell, and a beautiful skin became core conditions of being modern. Women were the key figures in advertisements for toothpaste (Colgate, but also the Japanese brand Banzai) and various brands of soap. Cleanliness and hygiene were presented as crucial qualities for a good marriage, as evidenced by an advertisement for Lux soap (Fig. 3). Beneath the authoritative presence of international movie star Jean Arthur, who states that she has never met a man who could resist her beautiful skin, (which is soft like velvet thanks to Lux soap), a woman named Roos is greatly worried that her husband is no longer interested in her. She then takes her friend Mia’s advice to use perfumed Lux soap, just as nine out of ten film stars do. To her relief, Roos sees that her husband now comes home straight after work and happily reads the newspaper (while smoking a cigarette).

Cultural Citizenship and Modernity in the Netherlands IndiesClick to view larger

Figure 3. Source: Pandji Poestaka 23, 1940.

In contrast to the global image of the modern girl in the 1920s—independent, with bobbed hair, painted lips, and often smoking—who challenged the traditional order by disregarding her roles as mother and wife—advertisements and articles in Indonesian middle-class magazines emphasized cleanliness and hygiene as the central female responsibilities in the newly emerging nuclear families of the urban middle-class.23

It is interesting in this respect to look at magazines that were not radical in character but were read by relatively large segments of the middle class. Pandji Poestaka, published by the government, had a circulation of seven thousand in the 1930s and reached mainly government employees. Articles informed readers about government appointments, agricultural policy, heritage, international developments, and the Dutch royal family, among other topics. Advertisements explicitly referenced consumption and fashion as constitutive aspects of the modern lifestyle. The articles and advertisements in the women’s magazine Bale Warti Wanito Oetomo, which was affiliated with an association of young Javanese upper-middle-class intellectuals, similarly reflected the efforts of Javanese (upper-)middle-class women to be loyal “soul mates” to their husbands and responsible mothers to their children, emphasizing the need to provide a well-educated upbringing and be active agents in establishing modern households. An advertisement (in Javanese) for the modern telephone is a telling example of this ambition (Fig. 4). A mother phones the local pharmacy and asks it to send someone to pick up a doctor’s prescription. At the bottom of the advertisement, the doctor comments: “Well, what a coincidence that you have a telephone. Without a telephone this would have taken much more time.” An anonymous narrator on the right explains that the woman happens to have a telephone, which is the reason why she was able to call the doctor when her child fell ill, and then call the pharmacy (“the medicine house”) to pick up the prescription. Taken together, this demonstrates how caring for her child could be accomplished in an organized, efficient manner.

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Figure 4. Source: Bale Warti Wanito Oetomo, February 2, 1937 (Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Pengreh Hageng Wanito Oetomo, 1937).

Time Discipline and Stability

The magazine of the woman’s organization of Muhammadiyah, Soeara ‘Aisjijah, demonstrates how modernist Muslim women gave shape to modernity by distancing themselves from the conservative influences of traditional local customs and the dangers of Western decadence, personified in the person of the modern girl.24 Apart from a very ambivalent attitude toward polygamy, which was formally accepted but at the same time marginalized as much as possible, education for children and women was seen as an essential condition for participating in modern society.

Besides telephones and radios, electric light was a highly desired commodity, yet it was only affordable to an affluent upper middle class inhabiting those parts of town that were connected to electricity and telephone wires. Nevertheless, through advertisements, people could imagine what it was like to have their houses illuminated by Philips light bulbs in the evening hours.

Clock time, and its concomitant social discipline, became another essential feature of modern life. Public transportation operating on regular departure and arrival schedules required passengers to think in terms of clock time. But schools and offices also required people to organize their lives around clock time. Large public clocks located at crossroads in provincial towns helped to introduce a regime of public clock time. This was soon followed by advertisements for home alarm clocks and wristwatches, eventually making time-keeping the responsibility of the individual. An advertisement for Marek watches (“patented in London, made in Switzerland”) summarized the new era: “The railways are a great enterprise for which knowing the right time is the most essential condition, which is the reason why this station master from west Java should have a reliable watch” (Fig. 5). An advertisement for having an alarm clock in the home subjected women to a domestic time regime and in general urged them to keep pace with the times and not to waste precious time.

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Figure 5. Source: Pandji Poestaka 3, 1940, and 77, 1937.

