Category Archives: Cheese

Huis ten Bosch: Only Miffy can save us now

(part two of three)

The first sign on the squally Sunday on which I visited that something was still rotten in the state of Huis ten Bosch came at the admission gates: of the 22, just two were staffed.

Since birth, Huis ten Bosch has been hamstrung by its location on the westernmost fringe of mainland Japan, but the plan now—as it has been since the Nomura days—is to turn that to its advantage by playing the China card. As the crow flies, Sasebo is closer to Shanghai (800km) than it is to Tokyo (960km). With the Boston Consulting Group forecasting in November 2010 that “the population of China’s middle-class consumers will increase from 150mn to more than 400mn over the next decade”, the China card seems a promising one to play—indeed, the entire Japanese tourism industry is trying to play it—and on the day I visited, maybe a quarter of the visitors were from the Sinosphere.

The Chinese were easy to spot: they foraged in larger flocks than the Japanese, in much the way for which Japanese tourists were mocked a couple of decades ago. They seemed contented enough, taking endless group portraits in front of the Domtoren, but will they rave about their experiences to friends? China Daily reported recently that China has 2,500 theme parks already, with Shanghai Disneyland due to open in 2014, adding that only a quarter are profitable—a sign that the lessons of Huis ten Bosch have not been learned.

While the ostensible theme of Huis ten Bosch is the Netherlands of the good old days—though some say it is Europe as a whole—it has been muddied down the years, as was evident by the presence of a North American interloper, the teddy bear. There were teds everywhere: concrete bondage teds,

XXL teds sporting suggestive leers,

out and proud teds,

and horseback-mounted teds clinging on for dear life.

In the cheese farm, Boerenkaas, with its little cheese clogs, hung little cheese people.

But wasn’t Huis ten Bosch one gigantic farm of cheese?

Outside the cheese farm, I ran into a hitherto unsuspected evolutionary development in bovine sexual dimorphism, with the sorely chipped adult Friesian bull half the size of the udderless heifer.

WINS Sasebo was not your granddad’s betting shop, old men enshrouded in plumes of smoke, licking stubs of pencils and crackling newspapers, pinning their hopes on She’s A Goer in the 3.30 at Chepstow.

A sprinkling of punters watched a giant screen of thoroughbreds being paraded in a paddock.

In the foyer, posters thundered against the evils of nomiya, unlicensed—and therefore illegal—bookies, many—maybe most—with links to the mob, who graft a dishonest living by being a little less greedy with their margins than the whopping 25% pari-mutuel take of the Japan Racing Association. House WINS again. Like monopolists the world over, the association is fervent in the protection of its monopoly.

At a very generous guesstimate, there were 10,000 fellow visitors with me on the day I was there but they are soon swallowed up in a place the size of Huis ten Bosch, and away from the tourist honeypot of the Domtoren, the streets were deserted—the theme park as ghost town, an edited cityscape that has expunged human tumult just as surely as the primacy given to architectural draughtsmanship in the Dutch Golden Era paintings of Jan van der Hayden (1637-1712) did.

How very different Huis ten Bosch must have been in its mid-1990s heyday, when ex-Python Michael Palin paid a visit in the course of making a TV travelogue, Full Circle:

I walk around, one of the four million annual visitors, and marvel for a while at the thoroughness of it all. Architectural detail is precise and well-crafted. There are occasional glimpses of actual Dutch people mainly engaged in ethnic activities, such as the cheese carriers or the bicycle band. The bicycle band is worth the price of admission alone. There is something almost transcendentally surreal about seeing a woman dressed in a large white bonnet, dirndl, black stockings and clogs riding a bicycle and at the same time playing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ on a trombone.

