Asians in the Netherlands: the hidden discrimination

Translated from Italian (Sara Marotta)

The Netherlands is often considered a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities where tolerance rules and minorities have space in society. To be honest, the debate on this issue has been open for some time and the romantic vision of the past has been replaced by a more crude realism; just look at the story of Zwarte Piet or the verbal violence that often affects the Muslim minority.

Number 39 with rice

In this context, it seems that the Asian community has remained out of both the political debate and the simplifications by a large part of the Dutch ‘mainstream’ society. But in reality, this is not the case: Dutch people of Indonesian, Chinese or Asian descent are more often victims of racism than is believed. Some of the stereotypes towards Asians have distant origins, many date back to the war period in Vietnam while the local ones mainly address the Indonesian community the largest Dutch minority, coming from the former colony dominated for 500 years. They were not spared either and the terms “pindaas” (peanut) or “sambal”, a spicy sauce very common in Chinese restaurants, frequently refer to Indonesians in slang. Micro-aggressions perpetrated and handed down in mainstream popular culture that for a long time seemed only innocent games without any discriminatory purpose.

An example known to all is the ‘Hanky ​​Panky Shanghai’ chant used in primary schools in the Netherlands: this nursery rhyme is sung to all Asian pupils on their birthday while mimicking the gesture of the almond-shaped eyes. “It’s not in Chinese, it’s just random words put together with the attempt to make fun of the language,” journalist Janet Lie, born in Amsterdam from a Chinese family in Amsterdam, told 31mag.

Although it may seem an innocent game, in reality, it is “the first moment in which stereotypes are learned” against those who are different. For Janet, her threshold one evening: it was 2013 and during an episode of the Holland’s Got Talent – a show not new to instances of racism – Judge Gordon made a joke at the expense of a competitor of Chinese origin, Xiao Wang. “What are you gonna sing tonight, Number 39 with rice? (39 met rijst)?” The name refers to dishes on the menus in Asian restaurants which tend to unpronounceable for a European who does not know the language, so they are always accompanied by a number. And the ritual question is “with noodles or rice?” Here, Holland’s Got Talent has brought the mockery against people of Asian origin live nationally.

Janet tells 31Mag, she was shocked by Gordon’s words and the public’s reaction: there was no indignation but general hilarity. Three days later, Lie founded a Facebook group of the same name to collect public episodes of racism against Chinese, Korean, Indonesian, and other Asians. “The things that Gordon said are things we hear every day: I wanted to start a dialogue about why all this became normal,” she says.

The page, active until 2018, had a large following and collected dozens of discrimination testimonies, shedding light on a phenomenon little discussed in the Dutch public space. The response was widespread: micro-aggressions and anti-Asian bullying are experienced daily.

Lie cites an incident at which, during a party, a guy approached her asking if it was true that Asian women had the ‘horizontal vagina.’ “It’s a really racist thing, it doesn’t make sense and the fact that this guy came from to tell me this was really offensive,” says the journalist. The most shocking thing, she says, was that nobody realized why I was angry and “after a while I realized that I was the only Asian or colored person among all the guests.”

Racism disguised

Compared to the various forms of racism, Lie considers discrimination against Asians “hidden and underhand.” Often “it is not seen seriously” because some of the stereotypes reproduce a “positive” conception of Asians who are considered “successful and intelligent.” Fenmei Hu, also had to face “Hanky ​​Panky Shanghai” and decided to turn to his daughter’s teachers to make sure that her daughter would never sing it again, “I don’t want to pass on to my children the idea that they have to accept things as they are but, on the contrary, I want them to raise their voices,” she explains to 31mag.

Chinatown in Den Haag (credit: 31mag)

Born in a village in China at the age of 9, she moved to the Netherlands, where her parents already lived and ran a Chinese restaurant. She studied at the Academy voor de Beeldende Vorming (AHK) and made the decision to attempt an artist career in a rather difficult environment: “Most of the art scene is white, only for whites, especially white elders.” it was odd to see an Asian artist and it was not uncommon for her to hear rude questions like: “What are you doing here? Are you lost? “Even the world of Dutch art is not immune to stereotypes and a Eurocentric vision. “The only thing I ever studied about Asian art was that it inspired Van Gogh’s paintings,” she tells 31Mag.

According to Fenmei Hu, discrimination has always been present but you want a different perception of Asians in the Dutch public space – who are never framed as a single community, as happens with Turks and Moroccans. This question has not emerged until recently.

On the discrimination scale, one step above

This also led the artist to doubt her own identity, “at the beginning I wanted to be a Dutch artist, not a Chinese one.” Over the years, Hu decided not to abandon his Chinese origins but to enhance them by crossing it with the culture in which he grew up, the Dutch one. On the other hand, he explains, very few in Holland are interested in Chinese culture. And this does not help in overcoming discrimination: on the other hand, too many still associate the Chinese community with restaurants and perceived business prowess. And despite Fenmei Hu feeling between two cultures, the country of birth often becomes a burden to be judged for what it is in the eyes of the locals: “Asians are good at math, they are obedient, they are good at cooking: all phrases made that luckily feel much less in the cities, she says.

Fenmei Hu (source pic: http://fenmei.nl/fenmei)
Fenmei Hu (source pic: http://fenmei.nl/fenmei)

Other stereotypes, such as the reticence to report thefts by the Chinese “because they earn money”, or accidents like the one from Holland’s Got Talent are no longer taken as inevitable: says the new book by Pete Wu, “De Bananengeneratie” which draws attention to stereotypes toward the Dutch-Chinese. In the same way, the journalist quotes the children’s book “waar is mijn noedelsoep” (in Dutch, “where’s my noodles soup?”) By Kartosen-Wang, published in the same year, whose protagonist is an Asian boy.

There are signs, together with the boom in Kpop (Korean pop) of Asian films, TV series or music bands in Europe, that something is changing. The new generations, as happened with page 39 met rijst, are no longer willing to remain silent.


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