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Obituary: Graham James, Trailblazing Entrepreneur, Master of Revelry and Founder of Cafe Batavia

Graham James
Graham James

I first met Graham James in 1992 and then worked for him until very recently.

Not much is known about his pre-Jakarta days. Some said he had started out in his native Australia as a bricklayer, others as a landscape gardener. Whatever his background, Graham came to Jakarta on vacation during the early years of the Suharto regime and soon found himself being asked to give English conversation lessons to enthusiastic Indonesian students, prompting him to extend his ‘vacation’.

In those days, Indonesia was opening up to the West and speaking English was seen as a valuable asset for getting on in business. Together with one of his students, a beautiful and entrepreneurial Indonesian woman called Mala, who later became his wife and long-time business partner, Graham opened the English Education Center (EEC) in 1972. It was an immediate success, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, EEC provided English language courses to middle-class Indonesian students as well as large corporations and government clients.

Graham proved to be an astute businessman, growing wealthy from his schools and real estate investments. He lived a flamboyant lifestyle and his house in Cilandak became synonymous with wild and extravagant parties. But residential areas were not ideal for his immoderate shenanigans, so Graham set his eyes on restoring an old Dutch colonial-era building in Jakarta’s Kota Tua district and turning it into his personal playground. Graham certainly had the style to match his ambition, and in 1994 he opened Cafe Batavia. With its exquisite furnishings, outrageous mirror-walled toilets, and Oriental exoticism, Cafe Batavia quickly became a huge hit among the society crowd, with innumerable photos of Hollywood stars adding to its allure. Indeed, Cafe Batavia was twice voted ‘Best Southeast Asian Restaurant of the Year’ by Time magazine and was a focal point of exuberant nightlife in its heyday.

At the same time that EEC was flourishing, Graham made a prudent purchase of land on the coast of West Java (now Banten province) near Carita, which he developed into the Sambolo Beach Bungalows. Graham frequently spent time recuperating in this slice of paradise. The Southeast Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 had a significant impact on Graham’s businesses, so with typically prudent timing he sold up, moved to Bali, and became an Indonesian citizen. He and Mala had two grown-up children by now, and so Graham, ever restless and full of energy, searched for completely new avenues to set up his children in business. The ARC beauty clinics and dental clinic in Denpasar proved highly profitable, and a hotel in Lombok enjoyed similar success.

Graham had many other enterprises, among them Jakarta Expat magazine, which he launched in 2009 and later transferred to the present publisher, who subsequently renamed it Indonesia Expat. Additionally, he founded the BAL water desalination plant in Bali.

His health had begun to deteriorate in 2008 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Remission followed treatment by specialists in Australia, but the cancer was to return 12 years later, making eating and swallowing very difficult. By those who knew him, Graham will be remembered as a man of tremendous kindness and generosity toward his friends (and little tolerance for those who weren’t). He had a boundless energy and optimism, and a deep and abiding love of Indonesia.

Graham James (1945 – 2023) passed away in Bali on 10 May at the age of 77. He is survived by his wife, Mala, and their children, Sita and Erick.

Justin Roberts is Director of Studies at EEC

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