Charlie Chaplin in Java and Bali: Romanticism over Realism

Eighty years ago, Charlie Chaplin visited Java and Bali. Did the visit change his western view of the world? Or is it a romantics.

March 30, 1932, Charlie Chaplin and his crew arrived in Tanjung Priok. The Dutch were excited and expecting the Chaplin with a bowler hat and oversized shoes and walking stick. Charlie arrived with a pith helmet and grey hair.

Onboard the Van Lansberge, Charlie travelled with his elder brother Sydney and an entourage. They were welcomed by members of the association of film importers of Dutch Indies. Children crawled under the table to see Charlie’s feet. They were disappointed, but Charlie patted them on the cheeks and said something friendly in English, which the children did not understand, but they were pleased.

Charlie just finished filming City Lights. He set sailed on February 13, 1931 from New York for a trip to Western Europe and Asia to promote City Lights.

In February 1932, Charlie departed Switzerland and travelled via the Suez Canal to Singapore and Jakarta. The trip was a personal vacation arranged by Cook, a travel agent. He travelled in Java via train and car, and the most essential part of the trip was to visit Bali.

Dutch photograher Henk Aalsem showed Chaplinhis 35-mm camera at Tandjong Priok. (Wikimedia)

Charlie’s trip was captured in his private film recording which was released in 2017 as a doco-movie Chaplin in Bali. Charlie wrote his travel experience in A Comedian Sees the World, a five-part series which was published in Woman’s Home Companion in 1933. Charlie also wrote about the experience in My Autobiography published in 1964.

Java trip

From Batavia, the groups travelled to Bandoeng and then to Garoet. In Garoet, Chaplin wrote:

It was here that I encountered my first experience with a “Dutch wife” whom after you’ve lived in the tropics for any length of time you find indispensable.

When first informed of their function, I laughed, but after my initiation, when retiring I always insisted on my “conjugal rights.”

The trip continued to Tjipanas, Djockjakarta for Borobudur and the Soeranaja where they sailed to Bali with a Royal Dutch Steam Packet Company (KPM) steamer.

Chaplin In Bali

KPM promotion to Bali (1926).

Charlie Chaplin arrived at the port of Boeleleng and met by a tour agency Mr. Minas, an Armenian.

The Dutch pacified Bali in 1908, ending Balinese local kingdoms resistance. Since the early 1910s, the Dutch had already marketed Bali as a tourist destination, pamphlets for the KPM called Bali the “enchanted isle”, where the natives “still intent to live their own simple way as in the Middle Ages,” and “a land of Women.” Images of half-naked women were promoted to promote the exotic island. The Dutch said

‘Ball is in no danger so long as only streams of tourists are conducted over the main highways and automobiles are the only means of conveyance.’

On arrival, Chaplin wrote:

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 (or resident Beeuwkes) was courteous and invited us to his residence, where we met several of the officials.

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

Festival by the Radjah

The Balinese ruler Anak Agoeng Negara Gianjar also honour him and organised a two days and two nights festival. He was called ’Charles the Great’. The special festival was presented only to Charlie, Annie Quensel a Swedish reporter who accompanied Charlie wrote:

The finest view was that in front of the temple facade, where were stationed the band, men and women with their festive gongs, their stringed instruments and flutes, and, in front, the dancing girls in dazzling gold brocade and handsome adornments of fragrant temple flowers, tastefully arranged between the golden rays of the pearl-studded diadems. Now our eyes fell on the long, narrow hands, so in finitely full of expression in the dance, and now on the soles of small, brown feet, the rhythmic movements of which, were soon to charm us all.

The guests were presented with Balinese music and dance, including “Tjalon along” from a scene of Ramayana, Lelong dance performed by 10–12 year old children,

Charlie exclaimed: “What rhythm and waht grace! Marvellous! Enchanting!”

‘Here I could wish to remain for a month and indeed so long as never to quit the spot.’ he shouted.

