14th June 2023
by Josephine Koopman
Created at:
14th June 2023
Josephine Koopman
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Figure 1. Street with shops in a town in the Dutch East Indies with shops (including 'Toko Tosari') and travelers in palanquins, c. 1900-1915, Rijksmuseum RP-F-00-6125-A

Sometimes Mrs Van Kleyntjes used to sniff the island smells, of spices that laid out to dry, cloves, nutmeg, mace or lemongrass or the bark of kayu putih trees or vanilla..

Maria Dermout, De tienduizend dingen (1955)

Smells that evoke memories of bygone times are a motif in Dutch colonial and postcolonial literature, for example in the work of Maria Dermoût and Bea Vianen. But though the colonial empire has dissolved, its characteristic aromas remain. In the Netherlands today, we can encounter the smells of the colonial past in places called tokos. 

What is a toko? According to the Dutch dictionary, it is a type of (Chinese) shop where you can buy all sorts of things. In the vernacular, toko can be taken to mean a shop or business in general. The etymology of the term points to the history of the Dutch East-Indies. In Malay, the common spoken language in the former colony, toko means bazaar. Possibly the word is derived from the Hokkien-Chinese thô-khò, which literally means underground warehouse or repository. The use of this term by Chinese presiding on the island of Java, to describe typical Javanese structures for food storage, can be traced back to the fifteenth century (Duyvendak, 1933).


The Indonesian archipelago has been home to Chinese populations long before Europeans came into contact with the area. In search of the source of the precious nutmeg, the Portuguese crown was the first European power to make its entry in the East-Indies, in 1512. In 1600, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) gained foothold in the region by establishing a trading post on Ambon island, in the Moluccas. An essay on the culture of nutmeg published in 1920 praises the enterprise and situates it in the historic importance powerful empires granted to aromatics:

The longing for those sharp, strange-aromatic products with their aphrodisiac properties, intensified over the course of time. We see in world history, how the greed for spices, has given way to the most fantastic achievements:  and fate has willed us, the Dutch, to become the illustrious bearers of the spice-coloured banner… (Van der Wolk, 1920: 164)

In the course of the seventeenth century, on Ambon and the nearby Banda Islands - then known as the Spice Islands - the VOC was to enforce a monopoly on production and trade of nutmeg, mace, and cloves. In the East-Indies, the VOC gradually developed from a trade power to a colonial power, extending its power and subjugating local populations. Through the trading network of the VOC, Asian spices and other fragrant commodities reached European noses and transformed the smellscape of Dutch cities. In order to prevent price fluctuation and speculation, sometimes officials would burn heaps of spices, for example in the VOC warehouse in the centre of Amsterdam (Wadstrom, 1794: 65).. In Zeeland, during times of oversupply, nutmeg, cinnamon and cloves were burned in such large quantities that the air would smell of the spices for miles around. (Beekman, 1996: 42). Notwithstanding rigorous trade protection measures, at the end of the eighteenth century the VOC went bankrupt. The state took over its rule, formally establishing the East-Indies as an overseas territory of the Netherlands. 

In the stratified and segregated society of the Dutch East-Indies, the Chinese population was at the centre of local economic life as traders and shopkeepers. Throughout the archipelago, but especially on Java, grocers tended to be owned by Chinese. These Chinese grocery shops were called tokos. A 1909 novel set in plantation community on Sumatra describes how ‘the carriage held still before Loen-Hien's big Chinese toko [...] and they approached the coolness of that deep store, held in semi-darkness. At once the sharp-sweet, complicated smell of foods, of wine and spices and all sorts of canned goods, hit them in the face’ (Van Bruggen, 1909: 284). Accordingly, the little shop on board Dutch passenger steamships that sailed to and from the East-Indies was also called a toko (Steenmeijer, 2009: 31).

As tokos are places with a full-bodied sensorium, a shopping trip engages the sense of smell and stimulates the appetite. Taste and smell are close allies: when we eat, our sense of smell and taste work together to bring out the flavour of our food and drink. But research shows that before we even bite into our food, the act of smelling induces digestive processes in our body. In the past, people actively used their sense of smell when grocery shopping (Tullett: 2019). People would visit the market nose first, sniffing vegetables, meat, and dairy to determine if they were fresh. In the modern supermarket, by contrast, our sense of smell is used to different ends. While supermarkets were carefully disposed of odours of spoiling, in-store bakeries were introduced in order to stimulate ‘olfactory merchandising’ as early as the 1930s in the United States, where the supermarket originated (Mack, 2010: 828). 

