Rio Helmi, 29 August 2016
A light breakfast for early morning travelers sat on the table in the Sanur home of Balinese architect Popo Danes, waiting for us before we left for the airport for the first flight to Lombok. My phone lit up with an unfamiliar Australian number, an unsettled voice at the other end, breaking up with bad reception, finally identified himself as Mark Keatinge, an old friend who has lived in Bali for many years. To be honest I can’t really tell if it was my shock or Mark’s being overwhelmed that made it seem like ages before I finally understood: Michael White, aka Made Wijaya was gone, passed away in the night in a hospital bed in Sydney. No ordinary light had just gone out, this was like a big, megawatt, redheaded spotlight suddenly going dark. No fizzle, no dimmer. Just out.
Popo and I sat stunned as we struggled to comprehend; to think of what had to be done, who had to be informed first. Mark, who had already called the hospital, was on his way there to reconfirm again – though he already knew, he clearly couldn’t believe it either. We waited to hear from him on the spot, so to speak, before making any public statement. Meanwhile we frantically dialed people who we thought should know, both on the Balinese side of his life, and the expat side.
As we waited I thought about the uncanny, almost awful symmetry of it: Made swam ashore in the 70s from a beached yacht in Benoa. Both he and Mark had been stranded on that boat. Though they took different paths, both of them ended up staying in Bali for the greater part of the ensuing decades. I knew them both for most of those decades. Now Mark was confirming from St Vincent’s in Sydney, where their story had started all those yeas ago. It was time to make it public, and no faster way than Facebook. Here was another a bit of irony – Made had used the medium relentlessly for both serious posts and outrageous socialite ones. He was the consummate social media publisher, whose death was now creating a huge flurry on Facebook.
When Made came ashore 43 years ago he found himself a home amongst the Brahmins of Kepaon in Denpasar. They were to become his family in a greater sense than practically any other expat had ever experienced. Made loved to use the term ‘liege lord’ when he talked about the Griya (Brahmin household) Kepaon. In his world that category was to expand to include the Pemecutan palace. I used to chide him for his feudal aspirations, in return he would retort “you’re such a Bolshie (Australian for Bolshevik)”.
We had plenty of time to cooperate and to bicker. Overwhelmed with the job as editor of the then English language Sunday Bali Post with a staff of one and a half bored journalists who barely spoke English, in 1979 I offered Made the job of columnist and correspondent. Editor, columnist, etc – these were just fancy terms for a lot of frantic coverage; pounding dodgy typewriters; sub standard, short-cut darkroom processing; coaxing the non-English speaking typesetters through endless corrections; then off to the repro room to get the plates done.
Made’s column, Stranger in Paradise, started getting traction. True to form, it also started getting somewhat outrageous. We would squabble over content and design. “I studied architecture” he would say “I know about design”. I never studied anything properly so he had me there, but as editor I felt it was my job to exercise authority even if I was out of my depth – “and anyway what did architecture have to with graphic design?” I thought. He would see through that ploy and challenge me. Then he would acquiesce, but later sneak back into the reproduction room and bribe the boys to change the films before they made the plates. Meanwhile I’d be on the way home thinking I’d put the paper to bed, while in reality it had gone out moonlighting in Made land. In the morning I’d be furious, but part of me knew there was real genius in the making. Besides there was no way I could fire him without shooting myself in the foot. While it lasted, the Sunday Bali Post was quite the two-man caper, but Stranger in Paradise went on to have its own life.
At the heart of it was Made’s ever deepening understanding and total immersion into Bali. His wasn’t an academic, scholarly approach. Made plunged headfirst into it. He was interested in doing as much as he was in observing. As the years passed, his talent in landscaping took him to many places in the world, and to the gardens of the rich and famous. But wherever he went, whether a glam job on the Carribean island home of David Bowie, or even the freebie landscaping he did for Melanie Morrison’s suburban plot, it was always Balinese at heart. And it always had that special Wijaya flair.
Complex would be the simple way of describing Made. Here was an ex-tennis coach to the well-heeled foreigners in Bali who were probably as dazzled (or perhaps dazed) by his fanciful flair as his serve; an international socialite who was at the same time a born again Balinese; an absolutely outrageous social media queen with a cross dressing (well maybe cross-undressing) alter-ego. He was a staunch battler for the preservation of vibrant Balinese culture with an autodidactic, encyclopedic knowledge of the island that rivaled that of many Balinese. He produced video after video that showed most viewers a Bali they had never known, and perhaps never would.
He was both the completely plugged in cosmopolitan Australian and the deeply devoted Balinese ceremony groupie. And he had a great eye. It showed in his photography, it showed in his design, it showed in his art collection, it even showed in his eccentric way of dressing. In Balinese attire he could really let loose in public and get away with it – a larger than life guy, wearing flamboyant combinations of sarongs, overcloths, headdresses… and carrying a handbag.
Like a true Balinese, nothing escaped his attention. But unlike most Balinese he was quick to express his opinion, he was recklessly fearless. His brutal honesty and acid tongue cost him a number of clients, but he just moved on. His spats were legendary. Over the years we sparred lightly once or twice, but I knew that no matter what he thought of me at the time he would be someone I could go to in a time of need. There was a generosity and kindness in him that was always ready for the underdog.
As the news spread many expressed their sadness. Some who were close to him cried when they were told. But perhaps the most telling tributes came from a couple of people who had terrible falling-outs with him, one of whom said to me: “I want you to know that while (as you will also know) he and I had our differences, a couple of them regrettably public at his hand, that I am very saddened at his passing.”. It says something about a person when even his foes are sincere in paying their respects.
You’ve taken an era with you Made. We’re missing you already.
top photo copyright Rio Helmi
For a more traditional obit please see this