FROM BALI TO THAILAND
(Friendship with the Painter)
I have to admit, as I mentioned before, I was a bit disappointed. I found not an eccentric South Sea island painter with a mad look in his eye, but on the contrary a very sober looking gentleman in his mid-fifties. He was dean-shaven and wore knee-length shorts and a bright batik shirt. Except for the strong Shan cheroot he was smoking he could easily have passed for a Swiss banker on holiday. He was very polite, and spoke in a distinctive German accent, and immediately signaled for servant girls to bring us drinks.
That began my friendship with Theo Meier.
At that first introduction Theo and I discovered we had something very much in common-we had both lived in Tahiti. Although Theo lived there some years before me, there were still a few people left whom we both knew. There were the McCullens from Moorea, the shopkeeper Bob McKitteridge from Nuka Hiva and many others. Unfortunately, Nordoff and Hall of the Bounty fame had both passed away but Quinn’s Tahitian Hut on the Papeete waterfront was still stacking them in on boat days. We loved swapping tales about Tahiti and the islands. Theo also delighted in showing me his photographs he had taken in the islands. He was a marvelous and gifted photographer. “Why shouldn’t I be,” he laughed, lighting up a cheroot. “With Henri Cartier-Bresson my teacher, why not?”
- Photo caption on page 211 of the book: Here we see Willy photographing a Thai Airways hostess. He was proud of his part time position with the airlines.
Whenever I arrived for a visit in Chiang Mai the routine was always the same. Theo welcomed me and before anything he would lead me to his studio, show me his latest work, generally a dozen or so canvasses, some mural size, and we would then go to the verandah and slump down into comfortable cane chairs with Mekongs and sodas and we would start again about the McCullens and the McKitteridges. We would sit and discuss people we knew and talk about the old times in the islands. We were like two old women gossiping with small talk no one else could understand, but it was the breath of life to Theo. We were frightfully boring to anyone but ourselves. And poor Yattlie, I do believe she dreaded seeing me arrive, although her reception was always very warm.
I learned more about Theo’s early years from old photographs he kept than from our conversations. He had literally hundreds upon hundreds of them, stuffed in envelopes and cardboard boxes which he kept tucked away in drawers and on shelves in his studio.
Willy sometimes came up to Chiang Mai with me. He had become a part time photographer for Thai Airways, and you can be sure he told everyone. He now had status.
Willy loved rummaging through Theo’s photographs but he was very discrete about it. I wondered about this behaviour and then let it pass. Willy was always up to something and often what he said went in one ear and out the other. But this was one time I should have paid attention. The photographs and Theo and my talk about Bali began to have an effect on Willy. Still, I didn’t get the connection with Willy and Theo’s photographs. The next thing Willy ran off to Bali and I hadn’t heard from him for a while. What trouble was he up to now?
Indeed, the photographs and our talk about Bali had so intrigued Willy that he went to the island to see for himself what it was all about. Before long he was making frequent trips to Bali, and then one day when I was in my office at Bangkok World I received a message from Willy in Denpasar. He was getting married to a Balinese dancer and invited me to the wedding. He insisted that I attend. Was this another of Willy’s antics?
“It will be an official Balinese wedding ceremony,” he said. “You don’t want to miss it.”
Willy was right. A traditional Balinese wedding could be interesting. I booked a flight but when I arrived I was running late. I had almost missed the ceremony.
“Never mind, “Willy said.” It’s not over.”
I had to look twice at Willy when I laid eyes on him. It took all I could do to suppress laughing. He was dressed in his Balinese wedding costume. He even had a kris dagger with its curved blade tucked into his waistband. “Come see, we are having the tooth filing ceremony,” he added.
I followed him to a shaded pavilion. A priest stood over Willy’s wife-to-be. She was laid back on a silk-covered mattress so that her head fell back over the edge. I could not see her face.
Placed on a low table next to the priest was an earthen pot from which protruded a couple of large mechanic’s files such as you might find in a motor workshop. One could only look on with horror for what was about to happen.
After intoning a brief prayer, the priest took one of the files and began to grind away at the girl’s upper teeth. A chorus of women chanters sang a monotonous dirge. “She can take it,” Willy said and I wondered what he would do when it was his turn.
“If she can take it, why the tears?” I asked. Before Willy could reply, the girl sat up. I did a double take. I couldn’t believe it. I recognized her from the paintings Theo had made of her. The girl was Rubic, Rubic from Bedulu.
