Part V1

Holiday Travels Wind to an End

The first time I heard of Bali was during conversation with my brother. We were discussing the general unrest of the world.

“If it comes to the worst,” he said, “I’ll go to Bali. That is an island untouched by civilization, where you can sit under the sweltering palms and pick the fruit off the trees and live as nature intended. There one doesn’t worry about depression. The problem of living is easy. And the women are beautiful.”

At the time his description didn’t arouse my interest. But when we were finally en voyage to Japan, the subject came up again. We were in the Mediterranean nearing Port Said when my brother brought me a book on travel.

“Here is an interesting article on Bali,” he said and added, “There are two young American boys2 on the boat who are going there.”

During the day I browsed through the book and after reading a chapter, I was “sold.”

The following day we had a talk with the boys. They were two young American artists who had been studying in Italy.

“It’s no use going back to the States now,” they said. “We’d only join the ranks of the unemployed. So we thought we’d save what little money we had left and go to Bali. You can live there for five dollars a week,” they remarked, “and that’s what appeals to us.

The captain of the boat which took us from Java to Bali showed us a map. The area of the island is about 2,241 square miles. It is separated from Java on the west side by the narrow Straits of Bali; on the east lies its neighbor island, Lombok. The capital is Singaradja. The island is densely populated with over a million inhabitants, or five hundred to the square mile. Little is known of its early history and there is very little trace of the influence of Java.

Religion plays an important role in Balinese life. The temple and society form an inseparable whole. The modern Balinese is a mixture of many different religions, partly pre-Hinduism and Polynesian with a superimposition of Buddhism.

My first glimpse of Bali was in the morning. We were cruising along its beautiful shores on the way to Buleleng, our landing place. Silvery downy clouds encircled the green mountains, leaving their peaks looking like floating fairy islands. Majestic landscapes and smiling inlets passed until we reached our destination. How different this port looks from those of civilized countries; no chimney stacks to mar the horizon, no begrimed dry docks nursing rusty ships, no iron foundries, stockyards, or tanneries. Only a small wooden wharf, a few picturesque boats, and houses with red-tiled roofs.

This was northern Bali, where the governor and the Dutch officials resided—a commercial center with a street of about thirty shops run by Chinese and Hindus.

The governor was courteous and invited us to his residence, where we met several of the officials.

To my horror, I discovered that the natives of Bali had seen one or two of my pictures. “Good heavens,” I thought, “have I come all this way for another Rotary Club welcome?”

After tea at the governor’s house, we got into our automobile and sped along the road to south Bali, our final destination.

Where were the beautiful women? I had been told that the natives went bare-shouldered, but I found they were all respectably covered up.

As we traveled, the country became progressively beautiful. Green rice shoots were growing in silver-mirrored fields, and wide green steps terraced down the mountainside. We passed through villages with beautifully built walls and imposing entrances along the roadsides. They were like the enclosures of some fine old estate. They looked like the remnant of some western influence. But no. They were the walls that surrounded the native compounds and built to keep out evil spirits. They were paradoxical—these magnificent walls and the primitive buildings they surrounded.

We had been riding about fifteen minutes when my brother Syd nudged me. “Look there, quick!”

I turned and saw a line of stately creatures walking along the road, dressed only in batiks wrapped around their waists and their chests bare. How picturesque they looked carrying curved shaped pottery upon their heads, with one arm akimbo and the other swinging in rhythmic motion as they filed by. The male of the species was just as admirable with the sheen on their lithe bodies and the play of muscles as they carried across their shoulders bamboo poles laden with bundles of golden rice.

The roads are good. There are no commercial signboards. The countryside is teeming with life. Men and women are working in the rice fields, others are driving their cattle to market. There is a ceremonial grace in everything they do, whether at work or play.

The hotel in south Bali has only recently been built. It is in modern style. I must say the Dutch do things well. The sitting rooms are open like a veranda, and partitioned off with sleeping quarters at the back.

How nice to be away from civilization, relieved of stiff shirtfronts and starched collars. I had made up my mind to go around native-like with just a loose shirt, a pair of trousers, and sandals. You can imagine my disgust when I found a notice posted in the room that read that all guests must be fully dressed when entering the dining room. I was most indignant. Nevertheless, I dined deliberately without changing my clothes or shaving.

Hirshfeld,3 the watercolor artist, and his wife called that evening. They had been living on the island for a couple of months and invited us to their little house rented from one of the natives where Miguel Covarrubias, the Mexican caricaturist, had stayed before them.

