A Geographical and Sociological Survey
Amsterdam, 1960. Amsterdam prostitution is as old as the city itself, and it was (and is) concentrated in the area close to the old port of the city, for obvious reasons. Until the 19th century Amsterdam was one of a few cities which allowed the existence of brothels, and prostitution was constricted to those brothels, huge hotel-like buildings near the old port.
One of those brothels was Maison Weinthal, in which you could pick a woman you fancied, pay five guilders (a huge amount of money in those days), and have the time of your life. Maison Weinthal was a luxurious establishment, with a winter garden and a salon.
In 1911 the Dutch Parliament forbade the existence of brothels, so all brothels were closed down. Prostitution became illegal and you could only have sex with a prostitute illegally, in a little backroom in one of the outskirts of the city centre. Taxi drivers and tobacconists could help you with addresses of prostitutes if you were looking for a good time.
In the 1920s the city of Amsterdam started to ignore the 1911 law, and they tolerated prostitution in the area around the Oude Kerk (Old Church), with women presenting themselves in their windows. That was the start of the form of prostitution Amsterdam is now famous for. Some other cities, like Alkmaar, Arnhem and Groningen, followed suit.
Three prostitutes were murdered in the Red Light District in the early 1960s: Magere Josje (Skinny Josephine), Finse Hennie (Finnish Henrietta), and Chinese Annie. Intensive police investigations were the results, as well as covering of these stories in the national newspapers. It was the first time that the people of Amsterdam and the rest of The Netherlands realised that the Red Light District of Amsterdam was a dangerous neighbourhood, with dodgy businesses, a blooming gangland, and a lot of crime. Of course, many people knew this already, but “decent” people weren’t supposed to know this, so they kept their mouths shut.
Only the people who were actually living and working in the Red Light District knew that besides all this, it also was a nice little neighbourhood, where people would always help each other out, and everyone knew each other. The only people in uniform that were welcome in the neighbourhood, were the officers of the Salvation Army.
In the 1960s the rooms of the prostitutes looked like ordinary Dutch living rooms. The only difference was the red lamp near the windows. All the prostitutes were Dutch; most of them came from the countryside, after they had given birth to a child without being married. Being a single mum was a real sin in those days, especially when you were not living in Amsterdam or Rotterdam. It brought shame on your family, social services in the countryside weren’t equipped to help you, so you had to move to one of the big cities, where no-one knew you, or your family.
If a prostitute would only show a glimpse of a cleavage, she would be arrested by the police, who had a special vice squad to deal with these matters. Every prostitute was registered.
Prostitutes and their “pimps” worked in the neighbourhood, lived in the neighbourhood, and spent their money in the neighbourhood, because that was the only place they were accepted as normal human beings.
The sexual revolution that followed a couple of years later, brought about many changes. Prostitution was more accepted, and many foreign tourists visited the Red Light District. Prostitution was no longer a priority of the police. Nearly one third of the population of Surinam at that time emigrated to the Netherlands in the years leading up to independence in 1975, as many people feared that the new country would fare worse under independence than it did as an overseas colony of the Netherlands. As a result, the first Surinam prostitutes and pimps started to populate the neighbourhood in the 1960s. They were followed by Chileneans, Dominicans, Antilleans, Columbians, Thais, Ecuadorians, etc. The Eastern Europeans came after the Soviet Union was dissolved. Nowadays only 10% of the Amsterdam prostitutes are Dutch, while at least 70% are from Russia, Poland, Romania, and other Eastern European countries.
The Chinese people arrived around 1900. They lived in the Binnen Bantammerstraat area. Most of them were seafarers, in particular stokers, and they were very popular with the Dutch steamship companies, because they worked for 70% of the wages of a Dutch sailor. Between contracts, they resided in Chinese boarding houses. Resourceful laid-off seamen began to sell peanut biscuits on the streets in 1931. In 1928, the first Chinese restaurant in the Netherlands was opened in the Binnen Bantammerstraat. The owner was Ng Ho Yong, who had exchanged his boarding house for the restaurant business. His eatery “Kong Hing” became a great success, and was visited by Josephine Baker and many other famous people.
The typical Chinese institutions that in the 1960s could be found in the Binnen Bantammerstraat and its surroundings were eight Chinese restaurants for Dutch people, four gambling houses, two opium dens, several boarding houses, three unique neighbourhood cafes, a hairdresser specialising in Chinese hairstyles, two Indonesian grocers, three clubhouses for various ethnic groups of Chinese, and four Chinese restaurants for Chinese people.