“Rubic,” I exclaimed. “It’s Rubic.”
“Right, now you can meet her,” Willy said.
I didn’t want to meet her. I didn’t’ want to believe it was her. I knew instantly that Theo did not know that she and Willy were getting married. And I was right. Theo didn’t know.
“How did it happen?” I asked Willy. “How did you meet her?”
Willy explained and I wished he hadn’t. It was best I didn’t know. It was a real slap in the face with Theo, and all the while Willy thought it was rather clever on his part. Once he started bragging he couldn’t stop talking. He had been up to his old tricks.
When we were rummaging through Theo’s photographs at his house in Wat Dorn, Willy had seen Rubic’s picture with her name written on the back. He stuck the photograph into his pocket and went to Bali and looked her up. That wasn’t too difficult. Everyone in Bali knew her. Willy lied to her and her family and said Theo had sent him. He was accepted. And why not? Willy came with Theo’s endorsement. When he asked for Rubic’s hand in marriage, they agreed.
- Photo caption on page 214 of the book: Rubic, right, and I seen here chatting just after her marriage to Willy Mettler. It was a traditional Balinese wedding, tooth filing and all. Willy participated but wanted to take pictures at the same time. Theo knew nothing about the marriage.
Theo would, of course, have voiced a different story. I was glad that I wasn’t present in Chiang Mai when Willy took Rubic there for a visit. I never fully got to know what happened, and Rubic never explained it, but Theo received them both with best wishes.
As a travel writer for Bangkok World I had to travel a great deal of the time, and whenever I was away for a while, I enjoyed taking the train up to Chiang Mai to spend time with Theo. As the years passed Theo began to settle quite comfortably in Chiang Mai. He even planned to build a traditional Thai teak house on the Ping River. I knew he missed Bali, but he also realized he was fortunate to have left the island when he did. Bali was witnessing its worst time of troubles in its long turbulent history. In fact one of the biggest massacres in history took place in Indonesia in the years 1965 and 1966, the years Theo began building his Thai house. The record shows that around half a million people were killed in the suppression of the Communist Party of Indonesia, the party of which Sukarno was leader. Bali was not immune, The Balinese felt that their whole culture and religion were threatened and they responded in the worst possible way to save their whole way of life. The peaceful Balinese turned ruthless killers.
When the news filtered out to Theo he fell into great sorrow. The failed coup against Sukarno released all sorts of pent-up communal hatreds, many of which were fanned by the army who quickly blamed the communists. While Theo was planning his new house in 1965, the massacres began in the weeks following the coup attempt, and they reached their peak over the remainder of the year before subsiding in the early months of 1966. They started in the capital, Jakarta, spread to Central and East Java, and later Bali. Thousands of local vigilantes and army units killed not only communists but also suspected communists as well. Often the label communist was used to include anyone who wasn’t in sympathy with the National Party. Local Chinese suffered the most and thousands were killed. Their shops and properties were looted and burned, resulting in anti-Chinese racism on the excuse that the Chinese were affiliated with China.
On Christian islands the clergy and teachers suffered at the hands of Muslim youth. Bali saw conflict between supporters of the traditional caste system, and those rejecting these traditional values. Communists, which meant nearly all Chinese shopkeepers, were publicly accused of working towards the destruction of the island’s culture, religion and character.
Methods of killing included shooting and beheading with Japanese-style Samurai swords. The killings left whole sections of villages empty, and the houses of victims or the interned were looted and often handed over to the military. Sadly, Theo learned that many of his high-cast friends had died.
Between December 1965 and early 1966, an estimated 80,000 Balinese were killed, or roughly five percent of the island’s population at the time. Some of Theo’s friends put the figure much higher.
Arrests and imprisonment continued for years after the purge. Theo feared returning for even a short visit. Those not killed or imprisoned went into hiding while others tried to hide their past. Those arrested included leading politicians, artists and writers, many of whom were Theo’s friends.
Theo’s thoughts turned to Europe years ago. Helga had written telling him that Nolde’s paintings had been confiscated from the museums, and that his works were labeled “Degenerate Art” by Hitler. Theo’s world was falling apart. Was there no place where he could go and find freedom?
Theo knew, deep inside, he had fled Indonesia just in time. He was relieved to learn that his daughters were safe. It would be some time before he would see them again.