By Tjoa Shze Hui
1. Seminyak Square
October comes to Bali, drenching it in sweat. The air hangs thick and still. The whole island seems to be holding its breath and waiting for the atmosphere to dip for the pendulum swing of the first monsoon rains.
The minivan driver has brought me to Seminyak Square one of the busiest stretches on Bali's south coast in search of a bookstore. You want books for tourists? he asks, weaving around the knots in traffic.
No no, I say, self-conscious. I switch languages: Sebenarnya Pak, I'm looking for books to improve my Bahasa.
Ya betul, he responds, switching languages too. Like I said, for tourists.
He drops me off by an air-conditioned boutique. Inside, the shelves are stocked with Lonely Planet guidebooks, dual-language dictionaries in bright and earnest colours. Coffee-table books line the display windows, their covers adorned with the usual themes: beaches and thatched roofs, dancing women.
The minivan will only be back in 20 minutes, so I pick out a dictionary and wander outside. In the open-air carpark, a band seems to be setting up to busk: a keyboardist, a guitarist and a singer. Another person sits splay-legged across a cajon, shuffling handfuls of nasi campur from a banana leaf into his mouth.
The taxis and shoppers idle around them: three men and a girl in sticky denim jackets. It's exceptionally humid today. But the jackets stay on regardless, a credential that insists on surfacing in spite of bad weather and other slights of circumstance.
When the band is ready, the girl begins to sing. The piece is 'Empire State of Mind', Alicia Keys' ode to New York City from several years ago. It's popular here in Bali's tourist district like so many other lapsed cultural icons caramel frappuccinos or harem pants.
The singer's diction is carefully studied, a syllabic mirror of Alicia Keys'. Her amp is rusty. She's wearing a T-shirt whose sequins spell out the pseudo-English phrase, 'Princess Me'. Has she ever set eyes on New York City, the place that she's singing about?
Some of the other tourists have stopped as well, forming a crowd of listeners around the band. There's an emotion in the girl's voice that makes it difficult for us to look away wrenching the song apart with all the tautness and precarity of an open mousetrap. She seems to have picked out some undertone in the ballad and swelled it full of force; there's something wild in her voice, straining against the confines of verse and chorus.
A feeling leaps into being around us, hot and strong and brash. And then the song ends; the tourists clap. People reach for their wallets and shake their heads slowly, as if coming out of a daze.
I know what this is I tell myself this anger in her voice.
What were they expecting?
Being half-Indonesian, I hear many stories about Bali before visiting it for the first time. Because of this, I assume that I am privy to a secret pattern, worked deep into the grain of the island's history.
Broadly speaking, this pattern has to do with power, and the variegated way that it falls upon the people of the earth. Specifically, it has to do with the people who live in my father's home country Indonesia and their relation to everyone else.
A story, by way of explanation.
In the late 1950s, an American anthropologist named Clifford Geertz moved to Bali for fieldwork. While observing the locals, he grew curious about the cockfights that materialised every few days in the village where he lived. What he wondered drove this strange Balinese obsession with squatting in a circle, placing bets and watching armed fowls obliterate each other?
After some consideration, Geertz arrived at a version of the truth: that cockfighting is, really, a kind of theatre. A good fight can take the ordinary status concerns of a village men backing their cousins, say, or betting against old rivals and wring spectacle out of them. It can make the everyday quiver with blood, fear and animal guts wrapping it in allegory, and hoisting it up to the level of art.
During a typical match, every man in the village casts a bet. The birds scuffle briefly, and then a winner is announced. In that moment, change might seem to overtake the village: paupers revel in newfound riches, while landlords tumble from grace, ceding honour to the men whom they usually command. Glory seems to speed helter-skelter across the village hierarchy, finding its own path anointing new kings and evading new losers.
But there is a deeper similarity Geertz realised between cockfighting and the theatre. Like a black box, the cockfight is a world set apart: its dramatic fluctuations are self-contained, rarely crossing the threshold of the stage. Within each match, so much money can change hands that village hierarchies might seem to be shifting. But the truth is that these hierarchies are set in stone: in the long term, the matches are ruled by strict betting patterns, which will redistribute players' earnings. No one will ever come away from a life of cockfighting markedly richer, or poorer, than when he began.
