Alexa Schulz’s “Tropical Amsterdam”

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:

** SEE


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10 responses to “Alexa Schulz’s “Tropical Amsterdam”

  1. Mark La Brooy

    I found the movie nothing more than a somewhat humourous snapshot of a small Burgher community coming to terms with the reality of living in a country that has unquestionably deteriorated since independence.

    Your review doesn’t mention the downward spiral the country went into since “sinhala only” was introduced around 1958. I know I was there as a child but old enough to know what was happening. It was a wonderful childhood with many indelible memories.

    As for Burghers regarding themselves as an elite? I agree they did and they thought themselves above the “natives”. But this is no more so than many high birth Sinhalese who also regard themselves as socially upward of the native class as you call them. This is true to this very day as I have relations, who are Sinhalese, living in Sri Lanka who are clearly a cut above the rest. They are highly educated and live in a socio-economic layer that is higher than the average. So what is the difference between that and the social layering one finds in society generally no matter where one goes, even China?

    The Burghers of Ceylon left the country in droves at the introduction of “Sinhala only”. As the socialist government of the day were hall-bent on constricting (or restricting) opportunity to the Sinhalese majority the Burghers had no option but to uproot themselves. Here you will find the origins of the Tamil Eelam movement.

    Sinhala only is a very sad vestige of modern Sri Lankan history. It was political opportunism. Why I ask have so many Sinhalese migrated to live in America, Britain, Canada and Australia? Why I ask do the Sinhalese who can afford it send their children to study in these countries? Have they come to terms with Sinhala only as an unmitigated disaster?

    Its a paradox that not many Sinhalese like to address.

    Mark La Brooy (A damned proud Ceylon Burgher)

    • Stephen LaBrooy

      Whilst I agree in the main with Mark LaBrooy’s comments, the main aspect of Sinhala Only which was unpalatable to the Burgher community was the abolition of the English stream in schools. It was a pre-requisite for us that our children were educated in our mother tongue- English.(A not unreasonable requirement !). I firmly beleive that the vast majority of us would have stayed here had that element been removed from the Sinhala only bill. Yes the bill was political opportunism at its worst, but in a way it answered a call from the vast majority of this country (non English speaking) who felt that they were totally “left out ” after independence. The right decision would have been to make all three languages- Sinhala, Tamil and English the official languages of Sri Lanka and at the same time build up the English stream in all village schools. At a very late stage, it has dawned on the Sinhala people – only in the last two decades or so- that far from being the beneficiaries of Sinhala only, they are in fact its greatest victims! Only English speakers can step into the top posisitons outside of Goverment Jobs- which do pay well.Those students who have struggled to get nto University and were entirely Sinhala Educated now had to learn English in order to be able to read their text books! Steps are now being taken by the current administration to try and address this problem. People castigate SWRD Bandaranaike for this lamentable situation, but in my opinion J.R Jayawardene was by far the bigger culprit. Here was a man who had acheived virtual dictatorial powers in 1977 , had all the power necessary to put things right in our education system ( when we still had teachers in this country who could teach in English) and did nothing. Sometimes, it would appear that the sins of omission are greater than those of commision!

  2. Mark La Brooy

    Hi Stephen,

    Mate, you and I are on the same page…I think!

    Thanks for your reply. You will obviously look at the situation over the last 60 plus years from a “local” Burgher perspective. On the ground so to speak, or as the movie portrays a man who came to Australia for a while and then returned to SL but with a close affinity to what was happening on the “street”.

    I look at the matter from a outside perspective. I know the hardship my parents went through in taking a family with six children to a miserable bloody existence in South London for the first eight years 1962 to around 1970. My Dad left a directorship with Ceylon Fibre Industries for the sake of the family. All of us have come through, tougher, wiser and with no regrets of our parents decision to leave Ceylon.

    I never for a moment thought about why my parents took us away. Now, as a man of mature years I am asking questions. In learning the truth I am quite bitter about what happened.

    Stephen, I will leave a final comment.

    Isn’t it ironic that the incubators and implementers of Sinhala only, namely, Phillip Gunawardene, Colvin R. De Silva, S.A. Wickremasinghe, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Peter Kueneman ALL completed their education in Universities in the UK and America…in English.