The Nuclear Family and Shining Futures

The nuclear family was prominently featured in images representing a new style of living. With clearly demarcated gender roles (the man as outgoing breadwinner; his wife as responsible for all domestic tasks), the nuclear family functioned as a vehicle of modernity because it showed no links with the Indonesian traditional world and the wider extended family (including grandparents), with all its obligations. In the advertisement for Philips light bulbs (Fig. 6), we see a happy family sitting around the table, in full harmony, under the shining radiance of electric light. Mother is embroidering. Father smokes and reads the newspaper (his eye perhaps caught by the Philips ad), and their little daughter is reading, too. The composition has a very Dutch appearance and was most likely directly copied from a Dutch advertisement. That would explain why the girl has fair hair (transformed in the colonial context into an unintended reference to the transformative magic of modernity). The caption, in colloquial Malay, tells us that Philips bulbs produce more light, require less electricity, and last longer and consequently are cheaper. Although it emphasizes the affordability of the product, the advertisement also presents an image of domesticated modernity by reflecting bourgeois virtues, such as familial harmony, literacy, and diligence, all well-protected within the stability of the nuclear family.

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Figure 6. Source: Pandji Poestaka 10, 1940.

The nuclear family not only featured prominently in advertisements and articles in modernist Muslim magazines, but also on school posters that were used at the Dutch-Native Schools (Hollandsch-Inlandsche Scholen) and Dutch-Chinese Schools (Hollandsch-Chinese Scholen). As Rudolf Mrazek has observed, “The classroom, more than anything, made one wish to look at the window; even a picture on the classroom wall made one wish that the picture were a window, a break in the wall.”25 Posters drawn by Dutch commercial artist Frits van Bemmel served to teach the Dutch language to indigenous and Chinese schoolchildren. The posters represented an idealized world, the “Indies in progress” that the ethical politicians at the beginning of the century had dreamed of. The light colors that were used in the posters show a rosy, cheerful image of indigenous middle-class life, emphasizing the nuclear family as cornerstone of society and bearer of cleanliness and order and ignoring the unequal power relationships of the colonial regime. We see a family on the back veranda seated around the table for lunch (quite unusual in itself because most people ate lunch on their own and at different times); the backyard is tidy and neat thanks to the diligent work of the servants (Fig. 7). The distinction between the middle-class family sitting on chairs and the servants in traditional dress squatting on the floor gives the picture a colonial flavor even as it preserves the hierarchy the middle-class family benefits from.

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Figure 7. Source: Hella Haasse, Bij de les: Schoolplaten van Nederlands-Indië (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Contact, 2004), 76.

Another poster opens a window into the future, depicting the apotheosis of modernity as witnessed by two schoolchildren standing in the foreground (Fig. 8). Various means of transportation are presented: a train station, a small bus, an automobile, and a motorbike (while in the background are traditional horse carts and a buffalo cart); and there is a post-and-telegraph office with a barefooted postman standing in front. Significantly, Europeans are almost absent in the picture. At the left, we see a European man, shaded by a tree, somewhat discreetly walking to the station (followed, of course, by two servants carrying his luggage). It is the ultimate colonial order in which Europeans are almost invisible because the indigenous middle classes have internalized peace and order as qualities of their role as cultural citizens. The poster seems to say, “Look children, this will be your future world, but, of course, only when you stick to the rules of the game.”

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Figure 8. Source: Haasse, Bij de les: Schoolplaten van Nederlands-Indië (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Contact, 2004), 82.


Notwithstanding the invitation these advertisements and school posters extend to the indigenous middle classes to become cultural citizens of the colony, the trajectory toward this new sociocultural destination was not a smooth one. Members of the middle classes who aspired to participate in progress and modernity faced racial boundaries and existential uncertainty, while women were confronted with the confinements of the nuclear family.

Parallel to the rise of indigenous middle classes was a widening racial divide between them and the European ruling class. Increasingly, white Europeans lived in their own world, which in terms of housing and work was more and more segregated from the indigenous world. The following anecdote illustrates this. A Dutch-language article, signed “Sk.” and published in 1938 in Bale Warti Wanito Oetomo, was a response to an article written by a white European woman named “Helen” that had appeared in another magazine.26 Helen writes that one day she had to go to the post office herself to send a money order because her houseboy was not available. To her dismay, she had to wait in a queue with “natives” behind and in front of her. She could not stand the smell of these people. Although she was willing to acknowledge that they were also human beings, she considered it an assault on European prestige to be so close to their dirty bodies. She therefore proposed establishing separate queues for natives and Europeans.

