Saturday, October 25, 2014

Dutch Burghers in Sri Lanka

A few months ago, I paid my first visit to Sri Lanka.  I was here essentially to spend time with a friend and also to meet up with an old University classmate.  But I must admit that I also came here  to explore the links and connections between Sri Lanka and the other colonial territories of the Portuguesse and British in Asia, principally Malacca and Singapore.

St Theresa's Church, Colombo
The histories of Sri Lanka and Malacca are surprisingly alike.  First colonised by the Portuguese, who brought with them Catholicism, and churches.  Then by the Dutch, who started off the task of institution building. and then, lastly the British.  Finally, the Sri Lankans got the opportunity to govern themselves.

I spent a little time with each of Sri Lanka's former colonial masters.  In Colombo, I went to mass in St Theresa's church -  the parish was under the charge of the Redemptorists.  I must admit that I would associate Redemptorists with St Alphonsus rather than St Theresa, but then St Theresa is one of the patron saint of missionaries; so it is a good name for a little church far from the homes of the missionaries themselves.  We had an Irish priest giving the sermon, so the missionary spirit is indeed alive and well here.  Mass was "organised" the way it was in my childhood - the songs dated from then, and we knelt around the altar to receive communion.   The altar boys were dressed all in red.  I am still wondering whether it was a local custom or whether there was a special feast day being celebrated.

The Dutch Burgher Union House
We also went to the Dutch Burgher Union cafe for lunch.  Called the VOCafe, the "VOC" is actually a reference to the Dutch East India company or the Vereenigde  Oost-Indische Compagnie....  its definitely easier to say VOC. We had lampreis for lunch, a "typical" Burgher dish but I also saw traditional Eurasian dishes such as Mulligatawny soup and Beef Smore on the menu.  We were to have lampreis again a few days later, as my Uni friend is a Dutch Burgher by heritage and his wife cooked it for us.  Lampreis is not really a dish we see in Singapore.  It looks like a packet of nasi lemak from the outside, but it is actually rice cooked in a beef stock, with "seeni sambal", some  meat cutlets, a mixture of cubed meats and spices which is the exciting part of the dish.  The food is all packed together in a banana leaf which can then be kept aside till it's time to eat.  At this point, it is steamed for a few minutes till it's all nicely warmed up.  Pure comfort food.

Driving around Colombo, we saw the institutions the British left behind - the Parliament, the old government offices.  My friend told me that her husband's parents met because their families were living near each other, in the government officials' quarters.

Beyond Colombo, the old buildings and institutions the British left behind were really evident in Galle, where we visited the old Fort.  Built originally by the Dutch, the British fortified it further.  These sturdy walls have withstood storms and even the Asian tsunami of 2004 (there was some damage, apparently, but it has since been repaired).  Its institutions - the old government offices, the police etc are all here, in addition to the military barracks, and the lighthouse etc. It reminded me a little more of Malacca, rather than Singapore - I suppose that's the combined influence of all three colonial Masters rather than just one.   Unfortunately we got here a little late in the day and didn't have the opportunity to have high tea at the posh hotel.

Galle Fort

In short, I had left my home behind but found myself in a familiar place on the other side of the Indian Ocean.  I do have some family connection to Sri Lanka.  My mother's father's sister (my grandaunt) was married to a Ceylonese Burgher, of French descent.  He left Ceylon before the war, and came to Singapore where he met my grandaunt.  I distinctly remember visiting them every year at Christmas, tagging along behind my parents.  I would sit and look at their beautiful Christmas crib with its lovely figurines and eat Sugee cake and Love Cake.  So, you can see that the Ceylonese burgher and the Singapore Eurasian indeed lived harmoniously together.

And now that the Sri Lankan civil war has ended, I do hope that the people of different races, languages, religions  in this little island can also live harmoniously together.  It is time for the rich history and heritage of this lovely island to shine again.

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