Culture & Identities

5 minute read

Sri Lankans of New York: And Sex Shops


Gazala Anver

By Gazala Anver

Staff Writer

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A while back we did a story on things only Sri Lankans living abroad would understand – the response was immense! As an aftermath, one reader, Navin, came forward with a most peculiar story which we felt was absolutely worth publishing: while it isn’t exactly about things only Sri Lankans abroad would understand, it has the words “Sri Lankans” and “abroad” and all the makings of a strange but amusing tale. It starts like this…

Midtown Manhattan, late 2013. A jetlagged Navin found that he couldn’t sleep and instead of wasting time counting sheep, he jumped out of bed and started walking towards Herald Square when he came across a giant adult store by the oh-so-subtle name Empire Erotica, just two blocks west of the famous (phallic) Empire State Building. This is prime location, smack bang in the middle of Manhattan. Empire Erotica also has a sister store across the street called Empire Exotics.

Empire Erotic during the day - Image Courtesy, Google Street View

Empire Erotic during the day – Image Courtesy, Google Street View

Now, you may be wondering what the big deal is. Sure, such sights in Sri Lanka are as rare as a nice politician, BUT remember that bit above about “Sri Lankans” and “abroad”? Well, turns out, the store manager is a true blue Sri Lankan uncle (beer and rice belly included), somewhere in his 50’s, who got immensely excited upon spotting the brown-skinned Navin.

“Are you Sri Lankan?” he asked, excitedly and then promptly said “no photos, please!” spotting a Nikon around Navin’s neck.

One Sri Lankan uncle, check. Beer and rice belly, check. Dubious environ, check. But the story still needs a bit more spice. At this point, it should be mentioned that the staff was entirely Sri Lankan, against a backdrop of seedy sex toys and adult DVDs, peep shows included.

His inner journalist bristling, Navin decided to ask uncle-sir all about it. Turned out, uncle had been in the business for 25 years and lives in Staten Island, which has a large Sri Lankan population. Although run exclusively by Sri Lankans, Navin wasn’t able to verify if uncle was the store owner or just the manager. The whole episode did, however, get Navin wondering why Sri Lankans are so attracted to the concept of an island. Thinking that, perhaps, this was just one of those strange one-off occurrences, he walked back out to embrace the sights and sounds of the chaotic concrete jungle that is New York…

…but it doesn’t end there…  

Wait, there’s more?

Sri Lankans tend to open up restaurants such as Kottu House. Others chose to spice up another aspect of life. Image Courtesy, New York Times

Sri Lankans tend to open up restaurants such as Kottu House. Others chose to spice up another aspect of life. Image Courtesy, New York Times

It was yet another late night. Navin was walking back, after happily browsing through comics at Midtown Comics (Manhattan’s most mainstream comic store), located close to Times Square. Walking towards 34th Street on 8th Avenue, he came across a sign that took him right back home. Something extremely Sri Lankan by the name of “Vihan’s Video.”

With home at heart, he decided to brave this dodgy DVD store and found… yet another adult store, this time selling cheaper, more mainstream “stuff”. And once more: manned by another 50-something Sri Lankan uncle and staffed entirely by Sri Lankans.

You may leave Sri Lanka, but Sri Lanka never leaves you. Uncle was streaming Neth FM on full blast, using the speakers of the store. The programme happened to be the popular Sinhalese social commentary programme “Balumgala.” Picture this. Whether you’ve seen the interior of an adult store or not, draw in all the knowledge and images imparted by Hollywood and picture a Sri Lankan uncle in an adult store listening to “Balumgala.” Imagine uncle attentively listening to the radio show host lamenting about how the younger generation was contributing to the deterioration of culture in Sri Lanka. Imagine now said uncle turning to yet another Sri Lankan uncle who had just entered the store and saying:

“Balannako Lankawata wela thiyena dey.” Basically, look at what’s happening in Sri Lanka.

Uncle number 2 nods gravely.

Sweet irony sneaking in a goal whilst surrounded by prosthetic penises and cheap pornographic DVDs. Navin found the philosopher in him wondering whether the uncles were unacquainted with the concept of irony and even hypocrisy, talking of deterioration of culture back home, whilst working at an adult store abroad. He decided that working in a sex shop is probably just viewed as “business” and is, therefore, divorced from your typically Sri Lankan brand of morality.  

We did a bit of research and found out that Vihan’s Store is now one of the few surviving adult stores in Midtown. Adult stores, like the one mentioned, seem to have come under fire for various reasons, some obvious (with community members taking the issue to courts and claiming that the presence of an adult store in the area allegedly produces “litter, crime and prostitution, as well as an adverse effect on property values”) and some purely economic, like rising property and rent prices which are driving them out of their nests.  

You would note, however, that this is a sum total of TWO adult stores manned by Sri Lankans, within just a couple of blocks from each other and all right in the middle of Manhattan. Curious, wouldn’t you say? Our protagonist, mulling over all of this, kept walking and came across…

You’ve got to be kidding!

Jayasara Video Inc. a repeat of both Vihan and Empire. Run exclusively by Sri Lankans with the addition of cheap lingerie displayed in the façade.

Sadly, Navin has a day job so he couldn’t dedicate more time to this mystery but apparently, there are many MORE such shops in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island which are run entirely by Sri Lankans. Case in point, this tragic story where a Sri Lankan working in an adult shop was killed in an alleged botched robbery (note the number of Sri Lankan names quoted in the article, some of adult shop workers).

Speaking to a few people living in Staten Island, Navin was able to confirm that Sri Lankans were leaders in the adult entertainment industry in New York, the undefeated champs of importing and distributing toys and videos. The same was heard of Los Angeles, although we have no eyewitness accounts.  

What are we trying to get at?

We had grave doubts while publishing this story, worried about the possible backlash it might create in conservative Sri Lankan society. At the same time, we’re not here to point fingers and call people immoral. We think it’s important to look at these matters as objectively as possible, although most would disagree whilst standing on a moral high ground: but let’s face it, employment is employment, despite some forms of employment appearing more dubious than others. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that while most of us would squirm at the very idea…it’s not exactly illegal in the West. Plus, one must do what it takes to get by because even in Western countries, life is a lot harder than what we see in movies. So we understand the rationale, but the very thought of Sri Lankan uncles paving the way with their beer bellies does give way for a fit of giggles. There is also the mystery: why are these places manned solely by Sri Lankans? What’s more, we’re quite certain that this story is one among the many queer, interesting tales revolving around the lives of Sri Lankans living abroad… and we’d definitely like to hear more! Drop a comment below if you have anything to add to the above story or if you, too, have encountered a phenomenon as fascinating as the one above.

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