Monday, 20 July 2015

Our Windmill Folk

Our Windmill Folk
Written by David Bell

Amazing Windmills

The Dutch Whanau

May, 2015, my wife Winnie and I set of on our much anticipated journey to Holland to visit her Dutch-Chinese relatives, of which there are many. These folk immigrated to Holland over the years from Hong Kong, New Guinea, and China. The first to make the transition was her aunt (her father's younger sister, Ang Hui Kim), who married a Hong Kong businessman, Kho Keng Tiat, and moved with him to Biak Island where they established a very successful trading business, petrol station and a few other side ventures.
Kho Keng Tiat and Ang Hui Kim ~ 2015.
When Indonesia took control of the Dutch half of New Guinea the family - now consisting of parents and three children - left and lived in Hong Kong for a while before using their Dutch residency to move to Holland and start again. They took with them a sizable fortune and set up several Indonesian restaurants that prospered and increased their wealth.Winnie's brother, Ang Yan San (Raymond) left Hong Kong in the early nineteen seventies to join his uncle and aunt and work in one in of their restaurants in Amsterdam.
The Amsterdam restaurant Raymond worked in after arriving in Holland. It has long since changed owners but still serves Indonesian food.
For a long time he worked as a lowly dishwasher and cleaner but through hard work, diligence and a powerful desire to learn and succeed, he earned the respect of his uncle who took him under his wing and helped him towards establishing his own business. His uncle generously gave him a percentage in another Indonesian restaurant on the Dutch-German border and from this humble beginning Raymond eventually became a prosperous restaurateur. However, it came at a cost. The decades of grinding work in the kitchen and the long sixteen to seventeen hour days combined with the stress of running the business caused him to suffer heart problems forcing early retirement. Fortunately, he had amassed enough wealth to allow him to give up the business and enjoy a financially comfortable retirement.
Raymond Ang Yan San ~ 2015. 
One is compelled to admire Raymond's great spirit. He came from Hong Kong with a very limited education and only $HK200 in his pocket given by his mother, undoubtedly all she had at the time. He was not the academic type. School to him was a place to avoid and sitting in a classroom doing lessons all day was nothing more than mental torture; he was a hands-on kind of person. So, when the opportunity arrived to go to Holland to learn the restaurant trade he took it.

Raymond can never be accused of being lazy or lacking ambition because he worked long hours and threw himself into learning to cook. In the end he became an expert chef and and astute businessman. He also fathered three boys all of whom have become skilled in their chosen professions. Holland quickly became the land which he now calls home.  

As the old saying goes, behind every successful man is a great woman. This is certainly true of his wife, Lai Kam, a bubbly, active, humor-loving bundle of drive and energy. She is also hugely supportive of her husband, and a caring and loving mother and grandmother. The years of hard work have also exacted a price as she too battles a health problem. Luckily, both she and her husband are so positive that their health difficulties are no barrier to their enjoyment of life and their devotion to their family. She and Raymond are an example of two people who came though years of tough slog and terrific struggle by working together and sticking together despite their differences.

Lai Kam Chan ~ 2015
Lai Kam's journey from China to Holland is a story with all the elements of fear, sorrow, bravery, hardship and final victory; a story well worth telling.

She was born in Fujian Province, South China, and like so many from that province, her father lived and worked in the Philippines as a means to support his family back in China. However, when the Communists under Mao Tse Tung defeated Chiang Kai Shek and his Nationalists, they implemented policies which nationalized all lands and properties to the communist government, making private ownership and private business punishable by imprisonment or death. These conditions went completely against the grain for such people as hers who believed in hard work and free enterprise. It soon became imperative to her father that the family (his wife and young daughter) leave China by any means possible. It was also imperative the family get out of China because with China now closed it was impossible for her father to ever return. If he did he would never get out again. Therefore, a hard decision had to be made; should he return to be with his family and thereafter live under communist rule, or do the almost unthinkable; risk the lives of his wife and daughter and spirit them out of the country into Hong Kong. One can only imagine the difficulty of such a decision. He would have been well aware of the dangers of smuggling them out, but he would have also seriously weighed up the prospects of life in China under the oppression of communism. No doubt Lai Kam and her mother would have been well aware of the dangers as well. But, when the final decision to flee was made their determination was resolute.

As already mentioned, Lai Kam had a father and many uncles who had earlier left China, one of which lived in nearby Hong Kong. It was arranged that he would organize their escape. This would have been in the early nineteen sixties when the borders were closed and guarded by deadly machine gun posts. Communist gunboats also patrolled the rivers and coast around Hong Kong. It has never been recorded exactly how many refugees lost their lives trying to sneak into Hong Kong by land or water. Nevertheless, despite the risk and very real dangers, her father and uncle arranged for them to board a small fishing boat that would hide them in the hold along with other refugees and take them to Hong Kong and freedom.

