18 September, 2021

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The “Beautification” Of Urban And Rural Sri Lanka

By Emil van der Poorten –

Emil van der Poorten

Emil van der Poorten

Ever since I’ve had the misfortune to observe the wholesale political and ethnic “cleansing,” in the name of “aesthetic re-arrangement,” of Sri Lanka’s capital city, I have had no desire to get closer than I absolutely had to such monstrous work.  And I really mean the word “monstrous.”

It was a while back that Time or Newsweek ran a cover story on Rumania and the “success” it allegedly was in contrast to the rest of the Eastern Bloc of the time.  It talked in glowing terms of the beautiful, clean lines of the new city of Bucharest among other “facts” that pointed to the country of Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, as a beacon of freedom and democratic practice, where its citizens enjoyed a quality of life without equal in the countries behind the Iron Curtain of that day.

It was not long before the horror of Ceausescu’s “reforms” emerged and they hardly bear repetition here.  With some exceptions.

Yes, he had razed old Bucharest to the ground and replaced it with a brand, spanking-new city. To people who knew what the classic old city looked like, the new Stalinist monstrosity, “block concrete architecture” personified, was an unbelievable horror.  In addition, those who were “re-located” from their residences were put in state-owned apartments with no provision for their pets.  In a city where virtually everyone had pets, particularly dogs, one can well imagine what a huge problem tens of thousands of dogs suddenly cut loose with nowhere to live presented!  The orphans caged, literally, like animals and other horrors that the overthrow, street trial and execution of Nicolae and Elena brought to light are now history, but history with a lesson: take “evaluations” by “interested parties” of regimes responsible for such as “city cleansing” “under advisement”, as that old expression had it!

EVPIn a similar context, one cannot but wonder what happened to the pets of those who were so unceremoniously “re-located” from Slave Island not so long ago. Perhaps there were White Vans to cater to their canine friends as well!

The last straw that drove this camel to his computer keyboard, however, was the pictures that I’ve seen in more than one issue of a newspaper published by the Times group which have the old Racecourse Grandstand (artistically lit), with the ubiquitous “Golden Arches” of the outfit sometimes called Rotten Ronnie’s – the house of Ronald McDonald, McDonalds – prominently displayed on its façade.

I don’t think that even in Ceausescu’s Rumania would a historic building have been defaced with the trademark of all that epitomizes unhealthy eating!  It is beyond belief and I am further bemused by the fact that the commercial entity responsible for this bit of planning is headed by supposedly respectable professional architects with a reputation for good taste if nothing else!  Oh, well, everyone has his or her price, I suppose and when everything, inclusive of “good taste” is at the disposal of a ruling coterie who wouldn’t even know the meaning of the word “aesthetics” if it bit it in that most tender part of its anatomy, who is one to complain?

To me what this epitomizes, though, is the arrogance of a ruling clique to whom nothing is sacred and to whom nothing matters except self-aggrandizement and the exercise of brute power and authority.  It also speaks volumes for those who have the training and education to “know better” than to go along, it speaks volumes (again!) about the debasement of Sri Lanka’s allegedly professional and educated class!

An example of the figures on the hotel roof

An example of the figures on the hotel roof

When streets were straightened out in areas of Colombo where exceptions had previously been made by by-law in order to preserve trees of historical and cultural value, no protest was made by the architectural community except, to my recollection, by one man whose opinion would, I am sure, have been discarded because of his last name which had a “Burgher sound” to it!  The rest of the architectural elite even if it didn’t sing the praises of the new Czar of urban planning certainly did not so much as make passing reference to what was happening, not even  in one of the elitist Forums that I am sure they would have attended, fuelled by the cocktails of upper-class existence.  No, they were too busy lining up for crumbs from the urban planning table!

And now, a return to the rural Sri Lanka that has always been home to me in this country, the relevance of which to this narrative I hope you will appreciate.

For those familiar with the Kandy-Kurunegala road I would strongly recommend an edifice, close to Mawathagama for appropriate scrutiny any time you pass that way.