The dance at the palace continued for five hours until 11 night, while the guests began to lose interest, Charlie maintained his interest. Supper followed with a mixture of rice and South Indian curry menus, including Sate and other wishes.

‘I just wonder whether I was not a Balinese during some former existence,’ jested Charlie.

After the coffee, the guests went outside for the Bali lantern views. Anne wrote:

In their hospitality the autocratic princes of Bali are far more democratic than any ruler in Europe. Where else will be found a prince who allows his people to take part in his private dance and theatrical performances?

However not guests were kind to the hospitality of the Raja. Syd described:

The rajah who invited us to his palace is named Anak Agoeng Ngoerah Agoeng Agoeng Van Granjar. His position is the island’s Bestvurder. The outstanding points about him were his large watch and very heavy golden chain, which he keeps looking at. His desire to sell all the family heirlooms. Everything — going so far as to bring them down to the hotel. His politeness was of picking his teeth and his capacity for belching, which on the islands is considered very good manners and a sign to all hosts that the food is truly appreciated. So every banquet eventually turns into a belching competition.

The paper Het Volk which quoted the writing of Flo Hirschfeld wrote:

Apart from the prince, the company consisted a dozen Dutch ladies and gentlemen, which made the conversation quite raucous, in view of the language. When all were seated, Chaplin asked the Rajah if the seating arrangement was to his satisfaction. As the only answer to this, he stared at him from above. To which Chaplin muttered in English something like: “I hope you are at ease.”

Again, the Rajah did not understand a word and replied in the national language: “Yes, it is a very hot climate here in Bali.” The prince thought there was now more than enough talk and devoted his attention exclusively to what was presented to him. Dinner was there to eat, not to talk. Chaplin decided to give it another try and remarked, “Balinese dishes are exquisite.”

At the Rajah’s departure, he drew out with great pomp a huge gold watch from his pocket, which he showed Chaplin, pulling a face like one who has not a moment to lose. He expressed his wish to receive Chaplin at the palace and left, escorted by Charlie, who breathed a sigh of relief.

In the South of Bali, none of the Balinese had ever heard of him. He was no longer a famous person, but without a doubt, a tuan. He and his brother Syd travelled the island without being followed and harassed by reporters and fans.

How nice to be away from civilization, relieved of stiff shirt fronts 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 which 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.

He ate rice from banana leaves with his fingers; squatted comfortably with the natives on the ground during cockfights and went hours to watch the dance and music. The beauty of the island prompted Charlie to stay longer than the plan.

Charlie’s impression of Bali was its remoteness

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.

Charlie Chaplin geniet

In Bali, Charlie was certainly geniet (in Dutch term) and genit (in Indonesian). In his autobiography wrote:

It was Sydney which recommended visiting the island of Bali, saying how untouched it was by civilisation and describing its beautiful interest with their exposed bosoms. These aroused my interest.

Syd himself mentioned the trip was inspired by the 1930 book: The Last Paradise by Hickman Powell, and nudism. In My Authobiography:

The farther we travelled, the more beautiful the country became; silvery mirrored steps of green rice-fields led down to a winding stream. Suddenly Sydney nudged me. Along the roadside was a line of stately young women, dressed only in batiks wrapped around their waists, their breasts bare, carrying baskets on their heads laden with fruit. From then on we were continually nudging.

Charlie met Al Hirschfield an American painter, who had stayed in Bali for two months invited Brothers Chaplin for dinner:

Our landlord has a pig that he’d like to roast and we have a hundred and fifty pound turtle that has lived long enough now. Can you join us to-morrow night in consuming them?

Chaplin wrote:

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. […]

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.

Charlie friendship with Walter Spies, a Russian-born German painter and musician who had stayed in Ubud since 1927. Walter showed the Chaplins the world of music and performances in Bali. (Spies was convicted as a paedeophile in 1939).