In the 1970s Amsterdam Chinatown was still a closed world, where non-Chinese people had no access to. These were years of great upheaval in Amsterdam, and not just for the Chinese community. The group grew enormously, but the “old fashioned” Chinese community continued to exist. New problems rapidly emerged in society as a whole. Heroin, for example, reared its ugly head at this time. For many years, the Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood, which had already been irreparably damaged by the loss of its Jewish population during the Second World War, looked like a bombsite due to the demolition work that had taken place for the construction of the metro system. During these years the Chinese moved out of the Binnen Bantammerstraat, and Chinatown spread to other parts of the neighbourhood, like the Zeedijk, where a Chinese temple was built in 2000. The Fo Guang Shan He Hua Temple is the biggest traditional Chinese Buddhist temple in Europe.
The Red Light District of Amsterdam is divided in two parts: De Wallen (The Walls), and Chinatown.
The northern border of the neighbourhood is the Zeedijk (Sea Dyke). To the south the neighbourhood is bordered by the Nieuwmarkt (New Market), which is also the border between the old Jewish area and the Red Light District. The eastern border of the neighbourhood is the Gelderse Kade (Gelrian Quay), although in the 1960s Chinatown stretched all the way to the end of the Binnen Bantammerstraat, where you could find the most Chinese restaurants. The western border of the Red Light District is the Warmoesstraat, in those days (in)famous for its police station.
De Wallen are called that way because they refer to the Oudezijds Voorburgwal and the Oudezijds Achterburgwal. These are the canals people visit when they want to go “window shopping”, or to visit one of the many sex clubs.
Arriving from Canada
Amsterdam, 1960. I am 9 years old and I just arrived from St. Catherine’s, Ontario, where I used to live with my mother and stepfather. Both of them were Dutch, so I knew the language. I’ve come to live with my biological fathers family, actually with one of his brothers’ family, because my stepfather had the habit to beat me up ever since I was a toddler.
I’m delighted to be in Amsterdam. My new home is in the old Jewish Quarter, south-east of the Red Light District. A lot of children in my new school are living in the Red Light District, and after school I hang out where they hang out.
Although my school mates are quite familiar with it, I know nothing about prostitution and prostitutes, but they seem to be nice women, and after a while I’m helping them, getting them meatballs from the snack bar, so they can stay in their windows and not miss out on clients, or going to the sanitary store for a gross of condoms, for which I’m richly rewarded (25 cents, sometimes even 50 cents).
Pretty soon I’m one of the local kids, and I know what’s going on in the neighbourhood. I know most of the prostitutes and their partners, and I even know the local gangsters and police detectives. When the police were looking for Haring Arie (Herring Adrian), a well known gangster, Blonde Mien (Blonde Mina) asked me to look if the coast was clear. Parijse Leen (Parisian Lena) was still prostituting, even after she bought a pub in the Zeedijk. When asked by a journalist how long a woman can be a prostitute, she replied, “As long as a woman isn’t stitched up down there, she can be a prostitute. I have been doing it for more than 20 years, and I would want it any other way. Once you’re a prostitute, wild horses couldn’t drag you away from it. The main attraction, the only attraction actually, is the money.”
Frits Van De Wereld (Frits from the World – his first pub was called De Wereld, meaning The World) was another famous gangster from the Red Light District, just like Zwarte Jopie (Black Jopie). Frits Van De Wereld and Zwarte Jopie made a fortune smuggling and selling cannabis, and invested their capital in nightclubs and sex clubs.
In those days I had a severe crush on one of my classmates, Katy Black. She lived in the Gelderse Kade, where her parents owned a whore house with three windows. Besides being the madam, Katy’s mother used to work as a prostitute herself, when business was slow. Katy’s father was the proud owner of a 1960 Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, the most beautiful sports car ever made. In public he behaved like a typical pimp, but at home he was a loving father, with a great sense of humour. I came home with Katy after school, on a daily basis, and soon I became a friend of the family.
Katy had an older brother, Pete, who was an interior decorator. When asked if he wanted to follow his father’s footsteps, Pete replied, “No way, I like having a normal life.”
“But Pete, just like your father you could have a beautiful car, a whore house in Amsterdam, a villa in Spain!”
“I live in a normal neighbourhood,” said Pete, “and I’m respected by normal people, everywhere I go. My family is only respected in the Red Light District, and in the gangster circles of Sitges. That world is too small for me.”
So I spent a significant part of my time in the Red Light District when I was a kid. But I also was part of my family. My father was a neuro-surgeon; his three brothers and my grandfather were high ranking army officers. I certainly wasn’t brought up in a laissez-faire manner, quite to the contrary, I must say. My uncle Morris and my auntie Helen, who I lived with, had two children of their own, Michael and Elizabeth, and when he introduced us to visitors, uncle Morris would say, “This is my son Michael, the future Defence Minister, this is my nephew Jack, a future barrister, and this is my daughter Elizabeth, who will once marry a prince.” The expectations towards us boys were high, but in those days girls weren’t really supposed to pursue a serious career of their own.