Quaint business hub in Pettah steeped in history:
Foreigners walking on Malwatta Road
The China Street at Main Street, the Pettah and the Malwatta Road
that runs in front of the Fort Railway Station up to the Colombo Harbour
are very popular commercial streets in the hub of Colombo city. Not only
old people, but also young shoppers in their thousands visit these
streets everyday to purchase various household items. Some of the items
such as glassware, gift items and electrical goods are not even seen at
popular shopping arcades in Cinnamon Gardens, Kollupitiya, Bambalapitiya
Among these two popular streets, China Street has a very long
history. Legend has it that only two small galvanised roof shops were
run by a group of Muslim traders during the colonial era in 1840.
After a few years during the same period, some Sinhalese and Tamils
started more shops along this narrow street.
As the shops were filled with more items that were manufactured in
China, the street came to be called as 'China Street'.
History relates that the Chinese had visited the country by ship and
they were in the habit of exchanging their products with Lankan traders.
The Sunday Observer last week visited the most busiest commercial
areas in the hub of Colombo city, the China Street and the Malwatta Road
to meet traders and to discuss about their business activities.
A long standing trader, 76-year-old Haffis Abubacar said he started
his business at China Street when he was 32 years. His grandfather, S.
Abubacar had started business activities in 1906 and after the death of
his grandfather his father took over the business.
"Now I am the sole owner of my business and I sell glassware and
kitchen utensils. Some items are locally manufactured and some others
have been imported from countries such as India, Bangkok, Thailand and
When asked about the reason for naming this Street as `China Street',
he quoted his grandfather and said there were two stories behind it.
"Since the traders sold only Chinese goods during the colonial
period, a prominent Muslim trader requested the then colonial rulers to
name it as the `China Street'" and the Government temporally accepted
the request," he said.
He said there was another romantic story behind the name of this
"A Sri Lankan trader who used to travel by a ship to China for
business activities had a close rapport with a Chinese woman who was the
daughter of a leading manufacturer in China.
As there were no monetary exchange system during that period, both
the Lankan trader and his Chinese female counterpart had exchanged
perfume to household items and it was later revealed that the Street was
named on the request of this Chinese lady,".
Today the `China Street' has become the most busiest commercial area
in the city.
There are over 90 small and large scale business shops on the Street.
Businessmen belong to all communities are engaged in various business
activities in harmony.
A leading businessman A. Azees who owns a shop at China Street said
that he started the business about 25 years ago with the blessings of
his father and grandfather.He said he sells mainly household items such
as glassware, ceramic items, stationery items, baby items and all kinds
of kitchen utensils.
He also said over 5000 people from various parts of the country visit
the street everyday and shop owners are engaged in good business
"Although we have good business here, shop owners as well as
customers face untold hardships due to lack of sanitation facilities,".
He said unlike other streets in the city, China Street is very narrow
and even the space is insufficient for two vehicles to move past. He
requested the authorities to demolish unnecessary constructions and
widen the street to enable customers to walk freely.
He said, some time ago a little fire had spread inside a clothing
material shop and it took a long time for the Colombo Fire Brigade to
arrive at the scene, but by that time the whole shop was gutted by the
He therefore urged authorities to widen the China Street, so that
even a fire brigade could reach the place in case of a fire.
A shop owner at China Street, P.L. Ameen proposed the Government to
give a facelift to the China Street under the Government's city
He said old buildings which were constructed and small shops which
are constructed very close to the China Street should be demolished and
new buildings with two to three storeys put up.
The Malwatta Road which starts in front of the Fort Railway Station
has become the most prominent commercial area next to the China Street.
The history of Malwatta Road is coming from the colonial era of 1900.
It was revealed that five persons who lived in the Colombo city had
started to sell small items which were brought from India and China.
They constructed their small business huts near the Khan clock tower in
Colombo without any approval from the then British rulers.
Malwatta Road is now a prominent place for over 100 businessmen. They
have also formed a trade association under the name `Suhada Traders
According to Suhada Traders Association President W. A. Kumarasiri,
only a few shop owners started small business activities during the
colonial period. Most buildings in the Malwatta Road are over 125 years
"The traders were given permanent places to do their business
activities along the Malwatta Road in 1956 by the then Prime Minister
He said Malwatta Road was constructed with stones that were brought
from India. The colonial remnants could be seen even today if anybody
visits the area.
It is said that several shops were run by people to sell toddy to
labourers and other workers living in the area.
A long-standing Businessman, Martin Liyanarachchi said he started the
business at Malwatta Road in 1952. At present there are over 100 shops
at Malwatta Road. The shop owners sell various items such as imported
shoes, textile, cassette recorders and tapes , radios and television
He said over 10,000 families depend on business at Malwatta Road.
He also said his association is also engaged in welfare and social
"We gave food and garment items worth over Rs. 12 lakhs to people who
were affected by Tsunami in 2004.
"In addition, we also distributed school and educational equipment to
children at Anuradapura, Mahiyangana, Padaviya and Moneragala.
A shop owner, Oliver Devapriya said they do brisk business in
December, April and May.