What the Diaspora can do for Sri Lanka: Chris Ponnadurai, Jetwing Jaffna’s founding General Manager

Author Jekhan Aruliah

Jekhan Aruliah

By Jekhan Aruliah

An appreciation on the retirement of a man who fled Sri Lanka’s communal riots in 1984 to settle in Australia, and returned three decades later in 2015 to setup Jaffna’s first luxury hotel. Devoting five years of his life as the hands-on General Manager of Jetwing Jaffna.

Chris Ponnadurai

Chris was born in Colombo in 1951, the seventh of eight children. His father was a school inspector, who moved the family often as he was transferred around the country. Spending his early life in Jaffna, Batticaloa, and Ratnapura, Chris’ family then moved to Colombo where he finished his school career at the prestigious Isipathana College. From there he joined the Ceylon Hotel School.

Chris readily admits the hotel school wasn’t his first, second or even third choice. Failing his A’Level Chemistry, Chris was unable to enter college to become an engineer or a doctor. He applied to join the Sri Lanka Airforce getting through three levels of interview, which with the fierce competition was an achievement by itself. However, with only three places available Chris was disappointed again. Without telling his parents, fearing scathing comments “Do you want to be a cook!?”; “Why did you bother with A’Levels !?”; “What about accountancy!”, Chris successfully applied for the hotel school. Three years later, sporting a newly minted diploma, Chris joined the 10,345 tonne cargo ship Lanka Rani as Chief Steward.

Lanka Rani

Carrying 60 people, made up of the crew and officers’ wives, Chris was responsible for all catering and bonded stores. His first voyage took him away for 6 months, feeding those on board all the way from Sri Lanka to England and back.

After 3 years crossing the seas, Chris returned to take a job on dry land at the Brown’s Beach hotel in Negombo starting as a sous-chef, second in command to the Executive Chef. A series of promotions and career moves took Chris from Brown’s Beach to Brighten Rest, Tilly’s Beach, and Wornel’s Reef hotels. The last two as General Manager. Adding to his achievements, in 1978 Chris married Caroline (Rango) Nathaniel, the couple was later to be blessed with two sons.

In 1984, after suffering the experience of having his home burned down along with many other Tamil homes and businesses in the 1983 communal riots, Chris decided to take his young family (at the time the children were 2.5 years and 11 months old) to Australia. His was one of many thousands of families who fled Sri Lanka at the time, according to the UN Refugee Agency “becoming one of the western world’s largest groups of asylum seekers”.

32 year old Chris’ first job was as kitchen hand at Melbourne’s Ceylon Tea Centre. From being in charge of everything as a hotel General Manager in Sri Lanka, Chris found himself in Australia cleaning toilets and washing kitchen counters. Taking 6 months to settle his family into their new life, Chris then joined Melbourne’s Regent Hotel (from 1996 called The Sofitel Melbourne) as a cook. Guests at this “6 star” hotel during Chris’ time included Liz Taylor and John McEnroe. The expectations and requirements of Taylor, who brought her own fish recipes, and McEnroe’s late night steak dinners were nothing unusual for the demanding guests at this super-luxury establishment. In the 5+ star hotels there was no established route from chef into management so after nearly 2 years at the Regent Hotel Chris moved to the 4-star Chateau Melbourne as a Duty Manager. Taking the 2pm to 2am shift, Chris was required to take a more hands-on role after 5pm when many of the staff went home. After 5pm he was responsible for everything from balancing the till to sorting out fights in the bar, confident of a quick response if he pressed the “duress button” linked to the local police station.

Chris left the hotel industry to become store manager at a Melbourne KFC, and then went on to run his own restaurant “The Bengal Tiger”. Chris decided to keep the name given by the previous owner of the restaurant, a Bengali retired captain from the Indian Army.

The Bengal Tiger restaurant, Melbourne, Australia

In parallel to running the restaurant, Chris did a degree in Accounting and graduate diploma in Taxation and he joined the Australian Tax Office. Twelve years later Chris, now in his 60’s, decided to take retirement from the Tax Office, and also to sell The Bengal Tiger.

Though retiring Chris wasn’t ready to retire. He was still looking for challenges. In 2012, just three years after the end of the Sri Lankan Civil War, the Jetwing Hotel Group took the courageous decision to build a new luxury hotel in Jaffna. With seven stories and 55 luxury rooms, it was at the time the tallest building in Jaffna. Even today it is only surpassed in height by the nearby Jaffna Cultural Centre, donated by the Indian Government. Jetwing, a famous brand in Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, was making a huge statement of confidence in a region still in a state of post-conflict trauma and stagnation.. Located just around the corner from the Jaffna Library, 5 minutes brisk walk to the Jaffna Fort, and right next to the equally new Cargills Mall, Jetwings Jaffna is a landmark at the heart of post-war Jaffna Town.

