Beryl de Zoete and Walter Spies observed in the 1930s that the Balinese have “a suppleness of mind which has enabled them to take what they want of the alien civilizations reaching them for centuries and to leave the rest.”
The fact that half a century later Hugh Mabbett (a New Zealander with a rightful claim to intimate knowledge of the region) can reaffirm this view is comfort indeed to those who have relished the splendor of Bali and are therefore loath to see it vulgarized and venalized by massive tourism.
In Praise of Kuta, Mabbett’s second book on Bali, is a highly readable little book with a big heart and noble vision. Adroitly combining the skills of journalist, historian, back-alley guide and social commentator, Mabbett has turned in a significant, topical study of general interest. His prose is fluid and lucid throughout and his perceptions warm and wise. A great deal of the research put into it is first-hand and intensely personal – an approach that has produced more than a few gems of insight.
Kuta’s outstanding characteristic, according to Mabbett, is that “it has grown much of its own accord, with only slight intervention from government or big business. It is a do-it-yourself resort, created by individual entrepreneurs, not by companies.” (For the uninitiated, Kuta is Bali’s de facto tourist capital, the “hip” hangout and global village that sprang up higgledy-piggledy in the late 1960s and is today one of the world’s most famous holiday destinations.)
Pride and dignity
Mabbett is convinced that “if by some weird mischance the tourists should vanish, the beach lose its surfers and bathers, the hotels and bars and restaurants crumble, the old Kuta would emerge from the ruins and carry on. There is a persistence here, and energy and pride and dignity, that the casual visitor may not perceive.”
Most visitors to Bali have little opportunity or inclination to study the sociocultural mechanisms that underlie the legendary gracefulness and self-confidence of the Balinese. Obviously, Mabbett has not spent his extended stays in Bali acquiring a tan and getting drunk on the island’s scenic offerings. Instead, he has assigned himself the mission of a quick-eyed and quick-eared anthropologist and emerged with a wealth of valuable information, especially concerning the banjar system: a unique form of local government named for “the modest buildings where members of these extraordinary organizations meet.”
The banjar, unlike its bureaucratic counterpart in other societies, emphasizes the element of human interaction within each Balinese community rather than the institutional aspects of administration. Each family appoints two members (“usually husband and wife”)) to the district council, which arrives at decisions by consensus.
When a couple marry or on the birth of their first child, they are considered banjar members, superseding their parents – which “means that membership is mainly youthful and that rule by geriatrics is avoided.”
Change is kept under control by the spirit of community and a sense of organic continuity generated by banjar suka-duka rituals – cooperative participation in events of pleasure and sorrow – be they weddings or funerals, births or cremations, harvest time or the curbing of crime.
So effective has the banjar system proved, Mabbett declares that it is “as vital as it ever was – and certainly larger (in Kuta).”
Kuta’s incomparable, cosmopolitan appeal (along with a few popular misconceptions) are entertainingly discussed in chapters devoted to:
SURFING: “Virtually all writing about surfing in Bali falls over itself in praise of the waves.”
THE DRUG SCENE: “The most dangerous delusion any visitor to Bali can entertain is that Kuta is still… a place where anything goes. If a visitor thinks and acts like that, all that goes is the visitor to jail, and not just for thirty days.”
THE NOT-SO-UGLY AUSTRALIAN: “During weeks in Kuta, speaking to scores of people, I found not a single Balinese who voiced any antipathy towards Australians. A typical comment was that some drank too much and acted stupidly, but most were good people.”
And, of course, Mabbett offers amusing anecdotes about Kuta’s hedonistic titillations: from Wet T-Shirt competitions at the Bali Waltzing Matilda to the beautiful Balinese beachboys sought after by white women on solo sun-&-fun vacations.
Beyond this, Mabbett argues that “the Australians are actually making a useful contribution to maintaining Balinese culture. Even young Kutanese can remember hard times. The town is vastly more prosperous now, and prosperity has brought with it the means to restore banjar buildings and temples and to engage more fully in cultural and religious occasions… tourists who are in Kuta only for its beach and its bars are not likely to have much impact on the way of life. In this sense Kuta is a useful quarantine station.”
But it is in the capacity of historian that Mabbett most impresses: his accounts of Kuta’s past are brief but evocative – from the arrival of a Dutch expedition in 1897 to the introduction of surfing in 1936 by a young American, Robert Koke, who later (with his future wife Louise Garrett, whose drawings are featured in the book to great effect) founded the Kuta Beach Hotel, forerunner of today’s native-style homestays… and the beginnings of Kuta’s cult status in the 1960s as the place to be.
An interesting chapter on Mads Johansen Lange, a Danish merchant adventurer who lived in Kuta from 1839 to 1856, climaxes with the revelation that Lange’s third child was a daughter, Cecilia, delivered by his Chinese wife Ong Siang Nio; the same Cecilia Lange who went to school in Singapore where she met and married the future Sultan Abu Bakar of Johore – and became great-grandmother to Sultan Iskandar, Malaysia’s 8th Yang di-Pertuan Agong.
Protect Kuta’s spontaneity
Mads Lange apparently had far-ranging and ambitious genes: “no fewer than seventeen Langes are listed in the 1985 Singapore telephone book. ‘Miss Singapore 1986’ (Farah Lange) was a Mads Lange descendant.”
The tight-paced documentary effect that Mabbett has achieved with In Praise of Kuta makes it an exemplary work in contemporary chroniclership. Photographs abound, many in color (and hence, perhaps, the somewhat stiff pricing of the book). But as the blurb on the back cover says:
“Kuta is a fun place. Don’t wait for the video, read about it instead.”
Mabbett concludes with some very cogent advice to the forces responsible for tourism development: “What Kuta does not need is the cold and clinical hand of an overzealous town planner. A single big-city shopping complex would be a crime, and more than one would be a disaster. The paramount need is to protect Kuta’s spontaneity…”
[First published in the News Straits Times, 24 April 1987]
For a magickal glimpse of this island paradise, read KEMBALI KE BALI