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Burghers, dim sum, and... Chapter 1

Updated: Aug 14, 2022

When you’re five years old, living in Ceylon, and told that your favourite and beautiful green eyed aunt Berniece downed a bottle of arak, ran to where the 6pm train would be steaming down the track in Nuwera Elya, laid her head down on the rails and waited for one journey to end and another to begin, that memory lives with you.

What carrying this thought does is have a subconscious impact on how you approach almost anything later in life. Everything else is left in the lap of the gods or the season of the witch. It’s a thin line between the two.

The way my aunt chose to leave us was one of the most popular ways of calling life quits in Ceylon with arak, the local brandy, being the cheapest high to numb senses and allow whatever to take over.

Being married to my Uncle Maurice, her first cousin- cousins marrying cousins being a taboo- a qualified surveyor, was one trigger. He was also an alcoholic. I never knew that. All I saw was a ruggedly handsome and kind man with whom I would play the board game called carrom whenever visiting them in what was Ceylon’s upcountry.

For Auntie Berniece, being mother to two deaf mutes and one young one who was born normal, had taken its toll on her psyche. She wanted out and took what she thought to be the only option left to her. Writing this, I realise that I never heard of my parents attending a funeral.

We were Burghers enjoying life in Ceylon- Burghers being descendants of the Dutch and Portuguese traders who made the island their home during the Spice Island Wars and inter-married with the local inhabitants.

There were the fair Burghers and dark Burghers. My family fell into the latter camp. The colour of one’s skin was very important to Burghers. To older Burghers, it still is. It provides some sort social pecking order in society.

In those days in Ceylon, Burghers, or to be more exact, fair Dutch Burghers enjoyed an exalted position in society on the island.

They gave the biggest parties, they never missed New Year’s Eve night at the famous Galle Face Hotel- this was something my parents never missed- whereas there was always some competition going on to see who made the best Burgher cuisine- Breudher, Love Cake, Lamprais, Fudge (always with cashew nuts) etc.

My mother Helen was the second eldest of three sisters and one brother. Her youngest sister- Rosie- had married HER cousin- Brandon- and decided not to have children.

My other aunt- Olga- had suffered a stroke at a young age. I never really knew her nor her husband. Maybe she didn’t even have one. Uncle Henry remained somewhat out of the family circle. My eldest aunt- Doreen- I only got to know when she emigrated to the UK together with her youngest sister and husband.

It was quite a glass menagerie and dependent on what you were allowed to see. There either wasn’t much closeness between the families, or if there was, it was kept in check.

My mother’s father was a retired surveyor who had moved to Ceylon from Malaya and married my grandmother- a blue eyed Burgher. Her maiden name was Ebert. This has always had me wondering about the relationship between her family and that of my father’s Ebert family tree.

It’s a tree with many branches and no one really knew how and where it all came together. But us Burghers, a mix of Dutch and Portuguese who intermarried with the local inhabitants and going back to the Spice Island Wars, are, in one way or another, supposedly related.

Dutch Burghers, at least my parents’ families, led almost a surreal Twin Peaks type of lives. The only thing missing were clowns and midgets though a “Laura Palmer” might have got lost somewhere along the way.

There were always secrets. I gave up trying to piece things together as the truth never won out. The secrets always trumped the facts.

As the only child in a middle class family where my mother Helen and father Herbert were full time stenographers, I grew up raised by servants.

Podi was there to play with me and her younger sister Alice was our cook. Podi would also feed me with her hand, be there to clean me after I had finished going to the toilet and take me to kindergarten, wait for me until school finished and where she would, again, feed me with her hand at lunchtime with whatever was packed into the flask.

Life was what it was and when one didn’t know any different, it was accepted. We had a house with a garden and a cage full of budgies until the cat decided they had to go.

There were bandicoots- giant rodents- making frequent attacks on the garden and a cat and dog who had somehow adopted us.

There was no television, so most nights were spent in the kitchen with the servants and playing with my cat. My parents would be in the living room catching up on whatever had happened that day.

I don’t remember any friends coming over- certainly not at night. If there were visits it was from an old uncle who came over to play marbles with me. Was he a real uncle. Not sure as everyone was an “uncle”.

There was the occasional visit to the city by a lost vedda, an indigenous tribe living in the forests of the island. They were harmless and added some excitement to daily life.

It was quite a lonely life, but this is how I thought it was meant to be. I never had a birthday party, didn’t receive a birthday present and with the highlights being packing a lunch of cheese and chilli sandwiches for a car trip to visit my Auntie Berniece and Uncle Maurice and my cousins upcountry and the parties my parents would give for their friends.