After dinner the Hirshfelds, my brother, and I walked toward there. The night was warm and sultry. Eerie shapes loomed on all sides as we strolled along. Giant banyan trees and tall palms stood silent against the starlit sky. Not a breath of wind stirred. About three hundred yards away a flood of light came from a recess off the roadside.

Suddenly from that direction came the sounds of jingling tambourines and the clashing of gongs. Then out of the jangled confusion evolved a rhythmic tonal pattern—slow, deep notes like a treble mosaic counterpart. The high tones were like pebbles dropped rapidly into a silent pool, the deeper ones like red wine in crystal bowls.

Upon arriving there we discovered groups of natives standing and squatting around. Maidens sat with baskets and small flares, selling dainty edibles. We edged our way through the crowd and beneath a patio were seated musicians in square formation with instruments like xylophones in front of them.

In the center were two girls not more than ten years old, posed in kneeling fashion, wrapped in gold-embroidered sarongs with yellow tinsel headdresses that flickered in the lamplight. They were dancing, their arms extended, weaving like serpents, swaying and undulating on their knees to the droning music.

It must have lasted half an hour, yet the girls were in perfect unison, each deviating occasionally with a solo part and continuing again in perfect unity. Their necks swayed and their eyes turned and flickered back. Their fingers quivered. There was something devilish about it, the click of the neck, the dart of the eye, the quivering fingers, all dancing in neurotic joy. At one time the tempo would quicken, developing a crescendo like a raging torrent, then calming down again like a placid river wending its way to the sea. The finish seemed an anticlimax fading into nothingness. The dancers sank back into the crowd and were lost to view. There was no applause and no compliments. Although they had performed beautifully, it was appreciated without comment.

Two words I’ve discovered are unknown in the Balinese language—“love” and “thank you.” Those dancers had practiced assiduously, striving for perfection without any consideration for personal gain. Not one person gets paid for entertainment. It is all given free. A village will entertain another and walk miles to do so, and for their services will be given only a meal.

After the performance we strolled over to Hirshfeld’s house and sat out on the veranda underneath myriads of stars. That was my first night in Bali.

How different, I thought, from anything I’d ever seen. How far removed I felt from the rest of the world. Europe and America seemed unreal—as though they’d never existed. Although I was in Bali only a few hours, it seemed I had always lived there.

How easy man falls into his natural state. What does a career, a civilization matter in this natural way of living? From these facile people one gleans the true meaning of life—to work and play—play being as important as work to man’s existence. That’s why they’re happy. The whole time I was on the island I rarely saw a sad face.

All their standards are different. The Hirshfelds’ landlord had two wives. The husband was indifferent to the older one. When Mrs. Hirshfeld broached him about it, he only shrugged his shoulders and remarked, “She is not beautiful anymore.”

This may be cruel from our western viewpoint, yet his household worked in peace and harmony and both wives were well provided for. The older wife had a son whom the younger one cared more for than the mother.

They may have no love as we understand it, yet they live happily compared to our western world, that stands for all the virtues of love and romance with its moral insignia, “faith, hope, and charity.” Look into the faces of the masses in our large cities and you will see harassed, defeated souls and in the eyes of most of them weary despair. Yet in the eyes of the Balinese is tranquillity.

Later in the evening we strolled down to the village for a cup of coffee at a store kept by an old Chinaman, who sold everything from ladies’ garters to canned asparagus.

Returning home to the hotel, I noticed a pretty native girl walking ahead of us. She would occasionally look over her shoulder, giving furtive glances in our direction. She wore a little cotton jacket. I was told that in the south of Bali, only women of the streets covered their breasts.

In the morning breakfast was served on the veranda, where we reclined in our pajamas and took our pineapple and mangosteens and enjoyed the morning sun. Doves were flying around and curious humming sounds were coming from them. A boy told us that the natives put little wind instruments around the doves’ necks to make music when they fly. They devise all sorts of strange toys.

Walter Spies4 is lunching with us today. He is a young Russian painter and musician who has lived on the island for five years making a study of Balinese music. He is a handsome man between twenty-eight and thirty, and is adored by the natives, who treat him like a father confessor. He has made a penetrating study of their arts and is well versed on Balinese life.

After lunch he took us into the interior of the jungle to a remote village, where we witnessed a strange rite that was a special offering to the gods of the temple. Leaving our automobiles we walked for an hour to get there.

The priest was a gaunt figure wrapped in a toga, with hair that fell about his shoulders like a dervish’s. The maidens turned up in their beautiful sarongs and bare shoulders, each presenting her offering before the altar and then taking her place in the large circle formed by the crowd. The priest went through a great deal of abracadabra. The offerings were placed on a bier and later taken outside the temple, where the youths of the village rushed upon them, pillaging and grabbing what they could, while the priest stood by with a large whip and slashed them unmercifully. This was done to beat out the evil spirits that prompted their uncontrolled desire to rob. The natives were quite good-natured about it and seemed to enjoy the fun, but the priest was most determined and thrashed them most vigorously.

