Chinatown in Amsterdam – why is Crime, Sex and Drugs always linked to Chinatown?

Our guide chaperoned us from the Old Church and the Red Light district towards Chinatown.

It was barely 5 minutes from the Red Light District, a mere alley separated them, this distance, as we will see later is poetic because of the relationship of Chinatown to drugs.

But before that, how did the Chinese arrive in the Netherlands?

The first Chinese arrived in the Netherlands in the 1900s beginning just before World War I. Those that arrived from China, entered the Netherlands to work as mariners on ships and shipyards, while a significant population arrived from the Dutch East Indies as students in Dutch universities. Unlike the former, who were mostlt Han Chinese, the latter were usually Peranakan or Straits Chinese. A large wave of ethnic Chinese arrived in the Netherlands in 1965 from Indonesia as a result of ethnic strife back home. The more recent arrivals are students this time from the People’s Republic. Similar to the Chinese immigration experience elsewhere around the world, the recent immigrants from China do not mix well with the overseas Chinese from other parts of the world.

The scene changed as we walked along this street. The coffee shops, sex shops and brothels were replaced by mandarin characters, fortune cats, and traditional chinese medicine stores. Hong Kong-style char chan teng (coffeeshops, the Asian kind not the Amsterdam kind) occasionally dotted the street with all sorts of roasted meats hung from the transparent window. I spied on the glistening roasted chicken and duck drips of juice, that was going to be some succulent meat, I salivated… but we had to move on quickly.

Just for the irony, there was a large Taiwanese Buddhist temple just opposite it, a temple that I reckon practices vegetarianism.

Our guide stopped in front of a merchant store that had yet to open, playfully mimicking the fortune cat behind the windowpane. He began by introducing us to Chinatown, before quickly dropping to a hush, “now, I don’t mean to sound like a jerk, but we have a saying here… that when the Chinese traders arrived in Amsterdam, they did not just bring tea.” This was a view that it turns out is widely held by many Dutch people, who also consider the Chinese to be “snakeheads” and heavily involved in human smuggling.

It turned out that the Chinese traders did not just bring tea from China but something else (that the British in turn first brought to China) – opium. Opium is the raw material used to make hard drugs like heroin and other opioids. Opioids are a big problem in many societies the United States, for example, is currently in the throes of an opioid epidemic.

Before, you say think that opioids is causing havoc only today, do not forget that the First Opium War was caused by (obviously) opium, and it was essentially a war against drugs that led to the surrender of Hong Kong and the beginning of the colonial empires in China.

A series of events, known in China as the Century of Humiliation (from the end of the Opium War to the taking over of the Communist Party)

It was in fact the entry of hard drugs that led the Dutch government to take its radical move in allowing soft drugs such as weed/marijuana and with it the rise of coffee shops. A note on nomenclature in the Netherlands, a coffee shop sells things other than coffee, a cafe sells coffee.

The idea behind this was simple, rather than try to block all drugs, allow drug use for the drugs that were less dangerous. By decoupling weed from heroin (the dealer who sells someone weed today is probably the same person who will sell the same person cocaine and heroin the next day. Contrary to what we think however, the regulation of the soft drugs is not liberal. Cannabis is actually illegal in the Netherlands but the possession of such drugs in small amounts (up to 5 grams) in a coffee shop is allowed and any larger amount can be confiscated. This takes away to coolness and adrenaline of committing a crime, allows people to get involved in a vice more safely*, be able to treated if they need medical help and most importantly allows police to go after the hard drugs.

The effects of the relaxation on weed was positive, the main one being that most Dutch people don’t touch the drug and in fact frown on the use of such a drug. It seems like being able to do something that mum and dad can do too doesn’t make it that cool or amazing. Who would have guessed 😉

But if the locals don’t do drugs though, who does?

The side effect of allowing soft drugs is that it becomes a huge economic generator for the city. Some 25-30 percent of tourist in Amsterdam are thought to make at least one trip to a coffee shop during their time. A total of around 18 million people visited Amsterdam in 2015, based on that number 4.5-5.4 million tourists visited a coffeeshop. If that does not prop up a whole industry, I don’t know what does.

This is not to say that weed is just accepted without any resistance and that the story is this simple. There is an increasing undercurrent (it seems) of a war against drugs in the Netherlands too. Just like the sex trade and the red light district, the practical solutions that the Dutch devised to solve social problems has now come under strain.


The tourist may prop up the industry, but they also are the ones who create problems (any city you go, the locals always know their way around, it goes the same with the use of drugs in Amsterdam). Drugs like magic mushroom were used by mentally ill tourists who reacted badly and ended up dying or performing sick deeds, prompting the legislators to take action in 2007 and ban the use of magic mushrooms in 2008.

I looked up at the street sign, which was labelled in both Dutch and Mandarin. The mandarin name of the street (Zeedijk in Dutch) seemed like a practice in irony, its mandarin pronunciation being Shan De Jie, which means charitable and virtuous street. Maybe that is the intention of the street today, but it sure didn’t seem to be earlier on. Drugs and gangs, I’m not sure how that is defined as charitable or virtuous.

But this point stayed with me.

There’s something about Chinatown’s the world over that I do not get. I’ve been to Chinatown’s in many cities across the world and it seems that practically every Chinatown has a few similar traits. They seem to be the seeds of vice and crime. This was the case for the Chinatown in London, Brisbane, San Diego, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and now Amsterdam. I mean in this cases that the Chinatown’s had such a history, a large number of these areas have since been cleaned-up and become tourist spots instead. These gangs are heavily integrated into the criminal system in the city that they are in, and there is open competition between different gangs for preeminence and territory. There are obviously Chinatown’s in other part of the world where crime is rampant.

That question, I still have no answer.

I’ll just say, that we had a interesting discussion about weed in Chinatown. I may be wrong, but I don’t think this was merely a random talking point.

* I witnessed this first hand at the Amsterdam Flower Market. A group of young British tourist walked into a shop selling harder drugs (not weed, but I don’t recall what) and were buying some at the counter. The Dutch cashier and owner of the shop explained the use to them, advising them to go to the nearest MacDonalds to get food if they find it too strong. One of the trio asked if they could have alcohol with it, to which the owner looked at them, sighed with her eyes and replied, “this is an experience, you don’t know how your bodies will react. You can have alcohol anytime, even when you go back to Britain, you may only have this here. Give up the alcohol and take this as a true experience, don’t spoil it.” The three men listened like small boys. Perhaps it was her personal power or experience, but I believe that they took what she said to heart.



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