When it was time they left under the cover of darkness and boarded a small diesel powered boat and were stuffed like sardines with many others in the small, stuffy hold under the wooden deck. It would be a long, uncomfortable trip along the coast to Hong Kong; just how uncomfortable they were soon to discover.

It didn't take long before several of the passengers got seasick, probably hastened by the stench of diesel fumes that seeped into the hold from the old engine. There was only a couple of buckets for their toiletry but these were quickly filled with vomit. The stink of other peoples' vomit made Lai Kam even more ill and it is one of the things of the trip she still has vivid memories of. It wasn't possible to empty and clean the buckets regularly so the passengers were forced to endure the stench and foul air for long periods. In addition to the vomit, it wasn't long before they had to deal with the other bodily functions and the disposal of human waste.

It was a brutally hard week of chugging slowly along the coast travelling at night to avoid the gunboat patrols then hiding up somewhere during daylight hours. Lai Kam remembers the relief of fresh air and the fear of being detected as they hid in some cove or bay. She remembers climbing from the boat and clambering up slippery rocks at some designated safe place, the relief of being out of the stinking hold tempered by the fear of discovery. Everyone was constantly on the lookout for patrol boats.

Thankfully, there were no patrol boats and they made it to Hong Kong where they were joyously united with their father and other relatives.

Hong Kong was to be their new home but several years later a sudden tragedy blew that plan to pieces: Lai Kam's father was the victim of a street robbery that went horribly wrong. One day on the streets in the Philippines some muggers attacked him and in the process shot him to death. It was heartbreaking news for Lai Kam and her mother and left them completely without a provider. Again, it was family who came to their rescue, this time in faraway Holland. They were offered the possibility of another start by going to Holland to join other relatives there and work in their restaurant businesses. It sounded like a good option, the only problem being how to get there.

Having already managed one escape they probably felt they could do one more. However, this time would be vastly different with its own specific problems. Firstly, they were free to travel wherever they pleased so they weren't desperate refugees. The problem this time was that they needed immigration papers and visas and the like, and in their current situation these were impossible to acquire. They would have to do something a little more enterprising - sneaky is probably a better description. They would sneak into Holland and if they could stay there long enough they would then apply for Dutch residency. Holland's immigration laws back then were considerably tolerant and often gave amnesty to long-term overstayers if their behavior and contribution to society was satisfactory. And so begins another good story. This escape was not to be on a rickety old boat but but modern jet liner; this now being the mid nineteen seventies.

The plan cooked up was to fly by plane to France where they would be met by their uncle who would take them back with him to Holland by car. Simple.

However, Lai Kam and her mother had never been on an airliner before let alone travel to a strange land so far away. The first big question was what they should wear so as not to draw too much attention to themselves and arouse suspicion among the airline and immigration officials. It was decided they pretend to be tourists and dress accordingly. They had no idea how tourists looked so Lai Kam and other well meaning family members dug up some travel magazines and scoured the advertisements and articles for ideas. The result was a wardrobe of high-heeled shoes, tight nylons, brightly colored skirts and oversize sun glasses. Further, neither of them spoke a word of English so another helpful uncle instructed them it was safest to just smile brightly and say yes to everything. Years later, in hindsight, Lai Kam saw the fatal flaw in this advice. Imagine if a conversation with an immigration officer went:

"Why are you here?"
"Are you here to seek work?"
"Are you trying to sneak into the country?"
"So you are an illegal immigrant and should be deported?"

Thankfully, there were no such interviews.

The days leading up to their departure was loaded with a mix of uncertainty, excitement, anxiety and sheer terror, and when the great day finally arrived Lai Kam, and her mother showed up at the airport decked out in flowery long dresses, shiny silk stockings and high-heeled shoes purchased from the street markets. On their arms hung large handbags and their faces were made up to make them look like rich tourists. Best of all, their eyes were covered by the biggest, darkest glasses the street stalls could offer. Ah-dao, Lai Kam's Hong Kong born little brother, was also a member of the traveling party.

It was a huge occasion and about eighty family friends came to see them off. Apparently no-one told them this was supposed to be a secret operation. Travelling overseas by airliner in those days was a big thing and an event not to be missed if one had friends or relatives flying overseas.

The Flight to France was uneventful and no-one seemed to pay too much attention to the two bumpkins dressed to the nines and looking utterly ridiculous.