Walter said that their musical taste was quite sophisticated. But Charlie said “I found their music cold, ruthless and slightly disturbing; even the deep doleful passages had the sinister yearning of a hungry minotaur.” Charlie considered the music sounds rather strange in the ears, even incomprehensible to many who have lived there for a long time, but it was very easy to remember. At the end of the musical performances, he hummed whole fragments; and his imitations of the dancers delighted the locals and the entourage.

Finally, Charlie and Syd left Bali with S.S. ‘Van der Wijck’ from Boeleleng to Soerabaja, where they took a plane to see Java from the above. On the night before they left, they attended the “Tjalanarang” (Calonarang) in Pliatan (South of Bali).

Advertisement of Modern Times in Batavia (1936).

Return to Bali

Director Raphaël Millet said that Charlie seeing himself rejuvenated after Bali. But his autobiography said

I had been away eight months, yet I wondered whether I was happy to be back. I was confused and without plan, restless and conscious of an extreme loneliness.

He was thinking of selling everything and moved to China. Until he met 21 year old actress Paulette Goddard who brought him joy.

Charlie casted Paulette in Modern Times. Charlie brought Paulette Goddard and her mother for a tour to Bali exactly two years later to visit the places where he had most impression. They arrived in Batavia on March 23, 1936 and travelled by car to Bandoeng via Poentjak. In Bandoeng, they stayed in Hotel Preanger. Then a short visit to Garoet, where they stayed in Hotel Ngamplang. Then they went to Central Java, East Java and Bali.

This time, Charlie attracted reporters for his affair with Goddard, he hoped to get married in Bali. Later, they reported that they married on the sea somewhere between Bali and China.

Touristic Bali

In 1931, Balinese were already used to tourists, and noted by Annie Quensel:

On the other hand, men, women and children pose with most marvellous patience in front of the tourists’ incorrigibly daring cameras, and all the more readily perhaps as, by doing so, they are in most cases rewarded with a small coin. Some of the young maidens, however, and more particularly the recognised beauties of the island, will not consent now to have themselves photographed unless a prepayment has been made, or at least a promise given of recompense in hard cash. To this extent strict business principles have already be come recognised.

1961 Trip

Chaplin had a socialist view which was manifested strongly in his later films. In 1947, the FBI investigated Charlie for his association with communism. He was banned from entering the US and moved to Europe in 1952.

Charlie and Farida in Jakarta 1961. De Telegraf 08/10/1961

In July 1961, Charlie went back to Indonesia to visit Jogjakarta and Bali. In Jakarta, he was accompanied by his wife Oona O’neill and his daughter and son. Actress Farida Araini in Jakarta accompanied Charlie in Jakarta.

Chaplin at the Ramayana dance performed at th Roro Jonggrang stage (1961). Source: Wikimedia.

By then, he had an intense dislike for American. In an interview with Associated Press, the reporter asked if the modernization of ancient Asia saddened him, he said

indeed, it does. But that does not mean that I am reactionary. By the way, in your country, they think very differently about me.

Later in his autobiography, Charlie wrote:

Bali then was a paradise. Natives worked four months in the rice-fields and devoted the other eight to their art and culture. Entertainment was free all over the island, one village performing for the other. But now paradise is on the way out. Education has taught them to cover their breasts and forsake their pleasure-loving gods for Western ones.

Paradoxically, now the westerners flock to Bali to bare their breasts.

Did Bali inspire Chaplin’s anticolonial spirit?

The documentary Chaplin in Bali suggested that Charlie saw how colonialism had ruled over Indonesia. Chaplin wrote an anti-colonial theme-script which was never produced. It was also his first talkie attempt, titled Bali, which made fun of European colonial “taxing natives to build roads they did not need and making them harvest more rice than they could eat”.

Lisa Haven said that the world trip raised his social consciousness, which inspired Modern Times on the rise of the machines and the worker’s demise and the danger of nationalism in The Great Dictator.

