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The Racist Mural on Hemonylaan in Amsterdam; The Difficulty of Disrupting East and Southeast Asian Clichés in Street Art

If you cross the bustling street of Amsterdam’s Albert Cuypmarkt, you’ll immediately find yourself on the quiet Hemonylaan. The street is brightened by many colourful stencil art murals; with the use of templates, existing images have been painted on the buildings. One of the walls features an ‘Asian’ theme: a vibrant mix of symbols, logos and characters from various East and Southeast Asian countries. However, for many East and Southeast Asian Dutch this wall filled with offensive stereotypes doesn’t brighten up the street at all. Does the artist understand the problem? Asian Raisins spoke with him.

Our conversation with Kaagman

In 2021, when the big StopAsianHate demonstration at Museumplein had just taken place, Asian Raisins received a report about a stereotypical mural in Amsterdam. We are startled by the pictures; the wall is covered from top to bottom with East and Southeast Asian clichés. Not only do we see cute little pandas, but also portraits of Mao next to serene Buddhas and the face of a sensual-looking woman straight out of a Japanese sex ad. Chinese and Japanese characters are used interchangeably alongside Indonesian terms. Many images refer to food, including a drawing of a person with an Asian conical hat and slanted lines to illustrate the eyes.

These are the stereotypical images that East and Southeast Asian Dutch are often confronted with. They present a simplistic picture and reinforce racist prejudices. For example, the words ‘sambal erbij?’ are written on the wall and refer to ‘sambal bij?’, a phrase that ridicules the Dutch language proficiency of Chinese restaurant owners and that is often derogatorily shouted at people who appear to be East and Southeast Asian. Moreover, random images from various countries are mixed together, even including logos of Dutch brands for ‘Oriental’ food such as Conimex. This underscores the ease with which East and Southeast Asian cultures are often disrespectfully lumped together in the Netherlands. In fact, the facial features of the person with the Asian conical hat are so exaggerated that they qualify as ‘yellowface’.

The street artist is called Hugo Kaagman. He probably had no ill intentions with this mural. Nevertheless, his artwork does perpetuate the many existing prejudices about East and Southeast Asians in the Netherlands. These prejudices inevitably lead to discrimination. We decided to contact him, hoping that he would be willing to repaint the mural.

His Wikipedia page describes his work as ‘a blend of the Western, the non-Western, the bourgeois, the artisanal and the modern, avant-garde, mocking, critical, and at the same time, respectful of the artistic aspect of craftwork’. This all sounds lovely, but where does one draw the line between ‘mocking’ and ‘derogatory’?

During our first attempts to contact him, Kaagman wasn’t eager to engage in a conversation. Therefore, we reached out to the municipality of Amsterdam, who acted as a mediator and suggested setting up a meeting. In March 2022, three representatives from Asian Raisins met with Kaagman, his partner, and three civil servants in his gallery/studio on that same Hemonylaan.

To our surprise, the space was directly adjoined to the ‘Asian’ wall, and in the hours leading up to the meeting Kaagman had quickly picked up a paintbrush to paint over his work. Merely a new stencil with the text ‘War is over’ by John Lennon and Yoko Ono now adorned the wall. Although we were initially happy (the mural was gone!), this resolution felt unsatisfactory.

Thankfully, the conversation started amicably with tea and biscuits. Kaagman explained that the inspiration for his work came from the Chinese restaurant that used to be located right next to the wall. The painting was intended as a ‘Chinese’ wall in which he incorporated various images he had collected on his travels to Asia. He said that he had previously shown his works to Chinese people in China, who had liked them.

Kaagman was, however, unaware that his images reflected how white people perceive East and Southeast Asian people in the Netherlands. Those who don’t experience structural racism in their country, such as the Chinese in China, experience these types of images very differently because they don’t consider them harmful stereotypes that could cause them to experience disadvantages in their own country.

It was also difficult for the artist to understand the problem because no one had ever complained about the ‘Chinese’ wall before, not even the people from the Chinese restaurant. The question is whether they genuinely did not find the wall disturbing or simply chose to remain silent out of fear for trouble.

Kaagman didn’t want his art to be censored. However, the freedom an artist enjoys shouldn’t harm others, especially not people in a marginalised position. While the use of stereotypes may be a deliberative and essential part of Kaagman’s work, once they depict other countries and cultures, they reinforce the racist prejudices that exist in Dutch society.

A tough but respectful conversation followed during which we ultimately seemed to create more understanding with Kaagman with the help of the municipality. He even proposed to renew the mural and to submit the changes to Asian Raisins. Hopeful and in good faith, we parted ways.

Kaagman indeed came up with a new design, which Asian Raisins approved of. Yet, not long after that, he put new images up on the wall. This included an image taken from shunga, which are erotic Japanese prints. The naked Japanese woman exposing her genitals is already disturbing when you realise how much sexual prejudice East and Southeast Asian women face. After our first conversation, this move even seems more provocative.

When we raised our objections with Kaagman, he dismissed them with the usual excuses that white people often make. The most common response encountered by East and Southeast Asians is ‘I didn’t mean it that way’ or ‘It was just a joke’. Both statements are used to deny responsibility for one’s own racism and to not have to take the victim’s complaint seriously at the same time.

Kaagman continued his response with the next most common behaviour: tone policing. The use of tone policing enables white people to shift their criticism of the victim’s complaint to the victim’s tone instead. This is also an attempt to avoid discussing the issue at stake but to attack the character of the victim instead.

Kaagman also referred to his other works of art that mock white farmers and white men. Colour blindness is a common belief that renders white people unable to put themselves in the shoes of people of colour. They assume that people of colour enjoy the same privileged position as themselves and have no regard for the actual marginalisation of minorities in society.

Finally, Kaagman relied on another frequent strategy, downplaying the issue’s importance. He did so by referring to the war in Ukraine and the “climate disaster”. However, neither of these topics was the subject of our discussion with him. This trivialisation once again only served to deflect responsibility for the racist content of his own work. He does not yet seem to realise the negative impact of his visual clichés.