So a man's reputation might soar, then, in tandem with his luck. But in the long run, his finances and his future are fixed; no amount of victory can alter his material status. As Geertz puts it in an essay, published several decades later: "You cannot ascend the status ladder by winning cockfights nor can you descend it that way. All you can do is enjoy and savour, or suffer and withstand, the concocted sensation of [movement] a kind of behind-the-mirror status jump, which has the look of mobility without its actuality."
This is an excellent observation. In fact, it's the kind of observation that can propel a person out of academia's dusty sidelines and into the warm spotlight of general fame. Geertz's essay was eagerly circulated across several continents. Soon, his name achieved a kind of sparkle when it was dropped into dinner-party conversation, or stationed in longform reviews amidst words of praise.
Good for Geertz, I think, when I hear this story for the first time. But what about the Balinese cockfighters? To my mind, they achieve a very different kind of renown. The intricacies of their subliminal reasoning spread far and wide, gracing many a debate in transatlantic halls of learning. But no one ever hears them speak, since Geertz didn't interview them while constructing his theories. No one, in fact, learned their names, because Geertz chose not to record them leaving them to be erased by the passage of time, while his own escaped the slush pile of history.
In one sense, then, the cockfighters do travel the world, changing the tenor of its thoughts. But I believe that I can see the deeper, truer sense of the story which is that they never leave their small village in Southeast Asia, or achieve the transcendence that is the birthright of other men.
I believe that they live and die, condemned to that old lot of the anthropological subject:
The look of mobility, without its actuality.
During the week that my family and I spend in Bali, I think about Geertz and the unnamed cockfighters a lot.
Like on our first day here, when we check into our hotel. As the minivan pulls out of the leafy driveway, waitstaff stream out to greet us in full Endek dress: fabrics in deep greens and purples, rich patterns blossoming all the way down their torsos.
They are barefoot and resplendent, resembling nothing more than envoys from a still-mighty Hindu kingdom. On their faces hang the tender, benevolent smiles of nobility. Would Ma'ams and Sirs like a drink? one of them asks. Instantly, cups of teh jahe materialise on a carved wooden tray before us, along with the keys to our rooms.
In moments like this one, it's easy to believe that we have come to a land of courtly welcomes and lavish, gallant deeds. Not to an island whose poverty rate still hangs around the 35-percent mark where, an hour away from the glitzy south coast, the villages still lack running water.
The conceit entices. And yet.
Over the next week, I watch as the hotel's staff dredge scum from swimming pools, tow suitcases and cook omelettes on demand for tourists' children. In the evenings, they squat by the hotel's back steps and smoke, fanning themselves with the faux-udeng caps that come with their uniforms.
One morning, I pass a well-dressed member of staff in the hotel lobby, bleaching what looks like vomit from its hardwood floor. In that moment, it dawns upon me that the utility of his Baju Endek increases, in proportion to the lowliness of this task. After all, a man scrubbing vomit from the floor in plain clothes may unsettle the hard-earned impression that this is an island paradise, where all are content and comfortable.
In paradise I tell myself one entertains liberally, asking nothing in return. Certainly one does not play host because one has to or because one hails from a neighbouring island with no electricity, with two children to put through school.
A paradise becomes unworthy of the name if there should appear, within it, even one luckless creature. Perhaps this explains the staff's clothes and smiles their sustained efforts to play down the appearance of discrepancy.
To create the look of mobility, without its actuality.
Over the week that we spend in Bali, Pak Arwen, the minivan driver, becomes friendly with my father. This happens because they are both Indonesian-Chinese which is to say that they share a shiver down the spine regarding certain historical dates, political figures and tribalist slurs.
At some point, when it became too difficult to be Chinese in Sumatra, each man's family gambled the present for its future. My father's fled for Singapore and Pak Arwen's for Bali. Decades later, the two men occupy different stations in life: my father plays a tuan to Pak Arwen's supir. But their shared memory of this gamble and the conditions that forced it levels the playing field a little.
Both men, being Christian-Chinese, have lived the parable about the pillar of salt. They understand the importance of moving forward, eyes fixed to the line on the horizon.
Is Pak Arwen looking forward or backward when he tells us: This is too much? He says this as we drive past a large banner, stirring in the breeze by the side of the road. The banner is bright red, with a slogan in block capitals: TOLAK REKLAMASI TELUK BENOA. Resist the reclamation of Benoa Bay.
