Exporting Amsterdam to Asia

Droog design heater, a great export product of Amsterdam

Sanne van Oosten

It’s good to be back. After nine months of traveling through Asia I’m so happy to be in good ole Amsterdam again. In Dutch I’d say: Oost, West, Mokum best. Even though we had an amazing time in Asia, this trip has made me appreciate all those little things from home just a little bit more. Biking through the city, the view of the windmill from my window, Old Amsterdam cheese, and last but not least, delicious water straight from the tap.

I sure did miss Amsterdam. That isn’t to say that I never came across anything from Amsterdam in the past nine months. Au contraire. I had never expected to learn so much about Dutch history while traveling through Asia.

We started our travels nine months ago in Indonesia, the former Dutch colony. I felt somewhat ashamed to tell locals where I’m from because the Dutch did so many horrible things to the Indonesians during the period of the VOC and especially during the subsequent period of colonization. But the Indonesians never showed any signs of spitefulness. In fact, our shared history gave rise to numerous friendly conversations.

During one afternoon in the colonial city centre of Jakarta, Batavia, we had many pleasant encounters with Indonesians interested in the Netherlands. One elderly man with hardly any teeth was delighted to finally get to practice his Dutch again, another person bragged about all the cities in the Netherlands in which his relatives lived and yet another pulled out Dutch household magazine Libelle and asked us if we could help him translate some difficult words that weren’t in his dictionary.

Not only did the Dutch subjugate the Indonesians during all those years of colonization, many Dutch inhabitants of Indonesia were subject to great oppression at the hands of the Japanese during the Second World War. Among those were my grandparents. They lived a peaceful life in Java before the war. In 1941 they were separated and brought to concentration camps in separate cities. During our visit in Indonesia we decided to try to find these concentration camps. But we didn’t have much information about the whereabouts. Equipped with only the names of the cities the concentration camps were in we headed out to find them. The concentration camp of my grandfather was still being used as a prison, but the concentration of my grandmother was boarded up and rotting away in silence. With some help of some Indonesian friends we found the two places and made a short documentary of our search. To watch it, click here.

Next stop: Malaysia truly Asia with a hint of Dutch. Most people know Malaysia as a British colony, but before the British arrived the Dutch were already working hard at exploiting the Malay people. We visited the popular town Malakka, famous for it’s colonial history. Many Dutch canons, architecture, art and even the former city hall adorned with the word Stadhuys.

Then we went to Japan. In Nagasaki, famous for the dropping of the second atom bomb at the end of World War Two, we visited the former Dutch island of Dejima. This artificial island was the only contact Japan had with the outside world for over 200 years. Before 1640 Japan had trade relations with mostly Spain and Portugal. However, they started getting tired of the way in which they were pushing their religion on the Japanese. The Japanese didn’t want such interference in their culture and decided to seal all their borders from the outside world. Not until 1868 with the Meji restoration did they decide to open up again. All that time only one country was allowed to trade with Japan: The Dutch. At least the Dutch didn’t try to push their religion on the Japanese, making them the only ones worthy of trade. The island is now a museum with numerous models of VOC-ships, VOC-cannons, model houses where you can see how Dutch and Japanese design meshed, kitchens and storage areas. While walking around the formerly artificial island (now all the water around has been reclaimed) we saw more Dutch tourists than we had seen in the past months.

Next stop: Taiwan. We headed to the south of the island and visited Anping fort. A fort built in 1624 by the Dutch. They imported bricks from Indonesia and started building what was then called Fort Zeelandia. Now it is a large museum about the time the Dutch spent in Taiwan. Outside the museum there were even wooden shoes, windmills and tulips for Chinese tourists to pose for pictures. They love everything Dutch! Or do they? In the museum an old man started talking to me in English. He asked me where I’m from. I said: “I’m from Amsterdam, the Netherlands.” He looked puzzled. “I’m from Holland, I’m Dutch” I said. Still no sign of recognition. “You know the people who built the fort of which you are now in the museum!” he looked like it rang a bell, but it could also be that he just wanted to get on with the conversation. He had no idea who the Dutch were. And he wasn’t the only one. Throughout Asia, bar Indonesia, many people had never heard of our country.

Our hosts in Taiwan were a graphic designer and a fashion designer. They were thrilled to host someone from the Netherlands, because that is the home of their favorite designers of Droog. They couldn’t stop talking about their favorite Dutch designers Hella Jongerius, Marcel Wanders, Richard Hutten and Henk Stallinga. They even brought us to one of the few contemporary art museums in Taipei, which had a complete floor dedicated to Dutch design. We were amazed. I only knew Droog from their atelier in the Staalstraat. I also knew they wanted to expand to the Groenburgwal, where they also wanted to open a restaurant for their visitors.

But no. The direct neighbors rebelled. They didn’t want to be kept up by the noise such a restaurant would bring about. They pleaded the local city council to do something about it, which they did. Without much recognition for Droog’s world wide appreciation, they decided they had to diminish their plans and only open a small restaurant with limited opening hours and a limited menu. Standing in this museum in Taipei I couldn’t help but wonder: are the Dutch limiting their artistic excellence? And if artistic excellence can be so easily limited by some persuasive neighbors who know their rights, what other kinds of excellence are limited as well? Of course, I whish everyone to have some peace and quiet around their house, but should that mean that we want to limit great initiatives that are Dutch export products to all over the world? If this keeps on we will really be forgotten by the rest of the world. We might stay famous for our entrepreneurial past, but if remain so squeamish in the present even that might fade away.

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