The faux-classic architecture of the edifice, located immediately adjacent to the road, proclaims it to be a hotel, replete with a quite extensive and expensive outdoor children’s playground to one side of it.  What makes this a place of interest in the context of buildings in poor taste, is the fact that it is festooned with statues of various kinds on its quite extensive roof that faces the A10 Highway.  Predominant among the figures are horses, eagles and classic Roman (?) figures (see picture).  While it has been my intention to deal with my curiosity by driving in for, perhaps, a cup of tea and a biscuit, on every occasion on which we’ve driven by, the gates have been chained shut.

Another interesting fact, in the matter of landscaping, is the large vehicle sales lot which preceded the hotel’s construction and which still continues, between the highway and the hotel and the entry to it.  This can either be considered bizarre or, in a more charitable vein, surrealistic!

Gossip around these parts is that this unique combination of a hotel with extravagant architecture and a used-vehicle lot has connections to those responsible for the “beautification” of Colombo.

As a footnote, I must admit that I have become the butt of many jokes since it was discovered that I had donated an adult “Biling” tree (Averrhoa bilimbi) to this location, being told that the tree was going to the grounds of some charitable institution and that the Triple Gem would bless me etc., etc. for my act of charity!

Given my known distaste for this new Philistinism and those visiting it upon Sri Lanka, I cannot but share my friends’ amusement at what I’d done, no matter how unwittingly! Oh, well, as they say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” and now that this regime has made its contribution to 21st Century Colombo’s architectural aesthetics by sticking a McDonalds sign on an imposing building of significant historic interest, I don’t feel too bad about being taken in by some con-men working for a political czar who had me believing their patron’s hotel was some charitable institution.  After all it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to classify all of that group’s businesses as charitable because the funds for their existence and continuing prosperity are “donated,” no matter how unknowingly, by the Sri Lankan public!

Confirmation of where our landscape is headed is the most recent emblazoning of the Burger King logo on one of the most recently “beautified” historic buildings, re-launched as a consumers’ paradise for the anointed in Colombo!  Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and Pizza Hut, both owned by the Yum Brands fast-food giant must really feel ill done by in these advertising stakes, though I would urge them not to lose faith because, perhaps, the powers-that-be can be persuaded to re-name Parakrama Samudra  “The Lake of Pepsi” or something like that!

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Latest comments

  • 6
    2

    Emil.

    My Grandma used to say…when people buy dogs and horses, they find out who the parents are/were and what the surrounding family is all about. Unfortunately, with the growing population and the expected disappearance of what used to be the norm, every Tom, Dick and Jane feel they are entitled!!

    I am a die-hard liberal when it comes to rights! Still, I think there is something to be said about the social barriers that existed. They may have become a weapon of discrimination in the hands of the empowered and that should be a reflection on the people, not the system itself.

    Why this waste of space you ask?

    I believe if one was properly brought up, taught the right values, learnt history, geography and the sciences…they will not put up a McDonald’s sign in front of a so-called upscale mall.

    That decision tells you more than you want to know about Sri Lankan society than most would want to admit. McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut are the new symbols of prosperity as are the cars bought on loans and are on lease.

    And, who do we have in authority who would know better? NO ONE!! The lunatics are running the asylum, so the destruction of open spaces is done without any regard to the recreation needs of the people around. Beautification is about keeping aimless soldiers and airmen occupied rather than productively employed. Take it for granted every supplier and contractor are selected on dubious criterea.

    We have a government we deserve! Until and unless we decide to do better, we have to deal with the shit we serve ourselves!!

    • 0
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      “”McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut are the new symbols of prosperity as are the cars bought on loans and are on lease. “”

      It is complementary to the TV advertisements targeting children and that is the biggest killer.
      The Chinese even with the pig as GDP never had it so bad. Their children are getting obese like the Americans and it is uncontrollable. Only state intervention with the salt and carbohydrates they use can contain this.

      A brave English couple took the matter up all the way to the EU courts and won the case for the benefit of all and then to top it donated the compensation to charity for kids.

      Now there are places like “Pret A Manager” (same day only, hand made local produce only) EAT,Avacado etc flourishing because of this.They don’t throw away by the end of the day but hand it to the homeless places for free.
      http://www.pret.com/about/good_natural.htm
      http://www.pret.com/nutritional/info/chocolate_brownie_bar_PUK4206.shtm

      Beauty is that which the eye beholds. Remember FAB kollupitiya the experiment

  • 4
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    At times like this I remember grandma’s saying; Class and style, you either have it or you don’t, because money cannot ever buy it.

