- By Alison Woodward
In Wagenstraat rise the gates to Chinatown: three meters high with sculptured dragons winding around the pillars and overhead ornate panels of red, gold and blue.
The gates (and dual-language street signs) are relatively recent (constructed in 2009) but there has been an ethnic Chinese community in The Hague for almost one hundred years. The neighbourhood is within Amsterdam Veerkade, Wagenstraat and Gedempte Burgwal. Formerly, this was also the Jewish neighborhood and it has been significant commercially for centuries; Wagenstraat was a meeting point for migrants. The Holocaust decimated the Jewish community throughout Europe and in The Hague. A number of demographic changes occurred; loss of the Jewish community was followed by decades of migration from China, post-colonial changes brought increased ethnic Chinese migrants from the former Dutch East Indies and the area grew as an ethnic Chinese commercial community.
There have been parallel evolutions of Chinatowns around the world; many Chinatowns have a rich history, architecture and are a wonderful blend of Asia and the culture of the adopted country. Many would deserve a mention here, but sadly time doesn’t permit a complete list. However, of anecdotal interest: Chinatown Liverpool is the largest in Europe and a gem. Also, there are significant and historical Chinatowns in the U.S.A., (specifically San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles). Chinatown Los Angeles was made famous by the 1974 film Chinatown; a classic of the noir genre, this genius piece produced by Roman Polański stars Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson. The film is set in the 1930s, Polański conjures the atmosphere beautifully, and we get a glimpse into the period and place – slightly seedy, mysterious and enticingly exotic.
Many Chinatowns are marked by similar gates as those in The Hague; in Mandarin Chinese these gates are called “paifang”. Sometimes, the gates will have lion statues or “fu lions” marking/guarding the neighborhood. Frequently, the gates have a significant and specific inscription in Mandarin and may have been given to the city by the Chinese government/regional government. The gates to San Francisco Chinatown were given to the city; similarly, Chinatown Havana received the materials for its gates as a gift from the Chinese Government, to assist the commercial and cultural growth of Havana.
Chinatown The Hague offers a wonderful blend of contrasting cultures, “east meets western Europe”. It has a rich tapestry of colorful sights, bustling commercial activity, smells of spices and Asian cuisine. It is a romantic and intriguing idea in literature that, by passing through gates or a doorway, one may enter into another world. So too, in Chinatown The Hague, you can enter the gates and enjoy the sights and sounds of Asia; not to mention, some of the best quality and value Asian (Chinese and other styles) cuisine in the Netherlands. You will also find a rich array of specialist grocers, alternative medicine practices, oriental spas/health massage/acupuncture specialists and Asian goods suppliers including some fine (but understated) Asian galleries and crafts shops. A popular destination for tourists, you can enjoy the neighbourhood any time of year. If however, you need an excuse to visit, or want to remake those 2013 resolutions (!) what better time to experience the vibrancy of Chinatown than during Chinese New Year.
Chinese New Year celebrations in The Hague
Chinese New Year follows the lunar calendar and is the most important celebration for ethnic Chinese communities all around the world. The celebrations begin on the first day of the first month of the Chinese calendar and end with the lantern festival on the 15th day after. The origin of the celebrations is centuries old; regional customs and traditions for New Year celebrations vary as China is vast and ethnic Chinese around the world have adapted the practices. But as in Western cultures this is traditionally a time of renewal, optimism, forgiveness and hope. It is also a time of feasting with family and friends. The Chinese New Year in 2013 starts on 10 February. In Chinatown The Hague you can expect lots of fun, including a program of activities such as lion dances, lavish food, decorations, lanterns and fireworks.