Albert van der Zeijden
Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage

According to UNESCO’s Culture Urban Future: Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Development (Paris 2016), over half of the world’s population is now living in urban areas. Because of the heterogeneous background of these city populations, superdiversity has become a permanent feature not just of conurbations such as Singapore, Bangkok, and Mumbai. Also Europe is struggling with this challenge, which might create tensions and conflicts and the emergence of old and new cultural practices, reflecting new social identities and shared social spaces (Vertovec, 141). The Dutch city of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, harbors immigrants with at least 160 different ethnic backgrounds, everyone bringing along his or her own intangible cultural heritage. What is intangible heritage in such an ethnically divided society? There is evidence that in such a superdiverse context, ICH can contribute to community building and more generally to sustainable development.

Jinai Looi © Joke Schut Photography

Jinai Looi was born in Singapore but raised in Rotterdam. She now runs a cooking workshop in Rotterdam, where participants can learn about different cuisines from all over the world. Jinai does not betray her background; she is specializing in Asian cooking. The course workshops include Chinese Cooking: The Basics and Chinese Cooking for Advanced. Especially for vegetarians is the Vegan Asian workshop in which she combines the taste of Asian cuisine with vegan preferences that are now very much in vogue in the Netherlands. Jinai calls her shop het Zesde Geluk, referring to the Chinese well-being wishes—wealth, good fortune, longevity, joy, and prosperity. In the new diverse atmosphere of West-Kruiskade, the flavor of het Zesde Geluk is definitely Asian.

Jinai’s cooking workshop contributes to the cosmopolitan character of West-Kruiskade, where a broad array of different food cultures is present in the street. In the Thai Soup & Noodle Bar, West-Kruiskade 63, traditional Thai dishes such as klang kiew waan and kad med mumuang can be ordered. In the nearby Vietnamese restaurant Pho, you can buy popular take away dishes. The Pepper Trail is an Indian restaurant, further up in the street. Ilya restaurant has a Turkish menu. Ryad and Safir are Moroccan restaurants in Rotterdam. The only restaurant that seems to be missing is one that serves traditional Dutch dishes.

Building on Social Memories

Because of the large number of Chinese shops, even before the Second World War, West-Kruiskade was called Chinatown. It is therefore no surprise that the yearly celebration of the Chinese New Year, this year in February, is very popular. The colorful procession of dragons attracts many visitors from West-Kruiskade and beyond. In addition, because of the influx of so many migrants from all over the world, West-Kruiskade now harbors multicultural festivals from everywhere. Nowadays the Hindu festival of Diwali is just as popular as the Dragon Festival. The Caribbean population is represented by the yearly festival of Keti Koti (the breaking of the chains), the annual celebration of the abolishment of slavery.

Eliza Bordeaux, KetiKoti

Rotterdam is no exception. The same trend is discernible in superdiverse cities such as Paris and London. Swiss-based German migrant historian Monika Salzbrunn explored the Paris city district of Belleville, where she noted the same trend of multicultural festivals as in Rotterdam. London’s Notting Hill Carnival is noted as one of the biggest street festivals in Europe. It is almost as popular in the Netherlands as Rotterdam’s summer carnival, with a strong Caribbean flavor but now also popular with Rotterdammers of Turkish or Moroccan decent. In my view these new evolving and exciting communal festivals can be interpreted as intangible heritage manifestations that build on social memories.


There is now an extensive amount of literature reflecting on the topic of superdiversity. The phrase itself was coined ten years ago by British sociologist Steven Vertovec. According to him the new concept of superdiversity much better reflects the new situation in most conurbations in Western Europe and supersedes the older concept of multiculturalism. The old situation of multiculturalism commonly referred to one dominant ethnic group confronted with only two or three minority groups, in the case of the Netherlands labor migrants from Turkey, Spain, and Morocco, who came to the Netherlands in the sixties and seventies. Because of the large influx of refugees from all over the world from the nineties onwards, the picture has been completely altered. In the case of Rotterdam, we already noted the coexistence of more than 160 ethnicities, without any dominant group, and many small minorities. It presents these conurbations with new and unprecedented social and economic challenges.

That the new superdiversity also has implications for UNESCO and for intangible heritage safeguarding was signaled in UNESCO’s Culture Urban Future: Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Development (Paris 2016). This report includes a contribution by Steven Vertovec on the new cultural dynamics of superdiversity. Until now there has not been much literature focusing on superdiversity and intangible heritage, with the exception of Albert van der Zeijden’s writing about Rotterdam and about the initiative of the Alliance West-Kruiskade to nominate the ‘The Diversity of Intangible Cultural Heritage in West-Kruiskade’ to the Inventory of intangible cultural heritage in the Netherlands.

