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We Asked the Khong Guan Illustrator 'Where's the Father?'

We sat down with Bernardus Prasodjo to answer one of the internet's most-burning questions.

For Bernardus Prasodjo, the supermarket shelves are his gallery. The 68-year-old man is the illustrator behind some of the most iconic food packages in Indonesia. He's painted the covers of jellies, flour, and syrups. The British soldiers on the side of the Danish Monde Butter Cookies can? That's Bernardus. The women riding bikes on the Nissin Wafers package? That's him too.

"Every time I go to the supermarket, I go 'wow, that's my work, and so is that one,'" he said. "Those images still last. Most of the other ones are now gone."


But Bernardus' true masterpiece, the one piece of corporate art that today still inspires countless memes, discussions, and jokes is the illustration adorning the tin can of Khong Guan biscuits. In Indonesia, that image, a white mother and her two children enjoying biscuits and tea in a simple, but well-adorned dining room, is the Colonial Sanders of biscuits. It's as iconic as the McDonald's arches, or the mustachioed Pringles man.

This is, in part, because the Khong Guan biscuits tin is everywhere. Children grew up eating the biscuits. Here in Indonesia, the tins are often reused by kaki lima food hawkers—stuffed with rengginang rice crackers instead of sweet biscuits. But it's also because of the huge mystery at the center of the image. There's a woman, her hair short in a perfect 1950s bob, and her two children, a boy and a girl both in sweaters, on the cover. But wait, most people ask, where the hell is the father?

"Back then, I just thought 'oh, perhaps the dad is out for work'," said Hayu Qisthi Adila, a 28-year-old legal practitioner who lives in Jakarta. "But lately, after talking about it with a lot of people, I had something of a breakthrough. It's almost like the image is suggesting that the family is OK without a dad because the mom is super awesome. Or maybe it's like, 'hey kids, let's show dad that we appreciate his hard work by enjoying these delicious treats.'"

It's a conversation that has been endless rehashed in Indonesia. The image is in memes, on television, and even in popular films. It's there, in the middle of the insanely popular remake Warkop DKI Reborn: Jangkrik Boss Part 1 when a thug played by Arie Kriting attempts to avoid capture by the police by hiding in the advertisement as the third child. The theater around me burst into laughter.


The theories about the father's absence are endless. The dad is out of the frame, taking the photo. He's one of the British soldiers on the Monde cookies can and he never made it back home. I even hoped, for a second, that it was all secretly a subtle criticism of Suharto's New Order-era family planning program. Eventually, I couldn't stand it anymore, so I had to meet the man behind the image and hear the answer myself.

Bernardus met me at his painting-filled house in Cikini, Central Jakarta. I asked if he had seen the memes about his Khong Guan illustration, half wondering if a man who was pushing 70 years old spent much time online. It turns out he's not only aware of all the memes, but that he's active on social media and once had a photo of him holding the tin go viral.

"If I was young, I would've done the same thing," he said of the memes.

Bernardus told me that he was willing to answer my questions, but explained that the story had to start from the beginning, way back in 1979. He was 31 at the time, and working as an illustrator in Bandung, West Java.

"The cool term for my profession now is 'graphic designer,'" he said.

Bernardus left his hometown of Salatiga in the 70s to study art at the Bandung Institute of Technology. He was living on Jalan Lekong Kecil, right next to the offices of Aktuil—a popular music magazine at the time. But when he started to earn commissions on illustrations for the magazine, university didn't seem like a smart decision anymore.


"I didn't finish college," he said. "I was studying fine arts, but I managed to quickly make money and get a lot of orders, so I skipped school quite often. I was working as an illustrator at Aktuil magazine at the time."

But commercial work was where the big money was at, so Bernardus moved to the Indonesian capital and got busy illustrating packages for household items. One day an order came in from a printing company based on Jalan Biak, in Roxy, West Jakarta. The shop wanted Bernardus to paint an image that would adorn the tin of Khong Guan biscuits. The company had sent the print shop a reference, a crumpled newspaper advertisement showing a caucasian woman and her two children at a dinner table.

"I think it was a Singaporean newspaper," he recalled. "It had Chinese characters on it."

But the reference image was quite different from the final painting Bernardus handed in.

"I added the biscuits, and moved the kids closer," he said. "Everything was up to me. I could decide what clothes they were wearing and what colors the clothes were. The composition had to be consistent. The plates had to be made visible. The original image only had them hanging out at the dinner table and it was already so crumpled. It was just there as an initial reference."

Bernardus told me that he finished the illustration and then put it out of his mind. It was just one of hundreds of paychecks he collected over his life. He never met the family who owned Khong Guan directly, and he quickly moved onto other projects. But he knows that the tin has become famous, in no small part because of his illustration.


"I had this collector fly all the way here from Surabaya," he said. "He wanted me to sign his Khong Guan tin."

"Did you ever think it would be this popular?" I asked.

"Maybe it was meant to be," he said. "The biscuits were a success, so perhaps they were reluctant to change the illustration."

"But what about the father," I asked. "Why isn't he in the image?"

"Because back then we didn't have selfie sticks," he said before breaking out in laughter. "So the father was taking the picture."

A few moments later, after his laughter dies down, Bernardus explained, "Khong Guan might have had their own reasons for why the father wasn't shown. Maybe mothers buy more biscuits? But that's just my assumption. I don't know for sure."

Some things, it seems, are destined to remain a mystery.