Author: Siobhan Campbell

Dr John Yu’s introduction to Indonesian art took place in the mid-1970s when he spotted an ikat textile for sale in a gallery while walking along Liverpool Street near Hyde Park in Sydney. This chance encounter sparked a curiosity that led John to visit Indonesia a few years later with his partner George Soutter. The couple began to take yearly or twice-yearly holidays to Bali, an enchanting destination for many Australians and, as John describes it, the “marketplace” for textiles from all over Indonesia.

Dr John Yu interviewed by Siobhan Campbell and Stan Florek 1st May 2023
Dr John Yu is a collector of South East Asian Art and donated an extensive collection of Balinese textiles to the Australian Museum in 2022. AM Collection Officer Stan Florek and University of Sydney Academic Siobhan Campbell interviewed Dr Yu in his home on 1 May 2023 about his life as a collector and on the donation. Dr John Yu is seated among a large collection of statues of the Buddha for the interview. Image: Abram Powell
© Australian Museum

At that time John was working as a paediatrician at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, and the opportunity for a short break filled with visits to Balinese art dealers, markets and textile producing villages not only offered a restorative interlude from the demands of his professional life but deepened his conviction that art was essential to a healthy society. This conviction was fundamental throughout his medical career, particularly when Dr Yu developed The Children's Hospital at Westmead, where he served as the Chief Executive Officer until his retirement in 1997, by building a new hospital environment immersed in art.

John Yu has lived his life as a collector. Born in Nanjing in 1934, John’s family left China in 1937 after the Japanese invasion of that country and relocated to Sydney, Australia, where his Chinese Australian mother had been brought up. As a child John recalls his small collections of comic books and tin soldiers. By the time he was a medical student at Sydney University he would spend his lunch breaks wandering around the nearby antique dealers in Ross Street, looking at English prints which were affordable on his student budget. This led to an interest in 18th century English ceramics, which John regards as the first stage of his serious collecting, and from there into the world of East and Southeast Asian ceramics.

Throughout his career, Dr Yu has been committed to promoting greater appreciation of Asian art and culture in Australia, through generous acts of philanthropy to public institutions, and through his leadership of the Australian Institute of Asian Culture and Visual Arts (VisAsia). In recognition of his immense accomplishments in children's health, education, medicine and the arts Dr Yu received the Australian of the Year award and was promoted to Companion of the Order of Australia (AC) in 2001.

Over the forty years that Dr John Yu assembled this collection, his passion has been sustained by the overwhelming diversity and creativity of Balinese textile producers. Bali is a small island but each district, and sometimes individual villages, have their own styles of textile production and use. Guided predominantly by aesthetic considerations, John has collected some of the most highly regarded examples of Balinese cloth such as the double-ikat textiles ‘geringsing’ from Tenganan in East Bali and the sumptuous silks embellished with gold and silk threads once favoured by the royal households. However, perhaps above all, John takes most pleasure in the flair displayed by the women who make the shrine hangings ‘lamak using techniques of appliqué, embroidery, and supplementary weft weaving.