Published in the Sunday Jakarta Post, 26 November 2006

Sydney Diary: Nyonya-wear & tear

Really, the most exotic trip one can make from Bali is to Sydney, Australia, the birth place of Bali’s most famous inmate, Schappelle Corby. Right from the Garuda check-in queue at Ngurah Rai Airport one senses the influence of Schappelle on her holiday-making countrymen – the beaded bangs, the colourful mis-matching flip-flops and the scintillating sportswear (“wombat smugglers”, as the cotton-interlock shorts favoured by large-ladies are now called).
Garuda get so excited flying to Sydney that they wake everyone up, mid-flight, and screen, full-blast, a promotional video on the dangers of the funnel-web spider and Sydney’s grey-nurse sharks as they serve their signature cold croissants and luke-warm towels.
Now read on:

Friday, 17 th November 2006 : Denpasar to Sydney
After a week spent on the Calcutta like by-ways of urban Bali, I find myself marvelling, as we glide above Sydney Harbour, at the neat, green suburbs – a result of 250 years impassioned adherence to sensible zoning regulations, and of 25,000 years of respect for green belts and healthy set- backs.
Sydney is arguably the most scenic city in the world.

An exhibit in the 2006 Sydney “Sculpture on the rocks” exhibition

From the airport my partner and I drive to the Pacific Coast to help shake off the cobwebs from the over- night flight, and to take in the “Sculpture on the Rocks” exhibition. This annual event stretches along the Pacific Ocean rocks that run from Tammaramma to Bondi Beach. It attracts entrants from all over the Pacific Rim and Asia. This year the popular favourite is a sculpture of a full-size, fully-melted Mr. Whippy ice cream van, which lies wrapped over an edge of the Tammaramma beach promenade.
From Bondi in the extreme east we drive to Sydney’s northernmost point, to Palm Beach – at the end of the Pittwater Peninsula – to visit artist Bruce Goold in his studio-home. Australia has more talented artists per square kilometre that any other country. There are recording artists, bullshit artists and con artists, apart from all the regular painters and sculptors. Bruce Goold is the international face of Bali’s “Tropical Shop” and I am in Palm Beach to photograph his shark egg shower curtains and pandanus trunk lamps for my coming book “Modern Tropical Garden Design” (out April 2007).
A sunset dip in the crisp clean Palm Beach surf tops off a perfect first day. After our swim we are invited to dinner by Bali-o-phile architect Phillip Cox (presently re-designing Singapore’s Orchard Road, with Sydney landscaper Oi Choong) and his partner, writer Janet Hawley, in their Whale Beach bushland home – a veritable museum of sleek “Sydney School” architecture and art.

Carole Muller, circa 1990, at a temple festival near Ubud

Saturday, 18 th November 2006 : a Bali design icon turns 70
I am really flying home to Sydney to celebrate the 70 th birthday of a very dear friend, Carole Muller, co-creator of the Bali Oberoi and Amandari hotels.
In the old days in Bali – pre-Spa Explosion – all western residents of a certain age were called “Tuan” or “Nyonya” something. There was Nyonya Meng a.k.a. Ketut “Revolt in Paradise” Tantri (Kuta, 1936 – 1946); Tuan Donal (Donald Friend), Sanur, 1969 – 1984; Tuan Leurik (Warwick Purser), founder of PACTO Travel, Sanur and Ubud, 1971 – 1981; and, most famously of all, Nyonya Carole (Carole Muller), Coolangatta, Kerobokan and Karangasem, 1972 – 2005, last of the Red Hot Nyonya’s, inventor of the Poleng (gingham) bikini and bi-lingual hill-tribe bom-sek.
Today, Nyonya Carole and her flatmate – her former husband, the legendary Legian lothario Peter Muller – have invited 300 of their closest friends to a thé dansant at Pier One, hard on Sydney’s stunning Harbour Bridge. The crowd is a fascinating mix of old Bali hands – Christopher Carlisle (co-creator of the Bali Hyatt in Sanur), Ruth Hill (wife of Asia’s architect-de-jour, Kerry Hill, of Alila Manggis, Amanusa and Alila Payangan fame), Ubud-based jeweller Jean-Francoise Fichot), to name a few – and the pick of Sydney’s art world (artists John Olsen A.O., Margaret Olley A.O., John Firth-Smith, Cressida Campbell, plus N.S.W. Art Gallery director Edmund Capon). In the wings are actors Arthur Dignam, Claudia Karvan and Nell Campbell. Draped along the Harbour foreshore, like melted Mr. Whippy vans, are the leaders of Sydney’s Haute Bohemia – Wendy Whitely, Sheila Caroll – and of high society – “Bubbles” Fisher, “Bubbles” de Vere, Richard Cobden S.C. and Maggie Tabberer. All present are fervent Bali-lovers it must be noted.

