Irina Ridzuan

The aroma of Amsterdam's Chinatown

The humble beginnings of Chinatown Amsterdam is inextricably linked to a surprising aroma: peanuts!

 

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Chinese Peddlers - A print of Chinese peddlers selling pindakoekjes (peanut brittles) from tin trays.  Taken from Amsterdam archive . Item no:  010094000087

The history of Amsterdam’s Chinatown might seem like a short one: officially established circa 1910. However, it would be foolish to think that the existence of the Chinese diaspora in Amsterdam only began in the 20th century. That is not to say that the 1900s did not mark a pivotal point in Chinese-Netherlands history.

The ethnic Chinese has come into contact through various points in Dutch colonial history. In fact, the Chinese diaspora is one of the oldest minorities in the Netherlands – from the Indonesian Chinese, to Surinamese Chinese, to the mainland Chinese. However, in terms of Chinatown’s history, an important event was the 1911 Dutch labour strike which halted production (Pieke, 1998). To end this, Chinese sailors were brought from Britain by the Dutch and this notable migration around the port created the economical/political foundation of Chinatown. From this humble beginning, Chinatown has now grown into both a monumental location for the diaspora as well as a place that attracts international attention.

There is certainly something for everyone in Chinatown; whether to enjoy the sight of a bustling city, or to grab a bite. Chinatown today is a buzzing economical hub. However, one sense that is bound to be stimulated is smell. What exactly can the aroma of Chinatown tell us about its history?

Amongst other indulgent senses, there is no doubt that this central area was once packed with scents of spices, traditional cooking, opium, and drinks. An interesting anecdote we found is the prevalence of peanuts—and more specifically the 'pindakoekjes' (peanut cookies).

Pindakoekjes as they were known in Dutch actually comes in many names. The Indonesians might know it as tengteng, or by the Chinese as huashengtang, and in English, peanut brittle. After the mass migration in 1911, Chinese seamen worked at the docks and the increased demand for extra hands drove this influx of migration. However, it was not long until the ship labour economy became redundant due to the 1929 economic crisis. This is also a time when most labourers were let go and thus creating a flow of the Chinese immigrants to venture into other industries. One unexpected industry that blossomed during this time of desperation is the peanut brittle trade. Supposedly sparked in the 1930s, an unemployed Chinese seaman started making and selling these peanut treats. Soon after the trend began to flourish and the sight of Chinese peddlers hawking peanut brittle from tin-trays became a familiar sight. Certainly, it also became a familiar smell: the sweetness of the caramelized sugar and fragrance of toasted peanuts.