    I lament the fact that a Burgher (Kueneman) was involved with this motley crew.

    Kind Regards
    Mark La Brooy

  3. Podinilame Dissanayake

    I saw ‘Tropical Amsterdam’ at a showing in Los Angeles and I think the filmmaker has done a good job of capturing the lives of the ‘conquerors’ whose roles have now been reversed. The film does not make a pretense of being a historical epic about the rise and fall of the Burghers in Sri Lanka.

    I have no doubt that Mr La Brooy had a great childhood growing up in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately, the majority of the people, didn’t. His ‘indelible memories’ don’t extend to the vast majority of the “conquered” commoners who for centuries under colonial rule faced degradation, including massacres (Uva Wellassa and Kanda Udarata). I’m not sure if he’s even familiar with that aspect of our history. The usage of the mother tongue was prohibited in schools and jobs did not come by without English, which education was not available to the commoner. One had to be christened or swear slave allegiance to the colonial master to succeed. “……many high birth Sinhalese who regarded themselves as socially upward” as stated by Mr La Brooy, came from such stock and they were a minute percentage of the Sinhala community.

    Imagine a justice system where judgments are passed and the accused are clueless about the judicial proceedings and their rights because they don’t know the language in use? Such was the fate of the Sinhalese under colonial rule, as well depicted in Leonard Woolf’s “Baddegama.” If English was a barrier for social upward mobility for the vast majority of the populace, why was it wrong to have been supplanted with the language of the majority?

    As for LaBrooy’s sweeping statement that Sri Lanka is “….a country that has unquestionably deteriorated since independence…” I challenge him to be specific and submit indicators of deterioration. Is it per capita income, quality of life indicators, or what? In fact, far from being worse, for the majority of the ‘conquered,’ things have vastly improved. You only have to look at the makeup of our cricket teams, or the dramatic career of an athlete like Susanthika Jayasinghe, for evidence.

    LaBrooy and others who carry the “Sinhala only” vendetta must see it for it is: a passing phase in a nation trying to find its wings after independence. It may have been political opportunism but one that gave space to the political and social advancement of a once “conquered” community that was suppressed because of the English barrier. The children of the post independence era having gotten their opportunity through “swabasha” have now moved into the 21st century. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates commented in 2009: “I am optimistic that the country is poised for greater economic growth and development, and much of that will be fueled by the use of software and the power of IT. Sri Lanka’s high literacy rate, at over 90%, and its high standards of education and healthcare give it a strong economic foundation. The country’s IT literacy rate is nearing 20%, which represents a significant jump from 8% only a few years ago.” These opportunities are available to all Sri Lankans, and they don’t have to change their religion or speak a language that their parents don’t understand. English has been taught continuously in the past 60 years in schools and its importance as a link to global opportunities has never been minimized.

    Mr La Brooy’s attempt to borrow from the LTTE bill boards are shameful. The seeds of separatism by interested political figures were sowed prior to independence, very much prior to the Sinhala only act

    Finally, Labrooy’s argument that Sinhala parents are sending their kids abroad ”having come to terms with Sinhala only as an unmitigated disaster,” is nothing less than laughable. US immigration stats show that between 2000 and 2010 over 1,400,000 people from Europe, including 200,000 from the UK became permanent residents or citizens. That doesn’t account for the number of people who attempted but were not able to gain legal residence. What does that tell you? That they have all come to terms with their native languages as an ‘unmitigated disaster’ or are they seeking better opportunities just as the human race has been doing through migration since before the so-called ‘dawn of civilization?’ Can one conclude that the recent wide interest in China, by those living in western nations (mastering Mandarin and Cantonese and handling chop sticks) is because they have come to terms with “English only” as an unmitigated disaster or because they see trade and other advancements?

    I must add that there were a few advanced colonial-era educators who did try to give a place to the Sinhala language in their schools. One such was Rev A.G. Fraser who as early as in the 1920’s included Sinhala in the curricula at Trinity College, Kandy (my alma mater). The much-revered Rev. Fraser is credited with uplifting Trinity from a provincial to a national school with his far-sighted policies which were not always in line with those of the colonial masters. He was by no means a political opportunist!

