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Personality of the Week

   

Mandarins in Colombo

  
Dr. Ching and staff

By Ashok Ferrey

 

Dr. Ching has already been immortalised (or is it more accurate to say crucified?) in my first book, where I tell the tale of the dog Popeye who arrives by air, as most Sri Lankan dogs do, having been thrown over the garden wall by neighbours at the back. He is spoilt rotten by his new owners, with diamant‚ dog collars, foreign shampoos and expensive visits to Ching the vet.

Dr. Ching has always intrigued me: he looks and is completely Chinese, yet he was born here in Sri Lanka, and his Sinhala and Tamil are certainly better than mine. How did this come about?

"My parents were prosperous landowners in what is now Hebei Province in China. Their land was situated at the confluence of several major rivers, and was prone to flooding.  I think in 1936 they decided to emigrate. I have four older brothers who were born in China, but I was born here."

Q. Why Sri Lanka?

A: To tell the truth I am not sure. At that time there was a lot of migration from China for economic reasons, and there were Chinese settlements all-over Asia. In Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Calcutta, and even as far away as Mombassa in Kenya. The ship they travelled on stopped in Calcutta for a few days, and many of their friends got off. My parents decided to sail  to Colombo.

Q. Was there a big Chinese community in Sri Lanka then?

A: A couple of thousand! Today it has dwindled to a couple of hundred, with many migrating onwards to Western countries. I myself have a son in Australia and another in the States. Many Chinese came here intending only to live and work for a couple of years and then go back, so they didn't bother to apply for Sri Lankan citizenship. In the '60s this question of citizenship arose, and many left. My parents had already obtained theirs long before, and were happy to stay. 

Q. What did they do here?

A: My father was a dentist, with a practice in  Pettah. My mother died when I was four so I have hardly any memory of her. I was the baby of the family. I was boarded at St. Anthony's College in Kandy, and was the only one  of my siblings to go on to higher studies. My brothers assisted my father with his practice.

Q. Do you speak Chinese?

A: I spoke only Mandarin with my father. My wife too is Chinese, her family had settled down in Mombassa , but we converse in English at home. So because I haven't used Mandarin for so long I am a bit rusty now. But if any Chinese people were to come in through that door I would probably be able to get by in a conversation.

(I tell him that at boarding school in England I once tried learning Mandarin. The teacher himself was learning it - he kept about four weeks ahead of us in the textbook. The whole thing was a total disaster of course, and I now have a vocabulary of about six and a half words.)

Q. So how did you come to be a vet?

A: In those days the requirements to be a Doctor of Medicine were fairly stringent - you had to have five credits in your SSC. I obtained this and was accepted to read Medicine, and then they found that one of my subjects, Civics, for some strange reason didn't count. So I ended up becoming a vet instead!

For which we and many other Colombo animals are truly thankful! I know that Popeye for sure is extremely grateful, though he can't express this as well as he should like because his Mandarin is not up to scratch either.


 

 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 


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