Mrs. Sk. was infuriated by Helen’s article, but a shared concern about hygiene and cleanliness apparently bridged the racial divide. European women, she argued, should realize that they also smelled unpleasant because of their heavy perspiration and consumption of cheese. Concerning civilization, when friends of Mrs. Sk. visited the Netherlands, they were harassed by lower-class street kids. Nevertheless, readers should learn from Helen’s article by admitting that “we” actually do lack cleanliness and hygiene! It is therefore “our” duty to ensure better hygiene of our own bodies and of our households. The derogatory term “dirty native” should not just be interpreted as an insult, but taken as a challenge to demonstrate the opposite. Mrs. Sk. concludes her article, which, as it happens, was placed next to an advertisement for Camay soap (“used by millions of women in Europe and America”), by expressing her gratitude for what the West had brought (“hygiene, education and beautiful roads”), but she reminded her readers not to imitate Western decadence.

Despite the brightly colored advertisements in which happy families demonstrated new modern lifestyles, these also caused doubt and confusion when it came to actual efforts to establish a nuclear family. Although source material is scarce owing to the lack of diaries and oral histories, Malay literature offers a few starting points. In his well-known novel Belenggu (Shackles), Armijn Pané sketches a story of failed romantic relationships in order to reflect on modernity’s failure to provide personal freedom.27 The protagonists do free themselves of traditional constraints and of each other, but in the end, they are irrevocably confronted with existential loneliness.

The isolation of the individual in the modern world is also a central theme in cheap popular novels. Henk Maier has shown that the genre of popular fiction offers insights into the way writers tried to cross the dividing lines separating various ethnic groups in colonial society.28 These novels often tell stories of tragic affairs in which lovers fail to establish a relationship or lose each other again. Against a background of cinemas, restaurants, tennis courts, and taxis, romantic relationships between people of different ethnic backgrounds inevitably run aground. At the same time, the protagonists criticize Dutch arrogance, as well as the emptiness of nationalism and the excesses of modern life. Modernity implied abandoning old patterns and a precarious search for new forms, and realizing a new lifestyle plus a new nuclear family proved to be a risky adventure.

The nuclear family was not only a much-desired venue through which to realize a modern lifestyle; it began also to occupy a central place in Dutch-inspired idealizations of middle-class lifestyles.29 The modern household was defined by monogamy and a key role for women as managers of domestic matters, experts on hygiene, and guardians of their children’s education. As a counterweight to the perceived threats of overconsumption, individualism, and hedonism, women’s magazines propagated notions of domestic coziness (Dutch: gezelligheid), modesty, and spirituality. It was, in other words, also the task of women to withstand the destructive elements of modernity by strengthening the nuclear family. A similar counterdiscourse emerged in education. In the 1930s, not only the indigenous Taman Siswa (Student’s Garden) movement but also the Dutch administration aimed to indigenize modernity though educational policies.30 Schools were required to function as cultural institutions, and teachers were expected to propagate government-formulated conceptions of cultural identity among local communities.

An awareness emerged among the middle classes that the uncritical appropriation of modern lifestyles—also termed gila barat (obsessed with the West)—was different from progress (kemajuan). Whereas the word “modern” accumulated negative connotations, the word maju (advanced) was seen as something overwhelmingly positive and desirable. In this respect Japan and, to a lesser extent, the Philippines were often seen as societies that had managed to achieve progress without betraying their cultural core values. Kemajuan reflected both the possibility of a nationalist movement toward sovereignty and a more conservative trajectory in which modernity remained firmly embedded and was disciplined by colonial constraints, the nuclear family, and an encompassing time regime.

Conclusion and Further Questions

From 1900 onward, Java’s urban environments formed a breeding ground for a new mass culture that foregrounded visuality and consumption. Advertisements encouraged emerging indigenous middle classes to embrace a modern lifestyle; these used a multiethnic vernacular Malay to reflect on anything new. To the new middle classes, being modern did not equal a linear march toward nationalism. Rather, it familiarized them with new ideas about progress and with material objects, ways of life, and gender roles, framed within a new time regime and the compelling image of the nuclear family. Taking the repressive nature of the colony into consideration, the path to political citizenship was full of risks for the indigenous middle classes. By becoming cultural citizens of the colony, they actively participated in a new, modern urban culture, but this of course had a political dimension because their participation sustained the colonial regime. This raises question about what and whom the term “colonial” actually included.