Later we dined at Walter Spies’s house. It is a beautiful bungalow with a thatched roof situated on the brink of a ravine with a rushing river below. He told many strange stories about the Balinese, the mystic side of them, and how cultured and refined they were.

Their taste for music is discriminating. When playing the piano to several natives, they listened indifferently to Chopin, Liszt, and Schubert, but only in Bach did they show any interest. The rest they dismissed as sentimental.

Spies said in the five years he had studied their music, he was unable to master their time. The tempo seems to defy all mathematical laws, it is so involved, yet the natives can play it identically over and over again. He said he has made a score of some of their simpler music, but it takes three virtuosos at one piano to play it.

Ghosts and spirits are just as real to Balinese as radio is to us. Spies told a weird story which happened prior to a cremation, which is their customary form of disposing of the dead. A deceased woman was placed on a bier in the center of a field. It had been her express wish to be cremated on a certain day, but there had been a delay. One night a native came rushing into the village, trembling with fright, saying he had seen a ball of light circling over the body. Spies and several villagers went immediately to the spot and to their amazement, the apparition was still there. He thought it might be the joke of natives reflecting a light in some way. But after seeing it, he was convinced it was a phenomenon. He described it as a ball of mercurial light about three feet in diameter and that it hovered over the bier where the deceased lay. It would rise and descend in spiral motion, and when they attempted to go near it, it would fade, appearing again when they moved away, eventually vanishing into the body.

Our routine for the day would start after breakfast, taking automobile excursions to various parts of the island. These excursions we usually took in the morning, returning before lunch, and in the afternoon we would take our siesta. In the evening, thanks to our friend Spies, there was always some form of entertainment, which would complete our day.

One festival lasted all night. It was given by a rajah who was celebrating because he had paid his debt to the government and was now free from the threat of imprisonment. An appropriate reason to celebrate, I thought.

It took place at night on the outskirts of the forest and hundreds came from all parts of the island. There were to be fireworks, a barong play, and a kris dance.5 Most elaborate preparations were made, the cost of which I’m sure would again endanger our friend with threats of imprisonment.

The crowds sat around an egg-shaped ring, where the performance took place. First came the gamelan music and the dancers, then the barong play. The story dealt with an episode from the history of the popular ancient Javanese king, Erlangga, in whose reign a wicked witch, a widow, with her pupils brought all manner of ill luck to the flourishing kingdom. The witch was represented by a man with a terrifying mask, wild tangled hair, and long nails who never fails to fill the public with horror and fear. The play ended with her death, her magical power being taken away from her by the knightly son of the court priest. Eventually she was destroyed by fire.

The witch is a dangerous role to enact for the actor believes when playing the part, he is actually imbued with the evil spirit of the character.

As we sat that night, the glare of the fireworks lit up the jungle in the background. The sight was strange and dramatic. In the play the witch is supposed to recoil from the fire and run into a small proscenium built at the end of the ring, but this night the fear of the witch was so great that the actor lost control and rushed madly through the crowd and into the jungle, shrieking in a state of hysteria. We all followed, running into the darkness to see what had happened to him. Suddenly there was a scream and the natives came running back, trembling and frightened. The priest had rescued the actor and was bringing him back in a state of collapse. The witch’s mask was taken off and holy water administered. It was almost ten minutes before he came to himself. Later we waited to see the final sacrificial ceremony, which was an offering to the witch’s mask. A pig was killed and his blood mixed with leaves, and prayers were offered by the priest. The mask was then placed in a box and carried off by the natives. This was the end of the celebration.

I took motion pictures of many of the Balinese ceremonies. I had Walter Spies arrange an elaborate dance that included a full orchestra of thirty musicians and thirty others who performed and danced. When it was over, I asked Spies how much I should pay them.

“Five or ten dollars will be ample.”

I suggested twenty-five dollars, but he remonstrated, saying it would spoil them. However, I insisted.

When the chief took the money, he looked puzzled and mumbled something to Spies. I thought he was dissatisfied. We had given him two tens and one five, which Spies thought generous.

“If you have twenty-five one-dollar bills,” he said, “I think he can understand it better.”

When these were produced, the chief was perfectly satisfied.

One evening Spies and I wandered into a village, where a small boy was being taught dancing by a youngish-looking man. We were cordially invited to squat and make ourselves at home. The boy was eventually taken in hand by an Amazon-looking woman, who danced beautifully while the little boy copied her.

