By P. K. Balachandran/Sunday Observer
Colombo, May 28: The Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH), which celebrated its 50th anniversary on May 10, has a symbolic value in modern Sri Lankan history. It symbolised independent Sri Lanka’s desire to be more than a beautiful island in the Indian Ocean and play an influential role in international affairs on par with other newly independent countries of Asia and Africa.
The vision of the then Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was not to become part of any power bloc but to play an independent role to bridge the gap between the Western and Soviet blocs and promote peace and amity in the world.
Mrs.Bandaranaike, who had already attained global stature as the world’s first woman Prime Minister (1960), desired a platform to project the new role she had envisioned for Sri Lanka. In view of the Western world’s hostility to Sri Lanka owing to the controversy over rubber prices and the move to take over Britain’s military bases, the Prime Minister turned to China. Though aligned with the Soviets, the Chinese had rescued Sri Lanka from a severe rice and foreign exchange crisis in the early 1950s by entering into a Rice-Rubber barter deal in 1952.
Even though Sri Lanka desperately needed to import rice and there was a foreign exchange shortage (just like Sri Lanka experienced last year), the US was not willing to give a US$ 50 million loan to buy rice. Nor was it offering a fair price for Lankan rubber. At the same time, Communist China was facing a bad shortage of rubber as the US had banned the sale of rubber, a strategic material, to Communist China then fighting a war against the US in the Korean peninsula.
On its part, China needed to assert its independence against a hostile US which, in China’s opinion, had denied it its rightful place in the UN and the UN Security Council.
To play its new-found international role, Sri Lanka needed a large and modern international conference hall. China’s help was sought, and it was given free. The result was the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall named after Mrs. Bandaranaike’s husband and former Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, who had initiated the post-independence movement against Western domination.
“SWRD” had become Prime Minister in 1956. In 1957, Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai and Vice Premier He Long, visited Sri Lanka. During the visit, SWRD and Zhou Enlai jointly adopted the Five Principles of Co-existence and the Bandung Principles for the achievement of World Peace.
On February 4, 1957, SWRD invited Zhou Enlai to be chief guest at the ninth Sri Lankan Independence Day celebrations. According to a bilingual book on the BMICH entitled “A Symbol of China-Sri Lankan Friendship”, Zhou Enlai spoke in pouring rain “which moved the audience”. SWRD was assassinated just two years later.
In February 1964, when SWRD’s widow, Sirimavo Bandaranaike was Prime Minister, Chinese Communist Party Vice Chairman Song Qingling and Premier Zhou Enlai visited Lanka. It was during this visit that “Mrs. B” requested China to help build a modern and capacious conference hall. The request was granted promptly and China decided to gift the building. It was an outright grant, not a loan.
The work was assigned to the Beijing Industrial Building Design Institute of the Ministry of Works with the design principles enunciated by Zhou Enlai himself. His principles were as follows: The building scale shall be appropriate for Sri Lanka’s conditions and requirements. It shall adapt to the tropical climate and reflect the local style. The internal facilities and equipment shall be modern.
The Building Design Institute sent a delegation to Sri Lanka headed by its Vice President Yuan Jingshe and included Chief Architect Dai Nianci. The delegation members were in Sri Lanka for four months, touring the entire country to see for themselves local building styles, culture, customs and beliefs so that the BMICH accords with the local culture and style.
The delegation collected a large amount of basic data on the materials available, physical conditions, and climate changes and finally produced an exact model. After inspecting the model, Mrs. B said excitedly: “I thank Prime Minister Zhou Enlai for sending us the highest gift. I thank China for the outstanding contributions Chinese experts have made for the project. The BMICH is a symbol of China-Sri Lanka friendship”.
Architect Dai Nianci, who had a deep understanding of Sri Lanka’s natural and human environment, proposed the classical practice of having a symmetrical, octagonal layout with a colonnade. He suggested that the building be painted white which is favored in tropical architecture and is also favoured by traditional Sri Lankans. Due to the tropical climate, ventilation was very important and that was achieved by maximizing natural ventilation, although the main hall and function/banquet halls would be air-conditioned.
However, it was only on November 24, 1970, that the Sri Lankan Government commenced work on the BMICH. Prime Minister Bandaranaike broke the ground in the traditional way with a “mammoty” to signify the start of construction. China had sent 400 technicians, 40 engineers and managers and 60 carpenters to do the construction work.
Since ceramic tile technology was not well developed in the 1970s, each tile was chosen carefully to make the flooring smooth. Steps were taken to keep termites away.
Both Zhou Enlai and Mrs. Bandaranaike were constantly monitoring the project with the latter visiting the site often. The Sri Lankan Chief Engineer of the project, Damodaralingam, got along well with his Chinese counterparts and ensured perfect coordination.
Initially, language was a barrier and communication was through sign language. But before long, the locals picked up some Chinese and the Chinese picked up some Sinhala.
Once, a number of Chinese suffered from food poisoning. The Government hospitalised all 200 workers as an abundant precaution. Given the shortage of hospital beds at that time, local patients gave up their beds for the sake of the suffering Chinese.
It was not easy for workers from the colder parts of China to put up with the intense heat of Colombo. The BMICH construction site at Bullers Road (now Bauddhaloka Mawatha) also had monkeys, snakes and mosquitoes as it was virtually a jungle back then. Though no one was bitten by a snake, the Chinese embassy had on stand-by a doctor with knowledge of local anti-snake drugs. Still, snakes would interfere with the work or choose to surprise workers while they were at lunch.
Workers would also be woken up by ant bites. When local workers told the Chinese that ants were averse to the smell of newspaper ink, the Chinese embassy started sending newspapers to the workers.
On completion of the work, there was a fitting ceremony in which a stage play called “Path to Brightness” written and directed by Chandrika Bandaranaike, daughter of the Prime Minister and future President, was staged. The play was made into a film and was sent to Premier Zhou Enlai along with a model of the BMICH set with rubies. The model is now in the Asia Gift Pavilion at the National Museum in China.
Set in 13 hectares and with a floor of area of 32,540 sq meters (in 2013), the BMICH is a grand, spacious and airy structure. Its vast open and verdant space makes it an ideal place for large and small conferences, university convocations, public gatherings, shows and exhibitions. It has parking space for around 500 cars and now houses the first-ever bus deployed by the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) in 1957, a Mercedes which is still roadworthy. The annual book exhibition (indoor/outdoor) is the biggest event held at the BMICH. Several SAARC Summits and other international conferences have been held at the BMICH.
The hall came in handy in 1976, when the fifth Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit was held in Colombo with nearly 120 Heads of State and Government attending. The delegates told Premier Bandaranaike that the assembly hall was much better than the halls in which previous summits were held and on par with even those in the developed world. Premier Bandaranaike told the Chinese envoy that the summit would not have been such a huge success if it was not for the magnificent BMICH.
It was completely renovated by Chinese personnel around 10 years back with China bearing the expenses. Today, in a fitting symbol of the Sino-Lanka friendship, the Chinese Embassy is right opposite the BMICH.
Source: A symbol of China-Sri Lankan Friendship: The Documentary and Engineering Technology of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, Beijing, 2013