In connection with intangible cultural heritage, three things stand out:

  1. In superdiverse city districts, there is evidence of emerging cosmopolitan cultural practices that build on social practices brought along by migrant groups;
  2. These new cosmopolitan practices in all their diversity constitute new intangible heritage in these cities, reflected in public festivals and celebrated in the public space of West-Kruiskade
  3. The inhabitants of West-Kruiskade not so much identify with ‘their own’ specific ethnic cultural roots. In a superdiverse city district, people identify with diversity. It is this diversity that marks the cultural identity of West-Kruiskade.

Entrepreneurial Model

The example of West-Kruiskade is interesting because of the leading role of the city government and the strong supporting role of entrepreneurs. As with so many superdiverse cities in the world, West-Kruiskade faced social and economic challenges, especially in connection with drug use, high unemployment rates, and high criminality figures. Rotterdam invested in what was described as a problem area. It is interesting that in this process of city improvement, West-Kruiskade became Rotterdam’s flagship for using intangible heritage as a way to promote social cohesion and for using an entrepreneurial model in trying to achieve this.

From the perspective of intangible heritage safeguarding, it is useful to make a distinction between heritage bearers, custodians, city governments, and heritage institutions such as museums. The heritage bearers are of course the migrants who brought along their different cultural practices when coming to Europe. It is interesting, at least in the case of Rotterdam, that there are also quite a number of groups and individuals who take on the role of custodian. In the case of West-Kruiskade, these were shopkeepers or entrepreneurs, such as Jinai Looi, Guno Zwakke, and Fred Fitz-James.

We already met Jinai Looi, the shop owner organizing cooking workshops on Chinese cooking. Fred Fitz-James runs a shop where you can get all the information about Surinam Winti rituals and buy associated products. Guno Zwakke represents the Foundation Shared Past Shared Future that organizes the yearly Keti Koti festival. The aim of the Foundation Shared Past Shared Future is to increase the knowledge and awareness of the history shared by native and immigrant residents of Rotterdam to increase mutual understanding and respect and strengthen the multi-ethnic society in the present and future. It was Alice Fortes who brought all these different stakeholders together to make a joint nomination of The Diversity of Intangible Cultural Heritage in West-Kruiskade. Alice Fortes is what you might call a powerful cultural broker, bringing people together and organizing things. She is employed by the city government of Rotterdam.


How to organize ICH safeguarding in a superdiverse city district is at stake. Part of the success of West-Kruiskade is derived from the steering role of the city government wanting to create sustainable development in a strong partnership with the different local ethnic entrepreneurs engaged with intangible heritage. In a certain way it was a win-win model that furnished the city government with a strong group of individual custodians wanting to engage with intangible heritage and also having the private means to finance the whole project. What might be a challenge is that the model so much depends on the role of individuals. For example, there is the recent decision by Jinai Looi to move to another Rotterdam city district, leaving West-Kruiskade to start a cooking workshop in Kralingen, another city district of Rotterdam, which leaves us to question whether there will be someone to replace her. On the other hand, it might also open up the Kade 2020 Group, because one should always remain open for newcomers and for new entrepreneurs representing new aspects of intangible heritage in West-Kruiskade. In this sense, as it is put in the text of the UNESCO 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, ‘processes of globalization and social transformation can [AvdZ: and in the case of superdiverse city districts should] create conditions for renewed dialogue among communities’. Among and, I may add, inside these communities, if superdiverse communities want to remain successful, they should be as open and inclusive as possible, creating opportunities for all the different ethnic groups to identify with West-Kruiskade’s diversity of intangible heritage.

The other challenge is the strong role of the city government. The greatest challenge in the near future will be the withdrawal of the city government from the project. Now West-Kruiskade is a success, the city government no longer feels the urge to remain involved. Alice Fortes was offered another job and, potentially, is also threatening to drop out, which again raises questions of who is going to take over her role as a powerful cultural broker.

The Dutch Centre for Intangible Cultural Heritage (DICH) is now working on a policy model for safeguarding intangible heritage in a superdiverse context, in which we are going to explore the entrepreneurial model of ICH safeguarding in Rotterdam and compare it with other superdiverse cities in the Netherlands and elsewhere. Last year DICH organized an international conference, during which Tim Curtis made some reflections about Bangkok, where he worked in the UNESCO office before going to Paris to become secretary of the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. For DICH, the most challenging aspect is in how we can contribute to favorable circumstances, what role the city governments should have, and where entrepreneurs should step in. There could also be a facilitating role for heritage institutions such as the Rotterdam Museum. On all these issues, the DICH is now preparing a policy recommendation that inventories possible success factors and policy recommendations for city governments dealing with social and cultural challenges in superdiverse city districts.