Street Art & Shophouses: How a Colombo Community Fights to Save Their Heritage

colombo slave island shophouses colonial architecture

Street Art & Shophouses: How a Colombo Community Fights to Save Their Heritage

Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, is undergoing a make-over. After years of civil war, the city is set to become a Singapore-like economic powerhouse. Chinese and Indian investment money has poured in to make this dream come true. But at what cost? 

Slave Island is a historic neighbourhood in the heart of the city where skyscrapers are going up faster that one can imagine. What used to be a unique and vibrant urban district is being transformed beyond recognition, swallowed up by shiny new apartment buildings rising around it. Artist Firi Rahman has lived in Slave Island his whole life. As he saw the destruction happening before his eyes, he started a campaign, #WeAreFromHere, to save the soul of the neighbourhood. This unique artistic initiative dedicated to mapping stories of both famous and anonymous local heroes to highlight the unique multicultural community of Slave Island. Now, as an iconic row of historic shophouses — considered by many as the face of Slave Island  is threatened by demolition, we join Firi and his friends to find out why this place matters so much to the local community. 

 

 A UNIQUE MULTICULTURAL NEIGHBOURHOOD 

Slave Island — locally known as Kompannaveediya — has lived many lives. In Colombo’s colonial days, the Portuguese, and later, the Dutch considered it the ideal location for a slave prison, as it used to be an island in a crocodile-infested lake. 

Its name stayed long after the slaves were set free. Slave Island became a military station until the British took Colombo and made it the site of the country’s first botanical gardens in 1810. The area became a popular picknick spot, but being so centrally located, the garden was slowly swallowed up by the urban jungle around it. Over the decades, Slave Island grew into a hub of vibrant activity where African, Indian, Javanese, Burgher, Moor and, most prominently, Malay heritage are tangible at every street corner. You can hear it in the music, see it in the colours and taste it in the food. 

No longer an island, Slave island is home to a highly diverse community that is unique to Colombo. People of all faiths — be it Christian, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist — are living together in its colourful small alleyways.  It’s the legacy of those who once arrived here as slaves. 

 

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Now, Slave Island is about to undergo another reincarnation. The area just south of the city’s Central Business District Fort became a triple-A location, making the aforementioned small alleyways valuable property. The eviction of residents in an area of approximately 160 acres in the heart of Colombo 02 began in 2012. No less than seventy thousand households are being relocated to newly constructed apartment-style housing in other parts of the city. This is part of the ambitious ‘City of Colombo Urban Regeneration Project’ spearheaded by the Urban Development Authority. The project, which has an estimated cost of US$287 million, is fuelled by Chinese and Indian investors. Both the scale and speed with which it is carried out are mindboggling: Some of Slave Island’s streets are simply being erased from the map, and with it, the social fabric and memories of the place. Java Lane is one such example: The only thing developers left standing in this little laneway is the green-and-white neighbourhood mosque, which is now surrounded by nothing but apartment blocks, disconnected from its community.

 “Slave Island is undergoing a huge change now. Tall, shiny buildings are taking over the old, colonial architecture. We no longer have the old people here. They’ve all gone away. It’s sad, and because of that, we’re losing our sense of community,” sighs Amir Inthizam, owner of one of the oldest businesses in the neighbourhood, a picture frame shop on Sir Henry De Mel Mawatha Street. He has lived through the better, or worse, part of Sri Lanka’s multi-coloured history. 

colombo slave island wearefromhere murals shophouses

 

MURALS TELLING THE STORY OF THE NEIGHBOURHOOD 

Slave Island-based artist Firi Rahman started #WeAreFromHere, a visual project portraying the people that make up Slave Island’s unique neighbourhood, in 2012. “Slave Island is often perceived as an area filled with criminals, drug dealers and danger,” Firi explains. “It is also a place that is fast-changing and disappearing, being swallowed up by the rapidly “modernising” Colombo. #WeAreFromHere showcases those who make Slave Island a fascinating, unique and diverse place.”

Firi and his friends wanted to document heritage buildings that are at risk of disappearing from the suburb’s streetscape. “Many of them have already been demolished or damaged, like the popular Castle Hotel and the Java Lane mosque. Others, such as the famous Rio Cinema, or the iconic row of De Soysa shophouses, may not be around anymore in a few years’ time. That street has already changed beyond recognition. Because of these big skyscrapers, you can no longer see the sunset,” says Firi. 

But more than saving Slave island’s buildings, #WeAreFromHere was founded to document the local community. Firi and his friends collected stories from myriad community members — from sportspeople and street vendors, to mechanics, musicians, actors and artists — and featured them in striking wall murals. “It’s a time of rapid change for us and we’re all adjusting. I want to give people the feeling that this place, its heritage and culture has value,” he explains. “With all these new buildings springing up, they may feel that their land and their properties can be bought just like that. By telling the stories of the community, I want to make people feel proud of their home.” 

colombo slave island wearefromhere murals shophouses“Our mural project is like a treasure hunt. Through our art, we want to tell people’s stories.”

 

THE VALUE OF PLACE   

Firi started the project by recording voice cuts of his conversations with community members. He was soon joined in his artistic journey by fellow local artists Parilojithan Ramanathan and Vicky Shahjahan. Wanting to make the project more interactive, the trio decided to draw portrait murals around Slave Island. “We first wanted to make one big mural, but then decided to spread them throughout the neighbourhood to better blend in with the urban fabric, to not create disruption and to get more traction,” says Vicky. “Our mural project is like a treasure hunt. Through our art, we want to tell people’s stories.” 