As the hours passed, Lai Kam and her mother became increasingly uncomfortable in their unfamiliar apparel; the shoes squeezed their feet and sent pains up their legs, the dresses were unbearable and the cheap made-in-Hong Kong sunglasses were so dark they couldn't see past their noses, but they persevered lest they blew their cover.

Their Holland uncle, to avoid the more officious international airport in Paris, booked them on a plane that landed in some smaller country airport. It took a lot longer to reach and when they finally arrived the two women were exhausted and thoroughly fed up with their tourist roles. As they stumbled through the plane door onto the steps, Lai Kam's mother grabbed her daughter's arm and complained that she couldn't see a thing through her glasses and feared she would fall down the steps. Lai Kam told her to put her hands on her shoulder and follow her down. When they got to the bottom the high-heels were cutting into their feet and were so painful they both decided to discard them and walked barefoot across the rough tarmac. By the time they got to where her uncle was waiting anxiously for them, they looked like anything but rich tourists; their nylons torn to shreds, their shoes hanging from their hands and their splendid dresses ragged and crumpled. They also had a tired, grouchy little boy in tow. It was with great relief they climbed into the car and sped off toward Holland.

While there were a lot of adjustments to make, life gradually got better and Holland became their permanent home. A few years later she met and married our own Raymond and became his rock and support in their restaurant businesses and on the home front.

When Winnie and I visited Raymond and Lai Kam, they opened their hearts and home to us without reservation and showed us the best time of our lives by stuffing us with the finest food, hospitality, and an itinerary that took us all to Paris, London, and Berlin.

Winnie and Raymond had not seen each other for over thirty years so meeting up again was a long overdue and happy reunion ~ 2015.

                                          Dutch Houses

Raymond and Lai Kam are firmly established in Holland, a country they love and call their permanent home. The following pictures are snapshots of Winnie and my vacation there during May and June, 2015. We were greatly surprised by Holland. We envisioned it to be a small and crowded place with sparse countryside. The reality, we found, was quite the opposite. Yes, geographically it is a relatively small land with a population far exceeding New Zealand, but it has a surprising amount of plains carpeted in green crops such as grain, potato, vegetables and seed plants. The Dutch love their flowers so there are also huge areas of  glasshouses growing flowers and fruits.  Also, small dairy and sheep farms can be seen from time to time. Following are some captioned photographs taken on our trip which give an idea of what we discovered about Holland.

Most people live in flats or apartments. They are generally quite small but there are bigger places for higher rental. Raymond's address is 75 Hamontstraat (Hamont Street). The Government provides much of the housing by  building large apartment complexes which are basic but neat and comfortable. Most, however - like Raymond and Lai Kam's here at Sloten near Amsterdam - are privately owned. The more wealthy have larger stand-alone houses many of which front onto one of the thousands of canals that cover Holland. Others live in city houses and flats which can be very costly.

Above: A typical old-style Dutch cottage and it's small front garden. Most Dutch people seem to be very house-proud, their houses tidy and neat. Note the cottages in the background, typical of the more up-market dwelling. Below: Some city apartments along the canal in Amsterdam.

Some folk live in more unusual dwellings, like these innovative buildings in the following photos. The Dutch are renowned for their experimental and innovative architects and engineers as can be seen in these architectural examples. The first picture shows some views of what has been called the world's most innovative building and best example of blending the city with housing. The living apartments are built into the huge hangar-like structure which arches over a large space filled with shops and businesses, creating a covered marketplace. The residents can gaze down through their inside windows onto the busy market below. Also, the outside walls look out over the city and ocean. It is truly a remarkable building but to live in it might take some adjustments to your idea of living space. No doubt the apartments are very well appointed but it almost seems like living in an anthill. The convenience, though, must be spectacular.

The other pictures show a complex of experimental housing designed to maximize space. We went inside the display one and while it probably fulfilled its space saving function it would take a bit of time to get accustomed to the crazy angles and curves throughout the interior. I think younger people would like living in them, but not me. Not many others either because I never saw this kind of housing elsewhere in Holland.
A street view showing the apartments on the outside and marketplace underneath on the inside.

Interior view showing apartment windows looking down on the marketplace. Note the huge mural covering the entire interior. The flats on the roof have their windows on the floors.

Looking from one end through the interior to The Pencil, another apartment building.
                                           Looks like something from Alice In Wonderland.

Below: Other dwellings included some of what I considered the more ideal kind of home; those set on the canals, their lawns ending at the waters edge with ducks, fish, frogs and other wildlife at their doorsteps. A few lucky folk even live on canal houseboats.


