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Expat Chic: A Commentary the Times

The expatriates who lived in Ubud during the 1930s were a handful of patrician, serious minded people - composers, painters and scholars - whose work helped reveal to the world the beauty and complexity of Balinese culture. The expatriate residents of today are a swarm of hedonists and businessmen restaurateurs, jewelers and film-makers rather more into marketing the culture than in understanding it. Nonetheless, standards of cultural chic set over 50 years ago are still being maintained.

Expatriate chic in Ubud began with people like Jane Belo - the American anthropologist and observer of ritual trance - and Walter Spies, the German painter, musician and dilettante par excellence. Spies' charm was legendary, and anyone of any importance who came to Bali in the 1930s came to visit him. His lifestyle was irresistibly chic.

Cokorda Agung Sukawati, Ubud's ruling prince, granted Spies permission to build' a house in Campuan. His double-story villa with outbuildings and swimming pool later became the Tjampuhan Hotel, and must have been wonderful fifty years ago. Spies had many Balinese dancer and musician friends and could command astonishing performances to entertain his guests. He and painter Rudolf Bonnet worked closely with local artists and helped them sell their paintings to visitor Above all, Spies had an impressive knowledge of the culture and geography of Bali, as well as the affection of the local people he thus made the perfect tour guide.

Spies' example attracted other Europeans to Bali to paint, to compose and to study. Ubud soon became an outpost of artistic and intellectual activity - as well as a glamorous stop on the luxury liner circuit. Cokorda Agung Sukawati was a cosmopolitan man who enjoyed foreign guests and made them welcome in the palace, setting an irreversible precedent for tourism in Ubud.

By the time of the Cokorda's death in 1978, Bali had opened its curly gates to the budget travelers of the world. Young Australians by the thousands helped to make Kuta what it is - whatever it is - today; and a new generation of Kuta expatriates fluttered down to settle around Ubud. They built themselves little bamboo huts out in the rice field (or next to the cemetery or wherever else the. Balinese wouldn't dream of living) and furnished them with batik curtains, little cushions and wobbly bamboo furniture.

These expats of the 1970s were back-to-earth mystics who wanted nothing more than to become Balinese. They strove to dance like the Balinese, play the gamelan like the Balinese, speak Balinese like the Balinese, even get sick like the Balinese (fashionable illnesses were supposed to be caused by black magic). They didn't really try to paint like the Balinese, but they understood, like Spies, that the painting was charming, and marketable.

Who were these new expatriates? Some were artists and scholars. Others were would-be artists and drop-out scholars. The physically and mentally ill also found a haven here: poet-inebriates; convalescents of disease and divorce; the freshly-bereaved or newly-fired - all sorts of people at odds with their fate came to Ubud for a tropical-pastoral lullaby, and many found new vocations.

Some became amateur anthropologists in the emerging field of "Baliology." (Say you are an amateur anthropologist and you get a grant to write a thesis on "Patterns of Courtship in Central Bali" - all you have to do is have lots of dates with Balinese of the sex of your preference and keep a diary. If you can't get dates, you can make a list of a lot of impertinent questions and pay a student to go around the neighborhood collecting the answers. This leaves you plenty of time to set up house, meet friends for lunch at the Cafe Lotus, and research courtship patterns in Candi Dasa.)

Aspiring designer-entrepreneurs also find Bali a creative paradise. It's so easy to realize an idea here. (Say you're suddenly inspired to create a gigantic lily made entirely of wood. All you have to do is roll over and order someone to summon a woodcarver, then tell him, as best you can, that if he can make you a gigantic lily by tomorrow you'll give him a whole dollar. After that it's only a matter of charming the teeth off some millionaire's wife and getting her to order seven hundred of them for her ballroom. 'Men you close the deal by whispering to her confidentially, "Let's make that prepaid, shall we? You know they're all saving up for their cremations, and it all goes to the gods anyway.")

Meanwhile the Balinese of Ubud themselves were busy imitating Walter Spies putting on dance performances and selling paintings to tourists, guiding them around on tours of Bali's beauty spots, dressing them up for the temple and explaining the culture, and basically luring the world to Ubud.

The new expatriates resented this invasion of their world, but (like the Balinese) saw the economic potential in it. By the 1980s the boom was on. Expats upgraded their houses from lumbung (rice granaries) to wantilan (public halls); and furnishings were the big bamboo sofas and elephantine cushions by Linda Garland. Meanwhile, the Balinese were busily upgrading their houses to look like western tract houses.

Cultural exchanges between East and West continue in Ubud. In the 1930s, composers and choreographers devised systems of notation for gamelan and dance. They commissioned new gamelan sets, collaborated in new dance forms and made documentary films of ritual dances that have now flown away with the leyaks. Expatriate scholars excavated ancient burial grounds and speculated about prehistory. They solicited funds for the restoration of monuments, transcribed classical texts, accumulated archives and founded libraries and museums.

Modern expatriates also make documentaries, study music and dance, and augment their archives. They also teach their Balinese friends (or partners) to make pasta and sorbet and martinis; and help them to develop new skills like silk-screening and shipping.

Whether Ubud is still a center of artistic and intellectual activity is less the issue than whether it can once again become a glamorous stop on the R&R circuit. It would be wrong to deplore the new materialism; Bali turns out to be part of the real world after all. One can only hope that the cultural entrepreneurs will become as epicurean as the cultural sponsors of the '30s were learned.

The recently opened Amandari Hotel just outside of Ubud sets new standards worth studying - its sublime architecture is an indictment of the execrable architecture o other hotels nearly as expensive, and its management philosophy defines high new standards of service.

Development in Ubud is the right of its citizens; but Ubud is no longer the same product it was ten years ago. Funky accommodations and indecisive food are no longer so forgivable, and simply raising the price will not achieve glamor - it may take some artistic and intellectual activity to do that.

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