Hassina Leelarathna, in the Sunday Leader, 30 May 2011
It wasn’t too long ago, it seems, that I used to hear an elderly Burgher neighbour grumble as she watched her neighbours walk past her home: “Look at these natives, child, look at how they dress now.” It was the mid 1970’s, and my neighbour, with the crisp semi-British accent and ‘bobbed hair,’ still considered herself among the island’s privileged, even as the European short dress, long the preserve of Burgher ladies and, perhaps, one of the last symbols of their cultural separateness and social dominance, was being mercilessly usurped by the ‘natives.’
Now, more than three hundred years after their ancestors first forayed into the island, do the Burghers still consider themselves a tier above the rest? With whom do the remaining Burghers identify? With the coloniser or the colonised? The conqueror or the conquered? These are the questions film director Alexa Oona Schulz set out to answer when she headed to Sri Lanka with her cinematographer husband, Matthias Grunsky, in 2009. The result is a 54-minute documentary, Tropical Amsterdam, that gives a glimpse into the sometimes funny, sometimes poignant, lives of an aged tribe now facing extinction in a land their ancestors once ruled.
Schulz lives in Los Feliz Village, a laid back artistic community near Los Angeles that is full of chic little restaurants, and bars once frequented by America’s most famously drunken poet Charles Bukowski. Over breakfast, Schulz, whose documentary “Football Warriors” won two international awards in 2006, recounted her Sri Lankan experience and her interest in making a film about the Burghers of Sri Lanka. The German-born filmmaker became fascinated with the island after reading Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, an energetic memoir that draws on the Sri Lankan-born author’s Dutch genealogyAfter spending a vacation in Sri Lanka and being captivated by the visible remnants of its long strands of colonial history, she channeled her interests in colonialism and globalisation into learning about the Dutch occupation of Ceylon. As long as she can remember, she says, colonial life, with all its contradictions and eclecticism, has fascinated her. With the help of a grant from the Netherlands Embassy in Colombo and armed with contact names she had obtained by networking with the Burgher diaspora, she returned to the island with her husband. The duo spent six weeks interviewing several Dutch Burghers and capturing slivers of the daily lives of others preparing to celebrate a traditional Christmas at the Dutch Burgher Union (DBU) and at St. Nikolaas’ Home for Burgher ladies run by the DBU.
The Goethe Institute in Colombo plans to have a screening of the documentary and a discussion in early June.** Schulz is also working on getting it shown at international film festivals.
Collectively, the characters interviewed in Tropical Amsterdam present a tableau of what it means to be Dutch Burgher long after the sun has set on the empire, articulating some basic, yet startling, truths about colonialism itself.
Writer and poet Jean Arasanayagam (née Solomons), Burgher by descent and married to a Tamil, represents the typical apologist for imperialism, expressing pangs of ‘white guilt’ and being abashed about some of its pretentious trappings. “They [the colonisers] came here with their colonial ideas of religion and changing the culture here … They were not admirable … they did a lot of brutal things.” She seems as peeved about the role Burghers played as enablers of colonialism and second-class citizens during British times, recalling her engine-driver father’s sense of accomplishment at being able to stop the train just at the point where the English governor could step on to the red carpet at the railway station.
Deloraine Brohier, on the other hand, speaks wistfully of that other time, of gentility and quaint rites of passage such as coming out debutante balls where girls of privilege wore white dresses of flowing tulle. Her memories of train journeys extend back to those days when attendants laid linen on the bunks, when ‘mummy packed picnic boxes with savories and buttered sandwiches,’ and three-course dinners were served in the compartment to first-class passengers. Later in the film, she remarks to her friend Christine Spittel-Wilson that she’s going back to reading old books, notably, Gone with the Wind. Do we detect a longing for the genteel world of belles and debutantes?
Quite a bit of Tropical Amsterdam’s footage is devoted to following Mystica Flamer-Caldera (née Vancuylenberg) as she prepares for Christmas with painstaking efforts to create colorful bon-bons (aka Christmas crackers). Her several attempts at making the perfect bon-bon, which, when pulled by two people should split and produce a crackle or popping sound, are laden with symbolic connotations. Said to be the creation of an Englishman in the 19th century, bon-bons, small cardboard tubes containing a toy or other gift wrapped in a brightly decorated twist of paper are a throwback to Christmases past (some Sri Lankans have never heard of a bon-bon). As the fair-skinned Dutch descendant tests out her creations with her domestic aide, a dark Sinhalese woman, there’s the unmistakable reinforcement of social distance. Despite Ms. Flamer-Caldera’s urgings to “pull, pull,” the domestic aide does not appear to be comfortable giving her half of the bon-bon a tug as strong as that of her employer’s. Her timorous pulls cause the bon-bon to fizzle out without producing the expected pop. Apparently, there are miles to go before both the coloniser and the colonised bridge the gap that prevents them from meeting as equals on the test lines of a four-inch long bon-bon.