Figure 1. Street with shops in a town in the Dutch East Indies with shops (including 'Toko Tosari') and travelers in palanquins, c. 1900-1915, Rijksmuseum RP-F-00-6125-A

Tokos are environments where odours abound. They preserve the olfactory dimension of grocery shopping ritual thanks to shelves filled with seasonings, preserves and dried spices. Common smells include trassi (fermented shrimp), ketjap manis (sweet soy sauce) and condensed milk. It is likely that the tokos in the colonies smelled differently because they sold a wider variety of products, as noted in the travel diary of Justus van Maurik:

The tokos bordering the market street, most of them owned by small Chinese merchants, are usually rather unbecoming dirty-looking houses of one story. Instead of windows they have a big open hole, which can be closed with shutters. In the back and near the shutters one can find all sorts of things in motley disarray, tidy together. Bottles with lemonades and fruit sirops, beer, wine, Apollinaris mineral waters  real and fake, manilla cigars, tin cans with preservable foods, trinkets, weapons, colourful ties, ceramics, hardware, nails, tools, eau de cologne and odeurs [..] are what one can find in a single toko, and I believe that one has to be born as a Chinese, to find his way in such chaos (Van Maurik, 1897: 20).

Because contemporary tokos in the Netherlands focus on imported products from Asia, its product offering revolves around foodstuffs with a long shelf life: dry goods in packaging that is easy to transport and store such as tin cans. In this it resembles the traditional dry grocer, named ‘kruidenier’ in Dutch, referring to the trade in spices. The dominance of non-perishable dry goods is of large influence to the olfactory character of tokos. Dry goods typically give off powdery, pungent, slightly sugary smells. They render a smellscape that’s warm, dry and dense, an amalgam of spicy and sweet aromas. Nowadays, some tokos also offer prepared food next to the traditional dry goods. This translates to a toko smellscape that leans more towards the salty and savoury, mouth-watering food smells. Here one typically encounters the smell of masala, of bitter Surinamese greens, and of salted meat and stockfish.  

Shopkeepers and customers relate to the toko smellscape in different ways as it evokes recollections of foreign places and distant pasts. During participatory smell research in tokos in Amsterdam, participants describe the smellscape as friendly or familiar. It is also often described as overwhelming, testifying to its ambivalent character and to its multiplicity. In the collective memory of generations that grew up in the second half of the twentieth century, the toko smellscape is familiar because it calls to mind shopping at the old-fashioned kruidenier. Another common thread running through participants' descriptions is the association with the Chinese-Indonesian restaurant, the transcultural culinary phenomenon that arose from processes of (de)colonisation. Many Dutch people had their first experience of going out to eat there, acquainting with strange smells and tastes. One shopkeeper emphasized that customers often remark how they take great pleasure in sniffing his toko, as its characteristic aromas remind them of their origins. For those with roots in the former colonies, a toko smells like home, appealing to a sense of nostalgia that infuses the collective memory of diasporas. Resonant of sensory histories on personal and collective levels, the smellscape of tokos projects the hybrid identifications characteristic of postcolonial Dutch society. 

Far behind me the voice of the harvesting women, the sound of oxen, close to the shed with the cows, the chickens on top of the haystacks and on the scaffold, in the evenings the oil lamps, the smell of kwi kwi and masala stew, the sweet smell of rice. I braided garlands of lilac blossoms; I could be happy as well...

Bea Vianen, Sarnami, hai (1969)

Contemporary urban smellscapes have global roots and reveal particular paths of migration, as is reflected in the toko smellscape. In fact, the history of tokos in The Netherlands is intertwined with the Dutch histories of migration in the twentieth century. 

The year 1911 can be considered its starting point (Meeuwse, 2001). In the summer of this year, seafarers and dock workers of Rotterdam and Amsterdam united in a strike in pursuit of better pay and working conditions. Disinclined to give in to the strikers’ demands, instead the shipping companies recruited Chinese workers who were stationed in harbours across the channel. They had been working as stokers on steamships on the line to and from British Hong Kong. The new Chinese arrivals were seen as strike-breakers without solidarity or class-consciousness and the newspapers referred to them as ‘het gele gevaar’ (the yellow danger). Normally, so-called scabs would be temporarily brought in from abroad to replace union workers on strike, only to be sent back when the strike was broken. However, the ship owners quickly took a liking to Chinese workers, who were willing to work more for less pay than their Dutch colleagues. 