This is one of the first non-English signs that we've seen all day, which makes me think that it's not for tourists. Or perhaps it's for a specific kind of tourist the kind that's stayed here long enough to perceive that something isn't on offer to them, and want a part in it anyway.
My father asks: What do you mean?
And Pak Arwen responds, one hand circling the steering wheel for eloquence: Nothing is good enough here. Roads, land, water
The road in front of us is marked by potholes; the banner speaks of land problems. What about water? I sprint through some figures: say there are 5,000 hotels here plus hundreds of unregistered villas, and each one has a pool
I think about the news stories that I have read, on The Jakarta Post and Al Jazeera. Impossible to describe how much of this island's water goes into making, and maintaining, glamour. Each week, scores of foreign developers reach into Bali's south coast, summoning up yoga studios and restaurants by the dozen. Trump shakes hands with Harry Tanoe and a golfer's empire materialises, sun-bleached and thirsty by the gallon.
But all this diverts water from the poorer North, where most locals live. In this land of glassy infinity pools, more than half the rivers have already run dry. Streams still criss-cross the terraced rice fields of Ubud. But deeper underground, the freshwater banks are pulling back from parched earth. Bali's farmers live the reality that its tourists cannot see at night, they sleep in their fields with one eye open for irrigation thieves.
Later, I root around online for more stories about Benoa Bay. I learn that Tommy Winata, the Indonesian billionaire, is trying to reclaim land there. He wants to coax hectares of malls, theme parks and an F1 track out of swampland. But this floating world will crush the coral reefs that protect Bali's coastline and keep the sea at bay. Eventually it will flood the island, dragging whole villages into the sea.
In a place like Bali I tell myself the supply of pleasure must always meet the demand for it. Even if it costs the future for some people; even if it means death.
After all this is paradise, where nothing ever runs out.
Let me tell you another story about Bali that I know. This one is a creation story, concerning the beginnings of paradise.
Imagine that the year is 1906. Bali is an island divided. Dutch forces have occupied the northern territories, leaving three Hindu kingdoms where once there were six. Today, they begin the march south to complete their reign, winding downwards from Tabanan to Badung to the offshore court of Klungkung.
This story is an old one, whose basic tenets are familiar to many people around the world. At heart, it is a story about mismatched means and ends: guns versus kris, ambition versus ancestral claims.
The Dutch troops begin their journey. Quickly, they pass through the city of Kesiman to reach their first stop, Denpasar. At first, the city streets seem too quiet: where is the resistance that they come ready to meet? But as the soldiers advance, they hear something stirring in the distance, from the direction of Denpasar palace: the faint but unmistakable pulse of drums.
And so they go on. As they near the palace, a procession of silent figures files out from its gates. From a distance, they spy the Raja on his palanquin surrounded by courtiers and priests, wives and guards, and children and servants. There are hundreds of people now, robed in white with dusty feet. Flowers laced into their hair.
Both parties, the Dutch and the Balinese, advance. Now there are 200 paces between them; now, 100. The gap between two worlds is narrowing. Then it closes for the century to come, and possibly forever: a puputan commences. The Raja steps down from his palanquin and gives a signal. Instantly someone lunges forward and knifes him in the chest. Motion erupts across the landscape as men force weapons into their children, then stab themselves. Women fling jewels into the air and then topple, wailing, onto their knives.
Dark liquid starts to fill the ground. A metallic scent rises. But Balinese people keep emerging from the palace in a slow, unstoppable stream. When they're within sight of the Dutch troops, they plunge forward onto their daggers, then collapse into the growing snarl of limbs.
Their bodies cover the ground, both protest and decree.
By this point the Dutch soldiers have opened fire, then ceased fire, then opened fire again. They don't know what to do. Several centuries of colonial rule have left them untrained for situations involving consent and this seems like more than consent, seems close to an invitation. Eventually, they resort to doing what they know best which is to seize what isn't on offer, looting the corpses for anything that gleams through the sticky mess of fluids.
There will be two more puputans before Bali falls completely, both of them photographed. Eventually, these pictures will cause a kind of moral backlash in Europe, with the thumping of Bibles and pontifical braying. Desperate to hold on to their empire, the Dutch will announce a new resolution: from now on, they will protect Balinese culture and not gun it down. In fact, they resolve to protect Balinese culture so soundly that it never changes from its present state or experiences the advancements of modern life.
