Aum Swastyastu ... Welcome to the Stranger in Paradise

(Published in the Hello Bali Magazine, September 2002)



A spate of celebrity weddings has heralded the silly season—the month of August when Hollywood moguls come looking for last year’s shopping (see Nigel Waymouth’s cartoon, following page). It is also the season when the children of disaffected “eurotrash” come looking for room and board (see “Love in a Warm Climate” Stranger in Paradise, October 2001). This year the hatches are battened and the sandbags are out: NEVER AGAIN THE LIFE FLOOD OF ANY OFFSPRING. In the immortal words of Hon. Harry Fane (“Garuda Park”, Batu Belig 1976 – 1989): “If you’re a friend of a friend, go away.”
Meanwhile the Balinese are beating the world at tennis and real estate.
Please read on:

July 5th 2002, Gargantuan wedding spectacle at the Nyoman Gunarsa Museum of Classic Balinese Art to celebrate the marriage of the Gunarsa’s eldest daughter, Noni, to James Richard Alley of Rhode Island, USA.
Nyoman and Indrawati Gunarsa are the first couple of Balinese art. I have known them since Nyoman’s tenure as lecturer at the prestigious Institute of Fine Arts in Jogyakarta (1974 – 1986). During this era the indominantable Indrawati, always dressed like Tuesday Weld, could often be found down the well of their small suburban studio-home repairing the pump, or in their modest kitchen, piling packets of dry noodles up against the walls. They were loved across the land, like Posh and Becks. He was the talented eccentric artist, she the bright-eyed muse. Nyoman had his wing, Indrawati and the children had theirs. The courtyard of their Balinese hybrid home was a D.M.Z. often infringed upon by caustic exchanges of the “shut up ya dingbat” variety. The doe-eyed children—blessed of the best East Balinese, Central Javanese and Chinese genes from this dynamic union—would just watch the show from the sidelines: the alternative would have been to take refuge behind a large canvas. And there were plenty of those.

In the 1980s Nyoman’s reputation as a painter of note took off after his launch in Jakarta by Java-o-phile Claire Wolfowitz (Claire’s husband James, is now U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defence). By 1990 he was the brightest star on the Balinese painting horizon, with a museum to his own glory (and to that of classical Balinese art) with four (4) concrete policeman on guard, and a palace wing, in embryo. Nyoman’s chaotic studio had been imported from the suburbs of Jogyakarta and squashed between collosii. The children were off studying in the states (Dentistry, annual husbandry ……anything to escape the domestic blitz!!) and Indrawati (Indra) had re-invented herself as the Rita Hayworth of the Indonesian art scene, looking younger and more contoured as the years passed.
Over the decades, Nyoman, Indra and I remained close. When, last year, Nyoman had his first stroke I visited the V.I.P suite at Sanglah hospital, where, contrary to the strictest doctor’s orders, Nyoman and Indra were holding court. Indrawati was stoic as she rattled of her V.I.P outings in the nation’s capitol of the week before. “Ar…..yer full of it” came the muffled cry from behind the drawn curtain.
Today Noni is back on centre stage, with a charming computer whizz from Connecticut, who’s not quite sure what he’s got himself into. They met on campus in N.Y. when Noni was dancing with the visiting all-female Sekar Jaya troupe from U.C.L.A. at Berkley. Nyoman is still fit (two strokes later) and the museum looks fabulous: Gunarsa is the Oliver Messel, the Tony Duquette, the Picasso and the Cecile B. Demented of Balinese Decorative Arts. His towering blue and gold gate (to the new dried noodles vault?) was completed hours before the nuptials. It is a masterpiece. Indra, today, looks like the heiress to the Shishiedo fortune (Dewi Soekarno eat your heart out), glowing with pride at her daughter’s beauty and grace.
Art historians hover, oblivious to the histrionics; Noni and her ivy league husband glide through the complicated rituals like Torvill and Dean.
God bless, God speed…..the Nyoman and Indra show won’t be the same without you.

