Published in the Sunday Jakarta Post, 6 August 2006

Left to right: Leo Eka Wijaya, Dr. Hsiu-Huei Ré au and Leo's father at the ceremony

Bali's Chinese Connection

Last month a very refined Taiwanese lady restored my faith in the Chinese culture - bruised and bloodied as I am after 30 years battling developers in the South East Asian region.  Dr. Hsiu Huei Reau – a scholar in classical Chinese literature and culture – was in Bali for the first time with her husband, the French Ambassador to Singapore, after a three year term among the traders and merchants of that uptight but upright city-state.  On her first night I took her party to a Balinese temple festival: her eyes lit up when she realised the extent of the similarity between classical Balinese and classical Chinese culture – the gamelan, the temple forms and decorations, and the worship of the village deities and warrior gods. 
It was the following morning  at a Penileman soul purification ceremony on Sanur Beach , however, that the penny really dropped about the debt Balinese cultures owes to ancient China. The ceremony was a purification ritual for the soul of the grandmother of my good friend Leo Wijaya, a Balinese of Chinese descent.  Leo's grandfather had come from Hainan, South China, and settled in Peguyangan village north of Denpasar.
Now read on:

• • •

The puspa is lowered carefully from its perch in the bukur and taken to the ceremonial enclosure for the next layer of purification rites

The Chinese pagoda-style bukur tower at rest on Sanur beach after the spirit effigy has been removed

22nd July, 2006 :   An excursion to  Matahari Terbit Beach, north of Sanur for a stunning Penileman procession .
Today, the soul of Leo's grandmother, the first Peguyangan girl   to marry a foreigner, is to be ceremoniously cast into the sea, after a week of purification rites.  Today's procession, and its associated ceremonies, belongs to the family of Leo's liege lord, the Princely family of Peguyangan:  Leo's family are technically "following" or ngiring, which is a common Balinese tradition.
It is  a fresh coastal morning – sunrays are skipping off the crashing waves and illuminating the tall bukur tower, which is parked with its attendant gamelan and devotees at the head of the processional route.  The Peguyangan  Royal Family, one of Bali's nicest, have mounted a magnificent ceremony for my distinguished foreign guests.
I point out to Dr. Hsiu that this ceremony might have Chinese ancestor worship antecedents as the bukur Tower is identical to many I have seen parked by the roadside in Chinatown in Penang, Malayasia. 
"This is the Co Kong Tik ceremony," announce the glamorous academic, "a ceremony traditionally held in China 49 days after a death." In Bali the seven times seven or seven plus seven are important too. Famed American anthropologist Katherine Mershin wrote a book "Seven Plus Seven" in 1956 about the seven Balinese life rituals (Pitra Yadnya) and the seven rituals of passage and purification after death.
We watched the rest of the ceremonies awe struck at the refined, gentle way the puspa spirit effigies were being transported from their perch high on the bukur tower to their place in the celestial sphere.
Asking around, Dr. Hsiu discovered that the Chinese community of Bali are petitioning the government of Bali to establish a Chinese school in Denpasar for the children of the some 60,000 Balinese of Chinese descent.

• • •

Artist's impression of Admiral Zheng He's ship, compared to Columbus' ship the Santa Maria of the same era.

28th July 2006 : To Hainan in South China to consult on a Bali-style garden project
Hainan is China's answer to Hawaii:  indeed all the great Hawaiian landscape designers - Belt Collins, Bill Bensley – have already been through, amazingly, doing resort gardens derived from their successful Bali models.  The Chinese domestic tourist wants to wear an Hawaiian floral shirt and sit in a Balinese garden and eat Cantonese food.  Hotel lobbies and gardens pump out new-age new-Asian music all day, from hidden speakers, rather like a Californian fat farm.  My Chinese hosts take me to the Little Fish Spring where "little fish lovingly kiss your dead skin" – a piranha for psorisis scenario and a delightful experience.  Shed of one coetaneous layer I approach the board room with renewed vigour.
"Admiral Chen Ho brought the Chinese culture to Bali in the ninth century," my host Mr. Zhou tells me, "and that's why Bali is very Chinese."  He makes it sound like the invasion of the body snatchers.  All attempts by me to enhance his migration theory fail.  My stories of Ghengis Khan's rescue by Gusti Panji off the coast of North Bali; of the Chinese shipwreck of Belanjong , near Sanur, in the eleventh century; and of the influence on Indonesia of the Mandarin court in Hue in Central Vietnam in the 14th to 19th centuries fail to impress. It was Admiral Chen Ho and that's that.
His man-made island theme park of twelve Dubai-style towers modelled on the sails of the boats of the good admiral's fleet  is to have Balinese gardens and a water bomb replica of Ankor Wat and a Batavia style Bak Mie Gajah Mada wall because it is to those places that  the heroic Admiral went.
The Balinese certainly bellow like the South Chinese, who keep up very loud conversations in airport buses and even in airplanes.  Only the whirr of a lazy Susan subdues the Hainanese peasant. Hypnotized by the passing goose and pig flesh his pupils dilate and a wee paralysis of the vocal chords sets in.  Female Chinese secrete enzymes as 'abalone alla anglaise' whishes past. 

29th July 2006 :   To Chinatown in Broome, Western Australia.
The first commercial contact between Indonesia,  China and Australia was a brisk trade in sea cucumbers run by  Chinese merchant fleets between Australia's west coast and South East Asia early in  the first millennium. 
The museum in Broome, Western Australia, which is only 600 or so miles from Timor  Island in East Indonesia,boasts two hats - one a Portuguese looking beret woven from the lontar palm from the island of Roti near Timor, and another which looks like a mosque fund-raisers peci from the Medan to Prapat highway.  They are labelled, collectively, "Indonesian hats".  Next to them sits a 5000 Rupiah note. 
I am in Broome to advise some Malaysian Chinese developers on incorporating the world's largest crystal Buddha into a resort hotel's streetscape.  The hotel is littered with scatter-Buddhas (the theological equivalent of the scatter cushion) and a fine collection of Indian and Indonesian fine art and furniture.  Balinese umbul umbul temple banners of the Chinese red and gold variety decorate the front of a nearby jewellery store.
The China - Bali - Australia link presents itself in many ways.  None are more poignant than the Bali Memorial in beautiful King's Park in the Perth Botanical Garden, which I visit the next day.  It is a modernist memorial to those who died in the 2003 terrorist attack – set in a modernist garden of Australian native plants.  The memorial has been so designed that every year, on the anniversary of the 2003 Bali Bomb, a sliver of sunlight illuminates the list of names of the Western Australians who died in that tragic event.


Back | Home | Next

Subscribe to the Poleng Magazine! Get your hard copy of the diary with large format photos and contributions from some of the island's more talented essay writers, cartoonists and photographers. E-mail your request, and kindly send letters or useful travel tips to: