The Toko’s Smell and Image

Written by: Josephine Koopman

Inspired by my master’s thesis on (post)colonial smellscapes, the idea arose to create a scent inspired by the smells of the toko. The scent features as the centerpiece of a small exhibition on the history of tokos. Alongside the scent, the exhibition features a selection of historical photographs depicting tokos in the former Dutch East Indies and the Netherlands. The exhibition is on display at the Floriade Expo 2022 until 9 October 2022. 

Last year, I joined Odeuropa as an intern to investigate (post)colonial smellscapes for the purpose of researching the relationship between smell and heritage, which resulted in the thesis (Post)colonial smellscapes in text and toko: an inquiry into olfactory heritage.

Colonial history is a particularly fragrant history. The sense of smell initiated colonial ventures as European expansion sprang from the desire for spices and other aromatic commodities. In the Netherlands today, our nose encounters traces of this history in ‘tokos’, grocery shops that offer food products from Asia, and sometimes also from Suriname. Its origins are rooted in the Dutch colonial past, roots which can be gleaned from the origin of the word itself. ‘Toko’ is Malay for ‘bazaar’. The ‘toko’ as a phenomenon entered Dutch culture from the East Indies in the early twentieth century.

Spices and seasonings at Toko Dun Yong, Amsterdam. Photo: Josephine Koopman.

My research into the smellscape of tokos played out in two parts. Firstly, I led several smellwalks that visited a few tokos around the Nieuwmarkt, in the old Chinatown of Amsterdam. The smellwalks were intended to uncover the smellscape of tokos answering the questions: what do tokos smell like, and what does its smellscape evoke in the smeller? Secondly, I conducted several interviews with toko shop owners and customers to find out their interpretations and evaluations of the tokos smellscape. In my thesis I propose that we can consider the smellscape of the toko as a ‘lieu de mémoire’ or a ‘site of memory’.

Smell research in times of covid-19. Fellow student Manthos in Toko Dun Yong, Amsterdam. Photo: Josephine Koopman

Presenting a Smellscape as Heritage

Through Odeuropa, I got in touch with Flevo Campus, a research institute based in Almere that is concerned with the future of food. Their project ‘Toko van de toekomst’ (‘Toko of the future’) explores how food-related knowledge embedded in communities is reproduced throughout generations. Flevo Campus asked me to create an exhibition about tokos for their location in the Floriade Expo 2022, an international horticulture event which takes place in Almere from 14 April to 9 October 2022.

The exhibition ‘Toko’s smell and image’ at Floriade Expo 2022, Almere. Photo: Josephine Koopman

The exhibition narrates the history of tokos through photography and smell. The centerpiece is a smell station which contains a scent inspired by the smells of the toko. The scent has been developed by Jorg Hempenius from Iscent specifically for this exhibition. On the basis of the accounts I collected over the course of the participatory smell research in tokos, Jorg created a scent that is layered and eclectic, reflecting the multiplicity of smells in the toko.  It is warm, salty and a bit funky: a celebratory clamor of spices and foods. 

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Launch of City Sniffers: A smell tour of Amsterdam’s ecohistory

‘Rub’n’Sniff’ map containing six emblematic scents connected to Amsterdam’s past and present, created for Odeuropa’s, City Sniffers- A smell tour of Amsterdam’s ecohistory, printed for the event by Scent the Brand. Designed by Liam R. Findlay.

Join us at the end of the summer for a self-guided, urban smell tour titled City Sniffers: A smell tour of Amsterdam’s ecohistory. The tour follows one path of six stops with scents and stories within the city. Using a free phone application to navigate, developed by Odeuropa researchers, participants walk around smelling and exploring stories connected to the present history of Amsterdam. 

The tour also includes the smells of the city’s past via a Rub’n’Sniff map containing five emblematic aromas. These include the stench of canals, rosemary, the scent of the civet cat in connection to historic perfumes, the fragrance of linden trees and a reconstruction of the smell of a pomander, a perfumed jewel used to protect from disease during the plague. Overall, the tour will explore narratives around colonial histories, transportation and industry within Amsterdam.

“In addition to the beautiful portraits and objects in the collection that tell the story of the rich and famous, the Amsterdam Museum focuses on sharing stories from other perspectives”, says Margriet Schavemaker, artistic director of Amsterdam Museum. “Stories about class and gender differences and the city’s colonial past. Those stories are less well represented in the collection and scent is ideally suited to tell those stories in a very direct way. That is why the Amsterdam Museum is collaborating in this project.” 

The tours are open to all and are self-guided – participants can pick up a free Rub’n’Sniff map from the information desk of the Amsterdam Museum (their temporary location at Amstel 51) throughout September.

Odeuropa researcher Sofia Collette Ehrich following the City Sniffers olfactory tour in Amsterdam. Picture: Vania Lopez.

“Although we are constantly smelling, many are not actively aware of what they are inhaling and how this relates to history, health and the environment. These walking tours bring forward the importance of our sense of smell and the knowledge which can be raised through it. This tour encourages participants to actively smell using the ‘Rub and Sniff’ map, and  we hope they also open their noses to other smells in the city”, explains Sofia Collette Ehrich, researcher and Event Coordinator of Odeuropa. 

The tour was a collaborative effort between the Odeuropa Project, the Amsterdam Museum and the Institute for Art and Olfaction. Scents were developed in collaboration with IFF; the map was designed by Liam R. Findlay and printed by Scent the Brand. To emphasise the impact of humans on the environment, the chosen locations and smells will bring forward stories related to environmental awareness and how the present day is an accumulation of our past actions.