As we sat under the flare of the oil lamp drinking the man’s health in coconut milk, he pointed to the lady and told us that she was his daughter-in-law. We were greatly surprised and asked him his age.

“When was the earthquake?” he inquired.

“Twelve years ago,” replied Spies.

“Well, I had three marriageable children then.” Seemingly not satisfied with his sense of accuracy, he thought again, then exclaimed, “I’m about two thousand dollars old,” clarifying the ambiguity by explaining that in his lifetime, he had spent about two thousand dollars, therefore we could figure it out for ourselves.

During my tour through the different villages, I was surprised to see a large number of automobiles lying idle in many of the natives’ back yards, most of them recent models rusting from exposure. A few were polished and had lace curtains and were used for living quarters. The explanation is interesting.

A number of natives had purchased these cars. The initial cost, however, exhausted their life savings, but they were happy to ride around in them until they discovered to their bewilderment that the cost of gasoline to run a car for a day was as much as they earned in a month. So they were left discarded in the back yards of the villages.

I was eighteen days in Bali and every moment was interesting. Returning to Singapore we flew over Java, taking the plane at Surabaya for Batavia, a distance of six hundred miles. There were several days to wait before we could get a boat to Japan, so in the meantime, we merged ourselves into the life of Singapore.

Of course anything after Bali is a letdown. But Singapore has its charm. Every evening we would ramble through the native quarters in rickshaws. Occasionally we would go to the New World—the native Coney Island of Singapore—where every known variety of entertainment is given, from Malay opera to prizefighting.

The Chinese drama listed several nights. My brother and I would sit of an evening trying to guess the different symbols that the actors used during the play. One was a stick with a fringe of wool around the top and center, which the actors would shake majestically. I guessed correctly. It was a horse.

Japan, the adopted land of Lafcadio Hearn, has always stirred my imagination—the land of cherry blossoms, the chrysanthemum, and its people in silk kimonos living among porcelains and lacquer furnishings. I’ve often thought of the Japanese who work in our dank western cities, attired in our drab western clothes. How intensely they must feel the pangs of nostalgia. But today the western mode of living has invaded the Orient.

The city of Kobe was our landing place. When we arrived there, thousands were waiting on the docks to greet us. Airplanes were flying, dropping pamphlets of welcome.

While in Japan, the government graciously made me their guest while traveling by rail. On our way to Tokyo, at every stop we were greeted by cheering crowds. Geisha girls were lined up and I was presented with gifts of all kinds. The Japanese are generous and hospitable.


Upon arriving in Tokyo, the throngs were so dense that four hundred policemen were helpless in keeping them from raiding the railroad depot. We eventually got on our way to the hotel, but stopped en route at the Emperor’s palace, where we conformed to the Japanese custom and paused before the gates to pay our respects, then on again to the hotel. After the usual preliminaries of the press, I went straight to bed, exhausted but happy.

It is a thrilling sensation to wake up in a foreign country and realize that the adventure of the day is before you. My brother informs me, “There’s a cartload of presents arrived and stacks of mail keep coming in, so I’ve arranged for a Japanese secretary to attend to them. The police have detailed a detective to look after us during our stay.”

The program so far is the Sumo wrestling matches for this afternoon and the Kabuki-za Theater for this evening. Then tomorrow night we are dining with Mr. Tsuyoshi Inukai, the prime minister of Japan. Mr. Ken Inukai, his son, sent us tickets for the wrestling.

It is entirely different from jiujitsu or any other known wrestling and is one of the oldest forms in Japan. It is amusing to watch and if you don’t understand the technique, the whole procedure looks comic. Nevertheless, the effect is hypnotic and thrilling.

As we were leaving, a courier rushed into our box and told us the awful news—that the prime minister, Mr. Tsuyoshi Inukai, had been assassinated in his home.6 This was a dreadful shock to everyone and put a damper on the whole nation.

The prime minister’s son told us later that we were responsible for saving his life, because the tragedy occurred while he was at the wrestling arena making arrangements for our tickets. Had he been home, the assassins would have murdered him with his father.

The tragedy is well known—how the murderers, dressed as soldiers, shot and killed several guards, then broke into the prime minister’s sitting room and with the points of their guns confronted the old gentleman and his family; how he led them to another room, remarking that if they intended to kill him, to spare his wife and children the scene of such violence. The heroic courage of the Prime Minister was worthy of his exalted position. Not one word passed the assassins’ lips as they were led by the august gentleman down a long corridor into a little room, where he calmly told them to state their grievances. Without a word, however, these murderers cruelly poured fire into their defenseless victim and left.

