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Aussie men find eastern brides amid the patriarchal culture of Bali

IN 1998, as the riots that ­toppled dictator Suharto raged through Indonesia, ­Stuart Smith was holidaying on Bali. 

Strolling through Seminyak, the Melbourne man stopped at a gift shop where a girl called Made was working, earning money to send home to her family in a poor east Bali village. He was instantly besotted. She was 17, he was 37. “She was drop-dead gorgeous, the classical, old-school Balinese beauty. I made quite a few stops at that shop,” Smith, now 54, recalls. But she wouldn’t go out with him. When the property developer later moved to Bali to pursue business opportunities and for the lifestyle, he asked her again. Two years after they first met, Made finally consented to have dinner with him. 

On the first date, three of Made’s brothers turned up as chaperones and Smith was under strict instructions to have her home by 8.30pm. Thereafter it was a slow courtship, with some hiccups. When he invited her to his house, “she wouldn’t come in because I didn’t have a [Hindu] temple. I said, ‘All right, can you organise one for me?’ Which she did.” Fifteen years later, the temple still adjoins what is now their marital home. Smith is uncommitted to a faith; nevertheless, he embraces Balinese Hindu values and believes they have imbued their sons Shelby, 10, and Jet, 11, with a deep sense of morality. 

Made’s journey into western culture, including periods in Australia and extensive travel, has been a “steep learning curve”. She has felt the envy of other Indonesian women eyeing her ­lifestyle, her husband and her home. “It’s not an easy life, with all the differences,” Made, now 34, confides. Yet over time “we have become so much more understanding towards each other. Stuart has been here so long, speaks my language fluently and more importantly understands and respects the way of the Balinese. Our children have benefited from a cross culture [influence] and better schooling. They’re far more Australian than Balinese, which is fine with me.” 

Australians flock to Bali for many reasons and our love affair with the island has resulted in love affairs of the romantic kind. Some ­Australian men seem drawn irresistibly not only to local women but also to the country’s patriarchal ­sensibilities. If there’s a corner of the Earth where men can still be king, it’s here. 


Smith expands on the beguiling world that Western men enter when they come to Bali: “You have to understand the dynamics of an Indonesian or Balinese relationship. The men are the power. Women are totally subservient. The boys are born into that egotistical world. I see it a lot. It was really prevalent when I went to Made’s village all those years ago.” 

While his marriage has stood the test of time, he knows of scores that have unravelled not just because of infidelity but also because men have underestimated the effect of cultural and religious differences, of ethical, familial and financial expectations, and even the widespread belief in sorcery. On a practical level, divorce can be particularly harsh for foreigners: Indonesian law forbids them to buy property; a local partner is often the only one named on deeds. 

Melbourne landscape gardener Warren, 63, says he is living in penury in the wake of his failed marriage to an Indonesian woman. When they met in Sulawesi in 2006, he was on an adventure to see traditional pinisi yachts and perhaps plan a sailing trip. Instead he became entranced with a nurse 10 years his ­junior – despite having a girlfriend in Australia – and within five months the couple had married in Melbourne, returning to Sulawesi for a ­traditional Muslim wedding. Two years later they moved to Australia after Warren’s wife was granted a spouse visa. In Melbourne, she worked in aged care. “For the first year, things were OK,” he says. “But the relationship deteriorated and one day she walked out, taking all our savings and the title to a beautiful piece of land in Sulawesi – in her name, but paid for by me. I was left with nothing but a broken heart and no finances.” 

Despite the risks, the attraction of Indonesian women remains, heightened by a view among some that Western women are overbearing. “I know many expats here who say ‘never again’ with a Western woman,” says Victorian expat Dean Keddell, 44, part owner and chef at a ­restaurant in upmarket Oberoi. “It’s because of the independence, the nagging – they’re high maintenance. It’s much easier with an Asian girl, if you can find an honest one.” He’s happily ­settled in Kerobokan with his Indonesian wife Baya, 35, and two-year-old son Jackson. 

After numerous relationships in Australia, Smith was of a similar mind. “I was always with really domineering women,” he says. “I don’t think it was ever going to work for me.” 

