Re-Building Rotterdam’s Untold Chinese History

The reincarnation of the Fenix building in Rotterdam recalls its Chinese immigrant roots.

Re-Building Rotterdam’s Untold Chinese History

In 1911, a hundred Chinese sailors were recruited in London to successfully break a harbour strike in Rotterdam. After World War I, the number of Chinese sailors working in the Dutch port had swollen to 1,500 creating the largest Chinese community in the Netherlands and one of the largest Chinatowns in Europe. Living near the docks along Katendrecht where they worked, Rotterdam’s newly formed Chinatown was soon replete with restaurants, tea houses and other establishments that helped the community feel at home.

Many worked at the San Francisco warehouse, which was one of the world’s largest warehouses when built in 1923. And though it was blown up by German occupiers in 1944, the warehouse was rebuilt in the 1950s as two separate buildings, named Fenix I and II, after the mythical phoenix that rises again and again from its ashes. These buildings are now undergoing a new reincarnation with the Fenix I currently being transformed into an apartment complex while there are plans for the Fenix II to become an immigration museum that will tell the stories of millions of migrants, who arrived at and departed from Rotterdam’s docks.

In a deliberate effort to revive the docks’ Chinese connections, the Droom en Daad Foundation, which is behind the new museum project, has asked Chinese architect Ma Yansong, founder of MAD architects to create a building fit for a 21st-century museum.

Since launching his practice in 2004, the Beijing-born architect has garnered numerous accolades for his futuristic, organic designs that embody a contemporary interpretation of the Eastern affinity for nature. In 2014, he became the first China-based architect to design an overseas landmark building, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Chicago, and this new Rotterdam project will be his first public cultural building in Europe. MAD’s signature cultural projects include the sinuous Harbin Opera House, the blob-like Ordos Museum in the Gobi desert and the icicle-shaped China Wood Sculpture Museum, also in Harbin.

For the Fenix building, a concrete and steel structure housing 108,000 square feet of floor space, Ma has created a tornado-like intervention with two ramps in the centre to terminating in a wide platform that will give visitors a new 360° vantage point to view of the city or over the low-lying reclaimed land to the northwest and out to the North Sea, maybe giving them a sense of excitement felt by those leaving Europe for a new life far away.

“We wanted to step into the past to bring this story into the future,” says Wim Pijbes, adding “We showed Ma the property, but he said it’s not about migration as such, but about movement. The idea is that by going up the two ramps, visitors can really experience the movement of migration with the highest platform giving them a perspective toward the New World.”

The central section of the building will be demolished to create space for a glassed entrance and the new spiral, with the strong architectural intervention setting the tone for the museum: “this will not be a museum of the past, but a museum of the now. An active museum that invites you to participate, and go up,” Pijbes says.

Ma hopes the dynamic transformation of the historical warehouse will encourage people to move through the space: “It will lift body and mind, and be a place of pleasure and contemplation.”

Inside the museum, Rotterdam’s migration stories will be told through artefacts, documents and films as well as works of art on the subject of migration, though a partnership with several local museums and the Rotterdam City Archives.

Pjibes says he hopes the new museum will give visitors an ‘historic sensation,’ letting them experience the past to offer “inspiration for the future.”

Related Stories