In the Netherlands, a country supposedly known for its liberal values of tolerance, many Asian Dutch kids have come to dread their birthdays because of a uniquely Dutch tradition: a happy birthday song called “Hanky Panky Shanghai.” The grande finale? At the end of the song, singers pull at the corners of their eyes to create long slits.
The song is set to the traditional happy birthday song, but swaps out the words “happy birthday to you” with “Hanky Panky Shanghai.” That’s it.
The first time classmates sang that song for Michelle Lau in elementary school, she remembers desperately trying to catch her teacher’s eye in a silent plea for help.
“I looked at the teacher, just knowing that this wasn’t right. I sat there, wondering what’s happening, why isn’t the teacher saying anything,” Lau, 24, said. “But she didn’t notice that there was anything wrong.”
That’s because more often than not teachers were leading the song. Children are led to believe it’s the Chinese version of happy birthday (it’s definitely not), and the Asian Dutch kid would sometimes be placed in the centre of a circle, made to endure around 10 excruciating seconds before being flashed with dozens of eyes pulled taught into slits.
Other times, the teacher would graciously inform the birthday child that they didn’t have to pull at their eyes since theirs were already slanted.
“I remember dreading it, knowing they were going to sing that song for you,” said Amy Cheung, 25. A member of the Dutch Asian online community group Asian Raisins, Cheung grew up desperately wanting to swap out her black hair for blonde locks so that she would no longer be called a “dirty Chinese.”
“But that’s how institutionalised it is. At four years old, Asian kids in the Netherlands understand very quickly that they’re different."
But when the Dutch Asian community tries to speak out against the practice and other examples of anti-Asian racism, their concerns are minimised as harmless jokes and good-natured ribbing, or dismissed completely.
In February 2020, before the COVID pandemic but as the coronavirus spread in China, Dutch radio DJ Lex Gaarthuis aired a song that blamed “those stinky Chinese” for the virus, drawing a flood of complaints and a police investigation. The DJ evaded prosecution as the courts ruled that, though insulting, the song was simply satirical in nature.
But following the radio broadcast, a Chinese student was assaulted and suffered a concussion when she asked a group who was singing the song in her student flat to stop.
"I asked the group if they wanted to quit. But then it suddenly got out of hand. They pushed me and the next moment I remember waking up on the floor in the hall, shocked,” she told RTL Nieuws.
“Being Asian in the Netherlands means you’re always being gaslit on your experiences. People always tell you it’s just a joke,” Cheung said.
Anti-Asian racism in other European countries is also often cloaked under the disguise of harmless jokes, or considered to be non-existent. But since the outbreak of COVID-19, “harmless jokes” have taken on a darker, more violent tone.
Last month, five young men appeared in a Paris courtroom after their tweets and retweets inciting hate and violence against Asians led to several assaults against the community in the French capital last autumn.
“It’s no longer just assaults under the pretext of stealing money,” Sun-Lay Tan, a spokesperson for the group Safety for All, said at a rally before the court appearance. “It’s gone up a notch to become gratuitous violence.”
In Germany too, Asians have been living under a climate of fear. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, South Korean expat Alexis Jang has taken to carrying pepper spray. She has actively sought out other Asians in Berlin and support groups like Asian Voices Europe after one too many quarrels with white friends who refused to acknowledge her struggles.
“I feel less lonely and we have nothing to argue about. With my white friends, they would tell me to grow a thicker skin. I don’t have to have those conversations anymore,” she said.
Though they speak different languages and come from divergent cultures across the bloc, the shared experiences of Asians in Europe strike similar, repetitive chords: feelings of otherness when all they wanted was to feel the same; staring down normalised racism and microaggressions; and feelings of being gaslit when they dare to call out anti-Asian racism, particularly because some countries refuse to collect race-based hate crime data.
Over the last few years, a momentum borne out of fatigue, anger and trauma has been growing inside the disparate Asian communities across Europe, mobilising second-generation Asians to do what their parents seldom did, be it due to language barriers or fear: stand up for themselves.
Some were inspired by the solidarity and activism of the Black Lives Matter protests for leading them back to their Asian identities and exploring their own traumas. The spate of hate crimes targeting Asians around the world also drew others out of their complacency.
