“Her name was Nippon”

Originally from Ragama, Chandrika Serasinghe believes it was her destiny to end up working at the Nippon Hotel – a place whose unusual façade always had a pull on her whenever she passed by it in her younger days, but that she now thinks of as her second home.

The Nippon Hotel is one of Slave Island’s oldest and most well known landmarks and its salmon pink exterior has always been its signature feature. Still, with its old-fashioned salons and parlours, it has retained a kind of elegance through the years, despite its unusual colour. Today though, it is being repainted a much more conventional white – yet another reminder of Slave Island’s dynamic nature.

Over 125 years old, the Nippon Hotel was originally called Manning Mansions – a name that still remains embossed on its walls today. It was later bought over by a Polish gentleman and his Japanese wife, was renamed ‘Nippon’ in her honour, and was decorated according to her taste, with Japanese fittings. Not much of the original interior exists today apart from the hotel’s ground floor ceiling, which is painted over with old Japanese symbols – perhaps the most beautiful part of the hotel.

One of the few hotels existing in Sri Lanka during the Second World War, the Nippon Hotel was used as barracks for the British troops. Although many of the hotel’s earlier guests had been Japanese, they all fled Sri Lanka during this time, feeling the heat of living in a British colony while Britain was pitched in battle against Japan. The hotel’s owners also left for similar reasons, leaving the premises in the care of a manager named Mr. Kumaran, originally from Kerala, India. Mr. Kumaran eventually became the rightful owner of the Nippon Hotel and passed it down to his sons who run it today.

The Nippon Hotel has stood its ground through many wars – although it hasn’t always remained unscathed. In 2008, a bomb which was concealed in one of its external air-conditioning units was detonated by the LTTE, killing four people and injuring many more, and causing part of the Hotel to crumble away completely. On the day of the blast, Chandrika happened to miss her train – a chance occurrence that saved her from injury or worse.

Having risen in position from room girl all the way up to executive housekeeper during her 20 years working there, Chandrika knows the Nippon Hotel like the back of her hand. She even took us to the areas that had been closed off because maintenance would have been too costly – leading us up dusty, unused steps, all the way to the rooftop. “If you climb up there,” she told us, pointing to a number of iron bars leading precariously up one of the outside walls, “you’ll get a good view of Slave Island. You can even see the sea”. To demonstrate, she hitched up her sari and climbed up a few steps herself, craning her neck to see as far as she could, despite our worried protests for her to come down before she hurt herself.

We needn’t have worried. Watching Chandrika at work, checking in on the kitchen or giving her staff instructions with a calm confidence and an almost maternal air, we could see how well suited she was for her position and also how much she enjoyed it. In her office, she pulled out diary upon diary, flipping through the pages and showing us written highlights of her personal life – the day her mother died, the day her son was born, lines from songs she found inspiring, quotes from translations of Russian literature she liked to read – and last but not least – experiences she’s had at the hotel, a collection of which it is her dream to publish one day.

Produced by Sharni Jayawardena and Tarika Wickremeratne, as part of Walkabout: Slave Island.