At its apogee, Huis ten Bosch employed more than 100 Dutch denizens to engage “in ethnic activities”, and tidbits like this might encourage the uncharitable observer to view the theme park as an unparalleled exercise in Occidentalism, not dissimilar in kind to the kowtows before Tsunayoshi (1646-1709), the “dog shogun”, that German naturalist Englebert Kaempfer (1651-1716) reported the Dutch residents of Dejima were obliged to undergo on 20 April, 1692, almost three centuries to the day before Huis ten Bosch opened:

The shogun asked [the translator] to welcome us, have us sit upright, take off our coats, state our name and age, get up and walk, first act and dance, and then sing a song and pay compliments to each other, punish each other, get angry, prevail upon a guest, and hold a conversation. …

We had to play husband and wife, and the women laughed heartily about the kiss. Then we had to show how we saluted people of lesser rank, women, nobles, a king. After that, they said I was to sing another piece by myself, and I did this to their satisfaction by singing two, which all liked so much that they asked whether one had to learn this as an art. Then we had to take off our coats, and one after the other step in front of the blinds and bid farewell in the most exuberant fashion, as we would to a king in Europe, and after that we left. Judging from people’s expressions and laughter, they were all very pleased.

Except that in this demotic age, the obeisance was not to the shogun but to the masses, the inhabitants of a nation that had recently been crowned the wealthiest in the history of humankind, from one that had once held the title.

This exercise in Occidentalism, if that is what Huis ten Bosch is, was willed into being with the full complicity of those being objectified, from Queen Beatrix—who tops a very short list of celebrity visitors that unsurprisingly includes Michael Jackson—on down.

This cartoon pastiche decal of the Groot Rijkswapen, the coat of arms of the Netherlands, was created with the full permission of the Dutch royal family.

Not only were the canal streets devoid of life; so were most of the houses that lined them. One of Huis ten Bosch’s innovations was to have the theme park run entirely from the inside—unlike a Disneyland, say, there is no backstage, everything is mise en scène—so a few of the houses are given over to the nuts and bolts of the operations, but most are empty, their net curtains rustling behind leaded windows an attempt to conceal the purloined sham of the Potemkin village, a Potemkin village more immaculate and elaborate than any purportedly built to deceive Catherine the Great.

The lifeless neatness of Huis ten Bosch was beginning to gnaw and grate, and I could feel myself succumbing to a drowsy dullness of spirit that had me recalling some choice lines of William Gibson, that lover of the interstitial and the ill-at-ease, from his 1993 essay on Singapore, Disneyland with the Death Penalty:

But still. And after all. It’s boring here. And somehow it’s the same ennui that lies in wait in any theme park, but particularly in those that are somehow in too aggressively spiffy a state of repair.

As the ennui swept over me, I grew consumed by an irrational hatred, not of Kamichika and his vision, but of the stolid worthiness of the Dutch that had been his inspiration.

Such liberal people, the Dutch, a little blunt in their forthrightness perhaps, but really a beacon of hope for humanity. Why, some of my best friends are Dutch. Some of my relatives even, although only by marriage, I hasten to add. Everyone loves the Dutch, don’t they?

Not in the 17th century they didn’t. To the citrus-enriched seafarers among their Spanish overlords, scurvy, long before natural gas, was the original Dutch disease. To the Chinese, the Dutch were the terrifying hongmao Red Hairs, feared even more than the Japanese wokou Dwarf Pirates, more shocking than the—at least decently black-haired—Portuguese aoyi, the Macanese foreigners, and only one rung up the racial ladder from African slaves, known as heigui, Black Ghosts. The French weren’t all fans, either: a hack, Pierre le Jolle, writing for the Marquis de Louvois (1639-1691), the French Secretary of State for War, six years before 1672—the Dutch rampjaar, the annus horribilis of the French invasion in which the Marquis was instrumental, the year that marked the end of Dutch exceptionalism—dismissed the wonders of its capital, wonders that another Frenchman, René Descartes, in exile in 1631, had described as “an inventory of the possible”, with contempt:

Amsterdam, quoi qu’on loue
Est faite de merde et de boue
(Amsterdam, where’er you look,
Is made of shit and mud)

But no one hated the Dutch more than the English. The English fought three almost wholly naval wars against the Dutch between 1652 and 1674, winning the first, losing the second and the third, but as often happens, winning the peace. As England, a nation mad for war, readied in 1665 for the second encounter, the cry of “No clogs!” went up among English yeomen, supposing themselves freeborn and the Dutch peasantry to be enserfed. After a few hours at Huis ten Bosch, the cry began to resonate.