Another interviewee, Stephen Labrooy, is a robust man with blue eyes and a hearty laugh who appears to identify strongly with his Dutch ancestry while demanding his rightful place as a Sri Lankan. His parents had immigrated to Australia at one time but, disenchanted with life there, returned to the island where they enjoyed privilege and an opulent lifestyle, replete with ‘houseboys’ and ‘servants.’ He is often mistaken for a foreigner, which he probably would not mind if not for the inconveniences that crop up when dealing with local authorities in Galle where he’s building a house. The land registrar had not registered his property mistaking him for a foreigner. “So, I actually had to go there and in my not-perfect Sinhala kinda lose my temper a bit. And say hey, my ancestors built this fort. We came here 300 odd years ago, I’m Sri Lankan.”
While its focus is on the Dutch Burgher community, the film chronicles some basic truths about an amorphous colonial heritage, rather than characterisations specific to a single colonial ancestor. Schulz herself said as much when she mentioned that her purpose was to probe some universal elements of colonialism. Which isn’t surprising since one of the underlying paradoxes of Dutch colonialism is its exiguous legacy. Despite enduring enclaves of architecture in former strongholds such as Galle and parts of Colombo, Dutch remnants are sparse. Notably absent here, as in other former Dutch colonies, is an inheritance of language. Fair-skinned Burghers were easily assimilated into the British ruling class because of their mastery of the English language, not because they spoke Dutch. Scott Dirckze, a tea planter, remarks in the film that “the only authentic Dutch custom Burghers have is to have Breudher and they don’t even know how to spell it properly.” And then, too, the Breudher’s antecedents as a Christmas cake are questionable says Dirckze who found a reference to Breudher in a Dutch-English dictionary dating back to 1730. But it’s listed as a pudding, not as a cake. Additionally, he says, a recipe book from the Netherlands foreign ministry throws doubt on the very character of the Breudher: one of the ingredients that goes into it is bacon. (Mr. Dirckze may well go down in Dutch Burgher history as the grinch who demolished the Christmas Breudher!)
While metaphorising colonialism as “a white skin in a dark country,” Schulz recognises that it was also a landscape with varying shades of white, where the colonisers were also the colonised. When power paradigms shifted at the turn of the nineteenth century and the British took control of the island, colour delineations blurred, perpetrator became victim. The Burghers, labeled ‘Ceylonese,’ found themselves in the ranks of the natives, barred from certain activities and certain places: social clubs, golf courses, and, notably the Colombo Swimming Club, were out of their reach. Some of the characters in Tropical Amsterdam slam the British for these displays of snobbery: Labrooy gleefully recounts the time he and a friend walked into the Colombo Swimming Club, urinated into the pool, and got away with “the smug knowledge that those whites-only are swimming in our piss.” Yet, Dutch Burghers, in turn, are accused of turning their noses at others. “Where Burghers are concerned, there are hierarchies there too. There are the blond and the blue-eyed kind who like to trace their descent direct from their Burgher ancestors,” says Arasanayagam who claims that the DBU refuses to acknowledge her existence because of her marriage to a non-Burgher.
“A Burgher left-behinder like myself, where do I belong?” she asks. This question, of identity and belonging, has followed migrants from time immemorial and dogged the coloniser and the colonised alike. And it lies at the heart of Tropical Amsterdam, as the camera pans in on the next generation of Burghers, brown-skinned Sri Lankan kids with authentic Dutch names gyrating to a lively tune, and on the weather-beaten hands and lined faces of the generation that preceded them. It lingers long after the screen has faded on the Burgher ladies, dressed in their Christmas finery, holding flickering candles, harmoniously rendering “Silent Night” yet again at the Dutch Burgher Union.
Hassina Leelarathna is a freelance writer living in California. She may be contacted by email: email@example.com
** SEE www.tropicalamsterdam.com