Adam*, a long-time expat in his 60s, says: “Western women are ball-breakers; older guys start losing their self-esteem. Here they regain it, with Asian women, generally. The men feel wanted, attractive, happier. They’re vital again. When a 50-something man meets a 25- to 30-year-old Asian girl, he finds the fountain of youth. Asian women treat men like men. You might call them subservient, but I don’t go for that. They’re looking for a guy who has substance. They want to be taken care of; the man provides.” This is the unspoken contract: that men will support their wives and their families. 

Kiwi expat Ross Franklin, 66, has married two Indonesian women. With his second wife, Ardriani, 38, he has a seven-year-old daughter, Alexi. “In cross-racial and ethnic marriages you’re diving more into the unknown but there is fascination for that,” says Franklin, an architect. “It’s more exciting, it’s crossing a border.” 

Psychologist Fiona Paton, who counselled couples in cross-cultural marriages in Bali for five years until 2011, believes the partnerships work better for a Western man and Indonesian woman than vice versa. “Maybe because the former conforms to more traditional gender role stereotypes that work for both partners,” she says. But she argues it’s too easy to peg female stereotypes as subservient and to assert that ­cultural mores are to blame for problems. If a couple enters a long-term relationship, she says, the main challenges are similar to those faced universally. But, she concedes, “the more differences there are between the couple in terms of culture, education, upbringing, expectations about gender roles [and] communication styles, the more of a challenge it is.” 

Paton points out that polygamy and prostitution are widespread in Indonesia, where men enjoy more legal rights and higher socio-economic status. “Women who are not financially independent may sometimes tolerate male infidelity if the alternative of losing their home and children is too hard.” 

The Australian consulate in Bali estimates there are 12,000 Australians living on the island on various visas. They include fly-in fly-out (FIFO) workers, thought to number in the hundreds, and those employed at mines throughout the archipelago, where they live for up to three months at a time. There is also a growing colony of retirees who call Bali home under a retirement visa available to Australians aged 55 or older. 

Robyn* is married to a Victorian FIFO worker employed in Kalimantan and they have two young daughters. She has witnessed the double lives that numerous Australian FIFO workers lead, which cause barely a ripple in Indonesia. She describes a “sliding doors” ­phenomenon as men move seamlessly between families in Indonesia and Australia, unbeknown to the Australian family. 

Robyn is the product of such a marriage, the daughter of a West Timorese mother and an American father who also had two sons with a woman from Bougainville, PNG, where he ran a cattle station. The difference is Robyn’s mother left when she was a baby, taking her from West Timor to live in Darwin. Robyn has never tried to contact her father. 

Robyn and her children were living in ­Darwin when her husband confessed to a one-night stand with an Indonesian woman. “It was a honey trap. The girl had got his mobile number and the family was threatening him, saying: ‘You’ve defiled her so are you going to marry her?’ They knew he was married with two kids.” 

Robyn told them to back off. She has moved to Bali with the children to protect her marriage and her husband has changed his ­roster from six weeks on to three weeks. “If I’d continued to live in Australia and my husband was in Indonesia for six weeks at a time there was no way he would not get involved in a relationship. And I make a conscious effort to visit the workplace so the women know he’s married with children.” 

At a recent barbecue in Seminyak, Robyn was charmed by the children of another FIFO worker and asked him if he had others. “He said, ‘No, these are from my Indonesian wife’.” His “first” wife and adult children were in ­Australia. “As far as the Australian wife is concerned they’re working on a remote mine site, but when you go there, there are villages within cities. It’s so easy at the end of a 12-hour shift to go home to an Indonesian family. 

“When the husband goes back to Australia the Indonesian wife doesn’t question it, because she’s being financially supported. The men don’t see anything morally wrong with it. They lose all sight of normality. Once they get on the plane they move from one life to another. They know the two worlds won’t collide and if the ­Indonesian wife doesn’t speak much English it’s better because she won’t connect with the Australian family.” 

Among a group of Australian early retiree expats in Bali it’s a similar principle. Robyn observes the power imbalance between the men and their local women, likening the phenomenon to personal fiefdoms. “The expat community in Bali is very much how Darwin used to be in the ’70s and ’80s: the men were men and the women were just there. It’s a time warp.” 

