Sydney-born Michael White, a.k.a. Made Wijaya, is known as one of the world’s acknowledged landscape artists. Hundreds of his tropical-garden creations have beautified many hotels and other high-end buildings in Bali, Singapore, India, Australia, Spain, Hawaii, Mexico and Morocco.
Having been submerged in the exotic Balinese culture during the first six years of his 20s, Wijaya, now 59, is thankful for the culture’s endless source of inspiration for his creations over the past 40 years. He regretted though that the massive tourism development on the island he once fell in love with had tarnished the sanctity of the island’s culture and environment.
Wijaya actively updates his websites, including strangerinparadise.com and baliluwih.blogspot.com, which include writings, photographs and short documentaries of cultural celebrations around the island. To underline his point, he showcases the works of masters of modern design, from the Americas to Asia and Australia. He also offers concise guidance on practical matters such as water features, pavings, lighting, furniture and also artworks.
Wijaya, a former hippy, dropped out of art school in Australia and sailed to Indonesia at the was no dangly to take him to land, he jumped off the ship and swam ashore. He moved in with a Brahmin family in Kepaon, took the name Made Wijaya, and started studying Balinese classical dance. In between that and learning the Balinese Hindu faith, he coached tennis at the Bali Hyatt, taught English and guided travelers such as documentary-maker David Attenborough and fashion designer Hardy Amies around the island. But in order to keep his permit to remain on the island, he became a gardener at a private residence in Sanur.
The owner was so impressed with his gardening skills that he was asked to landscape the entire place. More than 400 gardens later, Wijaya is a world-renowned tropical garden designer whose company, P.T. Wijaya Tribwana International, has a 500-strong team of artisans and “garden commandos,” as he calls them. He travels between his Bali base and Singapore, Malaysia, Hawaii, Australia and California to weave his magic. Images and descriptions of the dreamy results are collected in his new coffee-table book, Tropical Garden Design.
Wijaya conceived the gardens of some of the palace-of-indolence hotels that Bali Hyatt in Sanur, the Amandari in Ubud and the Four Season Resort Jimbaran Bay, all in Bali. He has even been celebrated as “the man who invented Bali” by The Australian Gardener magazine. While that’s a little overblown, it is true that Wijaya’s garden design for the Hyatt in 1980 was so successful in capturing our fantasies of tropical paradise that it seeded a whole new Bali – one where luxury resorts are surrounded by lush gardens and ponds of lilies and lotus.
“People who live in the tropics are less enamored of leafy fecundity,” explains Wijaya, who has made his home – a mini village of courtyard gardens, ponds and open-air pavilions called Villa Bebek – in Sanur.
Back in his youth in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Michael pored over The Guinness Book of Records, thrilled to the adventures of Ulysses and was so good at tennis that “he could have played Davis Cup,” recalls his mother, Mavis (who still calls him Michael). It’s her love of gardening that Wijaya cites as his inspiration. He says he got his deep broadcaster’s voice from his father, Dick, a TV meteorologist who came from a long line of Lancashire vaudevillians and theatrical entrepreneurs. A scholarship to Sydney’s upper-crust Cranbrook school exposed Michael to the arts and “I stopped having aspirations of being a professional tennis player. “After dabbling in architecture study and coasting for a few years after school, he sailed to Bali and found his true home. “Bali is the most theatrical place,” says Wijaya, who is single. “It’s not just the costumes, the offerings, the processions.”
His oldest friend, Carol Muller-an anthropologist, interior designer and fellow Bali-phile – says the Balinese acceptance of eccentricity is also a good fit for Wijaya, “one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met.” And in the absence of doing thelegong dance, he’s found the perfect outlet for his “theatrical nature” in his swaying palms and flamboyant flowers.
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