And while many racist experiences are nearly universally shared (turns out variations of the taunt “ching chang chong” are as common in France and the Netherlands as they are in Canada and the US), the Asian diaspora in Europe also faces distinct challenges linked to Europe’s colonial history of Asia, the collective trauma of WWII and cultural and political clashes that some say are rooted in blind, even wilful, denial.
In France, conversations around race will always circle back to the Republican model of French universalism which prides itself on taking a colour-blind approach to all things race. Depending on who you talk to, it promotes equality and cohesion by turning a blind eye to racial differences and makes the state the single common identifier for all citizens. Or, as Chloé Luu, 23, explains, it can also make racial minorities like herself who were born and raised in France feel even more alienated and confused when the model – which in theory is supposed to prop up minorities like her – fails spectacularly to hold up in real life.
“In France, we’re raised in a context of French universalism so there’s no such thing as race. We have to assimilate,” she said. “It’s complicated growing up, not understanding why we feel alienated and why we’re seen as different because we’re not supposed to talk about race.”
Ya-Han Chuang, a sociologist at the Institut National d'Études Démographiques who has been studying immigrant Chinese populations in France over the last 10 years, points out that the traditional Republican model can be traced back to the French Revolution and was created to combat inequality. But that was back in the 18th century, when French society was largely a homogeneous one compared to modern-day France, and the fight was waged to equalise the social classes more than anything else.
“In the myth of the Republican model, there’s an impressive tendency when thinking about assimilation to imagine that people will all become French, sharing similar values, lose their original characteristics and become more similar to the dominant population.”
In her new book “Une minorité modèle?” (“A model minority?”) which was released this month, Chuang discusses how the myth of the model minority has played out in France. The theory is problematic for creating a false hierarchy among minority groups, but also for being weaponised against Asians when they try to call out inequalities and injustices.
Under the model minority myth in France, for instance, Chuang said Chinese people are stereotyped as successful, hardworking and discreet. But in equal measure, they can also be associated with the mafia and characterised as dishonest, distasteful and inferior.
The book also takes a quick look at a chapter of French history that is little known among both the French and Chinese: the contributions of Chinese immigrants during war efforts.
During WWI, France and Britain brought over between 100,000 to 140,000 men from China to fill the labour shortage left by fighting soldiers. The workers’ duties included dangerous and menial tasks such as clearing landmines, repairing roads and working in munitions factories in exploitative conditions for meagre pay. While most returned home after the war, a few thousand stayed on to remove dead bodies from the battlefields and fill in the trenches.
The Chinese Cemetery of Nolette in the northern department of Somme is the largest of its kind in Europe and is filled with the bodies and tombstones of 842 Chinese men who died while working in France. Those who remained were mostly from the eastern province of Zhejiang, which is also the provenance of a large part of the Chinese community in modern-day Paris today.
Likewise, 93,000 men were recruited from Vietnam to serve in combat, drive troops to the front, clear the battlefields and work in factories.
It’s a similar story when it comes to history lessons on France’s colonisation of present-day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, or French Indochina. As part of her master’s thesis, Luu explored the representation of Asians in French cinema, and noticed a trend when it came to period films depicting Indochina: a glorified nostalgia of the colonial empire and a flattening of the colonised, rendering their suffering and persecution an anonymous afterthought.
“The stories are always told by the white coloniser, what their lives were like, and what it meant as a coloniser to lose their power. But they never showed the violence of the colonisers,” she said. “We don’t talk about how French colonisation is related to Asian immigration in France.”
Along with French Indochina, continental Europe’s imperial reach in Asia includes Spain’s conquest of the Philippines, Portugal’s rule of Macau, and the Dutch colonisation of Indonesia.
Ilona Roesli, 28, is Indonesian-Dutch, born and raised in the Netherlands, and remembers from her student days being conscious of how the Dutch imperial rule of Indonesia, during which Indonesian civilians were tortured, raped and executed, was presented as a golden age for the country.
“It was a period of enlightenment, when the Netherlands gained all its wealth. But we never talked about the people who were enslaved and the genocides that happened over the three centuries of colonial rule.”