Windmills have always fascinated me; my two most enduring images of Holland since childhood being of windmills and the little boy who stuck his finger in a hole in the dyke saving the whole country from disaster. Strangely, when I asked the locals about this old children story (which we all read at primary school) no-one had heard of it and thought it quite amusing. However, they easily related to it because I was quickly informed that water, while great to have in such abundance, was also their biggest enemy, the whole country being part of a massive ancient river plain. The other name for Holland is Nederland, which means flat-land. The old Nederland - or Netherlands as they are also called - included today's Holland, Belgium and part of Germany. But, over the centuries, wars and skirmishes caused it to be divided up into its current borders. 

While it was once a plain with rivers threaded throughout, it had substantial dry places with exceptionally fertile soil in the form of islands and small high patches on which people settled. But it was prone to flooding so over time the inhabitants kept the water at bay as best they could by building dams and canals for drainage. The eventual advent of windmills brought revolutionary change to these lowlands.

Windmills had been around for a long time; the ancient Egyptians probably being the first to invent some sort of wind powered mechanism. The Arabs and then Romans also made windmills. Later the English built them for various uses but all these were relatively primitive and simple. It was the Dutch who took them to new technological heights and made windmills a common sight all across the land. They were mostly used to pump water away to safety and also to irrigate small farms, but it wasn't long before they were also put to more industrial uses like grinding wheat into flour, crushing colored minerals into powder for paint, sawing logs into lumber, and a host of other things.

Windmills helped Holland both control the water and become a rich industrial center. At one time there were tens of thousands of windmills of all kinds all over Holland from big industrial ones to midget pump-mills set on the banks of ditches and irrigation channels. For a time they were also handy producers of electricity. Of course windmills would be of no use if there was no wind. Luckily, Holland has never had a shortage of this natural resource. 

Today, few of the tens of thousands of windmills still exist, overtaken by electricity and other forms of modern technology. Those that remain are thanks to private windmill enthusiasts and restorers, tourist operators, and the few farmers who still like to use them. While the old Dutch windmill can still be seen here and there around Holland, its modern counterpart is everywhere; I speak of course of the huge wind-powered turbines that can be seen wherever you go in Holland - and Europe, for that matter.
Dutch windmills once had a multitude of uses. Nowadays they are mostly kept for historical purposes. The above photographs were taken at a torist attraction featuring the old style windmills.

I paid four euros to go inside a fully restored and working Dutch windmill. It was well worth the money to see the great old technology - simple but ingenious - of cogs, shafts and wheels all made of wood, and the huge crushing wheel carved from stone. Not a piece of metal in sight. I loved the smell and sounds of the old mill grinding away, the wooden mechanisms creaking and groaning, the slow, rhythmic whooshing of the sails outside. It had a real old feel about it. I had always wondered what it was like in an old windmill so this was one of my childhood dreams come true.

Wind turbines are planted everywhere. No doubt the farmers and landowners are well compensated. Who would want such huge monstrosities on their land unless paid handsomely? However, a turbine post doesn't appear to take away too much useful land, being unfenced with grass or crops growing right up to the base. 
                                  Beaches and Seaside Towns

Another surprise about Holland is that it has some good beaches and seaside towns. The capital, The Hague, is situated on one such beach which on sunny summer weekends is packed with swimmers, sun lovers, diners and party-goers. Raymond took us to Den Hague after I expressed my doubts that Holland could have good sandy beaches. What I discovered was a surprisingly nice one with quality sand that stretched for several kilometers along the coast.

The beachfront boardwalk at The Hague. It was about half a km long with cafes, restaurants and bars the whole length. The weather wasn't too good the day the above photo was taken, but on sunny days and evenings the place is packed.                                                          


   Above: One of the quaint seaside towns along the coast.

                                         Public Toilets
One thing that New Zealanders find hard to get used to are the public toilet facilities in Europe. In our country we enjoy easy and free access to good toilets wherever we are; town, city, and even way out in the countryside. Not so in Europe; public toilets don't seem to be a priority and what few they have can be disgusting. There are some pay toilets which are turnstile operated or have attendants taking money. We balked at this at first but soon were happy to pay a euro or two for a decent, clean loo. 

Paris and Rome were bad but Jersey and England were good. Germany was OK because they were mostly pay toilets and clean. Holland had some great public toilets as shown in the pictures below.

This one was in a busy square with ladies walking by. I had to wait until they had all left before I dared use it. I didn't want to but when you gotta go you gotta go! The pee goes down a drain by your feet and it stinks but it doesn't seem to bother anyone.

This is the ultimate in portable el-fresco toilets. I love its simplicity. It was located at the beach at Den Hague and I just had to try it out. You would have noticed that they are for males only; ladies have to hang on or go into bars or restaurants to answer the call of nature.

The End...for now. We still have some unfinished family business that we didn't get time for on this trip. More will be added as it comes to hand.


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