    Yes, the Yacko’s are now within the gates and they are determined to add the latest layer to our two-and-a-half-millenia civilisation – a layer of tat!

    Let us weep quietly for the gross and vulgar that is now befalling our cities and towns for sadly this is what we’ll have to bequeath to our children. Oh the shame of it!

    • 0
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      European Buddhism is about Mindful Eating borrowed Zen Buddhist.
      A european uni lecturer used to a 3 course meal just eating a small fish sandwich (3″X1″) for one hour feels full- its all in the mind.
      He rarely sees a medic now a days but the annual vaccination for flu.

  • 2
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    Don’t be stupid [Edited out], its not “beautification” of Colombo, its peoples’ aspiration. Hence its “aesthetics” is not just for its residents but for those who visit as well. No wonder you cannot differentiate the difference between Ceausescu’s and Rajapakse’s political environment.

    And don’t be naive. Ask yourself whether McDonalds, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut etc signs can last if real business is not there?

  • 3
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    My Grand Pa used to tell my father when he gets into his uniform (very clean and tidy)in the morning to go to work: “Clean suit, empty pocket”.

    This “Beautification” goes on and on and at what expense no one wants to be bothered. There is a “limit” to everything and if not it is destined to be doomed. That is why Buddha preached “Middle Path” in anything and everything.

    Our President who hails from a family of “Goviya” (Farmers), who is even termed the “SON” of “Maha Goviya” from Giruva Patthuwa by the SLBC, must have at least diverted one quarter of this “Beautification” expenses, in the minimum, to “Clear the mud clogged” tanks in the agricultural areas of the country. How many more new tanks in smaller sizes could have been constructed to hold the rain water to be used during the rainy season and distribute it through a well constructed canal system to the farmers who feed us and the elite class who run the affairs of the country. It is known today how the farmers are suffering without the much needed water to feed the paddy cultivation and it is reported that hundreds of acres of paddy and other crop cultivations would be perished soon during this dry season.

    Have the “Authorities” who are hell bent on “Beautification” and awarding contracts for such massive construction projects with incentives of “Tax Holidays” running to “Decades” considered the NEED to produce and protect our own “FOOD SUPPLY”?

    So “Beautification” is “CLEAN SUIT, EMPTY POCKETS”.

  • 2
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    My personal opinion is that it is the same old story of corruption. MacDonalds and others exist everywhere but town planners in most other countries keep them on a short lease. So how did they get permission to do this? What will be next? Golden arches over Temple Trees or the old parliament bldg?

  • 1
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    Now I can cross Galle Road from my pad next to Ramakrishna Hall in Vellala Turf,to buy my daily cup of strong Tea Tarek from Sumanadisi Bakery without getting hit by an errant Tuk Tuk pilot .

    Even the pavement is walkable without loosing the toe nails,

    Old Dutch Hospital is full of revellers nowadays, sipping pints from Mini Barrels.

    But they don’t look like Game Kollas ( Village Kids) bred by Sinhala Buddhists.

    Agree, the old Oak and Maple Trees which were planted by Mr Poortens ancestors are icons with a value and significance which bring memories of the good things they did to our Sinhala Buddhist ancestors ,like protecting their Human Rights and boosting their Economic Well-being…

    But the increasing population has necessitated straitening roads and erecting buildings to accommodate the extra Sinhala uddhists and Muslims who have come along.

    Just imagine when Vellas get their 1/3 how much more straitening would be needed.

    Probably the Rainbow Alliance must have done modelling and will offer solutions to the 70 % Sinhala Buddhist population plus the 12 % Muslim brethren how they can have a good time in the 2/3rd.

    Agree that the Sinhala Buddhists need to develop their taste for appreciating good things in life, like the Arts , Architecture , and Classical Music

    But it will take time,

    Unlike Poortens who were born with silver spoons in the mouth and brought up on Art and Classical Music from day one.my fellow Sinhala Buddhists have just started getting decent jobs, at least a few bob, and other little necessities only recently.

    Any way what is puzzling is why Mr Poorten is going after the Colonel Sanders Portrait, and the Double Beef Burgur of Hungry Jack’s when the President greets us from big Bill Boards in every Electorate.