A contemporary obstacle for many anti-racism activists can also be traced back to European history. In the aftermath WWII and the Holocaust in which Jewish people were forced to carry identity cards, several European countries, most notably France and Germany, have made it a firm policy to actively refrain from collecting race-based demographic data. But this refusal also extends to hate crimes and becomes a major stumbling block for minority groups who can’t back up claims of systemic racism with hard statistics when they are being gaslit by the media, the judicial system and the dominant society at large.
It’s an issue that policy analysts at the European Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) have been trying to improve across the bloc for years. In its 2018 report “Hate crime recording and data collection practice across the EU,” the authors note only 15 of the 28 members (which included the UK at the time) broke down hate crime data showing details for bias motivation.
“It’s a general problem everywhere, all over the EU,” said Katerina Vyzvaldova, who specialises in hate crime at the FRA. “We don’t have good overviews of hate crimes as states don’t record them correctly.”
Despite publishing a raft of recommendations that includes conducting regular state-level victimisation surveys and training police on how to flag and report hate-motivated crimes, Vyzvaldova said it’s difficult to get states to acknowledge the problem in the first place.
“The biggest problem is denial. They think they don’t have a problem with racism. Why? Because the state lacks the quantifiable evidence that this is indeed a problem.”
Rossalina Latcheva, an expert on discrimination and ethnicity data collection at the FRA points to the UK as a good example of a state that also resisted the collection of race-based data, but eventually became a leader in the domain, using the information to shape public policy and combat inequality.
“When the UK left, we lost a leader in this area,” she said.
At the frontlines, Vyzvaldova said police need to be trained to look for bias indicators and given the tools to report race-motivated crimes, especially as hate crimes are aggravating factors and carry stiffer penalties. But too often, police investigations focus on the crime and not the motivation, she said.
“When this happens, they are not fulfilling their legal obligations.”
While the pandemic has supercharged long simmering feelings of anti-Asian racism, it’s also birthed several new movements within the young Asian European diaspora, including Asian Voices Europe (AVE), based out of The Hague and the Netherlands, and the Dutch group Asian Raisins, which Lau and Cheung are members of.
Since its founding last March, AVE’s work collecting testimonials from hate-crime victims has spurred the Korean embassy in the Netherlands to file an official complaint to the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanding the protection of Asian expats, and the Korean embassies in The Hague and Berlin to issue official warnings to Korean expats. The results of their survey were also cited in a national report on COVID-19 discrimination in the Netherlands.
Co-founder Inyong Suh said upcoming projects include surveys asking Europeans how they perceive the Asian community and a PDF guidebook for victims of racial harassment and assault.
Asian Raisins has launched a campaign asking schools across the country to ban the Hanky Panky Shanghai song, a symbolic gesture similar in vein to the movement calling for an end to the Dutch tradition of Black Pete, in which Santa’s helper Zwarte Piet is depicted by white people in blackface. While public officials say the song is no longer sung, the group says the community is hearing otherwise.
Meanwhile, in France, a series of events that included the 2016 murder of a Chinese man in a violent mugging had galvanised the Asian community well before the appearance of COVID-19. One of the most influential and active groups, the Association of Young Chinese of France, is currently led by Laetitia Chhiv, 35, who has become one of the most prominent and sought-out voices for the young Asian community in the country.
“If this pandemic has done anything, it’s to shed light on anti-Asian racism in France which has always existed,” she said. “But it’s also created more solidarity within the Asian community, especially among those who had never been engaged before.”
Along with representing victims of hate crimes in court, the association is the primary point of contact with French policymakers and are currently working on an online reporting platform that will be available in Chinese and other Asian languages, as well as a reporting hotline.
Another priority for the group is its work with the education ministry to dispel long standing myths and prejudices about Chinese culture and the Asian community in France, with in-class lessons given by artists, writers and filmmakers. One of their latest projects showed students a documentary about the Chinese immigrants who made the perilous journey from their homelands half a world away, to help France and the allied forces during WWI, Chhiv said.
“We all know that education has to happen early.”
CORRECTION 21/4/21: This article originally misattributed quotes between several speakers on a group video call. We have updated the story and regret the error.