Let the world move slowly here, their edicts declare. Progress is not for the pure of heart. Which is what the Balinese people are, presumably puputans notwithstanding.
For decades to come, Dutch laws will force the Balinese people to wear Baju Endek and not linen pants to converse in local dialects and not Malay, the regional code of rebellion. All over the island, atap roofs will sprout over modern innovations in galvanised iron. Whole dances will be invented for the Balinese people to perfect, then unleash upon large groups of tourists.
Soon, these tourists will be everywhere, scouring the island with their notepads at the ready fresh from the war in Europe, and hungry for visions of innocence. Look at this place, they'll say, pointing at random to rice fields and bare-chested women. What authentic culture; what happy natives! So simple and contented with their lot.
They'll forget about the puputans, the cold carpet of bodies.
Bali becomes a paradise on earth.
As a half-Indonesian person, I grew up believing in the unusual complexity of my relationship to Indonesia.
In two and a half decades, I only visited my father's country of origin twice. Each time, however, I felt myself entering a dream world whose colours and shapes were dimly familiar breathy and warm in my mind, as if from some earlier moment of contact. To be part-Indonesian I imagine is to be able to intuit the names of spices and fruits, varieties of rain. It is to recognise whole landscapes from the stories that my father used to tell us as children mountains and rivers, jungles lit by tigers' eyes.
And so, when I come to Bali for a holiday with my family, I start off believing that I am not like the other tourists. I have, after all, heard too many stories; I am not here in search of paradise. I understand that there are no primitives here only people like the ones who sit on my grandmother's porch in Singapore, reciting share prices and exhaling kretek smoke late into the night. These are the Indonesians whom I grew up with: no simple natives, but pragmatic citizens with the usual schemes and complex, calculating desires.
I assume that this knowledge will protect me while I travel through Bali, maybe even endear me to people. Instead, I find myself needed yet disliked parsing the coolness that comes into people's eyes as I bargain with them in markets, or queue in their five-foot shops for breakfast. Always, that familiar sense that someone wants to serve but not speak to me; that they are anxious for the cash register to ring, so that they can turn away from the counter and retract their smile.
But I am not like the others, I want to protest, whenever this happens. The anthropologists and tourists might believe this is paradise, where everyone is enveloped in bliss. But I am like you; I know all your stories.
I know how you really are.
A whole week passes this way. And then finally, on the flight home, I open the short read stashed in my rucksack. A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid. Here is the passage that springs to sight, too late for my purposes:
At this point, I have to stop reading. A memory is hovering over these sentences: Pak Arwen's challenge to me on the first day we met, made so simply as to disavow or disguise its contempt.
You want books for tourists?
Ya, Bahasa books. Books for tourists.
I see, now, what he had been doing: putting me in my place. That, or offering a kind of generous clue some early indication of how I would be read here, regardless of the language that I spoke or the blood that ran, involuntary, through my veins.
People like you learn Bahasa for fun, he seemed to say. But people like me speak it from necessity.
We are not alike.
And suddenly, I find that I am remembering other scenes from that day in Seminyak Square. Like the girl outside the bookshop, singing about New York City. I think about the arched contours of her voice. The vast and moving expanse of its emotions, which I took at the time for anger.
Of course she is unhappy, I told myself then, mentally rehearsing the stories that I knew about Bali. Geertz and the cockfighters; the string of puputans. The farmers lying in their fields after sundown, feeling the earth dry out beneath them.
In the singer's voice, I thought that I could hear what the anthropologists wouldn't admit: that history had wronged this island, scoring its people with a narrative of hurt. But the truth is that I have no idea what I heard that day, lunging up within the girl and brimming over the edge of her.
I don't know if she was unhappy or what she wanted. If she wanted anything at all. In all the ways that counted, I was an outsider to her incapable of reading her feelings.
I shut the book in my lap. With my eyes closed, I see myself again as I was, on that sweltering afternoon in Seminyak Square. Standing in the crowd with the other tourists, holding my Bahasa dictionary. Swaying slightly to the music. Watching three men and girl whose futures were fixed tied to this island and its difficult fate.
All the while knowing, deep down inside, that mine was the ability to leave this place. To turn it into paradise and then quit, guileless, when the pleasure ran dry.
Both the appearance of mobility, as well as its actuality.
I was not like these people. I didn't know them at all.QLRS Vol. 18 No. 3 Jul 2019