Building a hotel is far more than sticking together steel, sand, concrete, glass and porcelain. In 2015, at the age of 64, Chris accepted the offer to become Jetwing Jaffna’s General Manager. He became the centre of gravity pulling together all the physical and human resources needed to create Jaffna Town’s first modern luxury hotel. In 2018 Jetwing took over the management of the newly built Northgate Hotel, luxury accommodation right outside Jaffna Train Station. Now named Northgate By Jetwing. Chris conducted the on-boarding of this hotel into the Jetwing group.

I asked Chris why on earth he would come back at his age to do an extremely tough job on a salary good by Sri Lankan standards but not so great when converted into Australian dollars. Chris told me he had left Sri Lanka due to the riots and violence after 1983 at the age of 32. He had brought up his children in Australia, who had now grown up and were independent. At the age of 64 he wanted to give something back to his homeland. For his good fortune Jetwing wanted a GM just at the right moment when he reached retirement age in Australia and had become ‘free’.

Chris’ wife and sons thought he was crazy. They thought he wouldn’t last even a year in Jaffna. They were wrong. In the next five years one of Chris’ greatest achievements was bringing young northerners into the hospitality industry. Together with the Vocational Training Authority (VTA, a Sri Lankan government agency), and with the support of GiZ (a German government agency providing development aid) Jetwing put out an advertisement to recruit staff. 500 people applied from across the Northern Province, 68 were accepted for the training course held at the VTA college in Karainagar, Jaffna District. 50 of these were offered jobs, and now five years later 20 are still with Jetwing.

90% of the people who joined were from very poor families, mostly fishing and farming. They had already tried other jobs, but without success. These were people who hadn’t seen a western toilet before, spoke no Sinhala or English, nor had they ever seen the inside of a classy hotel let alone enjoyed its hospitality. Only two or three came from Jaffna’s prestigious schools. These young people’s experience of war, poverty, displacement and disrespect had beaten the confidence out of them. Lack of confidence, commented Chris, is one of the main things holding Jaffna and the North back. Instilling confidence into his new charges was his greatest challenge.

As a frequent visitor to Jetwing Jaffna’s restaurant and rooftop bar in the five years since I based myself in Jaffna I can tell you Chris has been successful. Each of the top hotels in Jaffna is outstanding in its own way. But I would say Jetwings Jaffna is the most graceful. Both the staff and also the building itself from the point of view of guests are calm, collected, confident, and invariably beautifully turned out. When I congratulated Chris on his staff he said it is down to training, commenting “You get a raw thing and keep polishing, it will get shiny”.

Some of the Jetwings Jaffna Team

I asked Chris what advice he would give to those who wish Jaffna and the North well. Some of the key things he said:

a) The authorities need to invest in infrastructure and professional training. The government Vocational Training Agency needs to do more well targeted training. For example setup a proper training kitchen where chefs can learn the difference between a solid top pan, poaching pan, non-stick pan, how to do deep frying, how to use an oven.

b) Private sector businesses must create more high value opportunities for the people like factories; software; tourism. For many their only option is to go into fishing or farming, making the North economically backward.

c) Those in the Diaspora with the right experience and ability should come back and polish the young people until they become shiny. Teach them and mentor them until the people can work efficiently, productively, and can build and run their own enterprises.

Most importantly, Chris said the people of the North must change their attitude:

a) Be confident and grasp challenges. Get over the idea that some jobs are beneath them. Particularly in the tourism and hospitality industries where there are great opportunities to make money, travel, and have a fulfilling career.

b) Don’t wait for the foreign remittances to live on. Think on your feet and pick yourself up. “Foreign remittances have upset everything here” said Chris.

Now, as he approaches his 70th year, Chris has decided it’s time to return to Australia to rest and relax. I asked if he will be back as a tourist anytime soon. He smiled and shrugged. Indicating perhaps that after all the stresses and strains of running a high performance business in Jaffna for the last five years, he has had enough.

Jaffna, the North, and Sri Lanka should be grateful to those who invest their skills, experience, and time in our country. We should hope there will be more such people like Chris Ponnadurai.

( — The writer Jekhan Aruliah was born in Sri Lanka and moved with his family to the UK when he was two years of age. Brought up in London, he graduated from Cambridge University in 1986 with a degree in Natural Sciences. Jekhan then spent over two decades in the IT industry, for half of which he was managing offshore software development for British companies in Colombo and in Gurgaon (India). In 2015 Jekhan decided to move to Jaffna where he is now involved in social and economic projects. He can be contacted at jekhanaruliah@gmail.com — )

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