Andrew Marvell recycled a poem, The Character of Holland, written in the English republican interregnum, to serve the now royalist English cause:

Holland, that scarce deserves the name of land,
As but th’ off-scouring of the British sand;
And so much earth as was contributed
By English pilots when they heav’d the lead;
Or what by th’ ocean’s slow alluvion fell,
Of shipwrack’d cockle and the mussel-shell;
This indigested vomit of the sea
Fell to the Dutch by just propriety. 

Glad then, as miners that have found the ore,
They with mad labour fish’d the land to shore;
And div’d as desperately for each piece
Of earth, as if’t had been of ambergris;
Collecting anxiously small loads of clay,
Less than what building swallows bear away;
Or than those pills which sordid beetles roll,
Transfusing into them their dunghill soul.

The Dutch, long before the French, were the frogs to the English, as historian Simon Schama relates in his interpretation of Dutch Golden Age culture, The Embarrassment of Riches:

In the bestiary of popular xenophobia, the Dutchman was still the gross and comical Nick Frog, the “son of mud who worships mammon” and who needed a periodic drubbing to be reminded of his lowly station among the mighty of the world.

Some of the fear the Dutch inspired was due to the Republic’s tolerance—encouragement even—of religious heterodoxy.

“Is there a mongrel sect in Christendom,” complained another of Cromwell’s propagandists, “which does not croak and spawn and flourish in their Sooterkin bogs?”

[The republic] was, then, an organic menace, the “pestiduct of Europe” through whose conduits the poison of individualist skepticism might infiltrate the body politic of the European monarchies. Just as with the later, analogous anti-Semitism, Hollandophobia was possessed by a liquid terror. Commerce was the vector by it supposed the toxins of unbelief to be carried through an infinity of ducts and waterways, canals and capillaries: unstoppable, formless and lethal. 

Reeling in my—wholly synthetic—anti-Dutch sentiment, I began to notice how grievously Huis ten Bosch was fraying at the edges. Accounts from the mid-1990s zenith speak variously of 58 or 60 restaurants; by my count, from the guide map, there were only 22 left.

The still purring escalator at the World Food Plaza in Utrecht carries the unsuspecting promenader to a second floor on which not a single restaurant of the dozen or so once there remained in business: Korean Restaurant Seoul had served its last bibimbap, French Restaurant Bistro la Tour had poured its last vin rouge, and Viking Restaurant Omoyai had laid out its last buffet. Outside Tea Shop Naka no Chaya, an apologetic sign claimed that this was a temporary closure, for the purpose of refurbishment, but the gathering dust told a different story.

Another apologetic sign: this one says the Great Voyage Theater closed at the end of June, but neglects to mention the year—2008. The theater was described—and damned—by Professor Treib thus:

A nod in the direction of children is the Great Voyage Theater, large-screen film presentation of the sea voyage from Holland to Japan in the 17th century. The audience is set within a boxed area, which can jerk, shake, and shimmy in accord with the roughness of the seas and the severity of the perceived storm. These presentations are, for the most part, neither interesting nor impressive…

Down at the marina, still more restaurants had gone under, including Paella Restaurant Nueva Cataluña—poetic justice that the dish now most symbolic of the despised Spanish oppressors was no longer available (even though in the 17th century it had not yet been created). 

Yet another apologetic sign, this one in the vestibule of the Hotel Den Haag, informs passers-by that the hotel will be taking a break for a while, as if it were a resting actor between engagements, from July 1. On this occasion, the omitted year is 2009. Surely, I mused, surely the tourists can smell the must of the mildew, the stink of putrescence, the fear of failure?

As with the restaurants, so it was with the museums, which numbered around a dozen at the mid-1990s zenith and which by my measure were down to two.