It is a wishful thinking that the trip to Bali made Charlie realised the harshness of Dutch colonialism. Nowhere in his autobiography and travel writings that Charlie mentioned colonial oppression in Bali. The trip to Bali was a vacation and Charlie was amazed at Bali as a refuge from the “general unrest of the world”. He only commented on the customs, dance and music of the Balinese people. Syd wrote:

We threw out money to crowds of kids. Girls entirely nude came running out of the lake to get their share…

The only mention about Dutch was:

The hotel in south Bali has only recently been built. It is in modern style. I must say the Dutch do things well.

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.

Syd commented how the Dutch liked their rijsttafels:

We struggle with the Dutch rijsttafels. This is the mountain of food so beloved by the Dutch.

… also dined with the rajah and his wife at the assistant’s resident’s house in Den Pasar. The Dutch officials remain formally dressed in spite of the heat. But hear that you dislike formality. They made in etiquette to remove their coats at dinner. All the Dutch officials’ wives are mountains of flesh with great capacities for rijsttafels, so different to the slim bodies of the natives.

Chaplin received the Erasmus prize in the Netherlands in 1965, for “his extensive and universally appreciated oeuvre, … All his films are marked by their masterly poetic blend of seriousness, humour, and strong social compassion.” He was received by Prince Bernhard, Queen Juliana, Princess Beatrix of the Dutch empire.

Tempo Doeloe is a nice thing to reminisce about, but also need to be critical about the past. Less talked about that in 1965–1966, Bali was a killing field of communists massacres.

On the 1961 AP interview, Charlie was asked on a comparison between Indonesia under president Soekarno and the old Dutch East Indies from the days before the last World War:

Well, it may not be the way it used to be. The special thing about life is that it always develops. Indonesia is no longer the way it used to be. The change may well be for the better

At least now the locals in Garut is making use of Chaplin’s visit as a promotion. Ian Campbell, an Australian writer, wrote a poem imagining Charlie Chaplin at Ngamplang in 1927 :

Rarely, almost never, the employees and waiters at the Ngamplang Hotel

reported any ‘special’ or ‘extraordinary’ requests

from our guest, that doyen of the world of silent film in Hollywood.

When he played golf he simply aimed the ball by using

his spread-eagled feet as his line of play; those feet, covered

in shoes so black and shiny.

Yes, he was a golfer. For a short man he was really quite powerful;

as he put all his strength into his swing to hit the ball,

his walking stick now doubling as his own ‘personal putter.’

Sometimes Charlie liked to go down the steps

from the hotel’s recreational room at the rear

to the private swimming pool whose

splendid location gave commanding views over the Garoet valley far below.

But, my goodness. One day, for reasons that just cannot be explained,

he went down, then in a flash, had disappeared.

In truth, he had fallen into the pool.

His bowler hat was afloat for a few minutes, like a ship,

then it too disappeared, sunk below the water-line,

drenched, a dead-weight.

But fortunately his walking stick continued to float;

servants leaped to fish it out of the pool,

along with a right Charlie hanging on for grim life, clothes wet right through.

Miraculously, servants appeared from out of nowhere,

hand towels at the ready, in arms outstretched, to dry that wafer-thin body of his.

But even then, while Charlie was being brought back to his room in the hotel

there was another ‘little difficulty’; his walking stick

caught in the revolving doors at the rear of the hotel, snapping in two.

They say that hotel management offered Charlie to pay for the cost

of a new hat and stick; at this point he just smiled and said nothing.

remained at the hotel several more days, without further accident or mishap,

recuperated, rested in his bed, before, somewhat ‘refreshed,’ continuing his journey,

on schedule — to Hollywood, via Bandoeng!


Lisa Stein Haven and Charlie Chaplin. A Comedian Sees the World. University of Missouri Press, 2014. Project MUSE.

Charlie. Chaplin My Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964.

Adrian Vickers, A., 2013. Bali: A paradise created. Tuttle Publishing.

Discovering Chaplin

Annie Quensel, With Chaptin in Bali. Sunday Mail (Brisbane, Qld), 3 Dec 1933

Soil Scientist, interest in Colonial history.