The servants would work for days preparing for these parties. They might have happened during Christmas though stories about Santa coming down the chimney with presents was dismissed by my mother as rubbish.

What wasn’t rubbish was having a fly make my ear their home for two days until it became so fucking unbearable that Podi poured some hot oil down my ear and killed it. Weird or what?

When not in school, I spent most of my time digging up our backyard for earthworms.

Podi played cricket with me in the garden and all was okay until that day when my farmer friend- “donga man”- who would bring his bull for a walk in the open field where we lived was gnored to death and in front of me.

I never really understood that- such a savage death and nor was it explained. It was just another page in the book of life that you had to figure out for yourself.

It’s like when I would wander off down the road in the afternoons until they became nights to take a peek into the circus that would visit Colombo a few times a year.

Thinking back to what I saw or thought I saw, it wasn’t that different to the very film noire “Nightmare Alley”.

Again, when around five years old, and there’s no one to offer any explanations, one just absorbed everything in front of you- the entire freak show of jugglers, clowns, trapeze artists, bearded women, midgets and American faith healers placing their hands on a conga line of people with goitres- bulbous growths on their necks. Why were there so many people in Ceylon at that time with goitres? No idea, but definitely freaky.

The only show biz impresario in Ceylon was the very powerful Donovan Andre. He was a big man in many ways and brought the very best in Jazz to Ceylon- brilliant players from all around the world. His backstory must be fascinating.

Donovan Andre’s name was mentioned often at home. In fact, my Dad did some work with him- bringing in acrobats, magicians and some musical acts from Hong Kong to Colombo and who were booked into Mr Andre’s nightclubs.

One act were the kid group called the Rocky Fellers who included a very young Chris Babida, a musician who went on to be one of Hong Kong’s most well known arrangers, songwriters and producers.

Dad’s elder sister Primrose had met a Portuguese sailor named Gus when he was passing through Ceylon. She married him and moved to Hong Kong. It was auntie Prim who helped bring the Ebert family to that city still trying to forge a future.

My parents were the last in the family to make Hong Kong their home. Most Burghers were moving to Australia as the political situation in the island was getting more and more violent plus Sinhala was going to be the sole language of former British colony.

In 1959, Ceylon was turned upside down with the assassination of Prime Minister Mr Bandaranaike who was shot by a Buddhist monk. The monk and two other ministers found to be involved in the assassination were hanged despite capital punishment having been abolished.

Prime Minister Bandaranaike was succeeded by his wife, who became the world’s first female prime minister. There were the usual rumours that she was behind the shooting of her husband, but who knew? Nothing was explained to me.

All I heard was that it was dangerous for my mother to go to work. Knowing we were Burghers, our home was being pelted with rotten eggs.

Almost overnight, our pets were being given away, we had packed, Burghers were no longer welcome, and I was in a ship for almost two weeks bound for this place with the ying tong name called Hong Kong.

So embarrassed to tell those in school that I was leaving for somewhere with a Chinese sounding name, I said that we, too, were leaving for Australia. The only Chinese we saw in Ceylon were noodle sellers on bicycles.

Of course, I had nothing to say about us leaving and where we were going. It was just another adventure starting with all that time aboard a ship.

My father was in the cabin below getting seasick and I was up on the deck playing shuffleboard with my mother and some Italian priests also on their way to this Chinatown.

This adventure was like no other. It wasn’t a game changer. It was a life changer.

Guess my love for music came from my father. Being a stenographer was to make a living. Having his own radio show- The Melody Maker on Radio Ceylon- gave him the stage to play piano, sing and introduce visiting artists to Ceylon like the Dave Brubeck Quartet, Billy Eckstine and a few others. Sometimes I would be with him when he was recording his programme.

Dave Brubeck Quartet

Billy Eckstine

This was my musical sandbox where I met his musician friends like vocalist Yolande Wolff who later changed her name to Yolande Bavan and took over from the great Annie Ross with Dave Lambert and Jon Hendricks.

Being amongst these musicians, I learned songs like “Autumn Leaves”, “Skylark” and “Stardust” and was introduced at a very early age to artists like Errol Garner, Fats Waller, Art Tatum, Lena Horne, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, the Benny Goodman Trio etc.

It was the singer in my dad’s quartet who chose my name for my parents. She had fallen in love with a German named Hans. If he had a son, my father made a promise to her that he would be named Hans.

Seven years later and after needing a caesarean operation, Hans Llewelyn Ebert arrived as my mother’s birthday present. She never let me forget that- especially the pain she had to endure and how my head resembled an eggplant. Thanks, Mum.

When I arrived in this strange place called Hong Kong, I didn’t even know how to use a knife and fork. I had to learn how to feed myself.

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