Not many drinking dens are of such cultural importance that their interior is reproduced in a national museum but Café ‘t Mandje is one which holds that rare honour.
Founded in 1927 by the legendary Bet van Beeren in the bohemian area of Zeedijk it claims to be Amsterdam’s oldest gay bar. Originally a hangout for prostitutes, pimps, sailors and artists it was one of the few places where gay people could openly meet. Bet welcomed anyone so long as they knew how to have fun and behave themselves. Those that didn’t would have their ties cut off with a butcher’s knife and pinned to the ceiling to deter further misdemeanours. It’s debatable how effective a deterrent this actually was however as the ceiling, covered with the tie tips of numerous offenders, has long been one of the bar’s defining features.
Bet, herself openly lesbian at a time when it was certainly not de rigueur to be so, used to ride round Amsterdam on a motorcyle decked out in her trademark leather coat, often with her latest conquest perched on the back. Her openly promiscuous and hard drinking lifestyle earned her condemnation from the more conservative elements of society but she didn’t give a damn. Unsurprisingly she was adored by both regulars and the local community. When she eventually died, perhaps inevitably of liver failure, in 1967 she was laid out on the pool table in the bar. Thousands came to pay their respects before she was finally laid to rest in the New Eastern Cemetery.
Her sister Geert kept things going in much the same manner until 1983 when the influx of heroin traders in the area forced her to close. For many years ‘t Mandje remained closed, untouched but unused, save for one memorable week during the Gay Games in 1998. The early 1990’s saw a failed bid to establish a gay museum in the building and have the interior declared a monument, but in 1999 the bars cultural and historical importance was suitably acknowledged when the Amsterdam Historich Museum installed a replica of the interior complete with some of the original fittings.
In 2007, the 80th anniversary of the bar and 40 years since Bet’s death, Geert suddenly died. The combined anniversaries and realisation of the importance of the bar for both the gay community and the people of Zeedijk prompted Geert and Bet’s cousin Diana van Laar to re open it. A major renovation project ensued with the aim of opening the doors once more in time for the Queen’s Birthday celebrations, a major event amongst the Dutch gay community one which had always been particularly enthusiastically celebrated at ‘t Mandje. Hundreds of photographs were taken to ensure that once the tedious, but essential business of re-wiring and upgrading sanitary facilities had been finished every vase, tie and picture was put back in its rightful place.
Staying true to its roots the bar now organises regular events around Gay Pride and uses its Pink Christmas celebrations to highlight lesser known issues in the LGBT community such as ageing homosexuals who are forced to go back into the closet when they move into retirement homes.
The photos on the walls may now be photocopies – the originals are part of the Amsterdam City Archives – but little else has changed. Diana appears to be a no nonsense fun loving chip off the old block. Basically everyone is welcome so long as they know how to enjoy themselves and appreciate the stream of golden oldies blaring from the juke box in the corner. As their motto succinctly puts it, ‘Fun and respect since 1927.’