For the occasion couturier Milo of Seminyak has created an aqua and ivory flapper dress for the effervescent Nyonya. ‘Teamed’ with her trademark floral top-knot, worn Pedanda Istri Buda Keling style (rampant and screaming), the Ubud fashion icon makes quite a splash.
At 2. p.m. Peter Muller screens a “This is your life” slide show which highlights Peter and Carole’s life as the Don and Diva of Bali style in the 1970s. We all view slides of their trips to Fiji on Adnan Kashoggi’s private jet, in matching Harry Soeharyo batik shirts; their stint as ambassadors for a V.W. Rent-a-Safari outfit and Peter marking out Bali’s first garden bathroom at their gorgeous Campuan home, the former studio of Dutch artist Rudolf Bonnet.
And many, many more: all seminal images from a golden age of Bali expatria.
Some ‘ Bali hands’ present feel that the conservatively-culled slide show is “a bit of a white wash”. Excised are the images of the full-blooded Nyonya that are so near and dear to all bulé aga (Hill-tribe expats. Ed.). The famous image of Carole dancing the limbo for Queen Elizabeth, for example, in front of the Pura Dalem in Pengosekan in 1976. Or the widely circulated “RED HOT NYONYA” images.
There was some mention of Carole’s two amazing interior decorating jobs in Bali – the Bali Oberoi (1973), with Harry Soeharyo (now all gone), and the Amandari (1990), with Neville Marsh – but there was little mention of Carole’s prowess as a cultural anthropologist and Fine Art expert (much of her Bali collection has gone to the N.S.W. art gallery, including an exquisite door painted by her friend and mentor, Donald Friend).
In the 1970s Nyonya Carole was something of a rebel in Bali’s then staid expatriate community: she “went native” whenever it suited her.

Her Indonesian was faulty but she understood the people and the culture like few others. “Settlement patterns” was her middle name. She was the first Bali anthropologist to go on an all Babi Guling (roast pork) diet. She was a tough old boiler on matters of finance but would cry if a dance or a ceremony got too beautiful. Her Bali houses were always exquisite – more vernacular-modern than ethnic-chic – and were much published in the style books of the time. Her last great house renovation and decorating job, Villa Tirta Ayu, overlooking the royal baths at Tirta Gangga in Karangasem, can still be viewed today.
Nyonya Carole’s antics in Bali – all wholesome – inspired over two decades of intense scrutiny and a lively series of cartoons by Stephen Little and Deni Chung who worked for this column during the 1980s and 1990s. One of the best, by Deni Chung is reproduced on this page.

• • •

Wendy Whitely (right) and Polly Purser dancing at Carole Muller’s 70 th

Peaches Mellon

(Click here to EXTRA images of Nyonya's Party)

After the slide show the jazz band plays sentimental favourites as gourmet meat pies circulate. The sun dips over Goat Island in the glistening harbour waters as John Hardy jewellery designer Polly Purser, Carole’s god-daughter, and the widow Wendy Whitely, Empress of Lavender Bay, dance a tender waltz.
Herds of barely-sober haute-bohemians then head up the hill to the nearest pub – “the Hero of Waterloo” – at the top of Sydney’s Rocks district. At 5 p.m. Carole and Peter pad back next door – next pier to be exact – with a tower of left-over profiteroles. What a fabulous party for Bali’s most beloved of Nyonyas.

- Glossary of Haute Bohemian and High Society Australian terms

- D.B. = Ding-bats
- D.B.B.= Ding-bat beyond
- A.O. = Order of Australia (equivalent to a knighthood)
- S.C.= Senior Citizen (formerly Q.C., Queen’s Counsel)

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