“There are no expats in Bali, just experts.” Mahatma Gandhi once observed. He was referring, of course, to the propensity towards pontification shared by the island’s transient populatio.
Clive of India once observed that the colonies were full of missionaries, miscreants and misfits. Nothing has changed, some would say.
Researching for a coming T.V. documentary, “White Angels, Red Devils, Yellow Peril” (not my working title) on the reaction of Bali’s expatriate community after the Kuta bomb, I have discovered missionary-style zeal amongst the swell of altruism that followed the calamitous event but, typically, I have also discovered fierce rivalry and inter-sausage-sizzle suspicion.
To be fair one needs to look at the history of the Bali-based expatriates and their descendants to understand today’s cast of characters…………
It is known that the two Dutch sailors who jumped ship from the Van Houten expedition in Klungkung in the 17th century took Balinese wives and produced several children.
It is also known that Kuta-based Danish merchant Mads Lange sired a Balinese-Chinese-Johore family in the early 19th century. His descendants ran the legendary ‘Sunrise’ Restaurant, the original home of the magic mushroom omelette, on Kuta crossroads in the 1970s (now closed).
There was little activity in the next 100 years, while the colonial Dutch administration pretty much ignored Bali but before the Second World War, the island was host to a small band of artists and ethnographers; Niewenkamp, Hoefker, Spies, Covarrubias, Bonnet, le Mayeur etc., who all added much to the lustre of Bali’s reputation as the world’s most gorgeous culture. Sadly, they were a fairly barren lot, but very fertile of imagination.
After independence, Bali continued to attract artists and writers, including Donald Friend, Antonio Blanco, Arie Smit and anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz, Claire Holt and Urs Ramseyer. These were magic years; full of discovery for expats in Bali.
During the late 1960s, a small band of Jakartans and foreigners dropped out and made good on the island of the gods, with such ventures as the Tanjung Sari Hotel (Wija Waworuntu with his English wife, Judith) in Sanur and the Campuan Hotel (Australians Jack de Lissa and Val Ireland) in Ubud.
In the 1970s, it was considered an enormous privilege to be living in Bali; the Sanglah Immigration office was fierce and only die-hards of steely countenance survived. During this decade, expat pioneers opened new avenues for the Balinese - surfing (Kevin Weldon), hotel management (Stanley Allison), fashion (Milo), handicrafts (Linda Garland), ceramics (Brent Hesselyn) and landscape gardening (Michael White) - which, for the most part, were embellishments of existing Balinese talents. The majority of the pioneers created cottage industries from hobbies purely as a means to stay on in the Bali they loved.
The 1970s also saw hundreds of mixed marriages, Australian-Balinese, Balinese-Japanese and Italian-Balinese combos the most prevalent, which produced battalions of beautiful tea-coloured children. This column has, over the years, chronicled the discreet charm of the blessed children; blessed with a Balinese upbringing and some ‘long nose genes’ (as the Balinese say). They stand out in any crowd with their straight backs and beaming countenances. Most of the girls from these early mixed marriages have stayed in Bali and married local neighbourhood sweethearts although the perfectly-formed Tjempaka Blanco’s high profile marriage to a Hong Kong tycoon was one exception.
By the 1980s, Bali meant business; tourism business. Big time! Flamboyant Tourism Minister, Joop Ave, lobbied then President Soeharto to end Garuda’s monopoly on flights into Bali from Europe, the airport runway was lengthened, the visa-free policy was eventually introduced and, over a decade, tourist arrivals went from 200,000 per year to 2,000,000. The once benign expatriate population (twenty people avoiding each others gaze across the playground) had, by 1995, grown to 5,000.
In 1998 I wrote a story “The Rise and Rise of Bali Style” for the then popular Singapore-based East magazine.
“The lifestyle of Bali expatriates still revolves around a celebration of Bali Style; that special mix of tropical living, glamorous culture and island charm. Many think of the ‘Bali-based’ as a somnolent, sarong-clad group co-existing alongside a benign art-loving people; native bungalows, swaying palms, the gentle rhythms of exotic gamelan music picking through leafy courtyards. The real story is a bit different. After 30 years of ever-increasing tourism development, the island dwellers are pumped-up.
The basket-traders of the legendary ‘60s have returned as jewellery magnates, spa-operators and furniture export czars. These high-fliers want high-style homes for their haute mondaine lifestyle. Yesterday’s thatched hut haciendas are today’s estate and rental villas, replete with swimming pools, audio-visual studios, lavish interiors and ‘ethnic architecture’. The expatriate population is fiercely competitive on the dream home front: fights regularly break out over the tightness of one’s alang-alang (thatch) roof; family fortunes are spent on securing a pole position in the ‘distressed finish’ and ‘modern-ethnic’ stakes. In this design battlefield, housing trends emerge and standards are set that influence the entire tropical design world.”
