At home in the hills: Dutch Anthropologist Otome Klein Hutheesing

Mark Fenn interviews, long time Chiang Mai resident, Otome Klein Hutheesing to find out why, at 84, she still considers herself a "revolutionary".

By | Tue 23 Sep 2014

At 84 her memory isn’t what it was, and she doesn’t have the same energy, but Otome Klein Hutheesing still considers herself a “revolutionary”.

Otome Klein Hutheesing at her Chiang Mai home, wearing traditional Lahu clothing.

The petite and charming Dutch anthropologist has spent decades documenting the lives of the downtrodden – especially, in recent decades, the hill-tribes of northern Thailand.

At her home near Wat Gate, she has amassed an impressive collection of hill-tribe costumes, bags and embroidery, as well as old paintings, handicrafts and antiques.

“When you are trying to be anti-capitalist, you shouldn’t collect,” says Dr Hutheesing, who wears traditional tribal clothing. “But it’s not about the money. It’s really fantastic, this kind of embroidery and how they put it together. You don’t see it, unfortunately, any more.”

Dr Hutheesing has led an extraordinary life, which she related to CityNews at the modest house she shares with her husband, the renowned American scholar of Cambodia Michael Vickery, two adult foster children from the Lisu tribe and a dog.

She was born Machteld Otome Louisa Klein in 1930, in Dutch-ruled Sumatra, where her parents were planters growing rubber and coconuts. Her father was Dutch and her mother German-Japanese – “it was terrible to say that in the war in Holland”.

Dr Hutheesing’s German grandfather had met her grandmother, Otome, while doing business in Japan. They moved to Sumatra but in later years she grew homesick and left, and her ex-husband remarried. However, the Japanese woman deeply influenced the young girl.

“I loved this grandmother and I loved the name,” says Dr Hutheesing, who has used her middle name for most of her life. She grew up speaking Dutch and English on the plantation, and Malay with the servants. Nowadays, she also speaks French, German, Thai and Lisu.

“I think I got the feeling for this part of the world from having spent my childhood on a plantation,” she says. “Growing up on a plantation, you have very few friends,” she adds, “but I loved playing with the children of the servants. We sat together and played games.” However, her parents told her off for playing with the “dark and dirty” servants’ children, “and I felt so bad about it”.

Dr Hutheesing attributes her lifelong concern with equality and sympathy for the underdog to the injustices she saw in those early years on the plantation. As a child, her parents sent her and her brother to live with relatives in Holland while they were educated, and she stayed throughout World War II and the German occupation.

She remembers that in the last year of the war, there was a lot of hunger. “In the war I couldn’t say really that I was half-Japanese, half-German,” she says. “I always felt different, somehow. People would say ‘you’re a bit dark, where are you from?'”

After a year working as a maid in France, where she moved to improve her French, Hutheesing studied sociology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, where she also received her doctorate. She taught there for several years and then, eager to return to Asia, took a job in India with the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).

There she met her first husband, a journalist and nephew of India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Among her collection is a jacket owned by her former mother-in-law, Nehru’s sister. From her new husband she took the surname Hutheesing, and the pair moved to the USA, where she taught at Baruch College – part of the City University of New York – and studied the city’s homeless population.

However, her husband suffered from severe depression and eventually she “couldn’t take it any more”, so they separated and she moved back to Asia – this time to the Malaysian island of Penang, where she again taught anthropology at a university.

On a trip to northern Thailand in the early 1980s, she met another Dutch anthropologist, Leo Alting von Geusau, who introduced her to some of the hill-tribes in the region – “and then I fell for the Lisu”. She went with von Geusau to a Lisu village, where she was received by a woman who told her “okay, there’s your bed”.

“It was just so open, can you imagine?” Hutheesing recalls with girlish wonderment. That woman’s granddaughter, Mimi, now lives with Hutheesing as her foster daughter.

“I have two mums – one is Lisu and Otome is my foster mum who I been living with for about 16 years,” Mimi explains.

Dr Hutheesing decided to study the Lisu, and after several trips she moved to the village of Doi Lan in Chiang Rai province. She was then in her early fifties. She lived there for six years, funded by various universities to conduct research, before moving to Chiang Mai. In that time she mastered the Lisu language and later wrote an academic book titled Emerging Sexual Inequality Among the Lisu of Northern Thailand: The Waning of Dog and Elephant Repute.

Age has not dimmed her outspokenness, and she rails against missionaries trying to convert the Lisu to Christianity. Some are “obnoxious”, she says, and their actions divide families and villages.

Dr Hutheesing subscribes to no religion herself, saying she is “very attracted to Buddhism, but still I will not worship”. Her worldview is simple.

“Nothing is certain, and we have to live with that,” she says. “Everything is swirling, you cannot be certain of anything, of yourself either … It changes all the time. But then to live accordingly is quite a trial. We want firm ideologies, firm actions, everything to be set.” It sounds quite Buddhist, she agrees, “but why give it a name?”

Her politics are very much on the left. “Definitely, it’s the only way. But even the left is sometimes too conservative,” she grins.

Dr Hutheesing also has a lifelong interested in design and fashion, having been taught to sew and embroider in Holland. “I’ve always been interested in how people attire themselves, make themselves attractive … Fashion is my passion,” she laughs.

She has a special fondness for hill-tribe embroidery, and loves the way the women “let their fantasies run out” in their weaving.

These days Dr Hutheesing doesn’t get out as much as she used to, though she still receives occasional invitations to give lectures.

Sometimes she gives informal talks to anthropology students who visit her at home. So, looking back, what does she see as her greatest achievement?

“I don’t think of what I have achieved,” she says. “But I have learned to look at the world in a different way, and I’m very happy.”

To arrange an appointment to visit Dr Hutheesing’s collection of hill-tribe clothing, please call Mimi on 098 813 8324.

Dr Hutheesing today with her foster daughter, Mimi, and some of her textile collection. Photos by Francis Willmer or courtesy of Dr Hutheesing.