The history of Amsterdam’s Chinatown might seem like a short one: officially established circa 1910. It would be foolish to think that the existence of the Chinese diaspora in Amsterdam only began in the 20th century. However, that is not to say that the 1900s did not mark a pivotal point in Chinese-Netherlands history.
The ethnic Chinese have come into contact with Amsterdam in various points in Dutch colonial history. In fact, the Chinese are one of oldest minorities in the Netherlands – from the Indonesian Chinese, to Surinamese Chinese, to the mainland Chinese. However, in terms of Chinatown’s history, a significant event was the 1911 Dutch labour strike which halted production throughout the city (Pieke, 1998). As a quick fix for this, Chinese sailors were brought by the Dutch from Britain 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 see what food is on offer. Chinatown today is a buzzing economic 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 the scent 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 comes in many names. The Indonesians might know it as tengteng, or by the Chinese as huashengtang, and peanut brittle in English. After the mass migration in 1911, Chinese seamen worked at the docks and the ever increasing demand for extra hands further drove this influx of migration. However, it was not long until the ship labour economy became redundant due to the 1929 economic crisis. This was a time when many, if not most, labourers were let go, thus compelling unemployed Chinese immigrants to search for work in 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.