Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Queen of the Zeedijk

We had a fantastic, if exhausting, long weekend in Amsterdam for my birthday. It is very familiar teritory for me - possibly my 31st visit(!) - but this time we had a virgin with us! It was great fun showing Steve's "Houseboy" Alex the sights with which we are very familiar, and discovering some new ones too!

One of our great discoveries this time was the fact that one of the oldest gay bars in the world has re-opened for business after 26 years of being preserved as a virtual museum...

The legendary Cafe 't Mandje was originally founded in 1927 and run by one of the most loved characters in the area, Bet van Beeren, who bought it from her uncle and began running it as her own unique venue.

One of the most courageous pioneers of gay and lesbian liberation, in her leather jacket Bet would roar through Amsterdam on her bike with her latest flame riding on the back, and openly welcomed gay men and women in her establishment. All kinds came to 't Mandje - prostitutes, pimps, sailors, variety artists and tourists.

Bet was referred to as the “Queen of Zeedijk” and was known all over Amsterdam as well as across the Netherlands. She was entertaining and welcoming and enjoyed using the bar as her stage through some difficult periods, including the Nazi occupation during WW2 and hiding Jews from the SS patrols.

't Mandje was one of the first cafes where gays and lesbians could socialise freely - although smooching and same-sex dancing was not allowed, except on the Queen's Birthday. An owl sits behind the bar with little lights in its eyes dating back to the time when it was used as a signal to play it “straight” in case the police or suspicious stranger walked into the bar.

Most interestingly there was a tradition that people would leave something behind when they visited the bar: a ribbon, a pin, or in some cases, a necktie. She would cut them off of men, often with a butcher's knife(!). The ties were then be hung around the bar, and many of them are still there to this day.

In 1967, Bet died and was laid out on the billiard table in the bar for three days so that people could pay their respects. Bet’s younger sister Greet took over the bar and ran it for fourteen years, until the struggle with running the business in what was then a bit of a rough area (even for Amsterdam) became too much for her. Yet she refused to let the bar be taken over by developers, and it remained perfectly preserved until 2008 when after Greet's death, her niece re-opened it for business.

So important was the site, however, that part of the bar has been reconstructed at the Amsterdam Historical Museum, including the scissored ties on the ceiling, photo collages and the doodles and cards left by customers.

It is indeed a wonderful place to discover - so atmospheric! Most of the decor in the bar itself remains as it was in Bet and Greet's day, but the postcards and messages have been carefully photocopied onto wallpaper, and many of the original framed photos and cuttings are now copies.

The landlady (Bet and Greet's niece) was very friendly and welcoming, and when we were there a drag queen arrived with what was obviously a gay history walking party, who all did a toast to Bet and to the bar - and to the pioneering work that this woman began for gay and lesbian rights more than eighty years ago!

Recently, Bet van Beeren and 't Mandje were featured in a documentary series on the history of Amsterdam on Dutch TV. The video is all in Dutch (of course), but it is fascinating to view nonetheless.

[If it doesn't play, click here]

Cafe 't Mandje website (in Dutch)

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