These cultural citizens were, in a sense, children of the colonial state. At the same time, they were in many respects also the ancestors of a future Indonesia because their sociocultural disposition facilitated their new role as citizens of the newly emerging nation-state. And this raises the question how fluid the borderline between the colonial and postcolonial condition actually was.

Discussion of the Literature

On systems of Dutch colonial rule on Java in the late-colonial period in terms of indirect rule, see Heather Sutherland, The Making of a Bureaucratic Elite: The Colonial Transformation of the Javanese Priyayi. Dutch sociologist Jacques van Doorn emphasizes the role of technology and social engineering in his book De laatste eeuw van Indië: De ontwikkeling en ondergang van een koloniaal project (The closing century of the Indies: Development and demise of a colonial project). Classic texts on the emergence of an indigenous urban elite, processes of modernization, and the rise of nationalism are Robert van Niel, The Emergence of a Modern Indonesian Elite, and Wim Wertheim, Indonesian Society in Transition: A Study of Social Change, while Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities is to a large extent informed by his research experiences in Indonesia. The meaning and impact of modernity in the Netherlands Indies is discussed by Elsbeth Locher-Scholten, Women and the Colonial State: Essays on Gender and modernity in the Netherlands Indies 1900–1942. For a connection between modernity and nationalism, see Rudolf Mrazek, Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and nationalism in a colony, and Adrian Vickers, A History of Modern Indonesia. For a critical discussion of modernity in colonial settings more generally, see Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History. On modernity, the importance of visuality and mass culture, see Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, and for a good background study of the emergence of a modern mass culture in the Netherlands, see Auke van der Woud, De nieuwe mens: De culturele revolutie in Nederland rond 1900 (The new man: the cultural revolution in the Netherlands around 1900).31

Citizenship is hardly discussed in the context of colonial Indonesia. For a general introduction to citizenship studies, see Engin Isin and Brian Turner, Handbook of Citizenship Studies, and for an attempt to put citizenship in contemporary Southeast Asia on the academic agenda, see Ward Berenschot, Henk Schulte Nordholt, and Laurens Bakker, eds., Citizenship and Democratization in Southeast Asia.32

The concept of cultural citizenship was launched by Renato Rosaldo who also introduced it into Southeast Asia in his edited volume Cultural Citizenship in Island Southeast Asia: Nation and Belonging in the Hinterlands. The idea that the middle classes sustained the colonial system as cultural citizens is new. Helpful insights are offered in doctorate theses by Akiko Sugiyama, “Ideas about the Family, Colonialism and Nationalism in Javanese Society, 1900–1945”; Agus Suwignyo, “The Breach in the Dike: Regime Change and the Standardization of Public Primary-School Teacher Training in Indonesia, 1893–1969”; and Armout van der Meer, “Ambivalent Hegemony: Culture and Power in Colonial Java, 1808–1927.”33

Primary Sources

A collection of Sino-Malay texts and illustrations has been digitized by Leiden University Library.

Further Reading

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. 2nd rev. ed. London: Verso, 1991.Find this resource:

Colombijn, Freek, and Joost Coté, eds. Cars, Conduits, and Kampongs: The Modernization of the Indonesian City, 1920–1960. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014.Find this resource:

Harootunian, Harry. History’s Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice and the Question of Everyday Life. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Kuntowijoyo, “The Making of a Modern Urban Ecology: Social and Economic History of Solo 1900–1915.” Lembaran Sejarah 3, no. 1 (2000): 163–185.Find this resource:

Lewis, Su Lin. Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, 1920–1940. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Locher-Scholten, Elsbeth. Women and the Colonial State: Essays on Gender and Modernity in the Netherlands Indies 1900–1942. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000.Find this resource:

Mrazek, Rudolf. A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta through the Memories of Its Intellectuals. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Osterhammel, Jürgen. The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Protschky, Susie, ed. Photography, Modernity and the Governed in Late-Colonial Indonesia. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Ruppin, Dafna. The Komedi Bioscoop: The Emergence of Movie-Going in Colonial Indonesia, 1896–1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

