Bali Ha’i: The Other Tropical Archetype

I’ve banged on about Heart of Darkness (HoD) in this blog a fair bit. It’s not just me; it’s a story that gets referenced over and over in writing on the Tropics. Paul Theroux bangs on and on about it in Dark Star Safari (my recommendation – read Kapuscinski instead, he writes with more style) and I’ve even just finished a 1970s pulp sci-fi reinterpretation of Heart of Darkness (Down to the Earth – awesome!). Needless to say, this isn’t the only Tropical image that anchors Temperate dwellers’ views of the Tropics. There is, of course the image of Tropics as paradise.

It’s not as early an image as HoD. Gaugan’s paintings of bare-breasted Tahitian women, Kipling’s poetry “take me back east of the Suez/ where there ain’t no ten commandments”, and Walter Spies’ clique that introduced Bali to the West all played a part. But the image of the Tropics as paradise really caught hold with returning American soldiers and sailors stationed on Pacific Islands during World War II. Immortalised in the musical “South Pacific”, based on a book by James A. Michener, the Tropics were no longer the lonely colonial outpost of the administrator sent by Temperate imperial powers, but a haven from a world gone mad.

This coincided with Hawaii’s upgrade from colony to state, and the rise in mass tourism looking to promote exotic destinations to the public, with ready-made Tiki imagery to draw on, all of which helped the rebranding of the Tropics. In many ways, it’s still the dominant way we see the Tropics today.

In the musical, the Tropical ideal is represented by the island Bali Ha’i (no relation). We eventually go there in the story and it has a fantastic aspect, lush and rainforested, full of busty tribal women throwing leis and lusty tribal men displaying the results of their hunting. No longer menacing, a place of darkness and madness, instead it is full of colour, fun, culture and a beautiful girl for the hero (a somewhat out of place Vietnamese).

The same elements of the Tropics identified in the Heart of Darkness, rearranged to form an opposing extreme. Why be lonely yourself when you can have a local girl? Don’t get killed by the Tropical beasts – instead enjoy hunting. Why worry about the natives’ laziness when working is a bad idea anyways? Drumming doesn’t mean madness, it means a fun jungle party. HoD presents the Tropics as the place of destruction of the powerless self. In contrast, Bali Ha’i presents the Tropics as the place for the realisation of an empowered (privileged) self – the place where dreams come true, as they sing in the musical.

Both myths are stereotyped abstractions of course, denying the Tropics the complexity and agency of the Temperate regions. Yet any Westerner who has lived in the tropics recognises something in both of their experiences there. It’s fascinating that common features of the Tropics are identified in both myths, though with opposite interpretations. I’ve got to say that right now, lying in bed sick in the cold, wet New Zealand winter, a bit of Bali Ha’i sounds pretty good right now.

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