• • •

This month the Stranger would like to introduce a new columnist, Brisbane-born Mak Salleh, described by our beloved sister journal “Latitudes” as “a survivor” and “a vegetable of the oppressed.” Mz. Salleh is a travelling salesperson who spends much of her time between Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Bali, all of which she loves, monitoring trends in New Asian development (“New Asia” is a term invented by the robust Singapore Tourism board to describe the remnants of the once culturally-inclined peoples of the Malay peninsula).
Mz. Salleh is shopping for a regular home for her cutting edge column. She has so far been turned down by, Singapore’s award-winning website for pansies with palm pilots, and the National Geographic.

Is “New Asia” more than just zappy cinematography and vast advertising budgets? Or is it just “zesty icing on louche cup cakes” as Nicholas Chan, cutting edge Singapore sweetheart-lawyer of Marmalade and Pierside restaurants fame, wrote in Singapore’s trend-setting Peak magazine?
Does top Singapore’s feature writer Mei Zee Fong really know what she’s talking about when she describes Balinese culture as “surf and turf” (Malaysian Tattler, July 2002)?. Is Singapore Institute of International Affaires (SIIA) chairman Simon Tay for real when he says in the Singapore Straits Times, 21 July 2002:
“Singaporeans must know and care about what is happening in the region. We are very well-connected on the human and business levels with America. But the distance, mentally, from Singapore to Medan is further than the distance from Singapore to New York.”
“On the drawing board are plans to reach out to junior college students and undergraduates to raise their awareness of Singapore links with the region” he continues “East Timorese Foreign Minister Jose Ramos Horta held a 30-strong audience of students so rapt here earlier this year that they were impervious to the bites of mosquitoes”
(Is that all the SIIA can guarantee South East Asia’s first Nobel laureate? Ramos was a pivotal figure in the regions most amazing power struggle since KONFRONTASI: Who cares about the bloody mosquitoes?).

Will “reaching out” really make any difference to a young populace corsetted with processed American culture and values? (On Orchard Rd I recently observed a young lady flicking open her MIIB-compatible Motorolla with the answer: “Yo”).
In the same article is a photograph of the half-finished garden at the prestigious Institute of South East Asian Studies. Now, Mak knows that this garden was left half-finished after a New Asian progrom—”Nothing representational” (meaning no shapes reminiscent of the indigenous cultures)—was forced upon the landscape artist by the venerable executive committee. What is behind such cries of “nothing representational” heard up and down archipelago? Is it New Asia’s war cry? Is the Malay Peninsula doomed to have grey stripes as its standard and glass bricks on its shield?
(“Everyone’s so busy going global no-one wants to be local” Indian cultural pundit Raj Seti once said).
Regularly Aunty meets young free-thinkers with old Asian manners and cultural reference. They all voice fears of being lost in the avalanche of the available.
(“Available glamour” Australian expats call Bali).
The promoters of New Asia —tourism boards, San “Kissed in Bali” Miguel’s advertising agency and regional committees of the culturally constipated—are so efficient in imposing palatable alternate ADAT (local customs) that events like Malaysian’s CITRAWARNA festival and Singapore’s CHENGAI festival attract huge funding.
New Asian mantras like “Malaysia Boleh” (“Malaysia Can”, K.L.’s 2001 Commonwealth Games chanson de guerre) are replacing old Asian humility. Other notable indicators of the ascendancy of New Asia are Bali’s Garuda-Wisnu Kencana Hindu Theme park, the emasculation of the Balinese garden and the stampede of gourmands that have driven out the beloved corner warung and the coffee shops of Singapore and Malaysia.
Bali-style has become a limp aphorism: most new Asians think “Bali” is a pub in Petaling Jaya, not the ritual world’s most immaculate creation. Ritual is old Asia: full of spooks and spitting. Strap on your Jimmy Choo’s, Audrey, and kick a construction worker down the deportation tube.

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