    Podinilame Dissanayake

    • Mark La Brooy

      Sir or Madam,

      Let me take issue with several of the points you raise:

      The Burghers were not “conquerors” as you put it. They didn’t conquer anyone. They were a relatively small group of people of largely mixed descent that chose to remain after the Dutch were ousted from Ceylon. The contemporary definition of a Ceylon Burgher also includes people of British and Portuguese origins.

      The Burghers didn’t “rise” to a particular social class in Ceylon. Their position was pre-ordained as a result of being able to work with the British who were the last conquerors of the island. The Burghers had a predilection to mix and work with all groups which is why the British put them into administrative and supervisory roles. Mind you the British were staunch separatists in a social sense as depicted in the film.

      The Burghers haven’t “fallen” as you put it. We proudly evangelize our origins from our new countries of domicile and would add that we now contribute substantially to Sri Lankan tourism revenue. Many Burghers have risen to great prominence, too numerous to give a blow by blow account here.

      So, I will confine your comments to mere Burgher xenophobia.

      The use of the mother tongue was NOT prohibited in schools. I went to St Peters College, Colombo up until 1962 where they had both English and Sinhalese streams. The English stream was taught Sinhala as a second language and the Sinhalese stream was taught English as a second language. I understand that all the major schools had the same mot certainly during my early years.

      Ananda and Nalanda colleges were schools where the students were taught exclusively in Sinhalese. Please get your facts straight.

      Post independence but more specifically post 1956 the country went into conflict with the Tamils. “Sinhala only” was the root cause. The war came to an end last year with the tally of dead of somewhere between 80,000 to 100,000 people. If that ALONE isn’t deterioration then I’m sorry say you are living on another planet. The cost of the war to the country in social and economic breakdown was massive. There was virtually nil foreign investment in the country.

      I visited SL in 2006. I found Colombo to be a filthy city on a par with Cairo. Householders were happy to pile their garbage in front of their own homes. When the pile got too big they threw their rubbish into the canals or the railway lines. Yes, I walked from the Bambalapitiya Flats (where I used to live) to Kinross along the railway line and couldn’t believe my eyes. And moreover, the average person on the street couldn’t give a hoot. He/She had no pride of place. In my day there was some rubbish around but not to the extent of what it was in 2006. THAT is deterioration.

      Today, you have white van kidnappings, journalists who are hounded and killed for publishing a particular view in a so-called democratic country. The leader of the Opposition is put in jail. THAT is deterioration.

      The Sinhala Only Act was a brutal act of xenophobia. It led to Tamil and Burgher job-holders having to re-apply for their own jobs but now having to prove proficiency in Sinhala. Fact not fiction. Sinhala only was the brain-child of a Communist Sri Lankan elite all overseas educated in ENGLISH. See my earlier blog. The policy was blatant ethnic separatism, and that gave rise to the big riots of 1958 where Tamils were bludgeoned on the street by Sinhalese thugs. Fact not fiction. I know because the Bamba Flats was a place of refuge for many Tamil families and their friends and relatives. They were protected by a vigilante group consisting of Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher people.

      As for the SL cricket team, the last time I looked they got a well-deserved hammering at the hands of the South Africans. The Jayasinghe lady did very well in one of the Olympic events and was a creditable performance, but coming third is not the standard one should aspire to.

      Mark La Brooy

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  5. anonymous

    Podinilame Dissanayake,

    Im proud to be a burgher. Let me highlight why. Unlike the sinhalese we burghers:

    Speak english extremely well.
    Integrate well with other cultures and especially at work
    Dont boast about everything under the sun like what car i drive, living in a double storey house, my sons a doctor, my child goes to this expensive college.
    We have common sense and dont send our children to 50K private schools when we cant afford it and live on bread and butter.
    We dress well

    Proud Burger

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  7. Venerable representatives of a supposedly ‘dying community’, wheeled out to make the usual nostalgic remarks about an age long past. My friend Stephen LaBrooy is probably the youngest person mentioned in the article and even he is as old as I am.

    There is a younger Dutch Burgher community in this country, too. Some of them are remarkable characters. Why doesn’t anyone ever make films or write about them? The question of how *they* have adjusted to the new Lankan realities is surely more relevant, and I am sure more interesting, than these backward-looking reminiscences.

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