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    The Not-So-Chinese Future of Europe’s Chinese Eateries

    Young second- and third-generation Chinese are taking over chip shops instead of their parents’ restaurants.
    Apr 17, 2024#food

    In the Netherlands, just like in other parts of the world, running a Chinese restaurant has provided a livelihood to generations of Chinese immigrants. During their heyday from the 1950s to the 1970s, many of these establishments branded themselves as Chinese-Indonesian restaurants and served a mix of the two cuisines. Then, in the 1980s, Dutch-Chinese restaurants gradually adopted fresher, more authentic and specifically Chinese ingredients, offering the country’s growing Chinese community regional dishes from Beijing, Shanghai, and Sichuan.

    But there are signs that the Chinese restaurant business is not as appealing as it once was. Beginning in the 1990s, a handful of Dutch-Chinese began taking over local chip shops — restaurants serving quick and simple Western fare like fries, hamburgers, hot dogs, and sandwiches. Since the early 2000s, and especially after the 2008 financial crisis, the shift from “authentic” Chinese restaurants to Western-style chip shops among the local Chinese restaurateur community has picked up speed.

    According to a survey by a major industry association, there were roughly 2,000 Chinese-operated chip shops in the Netherlands in 2018. Another survey found that the number of “Chinese-Indonesian” restaurants in the country had dropped from 1,900 to 1,600 between 2014 and 2019, a decline of roughly 13%.

    Chinese chip shops are not a phenomenon unique to the Netherlands. Similar trends are taking place in Italy, where a growing number of coffee shops are Chinese-run, and Spain, where Chinese restaurateurs are increasingly opening bars. Although it may seem strange at first, for many Chinese restaurant operators, the shift to local cuisine simply makes sense. To start, since the 1980s, the Netherlands has implemented immigration policies that limit the employment of workers from outside the European Union, resulting in a shortage of qualified Chinese chefs. Although these policies have been adjusted in the decades since, the requirements for non-EU chefs remain high. Meanwhile, consumer expectations have risen as more and more diners have grown accustomed to the kind of high-quality Chinese cuisine that only skilled chefs can make.

    Compounding the issue is the increasingly competitive dining industry landscape. Chinese restaurants must compete directly with other Asian cuisines like Japanese, Thai, and Korean for a relatively limited market share, all while being squeezed by the rise of fast food chains and even frozen options at the grocery store.

    By contrast, the requirements for running a chip shop are quite low. Chip shops in the Netherlands require only a sanitation license to operate, making them appealing to newly arrived immigrants. The industry is also far less competitive. Fries are something of a national snack in the Netherlands and equally popular with tourists. Chip shops are cheap to operate, require comparatively little investment, and have low labor overhead. “Traditional Chinese restaurants are difficult to run these days,” one of my research participants explained. “Compared to that, buying and running a chip shop is very simple. The chips are all half-prepared, so you only need to fry them, which saves on labor.”

    But the real driver of the chip shop trend may be generational change, both among the Dutch-Chinese restaurateur community and their chip shop-owning counterparts.

    Many Chinese restaurants are family owned, but the younger generation is not necessarily willing or even able to take them over. Often highly educated — one report found that 85% of second-generation Dutch-Chinese had higher education qualifications — they are often uninterested in the catering industry. Those that are frequently don’t want to run Chinese restaurants. In my fieldwork, I found that second-generation Dutch-Chinese tend to be less influenced by their Chinese heritage; in many cases, their Chinese language and Chinese culinary abilities are also limited. This makes it harder for them to communicate with their largely Chinese chefs and leaves them reliant on their parents.

    A Chinese restaurant owner in Delft I spoke to was insistent that his eldest son, who had worked for a Dutch hotel for many years and was skilled in cooking Western cuisine, should quit his job for a position at the family’s Chinese restaurant. But even he had to acknowledge that the son was only qualified to be an assistant. “He can only help out — he can’t take over a Chinese restaurant,” the man told me. “He speaks Dutch and English, and only understands a little Chinese. With his language like that, he can’t communicate with the kitchen at all. Also, the chef will gauge him — if he measures up, the chef will listen to him. But is he more proficient than the chef?”

    However, if they do decide to take over a chip shop, young Dutch-Chinese enjoy distinct advantages over their parents in linguistic ability, social networks, and cultural familiarity. And making the switch has only gotten easier as chip shops face their own intergenerational crisis: Beginning at the turn of the millennium, a wave of Dutch chip shop owners hit peak retirement age, while their kids and younger relatives balked at the work involved in taking over their parents’ restaurants.

    It’s worth noting that the line between Chinese restaurant and chip shop is blurring as more Dutch-Chinese take over the latter. Although traditional chip shops offer very limited menus, many Chinese owners have found success by offering new items and adopting practices from the Chinese restaurant industry, including longer hours. One interviewee said his profits had increased by over 200% after he decided to keep the shop open seven days a week and began selling classic Chinese snack foods like spring rolls and fried rice alongside chips and skewers.

    Ultimately, the shift from Chinese restaurants to chip shops is simply the most pragmatic and rational choice for the current generation of Dutch-Chinese. They are immigrants, and their goal is not simply to transplant or maintain their own cultural traditions, but to adapt them to the institutional, cultural, and market realities of their new homes.

    Translator: Matt Turner; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

    (Header image: Football fans eat outside a restaurant in Liverpool, England, March 4, 2017. In recent years, Chinese have bought or opened chip shops, cafes, and bars across Europe. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images/VCG)