Secrets of Bali

Secrets of Bali by Jonathan Copeland with Ni Wayan Murni Orchid Press HK$240

Any visitor to Bali with a shred of curiosity will wonder what, exactly, is going on: all that art, music, dance and celebration. Everyone's a sculptor, painter or jeweller, it seems. Don't these three million people know the world is supposedly hurtling towards a Western monoculture?

As Secrets of Bali makes amply clear, the profusion of visible culture is just the gateway to a complex inner world of belief and custom, based on centuries of bending outside influences to mesh with local ways. Secrets is a sort of love letter by Jonathan Copeland, a British lawyer who visited the island often during his 25-year working career in London. Upon retirement he set out to research and write the book with Ni Wayan Murni, a knowledgeable Balinese personality and entrepreneur.

They produced about 400 pages of accessible, bite-sized entries on a host of subjects, but this is not a standard travel guide to gamelan and nasi goring - it's an almost encyclopedic snapshot of a people and what makes them so startlingly distinct and interesting. Readers will find a host of interesting tidbits.

For example, Balinese architects scale homes and their courtyards to the size of the head of the family. 'The architect measures the owner and transfers the measurements to his bamboo measuring stick,' Copeland writes. Imagine what Yao Ming's house would look like.

Much of Balinese culture is a variation on Asian themes such as community-before-individual. The emphasis on sociability extends even to the ranking of animals as suitable offerings for the temple. 'Pigs and chickens, which are highly individualistic in their behaviour, rank behind ducks, which are more sociable characters.'


Yet their table manners are puzzling for so sociable a people: very little talking is the rule. 'A Balinese family rarely sits down to eat together. The concept of the family meal is almost unknown. They rarely (if ever) give dinner parties,' Copeland writes.

Secrets of Bali also delves into the island's Hindu traditions with a profusion of ceremonies, and its sometimes grim history.

This book will definitely go with me on my next trip to Bali.