Bali, Bankruptcy and Buttons

I had buttons and Bali on my mind when I first entered the unassuming, quirky button shop in Kerobokan, Bali. I was asking myself…how, why and who would dedicate such a huge space to selling zillions of little buttons? Was this person Chinese, a Westerner or Balinese? What made someone get up in the morning (seemingly) and say, “Oh, I might sell buttons, they’re useful things.”

Buttons make me smile. I don’t know why! They are small, can be very pretty, are useful, and as a child I loved putting my hand in the button jar my mum used to have for all the miscellaneous buttons that came with clothes or were found in the wash. We never needed to buy buttons, we always had plenty. To this day I have a button box and love the feeling of the mixture of materials, their cool hard surfaces and the noise they make. I love buttons.


I must admit it seemed I had driven past JJ Bali Button almost as many times as there were buttons in the store. And I shamefacedly admit, I never noticed it. I saw it…the red facade, a little Chinese looking, but it never registered what was in there until one day I was looking for a park near the post office, and finally had a clear sight of the inside of the shop. In fact, you don’t even need to get inside the shop to know that this place is serious about buttons, there’s a huge one on the sign!

I wandered in and purchased a few ‘love’ buttons, printed on flat coconut shell. I took a picture of the business card and buttons and posted it on the Things you need to know about Bali page. Within a day it had over 130 likes! I then posted it on the Bali Soul Journals page, asking who would like to know the story behind JJ Buttons. Enough people had interest (apart from my own!) to make another visit. This time, Trish was with me, camera in hand. I did worry that the owner would think it a  brash that we wanted to interview him for a currently little known business that will one day be a book, but sometimes life is about risks! And on the scale of risks, this one didn’t rank too high. All he or she could do was say yes or no.

We met CeCe (CC) whose beautiful smile was warm and welcoming from the start. I’d begun by asking for the boss and was pointed toward a lovely young lady calming sitting at the front desk. “Well,” she explained, “I am the boss, but so are my parents!” Having now spent time with this family, her sense of inclusion is totally natural and wonderful. It truly is a family business built on love and respect.


CC was open to a few questions, so I asked when the business was started. “1996”, she said, “just after my parents were bankrupt.” Bankrupt? In Bali? This was before the bombings in 2002, tourism was booming, and yet bankruptcy was something as cold and real as anywhere else in the world.

We agreed to come back the following day to interview them; Mary, 48 years old and JJ, 59. But not before CC shared a story about the chance meeting of an American who wanted a ‘few buttons made’, that would change their lives forever. Intrigued, we couldn’t wait to meet them.

This interviewing thing is quite new to me, so I was still a little shy when we arrived today…would they think we were full of it, fake, competitors?! We were asked to sit (but Trish was off again with her camera!) so I sat and waited alone. CC brought me a laminated newspaper article about the button business from the Jakarta Post back in 2011. Because it was laminated signalled it meant a lot to this family. I waited. Her father was eating. This is one of the lovely things about Indonesian culture. It seems to be okay to finish a task that is as important as eating before greeting a guest, and the guest will politely wait until the task is done. Now that I have chatted with JJ, this very act of nurturing the body before nurturing the spirit in meeting someone new seems completely natural.

Shortly, Mary walked out, serene and warm. She grasped my hand in a motherly way and touched it to her chest. This is a Hindu gesture. Although now Christian, Mary’s gentle upbringing in Denpasar as a Hindu is still evident.

If only I had trusted my instincts that led me to the shop in the first place. Instead of being the austere business man I imagined, tolerating a couple of Aussies writing a book, JJ (whose real name is Suparji) is one of the most charismatic, positive men I have met, with a witty sense of humour and life experiences that back it up.

His family is close, supportive and clearly hold each other with much respect. We were led into the office and the ‘interview’ began. It was a mix of asking questions, getting answers and watching while family members rearranged chairs, did important tasks, conducted a quick meeting and all the while made us feel we had their full attention.