Some few years ago a company of Japanese players came to Los Angeles. They arrived without any publicity. But for the chance remark of one of my Japanese employees, I would have known nothing of their arrival.

I will not go into the detail of that evening’s performance, but in a small theater situated over some stores, I sat enthralled. The singing, at first discordant to my unaccustomed ears, gradually revealed itself into meaning and beauty. It was like the lament of a poet desolate at twilight, and was accompanied by an ironic plucking of a metallic stringed instrument that seemed to answer the lament with a ruthless wisdom. The dance was like the capturing of designs, an expression of the loveliness of line—like merging of life into sculpture, the converse of Pygmalion and Galatea.

I was impressed by the superb acting of the players and their subtle technique. It was after this performance that I decided to go to Japan.

Luckily when we arrived in Tokyo, the kabuki season was in full swing, so we got tickets for all the performances.

The Kabuki-za Theater has a seating capacity of about two thousand. Instead of the curtain rising, it is drawn aside to the sound of clicking wood that is a signal that the performance is commencing. The actors sometimes enter and exit from a runway that extends on out through the audience to the back of the theater. A revolving stage facilitates the rapid change of scenery. These devices they have used for hundreds of years.

The performance starts at three and ends at eleven, and the program is diversified. There is a long play consisting of six acts. In the middle of the play, a one-act music posture drama is interposed. This is a story interpreted by dance. Female parts are acted by men who convey all the subtleties and nuances of a woman without giving any offense.

When a player makes his first entrance, instead of the customary European applause the audience shouts his name in a most fervent manner and the effect is stirring.

The tourist’s opinions of countries he visits are usually in error, especially a celebrity’s, who sees things through a glamor of excitement. Yet invariably, the first question the press will ask you on your arrival is what you think of their country. Nevertheless, external impressions are related to the soul of things.

Should you ask me offhand my opinion of Japan, I should say it is a nation of inconsistencies. A simple illustration is a man attired in a kimono wearing a derby hat, also the adoption of western dress at the cost of their own silk industry.

Even their art has been undermined by western influence. The beautiful school of some of the old masters—Harunobu, Hokusai, Uramaro, Hiroshige—is entirely neglected, and in place of it are hybrid entrepreneurs whose work is neither Japanese nor European.

Mr. Otani,7 the president of the Shochiku Cinema, gave an interesting party at his house. Upon arriving, we took off our boots and were given felt slippers. After being introduced to his family, I was presented to members of the stage and screen, also several geisha girls. Each course through dinner was served in different rooms. Entertainment followed.

Another interesting episode was a tea ceremony at the house of Mrs. Horikoshi. This charming lady has a school that she supports herself for the daughters of her friends where she teaches the gentle art of the tea ceremony. More than anything I saw in Japan, the tea ceremony revealed to me the character and soul of the nation—perhaps not of modern Japan, but the Japan of yesterday. It exemplifies the philosophy of life, beautifying the simple action of preparing tea to please the senses, utilizing an everyday fact to express the art of living.


Its history is an ancient one dating back many hundreds of years. We hear of members of the samurai watching the lady of the house quietly prepare their green tea with modest grace. It had the effect of calming their nerves after a battle. Each movement is studied to create tranquillity. Not a sound is made during the preparation. Not a gesture is unnecessary. You watch in silence the beautiful preparation. In the sanctity of peace you refresh your troubled mind in liquid jade.

To the practical western world, the tea ceremony might seem quaint and trivial. Yet if we consider the highest object of life is the pursuit of the beautiful, what is more rational than applying it to the commonplace?

The trail is nearly over and I am returning to Hollywood. Looking back on my holidays leaves me with an outstanding impression. Europe and the different countries I visited, embroiled in unrest, seem brewing a new epoch—theistic, sociological, and economical—unprecedented in the history of civilization. It animates me with a desire for accomplishment—not in the old way but in something new; perhaps in another field of endeavor.

Seattle at last! I am interviewed by the press. Everyone seems warm and friendly. Something has happened to America since I’ve been away. That youthful spirit born of prosperity and success has worn off and in its place there are a maturity and sobriety.

As I journey from Seattle to Hollywood, passing through the rich farmlands of Washington, the dense pine forests of Oregon, and on into the vineyards and orchards of California, it seems impossible to believe ten million people wanting when so much real wealth is evident.

Nevertheless, I am glad to be back in America. I’m glad to be home in Hollywood. Somehow I feel that in America lies the hope of the whole world. For whatever takes place in the transition of this epoch-making time, America will be equal to it.

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