Photoblog — Chinatown along the canals of Amsterdam

Everyday urban sociology

(c) Jan Rath, 2016 — Chinatown along the canals of Amsterdam

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    Chinatown along the canals of Amsterdam

    Right in Amsterdam’s picturesque canal zone, on and around Zeedijk, Chinese entrepreneurs have carved out a presence in what seems like the local Chinatown. Zeedijk is a narrow, 500-meter pedestrian street with picturesque, 350-year old houses. At the ground level stores are abound and quite a few of them are Asian named, owned and operated. These businesses offer goods and services that are associated with Asia—China in particular—and target a clientele of locals, tourists and day-trippers, Asian and non-Asian alike. Restaurants and food outlets have a strong presence, offering a banquet of the senses, representing various Chinese cuisines and to a lesser extent also Thai, Malaysian, Surinamese, and other cuisines. Next, there are ‘oriental’ home furnishing stores (selling Chinoiserie), kitchenware shops (selling woks, rice steamers, chop sticks, bowls, and so forth), gadget stores, travel agents, hair salons, massage parlors, nail care shops, acupuncturists, herbalists, clothing stores, etcetera, often displaying Chinese characters on their windows or other symbols of Asianness. Some businesses such as Hoi Tin and Toko Dun Yong (see picture) have even added pagoda-like architectural elements to their storefront.

    Since the early 1990s, individual Chinese entrepreneurs and their business organizations have campaigned for official acknowledgement of Zeedijk as an ethnic-only district and for governmental support of the enhancement of Chineseness. But most claims elicited only a lukewarm response if not outright opposition.

    As Rath et al. (2017) demonstrated in their study of this area, many interests were in stake and many arguments were exchanged. But one is particularly interesting. It is related to the fact that Zeedijk/Nieuwmarkt is an inherent part of the famous ‘historic urban ensemble of the canal district of Amsterdam’. The 350-year old heritage architecture is of key importance for Amsterdam’s economy. (Its cultural significance was underlined by its inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2010). As an official explained, it is inappropriate or even irresponsible to add a gate or other ‘exotic’ street furniture to such a precious historic landscape.

    Of course, the local authorities could have visited other world cities such as Toronto to explore the subtle ways in which the area could have been marked, but such an idea was not seriously considered. But why then did the authorities agree to promote a Winter Wonderland in the same area? At least, there have never been any objections against the display of strings of electric lights and other ‘winter decorations’ during the Christmas season, a fact that suggests a double standard.

    Incidentally, the municipality eventually gave in and did put up street signs written in traditional Chinese characters (2005). They are a small but official acknowledgement of the Chinese presence, approximately one-foot long.

    november 2020

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