Last week, Marcel Melhem, real estate entrepreneur and surfing enthusiast, commented on the history and highlights of the development of this sport in Asia, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia in particular, where the American Robert Koke opened the first surf club in that country in 1936, founding a movement that became a national industry.
To learn more about Koke and his legacy, we contacted Marcel Melhem, who has a lot of information about this interesting protagonist, who, like many other Westerners, was a prophet in Asian lands.
Marcel, before we begin, tell us who Robert Koke was…
Koke was at that time a 26-year-old young man from the wealthy class of the United States, a photographer and tennis teacher. He was a tall, thin, and very fit man who studied at UCLA before landing a job in the production department at MGM, where one of his first assignments was traveling to Hawaii as an assistant to director King Vidor on the film from 1932 “Bird of Paradise”.
Although he had grown up near the beach, this was Koke’s first real experience with surf culture, and he was fascinated by it. He soon he was riding big redwood surfboards on the beaches of Waikiki. And because of his legacy, today it is commonly said that Bob Koke was the one who introduced surfing to Asia.
How did you arrive in Indonesia?
The history is very interesting. We are talking about people who were in the right place at the right time. And that place, at that time in the United States, was Hollywood.
Bob arrives in Indonesia with a woman, Louis, whom he would marry in 1941. But by the time they reached Bali on a steamboat, they were lovers. In fact, Louise was the wife of the distinguished -but alcoholic and womanizer- Hollywood screenwriter Oliver Garrett. Tired of her husband’s affairs, Louis hooked up with the handsome tennis coach and photographer (the two had been friends since the 1930s), who often taught Garrett tennis at his Beverly Hills estate, who practiced with none other than the producer. David Selznick and with the fabulous Charlie Chaplin, his friends.
Bob and Louise left the United States together and visited China, Singapore and Indonesia before arriving in Bali. A few days after arriving, they got to know the paradisiacal beaches of Kuta, with which they were fascinated. And later they formed an unlikely business partnership with a local well-known figure, K’tut Tantri, to create the Kuta Beach Hotel, the first resort hotel on Bali’s south coast.
Tantri, born Muriel Stuart Walker, was a Scottish-American woman famous for her work as a radio host for Indonesian republicans during the Indonesian National Revolution. She was quite an institution in Bali when the Kokes arrived, so it makes perfect sense that they met. Although, it is known, the relationship was not good from the beginning, because, sources say, Walker had too complicated a personality.
What were those early years like?
Louise, in her fascinating memoir “Our Hotel in Bali”, called Kuta the most beautiful beach in the world. Beside Robert, pioneered the concept of the Bali resort, offering a combination of the exotic and the familiar. And of course, part of the package that the Kokes offered was the experience of surfing.
It was there that Bob recognized Kuta’s wave-riding potential. Whether it was with his own board, which was shipped to him from Hawaii, or with other boards he carved locally with the idea of making shorter versions in the Hawaiian alaia style, Koke dedicated himself to showing tourists and locals the basics of surfing. His establishment became famous and received visits of all kinds, including British royalty, among hundreds of other visitors who passed through there over the years.
Marcel, what happened with the arrival of the second world war?
C.With the advent of the war, the dream of the Kokes ended. But even before this fateful event, which had a great development in Southeast Asia and Polynesia, in 1937 the Koke and K’tut Tantri had already distanced themselves commercially due to a series of differences.
Bali was invaded in 1942 by the Japanese, what did the Koke do in that context?
Due to the occupation, it is known that Louise escaped to California in 1941. For his part, Bob joined the US Army, before being recruited by the CIA. And in the case of Tantri, she fled to Java where she became a collaborator with the Japanese, known on the airwaves as “Surabaya Sue.”
During his time in the military, Bob joined Intelligence and was stationed in Sri Lanka, where he trained agents to go undercover in Japanese-controlled Indonesia. He would join the CIA after the war in 1947, being stationed in Shanghai, where he met Louise. They spent two years there before being driven out again, this time by the Chinese communist revolution.
They both lived the rest of their lives in Washington, DC, where Bob continued to work for the CIA.
About surfing in Indonesia and Southeast Asia: havens of sport
After the war, was there any of his legacy left in Kuta?
I would say yes: the fact that surfing there today is a direct result of his work. And not only there, but throughout Southeast Asia.
His hotel, on the other hand, was destroyed. The story goes that after the war Bob returned to Kuta beach to find that his hotel had been burned to the ground. All that remains from those years are her surfboards, which are still on display in Bali today. Records show that when Louise died in 1993, Bob returned to Kuta one last time to spread her ashes in the waves on the beach that loved so much
What has remained is surfing, which in Indonesia has become a great cultural and commercial movement, followed by people from all over the world, since its beaches, in addition to having good waves, are simply paradisiacal.
I would like to highlight that currently, in the same place where the Kuta Beach Hotel stands the Hard Rock Hotelwhich marks the tourist importance of the place that was chosen by the Koke almost 100 years ago.