Van Nguyen-Marshall, Lisa B. Welch Drummond, and Danièle Bélanger, eds. The Reinvention of Distinction: Modernity and the Middle Class in Urban Vietnam. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer, 2012.Find this resource:

Vickers, Adrian. A History of Modern Indonesia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Weinbaum, Alys Eve, Lynn M. Thomas, Priti Ramamurthy, Uta G. Poiger, Madeleine Y. Dong, and Tani E. Barlow, eds. The Modern Girl around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.Find this resource:


(1.) This article is primarily based on Henk Schulte Nordholt, “Modernity and Middle Classes in the Netherlands Indies: Cultivating Cultural Citizenship,” in Photography, Modernity and the Governed in Late-Colonial Indonesia, ed. Susie Protschky (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2015), 223–254; and Tom Hoogervorst and Henk Schulte Nordholt, “Urban Middle Classes in Colonial Java (1900–1942): Images and Languages,” Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 137(2018): 442–474, from which parts and fragments were used.

(2.) Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 230–234, 694–695, 907–918; and Auke van der Woud, De nieuwe mens: De culturele revolutie in Nederland rond 1900 (Amsterdam: Prometheus, 2015).

(3.) Henk Schulte Nordholt, “A Genealogy of Violence,” in Roots of Violence in Indonesia: Contemporary Violence in Historical Perspective, ed. Freek Colombijn and Thomas Lindblad (Leiden, The Netherlands: KITLV, 2002), 33–61. I thank Tom Hoogervorst, Arnout van der Meer, and Thomas Lindblad for discussing the subject matter with me.

(4.) Heather Sutherland, The Making of a Bureaucratic Elite: The Colonial Transformation of the Javanese Priyay (Singapore: Heinemann, 1979).

(5.) Jacques van Doorn, De laatste eeuw van Indië: Ontwikkeling en ondergang van een koloniaal project (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker,1994). For an account of the way engineers took the lead in changing the Netherlands at that time, see Auke van der Woud, Een nieuwe wereld: Het ontstaan van het moderne Nederland (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2006).

(6.) Sartono Kartodirdjo, “Some Problems on the Genesis of Nationalism in Indonesia,” Journal of Southeast Asian History 3, no. 1 (1962): 76–94; Wim Wertheim, Indonesian Society in Transition: A Study of Social Change (The Hague: Van Hoeve, 1956); Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 2nd rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991); and Adrian Vickers, A History of Modern Indonesia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

(7.) William O’Malley, “Second Thoughts on Indonesian Nationalism,” in Indonesia: Australian Perspectives, ed. James Fox et al. (Canberra: Australian National University, 1980), 601–613. See also Hans van Miert, Een koel hoof den een warm hart: Nationalisme, Javanisme en jeugdbeweging in Nederlands-Indië (Amsterdam: de Bataafsche Leeuw, 1995).

(8.) Wertheim, Indonesian Society in Transition, 148.

(9.) Indisch Verslag 1933, vol. 2, Statistisch jaaroverzicht van Nederlands-Indië over het jaar 1932 (Batavia, Netherlands Indies: Landsdrukkerij, 1933), 130. See also Nico Dros, Changing Economy in Indonesia, vol. 13, Wages 1820–1940 (Amsterdam: Royal Tropical Institute, 1992), tables 4.7, 5.4, 9.1–2, 10.2–3. About 130,000 people earned between 200 and 250 guilders each. They are included here because, despite their limited means, they certainly had upward aspirations to be part of the middle class. I am not sure to what extent urban Muslim entrepreneurs were fully included in these statistics because their incomes were more difficult to measure. This could imply that the urban middle classes were bigger than I have calculated here.

(10.) Akhil Gupta, “Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State,” in The Anthropology of the State: A Reader, ed. Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 211–242.

(11.) Frederick Cooper, Colonialism in Question: Theory, Knowledge, History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 113–149.

(12.) Harry Harootunian, History’s Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice and the Question of Everyday Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); and Carol Gluck, “The End of Elsewhere: Writing Modernity Now,” American Historical Review 116 (2011): 676–687, at 678.

(13.) van der Woud, De nieuwe mens.

(14.) Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002); and Dafna Ruppin, Komedi Bioscoop: The Emergence of Movie-Going in Colonial Indonesia, 1896–1914 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).