The Porcelain Museum was not one of the survivors, although in this case the only way to tell was to tug at the doors. Porcelain, of course, is as Dutch as tea isn’t English, but it was the great prize of the East Asia trade in the 17th century—not initially the early Japanese porcelains, which only began to be fired years after the capture of Korean potters in the 1592-1598 invasions of the peninsula, but Chinese porcelains from the imperial kilns of Jingdezhen, and especially the blue-and-white, with its brilliantly vivid colors, hard and lustrous glazes, and the walls of the finest pieces so thin they were translucent when held up to the light. Between 1600 and 1650, Timothy Brook imparts in Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World, the ships of the VOC ferried some three million pieces of porcelain to Europe—roughly ten for every Dutch household of the day.

Kamichika chose to ignore the Dutch preference for Chinese porcelain over Japanese. A credulous Chicago Tribune correspondent, Merrill Goozner, reported on his extravagant buying sprees, reminiscent of Citizen Kane for San Simeon, in 1993:

Company President Yoshikuni Kamichika, a connoisseur of Kyushu ceramics, scoured Europe to repurchase dozens of the world’s finest examples of Imari pottery, manufactured in nearby Arita and exported to Europe from the 17th through 19th centuries.

Langedijk, a Dutch auction house, had seen its last hammer go down. It was then I realized, in an irony so beautiful that if it could take human form, it would be a catwalk model, that Huis ten Bosch, the finest efflorescence of the most massive speculative mania in history, was a tribute to the nation and the era that was home to the mother of all bubbles, the Tulipmania of 1634-1637.

Disciples of the religion of the efficient market hypothesis and followers of its Christ, homo economicus, would have you believe that Tulipmania “was no more than a meaningless winter drinking game, played by a plague-ridden population that made use of the vibrant tulip market”, as Peter Garber writes in Famous First Bubbles: The Fundamentals of Early Manias, but something strange and new to the world must have been in the air in Haarlem and the other loci of the tulip trade in the plague-wracked and fear-drenched winter of 1636-1637 to drive the price of even common or garden bulbs such as the Witte Croonen from 64 florins for half a pound in January 1637 to 1,668 florins on February 5, the very last day of the mania, and then back down to 37.5 florins in 1642.

That the world’s first bubble should have been in the humble tulip strikes the modern eye as ridiculous, but tulips were still an exotic novelty in 1637, having arrived in Europe from Turkey only in 1559 and in the United Provinces only in 1593. At first the tulip was an aristocrat among flowers, the most prized cultivars being multihued “breaks”, the result of infection with an aphid-spread tulip-specific mosaic virus not then understood at all, with the prince among them the fabled Semper Augustus,

already selling for 1,000 florins a bulb by 1623, when a skilled artisan might hope to take home 200 florins a year. Soon the tulip was being associated with worldly folly: Amsterdam merchant and moralist Roemer Visscher used tulips to illustrate the epigram “a fool and his money are soon parted” in his Sinepoppen (Dolls for the Spirit) as early as 1614.

A confluence of factors conspired to cause Tulipmania, chief among them perhaps the advent of the world’s first sophisticated financial markets. Almost as soon as the Amsterdam Stock Exchange had been established, speculators were conducting organized bear raids, short selling the stock and spreading malicious rumors about the health of the company, and dealing in shares not in the possession of the seller, an act known as windhandel or “trading the wind”. Tulip bulbs themselves are only out of the ground between June and October; Tulipmania revolved largely around contracts for future delivery in what was one of the first formalized futures markets. With tulips needing seven years from seed to flowering bulb, there had been time for six tulip harvests between 1593 and 1634, increasing supply and variety, abetted in the early 1630s, narrates Simon Schama, by a “second generation of horticulturalists [with] aggressively entrepreneurial ambitions”. Trading innovations in the tulip market such as bulk weight contracts severed the link between prices and specific bulbs, reducing the level of expertise required to participate. More generally, trade was flourishing and there had been a huge increase in the supply of coin and bullion in the years leading up to the mania. Bubonic plague may have played a walk-on role, too, by spreading indifference to fate in the face of death: the plague took a third of the population of Leiden in 1635 and a fifth of the population in Haarlem between August and November 1636, just as tulip prices began their astronomical ascent.

