Jero Asri Kerthyasa is a woman with a life story that reads like a fairy tale most women would only dream of. Born to a middle-class family and raised in Australia, Jero Asri (formerly named Jane Gillespie) met her future husband, Prince Tjorkorda Raka Kerthyasa of the Sukawati royal family of Ubud, on a vacation to Bali. A year later the couple were married and Jero Asri became the first foreign-born princess to become a member of the Sukawati royal family.
Can you tell us a bit about your background before you came to Bali?
I was born in Singapore, but grew up in Australia, and in my former life in Australia I was a pre-school teacher.
What brought you to Bali?
The first time I came to Bali was for a vacation with some friends in 1972. I later came back in 1977 on holiday with my mother, and that’s when I met my husband.
How did you meet your husband?
I was staying in Ubud next to the Lotus Café, and just behind was Tjorkoda’s family temple. Tjorkoda was always there doing the Barong dances, and working with a group of children that he would take around to do performances. As a schoolteacher I loved children, so that brought us together.
Was it love at first sight?
Well…more like love at second sight (laughing). It took about a week before I knew I really I liked him. We got married a year later in 1978.
What did your family think when they found out that you were going to marry a prince?
My Mother had already met him and knew that he was really just a nice, normal guy and not too ‘princey-princey’, and my father was in the Army and worked for the government, so he was used to meeting foreign dignitaries and VIP’s. So neither of them was very shocked or star struck. I suppose some of my friends were more in awe of the whole situation.
Did you choose to change your name or was it something that was required of you?
Actually, the family changed my name and I wasn’t even aware of it until after the fact. Jero is a title given to an outsider who marries into the palace, or someone from an outside caste. Asri means perfect, although I believe they chose it to mean Australia and the Republic of Indonesia, which is not so glamorous.
How did Tjokorda’s family react to his decision to marry a foreigner?
His family was less enthusiastic than mine, and in the beginning there was a lot of opposition to the marriage. They wanted him to marry within the royal family, and so at first there was a little hostility and some of his family members wouldn’t speak to me.
How did the Balinese community react to the marriage?
Some people accepted me, but others would say to my husband, ‘Why don’t you get a real (Balinese) wife’, so I guess you could say there was a bit of subtle subterfuge going on there.
Was it difficult to adjust to life as a princess?
I guess the biggest challenge was not having a choice about doing certain things, for example having to change my religion and my name. After a while that really began to bother me. I thought ‘Why do I have to change everything about my life. It’s not fair!
You have two sons, and one daughter. Do they have any special responsibilities as members of the royal family?
Yes, they still have a lot of responsibilities, roles, and expectations, particularly for ceremonies, but they also still have to work.
You’ve recently opened Biku, a restaurant, lounge and tea house in Seminyak. How did that come about?
Our eldest son Adam is a tea master, which means he had to learn the different tastes and blends of tea. I love tea as well, but I found it hard to find a good cup of tea in Bali, so I wanted to create a place where people could enjoy high quality tea.
Is Biku a family run restaurant?
Yes, my youngest son and I manage the restaurant, and my eldest son consults on us on tea selections and gives tea appreciation classes. My daughter just finished school, so she’s into doing her own thing right now, and my husband is very busy, but he likes to hang out here when he has time. Sometimes he lends a hand by clearing tables or taking orders.
Any plans for the future?
I’d like to build up Biku a bit more, maybe have special events and dance performances. I also plan to use more products from Indonesia. At the moment we have a number of really great teas from Java, and chocolate as well. I really want to showcase what Indonesia has to offer. But as for another hotel or restaurant, no – I think this is it. You know I’m not really into empire building – I just want to do one thing and do it really well.
Note: This interview was originally published in Baru di Bali the Mag, Edition 21. Check out the story and the rest of the issue here.