|The China Sheelk Man
Cecil V. Wikramanayake
Gleefully, we little kids would run behind the vendor, chanting this jingle, till the exasperated Chinese would turn around and pretend to chase us. And then we fled, screaming, back to our homes.
The Chinese gentleman was hard put just to turn around, let alone chase the little pests that were tormenting him. All those Chinese vendors looked very much alike to us kids. They were short in stature, sturdily built and each man carried on his back a huge bundle of cloth of all kinds, the bundle being about two and a half feet square and about one and a half feet high.
The bundle must have weighed about the same weight as the man, for as he hefted it on to his back, he had to bend forward to carry it, and walking, bent almost double, with such a load on his back must certainly have been difficult.
Which was why he carried a stout stick about three feet in length to help him. This yardstick also served him to measure the cloth he was selling, for it bore notches six inches apart.
In addition to selling China silk, made from the silk spun by the silkworm, the Chinese vendor also carried a wide variety of poplin, chintz, pepperel drill, georgette and voile, to say nothing of other things like lace, cretonne and taffeta, all of them much sought after by housewives.
China silk was considered the last word in sartorial elegance. It was cheaper than the British tweed and tussore favoured by our colonial masters for their suits. It was also cooler than the heavy tweed.
A housewife had only to give an indication to the Chinaman, as he was popularly called, and the man would stagger on to your verandah, lay down his burden with a sigh of relief, and spend at least half an hour trying to persuade the housewife to make a purchase.
He had tremendous patience, had the Chinaman, much more than the Sri Lankan housewife, and he invariably did not pack up his bundle till he had made a sale.
He would put his huge bundle down on the floor of your verandah, then take his time undoing the many knots holding the bundle together. He would then pick up item after item and spread it out before the housewife, all the while talking in his pidgin English about the superb qualities of the material, and the low price at which, as a special favour to you, he would reduce to almost a gift.
He just would not take No for an answer and would unfold almost every item in his bundle till he had made a sale.
I still remember my mother buying several yards of Navy blue drill to make short trousers for her three older sons who were then attending school. The material certainly was cheap only fifty cents a yard, when English blue drill was about twice that price.
The trousers were made and worn by us boys and eventually were handed over to the dhobi for washing.
You can picture the horror on all our faces when, the following week, the dhobi brought the trousers back, duly washed and ironed. They were no longer Navy blue. They were a horrible bright red !
Around the time these Chinamen tramped the streets of every town, big or small, shouting "China Sheelk", and little boys followed them singing that jingle, there were also Chinese women, not many though, who also traded in various goods, particularly coloured paper decorations, which had a ready sale especially at Christmas time.
Many of these decorations were Chinese lanterns, lit by a candle placed inside it. They were of fantastic shapes, some like globes, others like dragons, but they were all beautiful and works of art, created from coloured tissue paper, bamboo strips and paste made of flour and water.
I remember standing in the long verandah of the Nippon Hotel in Slave Island, leaning against a pillar and watching an elderly buxom Chinese woman who made and sold these decorations on that verandah. She was a patient woman and an obliging one, for she answered all the questions of an inquisitive teenager, while at the same time carrying on with the work of her deft fingers.
What struck me most was not her dexterity, but rather the size and shape of her feet. They were really tiny feet, no bigger than that of a one-year old. And they had a peculiar shape, not at all like the normal human foot. And when she walked, it was more a hobble than a walk.
The Chinese mama very generously obliged the curious boy and told him that tiny feet for women was an age old Chinese custom. Following an edict by an Emperor of China long, long ago, all girl babies had their feet bound so that when they grew up their feet remained the same size. They could only hobble, with difficulty. They could not run.
She also told me the history of this old Chinese custom, which, she said, is depicted on ancient China plates, and is referred to as the "Willow Pattern Plate". But that is another story, to be narrated sine die.
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