The Netherland's second largest city comes together to bring in the year of the rooster.
On Saturday 28 January, the people of Rotterdam joined more than a billion people worldwide to celebrate the beginning of the Chinese New Year. The year of the fire Rooster occurs every 60 years and those born this year should be considered trustworthy, responsible and punctual.
Port city Rotterdam has the largest Chinese community in the Netherlands, boasting a rich offering of Chinese art, food and culture. Much of which can be found on the West-Kruiskade, a street considered a melting pot of the city’s diverse and international population.
Rotterdam Chinese New Year (RCNY) kicked off Saturday’s celebrations in Wijkpark Oude Westen, a park just off the West-Kruiskade. At its entrance, red and pink paper lanterns weave above the crowd through the park’s trees. A long red ribbon passes in and around their trunks holding up smaller ribbons, scribbled with multilingual wishes of prosperity and luck.
Even at 12.10, ten minutes after opening, the crowds flooded in quickly, eager to get a good spot by the stage. They were warmed up with Jurian Incite, a Krump dancer, who brought a modern twist to the programme. Traditional Chinese dance performances, Kung-Fu and Tai-Chi entertained the audience throughout the day.
In the past, the relationship between the Netherlands and its Chinese community was strained. During the opening ceremony, Rotterdam Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb condemned the historical behaviour. “Did you know that a hundred years ago in Rotterdam you would lose your Dutch passport if you married a Chinese person? Today this is an unthinkable thing.” He praised the inclusiveness and accessibility of the festival and helped to wake the lion by painting on the eyes.
Behind the Scenes
It is the first year that event organisation Vivre Productions has helped organise the celebration, in collaboration with the China Festivals Rotterdam foundation. With preparations that began August 2016, much work goes into the packed programme which since this year now spans over seven days rather than the single day in previous years.
Marjolein de Jong from Vivre Productions tells me, “we want it to be a celebration that […] attracts younger people and people from all cultures. It’s an opportunity to learn about great Chinese traditions, but also all the beauty the Chinese culture has to offer.”
Indeed the festival guests are diverse. Children line up to have their faces painted as one of the zodiac animals. On the other side of the park, a little girl has her name written in Chinese calligraphy. There is a ping pong table where both adults and children alike run furiously back and forth to maintain the rally.
The lion and dragon dancers parade through the West-Kruiskade. They go from shop to shop, the lion snatches the customary lettuce left at each stop, their moves synchronised to the percussion and drums following behind them. The racket and the smoke of red firecrackers drive away evil from businesses and homes on the street.
This year, in homage to the year of the Rooster, 14 large model roosters were decorated by multiple artists, including Venour and Studio-Zi, a chinese artist and designer collective founded by Dutch-Chinese artist Fenmei Hu. They were placed all over the city, including the main shopping street, a well-known department store de Bijenkorf as well as within Markthal, Rotterdam’s newest architectural success.
吃了吗 (“Have you eaten yet?”)
Food is central to any Chinese New Year celebration. Visitors to the RCNY celebration were greeted not only with the sights and sounds of the small markets and Kungfu performances but also to the smells and taste of the food.
Steaming vegetarian lumpia, skewered fish balls (魚漿), Char Siu sandwiches and even mealworms brought crowds to the pop-up restaurants. For those with a sweeter tooth, treats included mochi, egg tarts and buns stuffed with red bean paste.
Brave visitors headed to the “Some Like it Hot” tasting at Space 101, to experience a variety of spices. Bowls of Sichuan pepper paste, Sambal, Suriname spices as well as Wasabi sat on a checked table cloth.
A culinary theatre in the centre of the park drew in crowds as chefs such as Sieberen Meerema (Restaurant Frits), Jinai Looi (Het Zesde Geluk) and Tim Kan (Amoy Foods) gave cooking demonstrations and tastings, sometimes with a little extra help from the audience.
RCNY events weren’t just limited to the Rotterdam’s “China-Town”. One of the festival’s organisers Robert Boevé said, “nobody can escape the Chinese New Year [in the city]”. An old Rotterdam tram was transformed into a riding restaurant, organised by notable local chefs Marnix Benschop and Alexander Wong. Diners experienced an eight-course Chinese dinner whilst taking in the sights of the city on both Friday and Saturday evening. Sights came to a temporary stop however on Friday, when a car clipped the side of the tram, delaying the journey whilst both drivers exchanged insurance details.
Drifting away from Rotterdam’s “China town”, and all the festivities, you stumble into the city centre. It is dominated by large flags advertising the coinciding Rotterdam International Film Festival which finishes this week. Johnnie To’s Three (三人行) and Wang Xuebo’s Knife in the Clear Water (清水里的刀子) are two of ten Chinese films showcased amongst international talent.
To the east of the city sits the Timmerhuis, a modern building hiding behind the City hall that accommodates municipal services, offices and residential space. For the seven days of the New Year festival, it has played host to a Chinese art exhibition. Copy & Identity looks at how “artists use copy and transformation to shape their origins”. Whilst the western world may jest that China “copies everything”, the exhibition delves into the different perceptions of “copy”. It also points out that the wider world is not exempt from this accusation. The iconic Dutch Delft pottery, for example, was inspired by 14th-century Chinese Porcelain patterns.
Bringing the Festival to a Close
As the day went on, there were Mandarin classes at a nearby café Mr Beans, and delicious Hotpot (火锅) at a local restaurant. Long after sunset, the paper lanterns lit the festival, softening the mood and slowing the tempo. Fireworks eventually burned red over the sky bringing festivities to an end.
De Jong tells me that Vivre productions will be back again next year to continue the growth of the festival. Speaking before the festival she said, “we want and hope that this celebration brings multiple cultures together. This festival is for everybody”. Indeed gauging the reaction, enthusiasm and excitement from those there yesterday, it certainly was.