The 1990s also saw a baby boom in this newly populated affluent expatria (i.e. expat suburbia which is typified by high-walled villas with tension edge pools, cute drivers and intercoms on the gate). Battalions of personal care officers (a.k.a. babu bulé) were turning up with their blonde charges on Jimbaran Beach while many of the earlier generation of expat offspring were seeking careers in pharmaceuticals and contact sports.
Statistics show that most 1970s babies were homespun in Bali whereas, in the 90s, it had become more fashionable to immigrate with a family in tow, e.g. start the family in, say, Perth or Noosa, with an eye cocked to the excellent child care facilities (read every Balinese) and swinging times on the island of the gods.
The success of the Amandari in 1991 and the profit its owners made selling it, together with the subsequent success of the grand Hyatt with 750 deluxe rooms in the Nusa Dua Tourist Development Zone which was once regarded as a white elephant, saw a thousand regional developers dash for a piece of the pie.
“The resurgence in temple restoration, gamelan-making and mammoth ceremonies could not be possible” I wrote in 1996 “without the present Tourism Boom”.
Warnings by environmentalists and sociologists were regarded as heretical and “anti development”; Bali tourism was the star in Soeharto’s development programme.
During the 1990s, a million Balinese left the rice fields (or similar) for a life in a tourism-related industry and what a lucrative life it often was! Many Balinese-owned businesses kept pace with their joint-venture rivals.
During this boom period the expat diaspora started to spread between the cracks of pastoral and feudal Legian-Seminyak-Canggu. Ubud became the world’s longest shopping mall; coffee table books expounding the glamorous tropical lifestyle replaced the old classics and a new generation of expatriates were Bali-born with silver Frisbees in their hands.
By the year 2000 ‘Bali’ meant ‘Bargain’. With the jumbo-loads of tourists in search of a ‘cheap exotic playground’ (cultural tourism had become a culture of tourism) came a new wave of grizzly expats who felt, within days of their arrival, that Bali owed them a ‘royal lifestyle’ and a lucrative villa rental business. Terms like ‘available glamour’ proliferated while Ads in the popular ‘Bali Advertiser’ smacked of prejudice, greed and colonialism.
New Age Bali was replaced by New Asia Bali. Muscle Mary architects (militant modernist fashion victims with personal trainers) flushed away the rustic charm movement. Californian Fried Buddhists replaced the harmless hippy and ‘Legianspeak’ became the nocturnal lingua franca of the west coast.
Horticulturalists and the culturally-inclined retrenched to Ubud and prepared to defend the Environmental Bamboo Initiative from theme park perverts.
Bali style went global just as global stylists were descending on Bali with glass bricks, Zen minimalism, Homeboy house music, and aggressive angular architecture. Last week I noticed that even the giant Saddam poster frames in Baghdad are following the latest trends in ‘Bali Modern’ (as prescribed by the bands of Amanwannabes).
The Balinese were too busy building business empires and running their festivals to notice that South Bali had changed from pastoral to urban sprawl in just 20 years. Not only greedy Jakartan developers but also expats were building thousands of hideous homes (for rent) in the rice fields.
The Balinese continued to welcome all newcomers, which included over 1,000,000 Javanese workers and hundreds of refugees from Ibiza, Noosa and Key West as ‘tamu
’ (guests). Bali had become the ‘New World’ for New Asian entrepreneurs.
Environmental degradation, child prostitution and drug addiction spiralled out of control.
And then came the bomb.
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The expat community reacted heroically in the days and weeks after the bomb, providing a strong backbone of volunteer support services as well as financial help. The depth of the Balinese community-expatria co-dependency was never more pronounced. Sadly, however, the year 2003 has seen an exodus of expat offspring. The Sari Club was the official haunt of international school teenagers; none of whom, miraculously, were in the club on that night of terror. Since the bomb, businesses such as villa rental and the associated construction industry, nightclubs and speciality restaurants - the feeding ground of the born-again Bali-o-phile - have bottomed out. Job opportunities for the expat children of earlier generations as photographers, events managers and real estate consultants, have likewise dried up; many, like Sean Thomas, are moving to paternal homelands, for almost the first time. We wish them luck, in spreading their wings and their particular brand of Balinese grace and charm.