(15.) Henk Maier, “Phew! Europeesche beschaving! Marco Kartodikromo’s Student Hidjo,” 東南アジア研究‎ 34 (1996): 184–210, at 191.

(16.) Elsbeth Locher-Scholten, Women and the Colonial State: Essays on Gender and Modernity in the Netherlands Indies 1900–1942 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2000), 38.

(17.) See Engin Isin and Brian Turner, eds., Handbook of Citizenship Studies (London: Sage, 2002). For a new look at citizenship in Southeast Asia, see Ward Berenschot, Henk Schulte Nordholt, and Laurens Bakker, eds., Citizenship and Democratization in Southeast Asia (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2016).

(18.) Renato Rosaldo, ed., Cultural Citizenship in Island Southeast Asia: Nation and Belonging in the Hinterlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

(19.) Robert van Niel, The Emergence of a Modern Indonesian Elite (The Hague: Van Hoeve, 1960), 246–250.

(20.) Anthony Reid, “Merdeka: The Indonesian Key to Freedom,” in To Nation by Revolution: Indonesia in the 20th century (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2011), 105–122, esp. 116–120.

(21.) For a close link between capitalist interests, advertisements, and print media in colonial Malaya, see Jan van an der Putten, “Negotiating the Great Depression: The Rise of Popular Culture and Consumerism in Early 1930s Malaya,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 41 (2010): 21–45, who has argued that during the Great Depression an increase in advertisements for cheap Western products, intended to persuade consumers to adopt a Western lifestyle, stimulated the expansion of indigenous print media.

(22.) Benedict Anderson, “Language, Fantasy, Revolution: Java 1900–1950,” in Making Indonesia, ed. Daniel Lev and Ruth McVey (Ithaca, NY: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 1996), 27–40; Arnout van der Meer, “Ambivalent Hegemony: Culture and Power in Colonial Java, 1808–1927” (PhD thesis, Rutgers University, 2014); and Hoogervorst and Schulte Nordholt, “Urban Middle Classes in Colonial Java.”

(23.) On the modern girl, see Alys Eve Weinbaum et al., eds., The Modern Girl around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008). On women and the nuclear household in the 1930s, see Barbara Hatley and Susan Blackburn, “Representations of Women’s Roles in Household and Society in Indonesian Women’s Writings of the 1930s,” in Women and Households in Indonesia: Cultural Notions and Social Practices, ed. Juliette Koning et al. (Richmond, UK: Curzon, 2000), 45–76.

(24.) Soeara ‘Aisjijah: Madjallah woelanan (Yogyakarta, Indonesia: Muhammadijah, 1927).

(25.) Rudolf Mrazek, A Certain Age: Colonial Jakarta through the Memories of Its Intellectuals (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010), xii.

(26.) Bale Warti Wanito Oetomo, September 3, 1938.

(27.) Armijn Pané, Belenggu (Jakarta: Pustaka Rakjat, 1949). Originally published in 1940.

(28.) Henk Maier, Monsieur d’amour: Maar geluk duurt nooit lang: Maleise verhalen vol Bitterheid (Leiden, The Netherlands: KITLV, 2002).

(29.) See Akiko Sugiyama, “Ideas about the Family, Colonialism and Nationalism in Javanese Society, 1900–1945” (PhD thesis, University of Hawai’i, 2007).

(30.) Agus Suwignyo, “The Breach in the Dike: Regime Change and the Standardization of Public Primary-School Teacher Training in Indonesia, 1893–1969” (PhD thesis, Leiden University, 2012), 148.

(31.) Sutherland, Making of a Bureaucratic Elite; van Doorn, De laatste eeuw van Indië; van Niel, Emergence of a Modern Indonesian Elite; Wertheim, Indonesian Society in Transition; Anderson, Imagined Communities; Locher-Scholten, Women and the Colonial State; Mrazek, Engineers of Happy Land; Vickers, History of Modern Indonesia; Cooper, Colonialism in Question; Benjamin, Arcades Project; and van der Woud, De nieuwe mens.

(32.) Isin and Turner, Handbook of Citizenship Studies; and Berenschot, Schulte Nordholt, and Bakker, Citizenship and Democratization.

(33.) Rosaldo, Cultural Citizenship; Sugiyama, “Ideas about the Family”; Suwignyo, “Breach in the Dike”; and van der Meer, “Ambivalent Hegemony.”