“WE ASIANS WANT”
Blowing the cover on the mysteries of the East!!
This is my 50th column and to celebrate I’m going to write about my favourite topic—East–West relations at this point in time.
Recently an American-born Chinese architect rang me from his L.A. office (we are both working for a tricky philipino client who can’t make up his mind). “Let me ask you this” he pleaded “you are a caucasian who’s lived in asia for 25 years ; is business normally like this?”.
“You must remember” I chanted “Asia is full of mysteries”. This mantra is my universal panacea : I use it to explain away my secretari’s breath-taking typos, Garudas in-flight menus, even Greater Denpasar’s zoning decisions. People may plead for transparency, as visibility drops to near zero, and expatriates rile against the price of gin but chanting the mantra will disperse any tense-making thoughts.
Now, tension is something the Balinese are very good at avoiding—the Thais too have practised the buddahist doctrine of non-criticism and ended up with a city from hell —but has their adoption of the Javanese tenet “NERIMO YO” (“just accept and let it pass”) lead to incursions by irresponsible developers?
November 1997 will be remembered as the month when the Balinese started externalising what they wanted (out of their culture) and prioritising (with adat traditional life coming up in the poll position).
Bali’s survival amidst the onslaught of tourism culture, however, is no mystery. It is a dynamic culture that has shown, over the centuries, an extraordinary resilience to various influences. “They don’t have Pizza Hut in Bali” a Singapore taxi driver proudly told me a few week ago.
Other asian voice voices are being heard lately too: Marina Mahathir, daughter of the vocal Malaysian PM is a tireless lobbyist for asian women’s’ causes, Mr. Mahathir himself is a champion of the “Melayu Baru” the new “bolder malay” who scales peaks under the “MALAYSIA CAN” banner.
Architect friends in Singapore have been bleating “we asians want” for months now, referring to the arizona-arid and aman-wanabe looks that go with their “joyously pawed down ‘Balinese’ elite asian a aesthetic”. But are these sentiments those of other asian peoples? This stranger, together with others like composer Guruh Soekarno, Philippines National Television and the new “back to nature” lobby feel that the asian people love traditional arts, romance and magic (“magic-show, aah” replied a Singapore architects when I tried to plead this cause).
In Bali sociologist-activist Putu Suasta is now a major voice against what the Bali Post called “collusion between the government and business interests” Asian legendary reserve and patience is running thin: business bullies are taking note and one prays for an era of commercial development kender and gentler towards the local culture, and the environment.
On the subject of Asian legends, or myths, one of the biggest myths is the idea that “one must be careful the chinese don’t lose face”.
Hong Kong ‘Hong’ Anto Marden and I discussed this issue recently, at his hacienda hideaway south of Manila. “It’s a conspiracy started by James Michener” I suggested “the chinese businessmen have more front than Plaza Hotel (New York not Kowloon)!!!” The learned ‘hong’ an avid tao-ist and practising cantonese, agreed and volunteered that many of today’s young asian ‘voices’ are called “bananas” (i.e. yellow on the outside and white on the inside) and that he considers himself just the opposite.
My, it is getting complicated!
As something of an inverted ‘nanna’ myself, having lived more than half my life in the East, I often ponder the differences between the two cultural spheres. The notion of “boundaries” is one that often pops up. The ‘edges’ of western culture seem quite well defined : history is history, the law is fairly absolute and social strata are well defined, Eastern ‘edges’ are, to my eye, like the edges of blotting paper dipped in water : history slides into myth, the law seems negotiable and there is a widespread belief in a number of levels of the universe, represented by god-kings, spirit-effigies, trance-mediums, ghost-tamers and other transcidental beings. Black and white is imperative to the western mind but too cut and dry for the easterner.
Travelling west, somewhere near Istanbul, ordered queues start to form, I imagine; travelling Eastwards from London I guess one would find it propressively harder east of the Urals to get a fixed price. Asians in Britain, for example, learn very quickly the length, breadth and depth of the cultural sphere but Brits in Asia could spend a life here and be none the wiser. In fact most are : a lot of expatriates in Bali these days give away, in their pidgeon Bahasa, that the only contact they’ve had with their host population is with bar girls and servants. On the other hand, I had a Vietnamese taxi driver in Perth earlier this year who told me what he “loved about Bali” :
“You leave Perth at noon” he bellowed, in broad ‘strine’, “and by 5p.m. you’re sitting in the pool at the Kuta Palace with an ice-cold stubby in your hand”.
Two years ago I was honoured to be asked to design the JOINT VENTURE BOARD, BALI CHAPTER’S float for the 50 th Anniversary of Indonesian Independence. The design I submitted had a bamboo Sydney Harbour bridge on the back of a two ton lorry. At one end of the bridge a giant Kangaroo stood, with architectural plans and a sack of money. At the other end stood a balinese rice farmer with a hoe over his shoulder and a giant ‘word bubble’ coming out of his month. It read : “if you don’t give my sister a job I’m closing the road”. Vive la difference!
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The gentleman at the Joint Venture Board were good-humoured enough to laugh. In fact there is an infectious good humour that ripples through most of Asia (it skirts Singapore, but there’s a well-funded campaign to get it back, called ‘The Next Lap—the Asian Way”).
On the Discovery channel last month I watched a programme on the world’s rain forests. The programme quoted the Buddha’s teachings on the rain forest and how it was a ‘perfect’ place, with all ways and means to sustain itself.
Asian religions generally rely heavily on nature and her laws, as a base plate, as it were, for their theologies. It is an unusual paradox, therefore, to witness the destruction of nature with such ferocity by many Asian, particularly Buddhist, countries. In Kalimantan orang-utans are being slaughtered as they flee the naughty timber barons flames even Julie Roberts was recently flown in (the west’s biggest ‘gun’) to help expose the plight of these cute red-heads.
It’s a tricky business indeed this east-west analysis : as the world gets smaller the smaller divisions and sibling rivalry become more fiercely fought.
“By the year 2050” said “Bucky” Fuller ‘everyone will be tea-coloured!” It’s certainly a trend and perhaps only then will the mystery of the two hemispheres non-convergence cease to be an issue.
Think about it.
Last Month the Four Seasons Resort at Jimbaran kindly hosted an exhibition of my “Beautiful People of Indonesia Photos”. The weekend before I found myself on a very small island in the Thousand Island’s group some fifty miles off the coast of North Jakarta, where I composed this piece. Twenty-four Balinese carpenters were busy throwing some bungalows up as an equal number of local fishermen floated bamboo barges, piled with rocks, from the mother island to the erosion-threatened shores. They all toiled from dawn to dusk singing ancient ditties and heave-ho-ing large things into place. I could have shot another whole exhibition there and then so incredible were the spirit, the light and inner beauty beaming through the toil. I remarked how clever the Indonesians are at harnessing nature and paused to reflect that, in Australia, you’d need five safety inspectors, a dredge and a union office to get this done ... and it would end up looking like a caravan park.
“A country is only as great as its workers” I bleated, as the gathered lawyers dived for cover and the last apncot danish. Then the sky unleashed an horrendous electrical storm. We huddled by the espresso machine. The sailors toiled on. After the deluge the workers gathered on a mossy log to watch as the westerners emerged into the sunlight and, one by one unfolded their mobile phones.
It was a beautiful moment.
Hooray the workers.
Happy New Year.