We chatted with Abraham, their 23-year-old son, CC (27) and Lidia (14 and for the most part tapping away on endless mobile phones), and Mary. I spoke a little Bahasa Indonesia, Mary spoke a little English, and CC and Abraham translated when needed. It didn’t take long to get to the B word. Not Bali, not buttons, but bankruptcy.

The first thing that strikes you about it is that the family hold this story as something that glues them together. They got through it as a team, through the toughest time in their lives. The other thing that quickly becomes clear is that the memory is still raw, the gratitude is pure and strong, and to this day they feel blessed that they went through it to arrive at where they are today. This is the stuff of inspiration.

As Mary spoke of how they could not pay their 30 staff for three months, tears rolled down her cheeks and she was unable to go on. CC took over. The pain that Mary and JJ went through in carrying their huge responsibility to the  souls they employed is a reflection of the human spirit they carry, the responsibility that they have to their community, and to Bali. In their depth of darkness, their primary concern was, and still is, their staff and the pain they caused them. Not themselves.

It began with a leather company in Jl. Legian. They had many customers from all around the world. Getting orders was never a problem. In fact, with JJ’s charismatic personality and sense of humour, it’s easy to see how business would have boomed. But booming businesses also fail. They explain it with a frankness that also shows that the lesson has been well and truly learned. They did not watch the money coming in versus the money going out. Pure and simple. Cash flow. Money was spent on expenses, employees, sent back home to Java, and while orders came in, the bills piled higher. And then one day, reality hit. The business had crashed, failed, smashed into a concrete wall at high-speed and the end was nigh. They tried all they could to get money to pay the staff but even with orders to process, a miracle was needed, and quickly.

CC and Abraham (Lidia was not yet born) recall those days. They were tough, yet their parents wanted them to have a childhood, laughing and playing, so it was not until they grew up that Mary and JJ shared the full reality of what had happened. A bank officer arrived on their doorstep one day, angry, shaking his fist and demanding money. Abraham was ‘grumpy’ and kept asking why all they could eat was rice and crackers. Mary dabbed at her eyes as the children spoke with quiet pride of two role models who put aside their own worries to ensure that they got what they felt all children deserved. Happiness and memories.

The main thing CC remembers is the fights. As a child, how do you understand the pressure of financial ruin? “We moved house many times”, she explained. Mary made small cakes (kue) and sold them on the street to help bring food to the table. Gone were the hey days of when cash flowed easily, of when they could send money to JJ’s family in Solo, Java (one hour from Yogyakarta), of when they were on top of the world as business owners. JJ shrugs it off. He was born into a working class family. He was used to being poor. “I am a worker”, he explains simply. “I work.”

Every morning, they held fellowship with their local church. Both are devout Christians, the first in the Kerobokan area. Mary was Hindu, JJ Muslim, but of course (and you get the sense that all things have a story with JJ!) a miracle happened that converted them before they married. JJ was General Manager at a hotel and Mary was a waitress. “Romantic!” quips JJ as he measures the size of a button at his desk without glancing up. The two religions weren’t such a problem, except that in Indonesia, two different religions cannot intermarry. “I had a lucky accident”, shares JJ. Indeed! One day he was on his motor bike and drove at full speed into a concrete wall. He was knocked unconscious and awoke some hours later in hospital in Denpasar. The memories are mixed but one thing he does recall strongly is that he died. And during that death, he was called to God. His unlucky accident paved the way not only for what he sees as his salvation, but from a practical point of view, the right to marry his true love, Mary.

His other miracle (well, again, one of many he sees in his life) is his darkest moment.

Mary and JJ had a friend in Canada, which is exactly 12 hours behind Bali. (The full interview will be available in the Bali Soul Journals book, along with the beautiful images of Trish McNeill.) JJ and Mary had their fellowship meeting in the morning at 9am. Not known to them, was what had been happening in the home of their good friends Stuart and Patricia the past seven days.

Patricia is spiritual. She is sensitive and can communicate on a different realm to JJ and Mary. One morning, she saw JJ’s face in her bedroom when she got up. For the next seven days, every day, she saw his face. By the end of the week, it was driving her insane and she exclaimed to her husband, “We have to send them money!” In the evening (their time), they called Mary and JJ who had just finished their prayer session. They had asked for a miracle, God willing.

