THE Dutch have always known that trade is the key to prosperity and today, as in the past, that is reflected in the nature of the country's economy. ''We have always been a trading nation. It is our lifeline,'' said Mr Hendrik J. van Pesch, the Consul-General of The Netherlands in Hongkong. ''This tradition stretches right back to the early Middle Ages, when Dutch fishermen discovered how to preserve fish by salting it. ''They launched the Dutch export drive by sailing up to Scandinavia, and trading the fish for timber. ''With that wood, more ships were built, leading to more overseas travel and trade,'' Mr van Pesch said. The Netherlands became one of Europe's greatest trading nations. Although the history of Dutch trade with China is far less well chronicled than that with Indonesia and Japan, it was an important aspect of the material and cultural enrichment of Europe. As early as the 16th century, Dutch merchants displayed a great interest in China and the Orient. Increasing prosperity within Europe meant a few wealthy individuals could afford the Asian porcelain, silk, sugar, spices and, above all, Chinese tea. The Dutch claim to have introduced Europe to tea drinking. The benefits of the brew were said to be driving away drowsiness, stimulating digestion, preventing gall stones, increasing memory and even reducing hangovers. What began as a luxury item in the 17th century, became so popular among the growing merchant classes that, in the 18th century, it was seen as essential to civilised living. During that century, 70 per cent of total purchases by the Dutch in China was tea. ''Today, we Dutch are still traders but, in this century, we have also become modern industrialists,'' Mr van Pesch said. ''In a sense, we lagged behind some other European countries, such as Britain, in terms of the Industrial Revolution, but the devastation of World War II changed the picture totally. ''What that meant was that, post-war, we were able to start again from scratch. The consequence has been that industry in The Netherlands is now modern, both in terms of equipment and in attitude.'' The new image that The Netherlands is trying hard to put across blends the idyllic past with the technological present and future. ''Personally, I am quite content with the older picture of Holland - the clogs, the windmills and the cows in the polders. I am proud of my country's traditions, and no one should seek to make us forget them,'' Mr van Pesch said. ''However, it is equally important to move forward. So, our official brochures today might still have a cow on the cover, but it is likely to be next to a satellite dish.'' Together with this modernisation drive, The Netherlands is selling itself as the gateway to Europe. With highly integrated transportation industries fanning out across Europe from the two major entry points of Schiphol and Rotterdam, the Dutch claims seem justified. Their haulage companies account for 30 per cent of all international road transportation in Europe - east and west. Furthermore, Mr van Pesch emphasised that 160 million people lived within a 480-kilometre radius of Amsterdam. That stated, Mr van Pesch said The Netherlands still had problems of international recognition. ''Hongkong people know our name, we find from research, but do not always know where to place us on the map. ''We think our schoolchildren are our future so, following that principle, we are trying to let Hongkong children learn about The Netherlands,'' he said. ''That is why our 'Holland in Hongkong' festival will not only be free for all school parties, but will have special events lined up to amuse and interest them.'' Mr van Pesch suggested an effective way of gaining someone's interest was though his stomach - especially in Hongkong.