One of the people featured on Slave Island’s walls is Fazil, a respected community member. His portrait tells the story of how funerals on Slave Island are an occasion of togetherness for people, irrespective of their faith. We then ‘meet’ other immortalised local heroes, including a popular car repairman known as ‘The Captain’, Rifakath, who is a well-known rugby player, and a street cart vendor named Milan. Each mural comes with its own story, which we learn through a set of accompanying cards. We later bump into the real Milan and buy faluda, a rose-flavoured dessert drink, from his cart. 

colombo slave island wearefromhere murals shophouses

“It’s like a treasure hunt, but with people! You get a card of a person, and you have to find the respective wall mural,” Firi explains. “The idea is not just to get to know a person, but also find out why they matter to the community.” 

The mural project became an outlet for many concerned citizens and an opportunity for them to communicate the value of their home to others. What followed was a series of #WeAreFromHere walks, talks, exhibitions, gatherings and celebrations, connecting Slave Island’s many little laneways with an invisible artistic thread. What started as an art project became the face of the resistance against the big developers, the voice of the community.  

“The mural project uplifted Slave Island’s many little laneways and connected them with an invisible artistic thread”

 

SAVING THE SOYSA SHOPHOUSES 

Now a new challenge has surfaced for the #WeAreFromHere team. The De Soysa Building, a quaint, pastel-coloured row of shophouses right opposite the Kompannaveediya train station, holds the honour of being the longest intact colonial shophouse road frontage in the country. But it may not be there for much longer: The iconic street will most likely suffer a similar fate to that of the nearby 140-year-old Castle Hotel, which was demolished in May 2017.

The shophouses were built in 1870 by famed philanthropist Charles Henry De Soysa, the wealthiest Ceylonese of the 19th century and the brains behind the first bank in the country. One of the earliest examples of shophouse design in the city, it fast became a landmark building. The street used to be a prestigious address, housing the headquarters of the country’s leading publisher, the esteemed Cave&Co. “The story goes that in the 1920s and 30s the premises of HW Cave & Company was considered one of the most fashionable addresses in Colombo,” says local architect Ismeth Raheem. 

The glamour has long gone. The once-prominent street is now home to dry cleaners, tailors and cheap cafés, its shophouses run down. Despite their peeled-off paint and creaky staircases, the buildings’ signature architectural style remains unique and synonymous with the face of Slave Island. Fifty-year-old Kareema Anwar Deen has lived in one of the shophouses for 18 years, above Ceylon Cleaners, a dry cleaner which has occupied the space since 1934. “These are strong enough to run on,” Kareema says, pointing at the solid wooden floors. “There is history in every block and beam of the De Soysa building: from the people who have worked and lived here for decades to its distinctive colours,” says Ranil De Soysa, a great-grandchild of Charles Henry.  “Once lost, some things cannot be replicated.” 

Firi and many others in the community who are dedicated to saving the heritage are now lobbying to get the row of shophouses listed as Heritage Buildings. Academics, architects and international experts have come to the scene and unanimously pointed out the solid structural condition of the De Soysa buildings and their unique heritage value, but yet to no avail. In September 2019, Nihal Rupasinghe, Secretary to the Ministry of Megapolis and Western Development said that “There was also no legal obstacle to demolition, the Archaeological Department has not officially recognised the De Soysa building as being of heritage value and thereby requiring protection,” when asked about the fate of the iconic row of shophouses. “The Urban Development Authority (UDA) will grant the developer, Tata Housing, permission to carry out the demolition.”

The #WeAreFromHere crowd will continue to amplify the voices of the community to convince developers and administrators about the value of the place. We hope this will not be the final episode of the De Soysa story.

colombo slave island wearefromhere murals shophouses

“If Colombo wants to be like Singapore, why don’t the city leaders preserve the shophouses and use them as an asset to create a unique world-class urban district with a distinct identity?”

 

BE LIKE SINGAPORE?

One cannot help but wonder: if Colombo wants to be like Singapore, why don’t the city leaders listen to the voice of the Slave Island’s community? In other Asian countries, with Singapore as a leading example, shophouses are protected by strict regulations and valued as premium spaces for apartments and shops. The Lion City’s planners have successfully used mundane dilapidated properties as strategic assets for creating world-class urban districts with distinct identities. ‘Conservation shophouses’ are now a much-copied key component of the Singapore signature style. If Slave Island loses its De Soysa shophouses, it will lose a part of its soul. 

 

HOW CAN YOU HELP?

Find out more here, or even better, travel to Slave Island and join one of the #WeAreFromHere tours yourself! Do you prefer to explore Colombo on your own? Download the iDiscover App for a self-guided tour around Slave Island’s many hidden treasures. It’s free! Or buy the iDiscover Colombo Guide, which features four beautifully illustrated maps with handcrafted itineraries through Colombo’s old neighbourhoods: Fort, Pettah, Cinnamon Gardens and Slave Island. The maps and guide are created in partnership with the passionate folks of Colombo Heritage Collective, who are fighting to keep the city’s spirit alive.

Join the community voice and sign this online petition to save the De Soysa buildings! 

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