God was more than willing. He saw that this family was in trouble. I think He also knew that this family had learned valuable lessons about community and family. It was time to entrust them on the next stage of their journey.

Stuart and Patricia paid off all of JJ’s and Mary’s debts. They were free to start again.

Then, the next miracle occurred. They met Michael, an American, who needed a ‘few’ buttons made. He knew Mary and JJ and asked them if they were able to do this. Now, if you know anything about Indonesian culture, they hate to disappoint. And at this point in their lives, this family needed an income. I can almost imagine the meeting, perhaps at a cafe or warung, with both quietly and politely nodding, saying that yes, they could do this for him, no problem.

So Michael put the order on the table. For 25,000 buttons. And he needed them in a week.

I can also imagine Mary and JJ at home gazing at each other in disbelief. Not for the size of the order. Not for the timing. Not for the need. But for the fact that they had absolutely no idea how to make buttons from coconut, never mind paint them! And not just enough for a shirt, but… Twenty. Five. Thousand!

JJ family

For seven days (this period of time comes up a lot in JJ’s stories) they laboured without sleep and at the end of that week, they delivered their first order.

Now, they have a shop in Kerobokan that is valued at around five billion rupiah ($500,000), which they purchased for roughly $500 and needed to pay off in three instalments. Their biggest market is Japan and they make buttons from coconut, shell, bull horn, wood and resin. They have over 10,000 designs and have sold buttons to fashionistas such as Paul Ropp, one of Bali’s most successful designers.

We spent hours with the “JJ family” and there is a lot more that can be written, which will be done in our upcoming book Bali Soul Journals, available later in 2013.

But for now, let me leave you with JJ’s philosophy on life. There are just two principles that you need to know. First, you must nourish the physical body with food and water and good health. But secondly, you need to feed the spirit. This is different food, “not chap chai”. And you need a balance between the body and the spirit. If you can achieve this, you will have a good life.

As I listened to this family speak and relate to each other, I felt humble as witness to the love between each of them. This is a family strongly bonded not just by the working class values of a man from Solo and his wife from Denpasar. Not just by the struggle of when family did not speak with JJ for years after his decision to convert to Christianity, nor attend his wedding, one of Indonesia’s most important ceremonies. Not only by the shame and personal accountability afforded by bankruptcy. But by community spirit. By miracles. And by God’s divine will.

I got the sense that if they lost it all again tomorrow, the family would still smile and be grateful for what they did have. A healthy spirit, and a healthy body.

Plus, and importantly, a sense of humour and positivity driven by the affable JJ, which surely must have guided them on their journey, coupled with the gratitude that stems not from a religious base. Christianity is the source of the miracles and the good, but the genuine reverence for all that has happened to them, for all that they have received, has paved the way for a life of lessons and love and acceptance.

In Bali. Bankrupt. And with buttons.


jj family portrait

Clare interviewing

Clare, interviewing CeCe


“Beautifully written. I went to this shop often and bought lots of button for my shop too, they’re friendly and helpful even when once my car was broken just in front of their shop, help was immediately offered. Reading their life story is touching and inspiring and will change the way I looked at their shop again, a shop with real people, real life and hard work. I used to see it as just “business” and this article is an eye opening.”


Where to find JJ Bali Button


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Find Lio Corner at the intersection of Jl. Petitenget and Jl. Kerobokan in Kerobokan, and head toward the jail from Jl. Petitenget. JJ Buttons is on your left just past a Post Office (Kontor Pos) with a red, Chinese-looking facade and of course, lots of button jars on display! If you get to the prison, you have gone too far. There is parking at the front of the shop.

If coming from Sunset Rd, you can also go down the road Jalan Mertanadi which runs alongside the jail and turn left at the end. JJ’s is on your right about 150m down.

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Text: Clare McAlaney

Photography: Trish McNeill

Copyright 2013. No image may be reproduced without express permission of Bali Soul Journals. Please use the contact form below if you would like to use this article for commercial purposes. The full article will be available later in 2013 with interview transcripts and the photography of Trish McNeill.

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