At the end of a laneway in Sanur, the budget Bali Senia Hotel is a convivial hub, a home away from home for scores of Australian FIFO workers and retirees. “The government should give me a grant,” jokes co-owner and Victorian expat Peter Pearson. Perched on bar stools and with a steady diet of TV football, pool and beer, men forge solid friendships. Young ­Indonesian women gravitate here, seeking a ticket out of poverty. The retirees, men in their 60s and 70s, are “in heaven”, Pearson says. “They have families down there [in Australia] but they don’t see them much.” 

Pearson has hosted six weddings at the Senia. None of the marriages has survived. One bride was visibly pregnant. Her ex-boyfriend was the best man and the groom had had a vasectomy. Pleased as punch, the groom deadpanned on his wedding day: “It’s a miracle, isn’t it?” Pearson says: “A lot of these girls have ­Indonesian ­husbands or boyfriends.”

Although many romances fail, he also knows plenty that work, his own included. Pearson, 55, was never involved in a long-term relationship in Australia. He and his wife Deni, 29, met in Lombok and married in her village on the island of Sumbawa eight years ago. A former Bahasa Indonesia teacher in Uluru and ­Lombok, Pearson’s fluency demolished the ­language barrier on which many mixed couples founder. Their son, Ray, eight, is bilingual. 

As Pearson and I chat in the hotel, smiling young women come and go, visiting the men. Typically, neither group can speak the other’s language. Male hopes of reconstructing a ­suburban Australian 1950s dream add further distance. “The men want a villa and a girl who stays at home to cook and clean, and go out to dinner with sometimes,” Pearson says. But that’s culturally foreign to the women, who are used to socialising in their villages. “They’re looking to support themselves and their ­families. That’s the only reason they’re involved. The men don’t see that, they see it as a nice, happy relationship.”

Lonely men looking for love and companionship, whatever their age or circumstances, can be easy marks. Pearson says some men visit Bali only a few times a year but continue to ­support girlfriends who are working as pros­titutes, ­unaware of the duplicity. “The men use me as mediator. They transfer huge amounts of money to the girls through my bank account, often about $1000 a month. They buy them iPhones, iPads, motorbikes.” Then the girls claim the goods have been ­stolen and the men buy a second lot – all to be sold on the black market. 

Before he met Baya, Dean Keddell had such an experience. It was 18 months before he realised his Javanese fiancée was an upmarket hooker and that each time he returned to Australia she was hustling. “It was stupid – I’ve heard this story billions of times. She was sending me messages, ‘I miss you, I love you’. It’s just a bad experience but I never lost a house or car.” He had, however, paid a year’s house rental. 

But betrayal is a two-way street. “A lot of expat men married to local women pick up hookers at every opportunity,” Keddell confirms. “If you lived in Australia and you were sleeping with hookers every night, your wife would kill you. But I know a lot of so-called respected expats and this is what they do. There are no restraints, no laws; this is the Wild West.” 

Smith’s and Keddell’s marriages have benefited from their determination to overcome the differences in backgrounds. Keddell, who has lived in Bali for eight years and is inured to the customs, maintains a novice would be alarmed. “If you came here straight from Australia and you married a year later, you’d get the fright of your life. It is a culture shock,” he says. According to Asian values, he provides for Baya’s ­family, particularly as she, at his request, has stopped working. 

Baya admits intermarriage is a tough road: “We are trying to integrate elements of different cultures. Different in terms of behaviour, ­thinking and lifestyle. No one is right or wrong, it’s just different.” The couple has also faced ­discrimination in Bali. “I’m with a bule ­(foreigner), I must be after the money,” Baya says. But looking ahead, she is optimistic. “Our son will grow up with wide eyes and a big heart,” she says. “He will be able to understand both cultures and speak a few languages; he will be at peace with everyone.” 

Smith’s love story hasn’t always been easy either, but life is good. In front of the family property in Kerobokan is a lush rice paddy, an anomaly in the overdeveloped heart of the island for which people pay a premium. Smith bought it to retain the view, and because he can. Just as he can afford the daily domestic help and nannies that help iron out marital crinkles. 

“We don’t have financial problems, we don’t have a lot of pressure like they do in the West,” he says. But he credits Made with the relationship’s success. “Made was an old wise soul in a young person’s body and she still is. She has something very special that’s kept us together.” 

*Some names have been changed