    Has Mr Poorten been approached by an NGO ( Norway ??) to put some ” new germs” in BBS pockets?.

    • 1
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      K.A.Sumanasekera:
      Are you trying to prove how really stupid and incoherent you can be, or is is just habit?

      Mechanic(Miko?):
      You seem to be equating eating junk food at McDonalds’s or any other fast food joint with “progress” of some description. Not surprising, given the predilection of you and your fellow travellers for that kind of “culture.”

      • 1
        1

        Emil

        The spy of Mosad Victor Said in his book “by way of
        deception,” that Srilankans are like the monkeys
        just off the tree and your writing looks to prove
        just his point.What’s a cheap unhealthy but comfy
        food to the West is,super luxury for our American
        citizens led coalition.

      • 0
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        Mr Pooten, you had your chance to put your views across. Now, relax and listen to what the readers have to say – like other more refined writers to this newsletter do.

        The saying goes “When you talk/write, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen/read, you may learn something new”

        • 1
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          Paul:
          Ever heard of another gem? “If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen!”

          • 0
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            Does not bother me at all Emil, just amused the way you are donning the stupid and incoherent hat on you voluntarily

            • 0
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              Paul:
              Would suggest a 21st century journey akin to that which the “Paul” of yore took, with a side trip to a primer of English grammar and syntax!
              And speaking of “incoherence”……..!

              • 0
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                Emil, I do not know what yore is and I know nothing about other pauls in history; neither do I claim to be conversant with English language (I had an “F” for lower grade O/L English paper).

                And i sincerely aplogise if my poor english grammar and syntax caused you any angst.

    • 0
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      I don’t know about this one but a long time ago there was a Poorten friend of mine who lives in the UK who kept reminding me that he and his family are all Sinhala Buddhists. And some other friend had confirmed it.

      • 0
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        `I don’t know about this one`

        Its because mechanic grows leeks only.

    • 0
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      Remarkable how this bullshit just flows, Sumane. First, we have the obligatory minority-bashing with the familiar “vellala” talk, then the glorification of the “pure non-drinking Sinhala Buddhist saints” (forgetting, of course, that toddy was invented by these pure souls. Wait, have we forgotten that too? Apologies, I didn’t get the last memo on what we Sinhalese have forgotten so we can continue throwing stones from our glass houses), moving on to a bunch of political talk that I failed to decipher with a team of linguists and a dictionary, and ending with the NGO-bashing his lokkas have now decreed fashionable (topped with sprinkles of ad hominem attacks: because when you have no point to make and no dignity to lose, might as well throw everything).

      Have you considered taking an aerial tour of the east Ukrainian border? Maybe the Donetsk region?

  • 0
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    Emil [Edited out]

  • 2
    0

    Yoooooo stooopid bafoon!!! Why are you making fun of the noble Sinhala Buddhist Culture??? This is what we killed 40,000 stiped animals for and maybe will kill another 400,000 if necessary. You must come to Kolamba and see the place. The independence arcade is so very loverly now. You must see the new cars and the old girls in new clothes and all that. Lots of people and lots of fat. No more malnutrition and all that.

    You saw our ambassadore to the UK dancing on the stage with those woman who do things when paid for? That is our own kings representative so he was dancing for our king by proxy you know that all sinhala buddhist kings did that in the past like your english kings right?

    This sinhala buddhist culture is better than your thuppahi culture right??? This is what we fight for and this is what the BBs jingle and jangle to protect so you please stop making fun of our pride and joy ok!?

  • 2
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    Independence Arcade buildings put by the British were not in a dilapidated state because they were housing the Auditor General’s Offices and some other Offices till recently. It has cost Rs. 40,000/- for the construction of the buildings then. To re-plaster, re-roof, paint the buildings and landscape the garden has cost over Rs. 500 mil. Imagine if the Buildings had to be constructed, what it would have cost? The place is drawing crowds by the numbers but hardly any purchases. There are a few Restaurants where hoppers are priced at Rs. 200/- each and the rest to match. I wonder how long before it turns in to another white elephant as the rest, built at enormous cost under this regime. The Nation in order to stave off starvation should visit these places of grandeur and fill their stomachs to their hearts content and take a drive on the Express ways to digest.

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