As with many subsequent bubbles, a premonitory crash occurred in October 1636, which Earl Thompson, in Tulipmania, Fact or Artifact, ascribes to the victory of the Swedish alliance over the Imperial alliance at Wittstock October 4, 1636, in the Thirty Years’ War, reversing the fortunes of the German states, important tulip consumers—but perhaps it was merely due to the Mark Twain effect

Soon tulip prices were setting fresh highs, though, with a Semper Augustus now fetching 4,600 florins and a coach and dapple gray pair, worth around 2,000 florins alone.

A. Maurits van der Veen, in The Dutch Tulip Mania: The Social Politics of a Financial Bubble, tells of the auguries of collapse:

Things went sour in Haarlem first, on February 3. … Members of a college [groups of traders who met at taverns] decided to test market confidence by putting up for sale amongst themselves bulk quantities of common tulips—Switsers or Croonen. Just one buyer made any bids in three successive sales, and each of the sellers accepted his offer, even though the sum he offered was successively 15% below, 25% below, and finally 35% below recent prices for comparable bulbs. News of this precipitous drop in prices spread like wildfire throughout town, and the next day trading came to a complete halt, with traders simply staring at one another in stunned silence.

By the weekend of February 7-8, 1637, Tulipmania was over: the dearth of price data for the following weeks and months suggests that much of the market had simply evaporated. That the crash did not cause general suffering was due to the localized nature of the mania, which only involved a few hundred collegians, and an orderly resolution in which the futures contracts were converted to options contracts, relieving buyers of the unconditional obligation to buy the future tulips, with the option price eventually set at 3.5% for November 30, 1636 onward.

Inevitably, Tulipmania was followed by tulip-phobia. Anna Pavord, in The Tulip, writes of an unnamed professor of botany at Leiden, who “grew so to loathe them that he attacked them savagely wherever they stood, thwacking them with his cane”. Satirists of every stripe, from pamphleteer to printmaker, went swiftly to work.

In painter Hendrik Pots’ Floraes Mallewagen (Flora’s Car of Fools), Flora, dressed as a courtesan, clasps a cornucopia of tulips in one hand and three prized blooms, Semper Augustus, General Bol, and Admiral van Hoorn, in her other. Attending her are a trio of florists in jester’s costumes festooned with tulips, one brandishing his moneybags and another drinking to the gullible. A jester’s cap decorates the flag at the back of wind-chariot, while tacked to the mast of the chariot is the flag of the kermis festival, the verkeerde wereld, the world turned upside down, with an inverted cross attached to a globe. One woman weighs bulbs as the other, dubbed on a later print Idle Hope, releases a bird, Idle Hope Flown Away, while at the rear of the chariot burgers trample their looms, symbols of honest toil, and beg to be let on board as out in the shallows the wreck of the mania is foretold by a crew deserting their foundering chariot.

But we have strayed, I am well aware, far from Huis ten Bosch. Somehow I found myself down at the dockside, not thinking of the old days of Liverpool and Rotherhithe, but of the even older days of Bakumatsu end-of-shogunate hero Ryoma Sakamoto (1836-1867)—for it was he in the cutout. Japan was going through one of its episodic infatuations with all things Ryoma, this time occasioned by Ryomaden (The Legend of Ryoma), the 49th Sunday night Taiga Drama serial on state-run TV broadcaster NHK that ran through most of 2010, and Huis ten Bosch was piggybacking the boom, with an exhibition for which they wanted an additional Y500 ($6.50) on top of the Y4,700 ($57) I had already forked out for my tokutoku special value ticket. The tenuous connection between Ryoma and Huis ten Bosch is the ship in the background: Ryoma is considered the founder of the Imperial Japanese Navy and the ship, a three-mast paddlewheel schooner, is a 1987 replica of Japan’s first steam warship, Soembing, gifted by the Dutch in 1855 and renamed Kanko Maru (観光丸) after a line in the I Ching, kankoku shi ko (觀國之光, to view the light of the country), which also happens to be the origin of the word tourism (kanko, 観光) in Japanese, although not, oddly enough, in Chinese. Ryoma, visionary modernizer and unifier though he may have been, cuts too parochial a figure to be the savior of Huis ten Bosch: whatever could the Chinese tourists have made of the cutout?

(to be continued)