Figure 2. Wijttenbach street 35, Interior of Toko Sarinah, with Frand Dutrieux, Edith and the child Daniel Dutrieux, 1996, Amsterdam, Stadsarchief Amsterdam, 010122038850.

In the harbour districts of Katendrecht in Rotterdam and Nieuwmarkt in Amsterdam, amidst gambling houses and prostitution dens, appeared Chinese tokos and eateries to accommodate the growing numbers of Chinese seamen stationed in the Dutch harbours with tastes and smells from home. In dehumanizing rhetoric, Chinese were assumed by the authorities to be resistant against the harsh working conditions in the scorching boiler rooms of the ships, which smelled rotten and burnt, like sulphur and coals (Bakker, 1962: 44, see also Wubben, 1986). In 1927, on the brink of the economic crisis, there were around 3300 Chinese men working for Dutch shipping companies. The crisis had a large impact on international trade and thus on the fate of Chinese seamen who were left ashore. In the second half of the thirties, the Dutch government deported about 2000 of the unemployed back to China. At the end of the thirties, there were around thirty Chinese venues left, spread between the Chinatowns of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. 

Feelings and Noses

Following the independence of Indonesia in 1949, Chinese tokos and restaurants in Dutch cities started to blossom. As the Netherlands lost its crown colony, a stream of migrants followed in its wake. Repatriates had been used to Asian cuisines and started frequenting Chinese establishments. In turn, Chinese tokos tapped into the growing demand for Indonesian-Dutch flavours. ‘Indo-Dutch’ food, itself already a fusion of Indonesian specialties and Dutch taste, was added to Chinese offerings, resulting in a gustatory and olfactory hybrid of three culinary traditions. A typical Indo-Dutch food smell is seroendeng, a side dish that consists of fried shredded coconut with spices and peanuts. Or spekkoek, a cake built with two-toned layers, smelling sweetly of spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom.  

Figure 3. Victor M. Lansink, Interior of eastern specialty store Toko Centraal in Utrecht, 2014, Het Utrechts Archief, 821931.

The oldest surviving toko in Amsterdam, Toko Dun Yong, originates from 1957. In 2020 a book was published that narrates the history of the establishment and the Dun Yong family (Meeuwse, 2022). In the early days, customers of the toko consisted of two groups: the Chinese community in Amsterdam, and people who had returned from the East-Indies. Toko Dun Yong sold a range of Chinese and other Asian products such as seasonings, herbal medicine, and incense. Over the course of the next decades, under the influence of labour immigration movements, its clientele grew. Migrants workers were pleased to encounter familiar spices such as cumin and coriander seeds.

With the independence of Suriname in 1975, the toko attracted new customers hailing from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. Across the country appeared a subvariety of tokos which catered specifically to the diasporas from the Caribbean. Surinamese tokos reflect the extent to which the former Dutch colony in the ‘West-Indies’ was entangled with Asia. In response to the abolition of slavery in 1863, the Dutch Trading Company (Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij) saw itself obliged to recruit new labour for the plantations. It concluded an agreement with the British authorities to mobilise Hindustani contract workers from British India. Contract workers were also recruited from Java in the Dutch East-Indies. In 1858 a group of Chinese contract workers from Java settled in Suriname, marking the beginning of a Chinese community in Suriname. Colonial slavery and subsequent indentured labour have left their mark on the ethnic diversity of the Surinamese population. As a result, the Surinamese kitchen includes West-African, Hindustani, Javanese and Chinese influences.

Gradually, as Asian and Surinamese foods took root in Dutch culinary practice, tokos became frequented by Dutch citizens of all backgrounds. Today, there are tokos in all shapes and sizes. Some focus strictly on Indonesian or Indo-Dutch food, some on a variety of Asian cuisines, or on Surinamese cuisines. We can consider tokos as postcolonial symbols because they manifest the entangled Dutch colonial past, reflecting patterns of cultural exchange. 

Josephine Koopman
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