Fragrant memories of China
In 1975, twelve officers of the Ministry of Fisheries were to fly to
the People's Republic of China on a six-month course on Aquaculture.
This was the first FAO/UNDP training program to be hosted by China,
after becoming a member of the world body. It was a gracious gesture of
appreciation, no doubt from a friendly and gigantic nation for the
tireless efforts taken by the then Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike
in getting a friendly country into the UN.
A few days before the departure, we were given a multi-course
sumptuous dinner, hosted by the embassy. Spouses and ministry-hierarchy
were also invited. We were given a taste of the legendary Chinese
cuisine we were to experience for six months.
The Great Wall of China
Travel agents met us at the Hong Kong airport. They escorted us upto
the border. A bridge separated Hong Kong and mainland China. The Union
Jack was flying on the elevated sentry post on the Hong Kong side. We
walked across the bridge, towards the elevated sentry post flying the
star-studded red flag of China. Senior officers of the Fisheries and
Foreign Ministries met us. We went by train to Canton (now Shandong).
It was a pleasant journey amidst a happy flock of peasants waving
from the rice fields.
A brand new building block with single room accommodation, television
and recreation room, large dining hall, facilities for outdoor games and
also table tennis were beautifully laid out by the Serene Pearl river.
There was a large lecture hall with facilities for visual and audio
The food prepared by two smiling culinary experts whose dishes of
fried rice, chop suey, chicken noodle soup, pork, eggs, ice-cream, ‘mung
ata’ and king size portions of yogurt made most of us to get new
trousers tailored. All of them were on the house.
Interpreters were very fluent in their translations into English of
lectures given by Chinese professors. Lectures concluded with a walk
into the large area of fish ponds constructed close to the fisheries
station. There were many meetings with resource personnel, trainees and
manual workers. The latter were treated with great respect.
They knew the indepth problems in the fish ponds, day-to-day
behaviour of fish in ponds and harvesting, more than what has been said
in text books and experts. We learnt with great reverence, the words of
Chairman Mao Tse Tung, “Learn from each other.” Our group too learnt
from this exercise.
We went shopping. Lovely brocades, ready-made garments exquisite
porcelain coffee sets were very cheap.
We swam in Olympic size swimming pools with half a dozen life savers
on the alert. The last row of the balcony was reserved for us whenever
we went to see a movie. Unforgettable ballets, musical shows and
orchestras kept us enthralled in the great Sun Yat Sen Hall. We always
occupied the first row. Many foreigners were about three to four rows
It was always the practice of our Chinese friends to take us out for
dinner. When we told them that April 14 was a public holiday, they were
in smiles. The Chinese too have their own New Year day, they said. They
organised a concert. We sang and danced along with the Chinese.
They hummed with ecstacy our Dhanno Budunge and Hela Jathika
Abhimane. We returned to the base after a hot cup of coffee or tea. By
the way, we were given a bottle of beer a few minutes before dinner
everyday. The dignity of labour was practised to the letter. The
Director of the Aquatic Resources Canton Province which incidentally is
about four times the size of our country drove into our station very
He cleaned the windows, at times on a ladder. Later he queued with an
enamel plate for his lunch along with the workers. Medical practitioners
working in the urban areas and city hospitals have to work in remote
areas as barefoot doctors.
No professionals were allowed to warm chairs in air-conditioned
rooms. Periods of serving in difficult and salubrious stations were a
must for all. One of us was hospitalised. We visited him at the Canton
No. 1 hospital which is about seven times the size of our entire
National Hospital complex.
Our friend was having a time of his life. Experts were always around
his bed. They were such wonderful people who became our friends. The
Director of the Hospital, an eye specialist, came to work on the pillion
of her husband's bicycle. The latter too worked at the hospital. He was
also a specialist. It was dignity of labour at its celestial heights.
We visited the fish farms and the shopping districts in Shanghai,
China's largest seaport and commercial capital. Then a fairy tale that
could happen to us only in friendly China. Six Toyota Crown cars with a
white uniform clad motorcyclist rode ahead directing all cycles and
vehicles to the kerb. We felt like Maharajahs;
Our next visit was to a town closed to foreigners. It was rather a
slow drive by bus. Peasants working in the fields came in their hundreds
to see us. We waved at them. There was a massive crowd at the entrance
to the hotel we were staying for three days. They had never seen
dark-skinned people. The head of the City Council paid us a courtesy
call. Believe it or not, we saw him clinging on to one of the handles at
the rear of a garbage lorry, the same type of lorry seen on our roads.
We were invited to watch a netball tournament in the evening. We were
escorted to the city station. A crowd of 25,000 stood up and clapped
“Hong Gin, Hong Gin” they shouted (welcome, welcome). The teams walked
up to us and bowed. The games began. We were sure that the spectators
were more interested in us than the game. Our eyes were glistening. The
tournament had been convened in honour of their foreign visitors.
We visited a massive hydropower station. The turbines were under a
huge rock, like our “Aththugala.” This was close to the Shikiang
Province. Foreign tourists were also present, but only the twelve of us
were permitted to see the giant turbines under the rock.
Our final tour was to Beijing from the base Canton. Earlier, the
director informed us that Premier Chou En Lai had inquired about us. We
felt elated. The Beijing flight was full. We were in the VIP lounge
seated on spotlessly white seats sipping green tea till we were invited
to join the flight.
It was a long flight. As typical Sri Lankans we began to sing. We
invited the stewardesses and other passengers to join in. Next all were
dancing on the isle, singing and holding hands. The crew too joined us.
We sang Sri Lanka's favourite songs. We had an aerial view of the
We were met by the Chinese Foreign and Fisheries Ministry officials
and our embassy officials. They were happy to see all the passengers and
the cabin crew embracing us and wishing us goodbye. It was very
We visited the Great Wall, a wonder of the world. Next, a nursery
school, where the little ones sang and danced. They waved us goodbye
with their tiny insteps which were on their right shoulders. Imagine a
bevy of sweet angels standing on one foot with the other foot raised on
to the shoulder from behind.
We saw the absolute extravagance of the Ming monarchs whose
bourgeoisie life-style led to the October Revolution. We went in and
stared at the 10,000 capacity. The Great Hall of the People built in
eight months. It could be converted to a 3,000 guest banquet hall within
a short time, with kitchen facilities to cater.
The Foreign Ministry hosted a banquet. Our embassy personnel and
their fisheries ministry officials were also present. The tiny porcelain
cup was for ‘Motai’ their super octane drink for the toast.
It is made from rice. There were many toasts for our countries, their
leaders, our program and the world body. A foreign ministry official
wanted to know our Sri Lankan term for ‘cheers’, or ‘gambai’, or
‘salute’ when proposing a toast. One of our interpreters who had been
with us for the past six months stood up, raised his glass and said,
All echoed the words. Subtle smiles among the Sri Lankans. Our
embassy chief asked “Dang kawde eka kiyaladunne? Dang ithin ekama
kiyamu!” (Now, who ever taught him that, anyway now we will stick to