04 August 2013

Book review: Ah ku and Karayuki San: Prostitution in Singapore, 1870-1940 (1993), by James Francis Warren, *****


Among the many groups of foreign workers whose labor built Singapore in the 20th century, there may be none as marginalized in memory as the women who travelled from China and Japan to work in Singapore as prostitutes.

This definitive study sketches in the trade in women and children in Asia, and -- making innovative use of Coroner's Inquests and other records -- hones in on the details of the prostitutes' lives in the colonial city: the daily brothel routine, crises and violence, social relations, leisure, social mobility for the luckier ones, disease and death.

The result is a powerful historical account of human nature, of human relationships, of pride, prejudice, struggle and spirit. Ordinary people tumble from the pages of the records: they talk about choice of partners, love and betrayal, desperation and alienation, drawing us into their lives.

This social history is a powerful corrective to the romantic image of colonial Singapore as a city of excitement, sophistication, exotic charm and easy sex.

In the years since its original publication in 1992, this book, and its companion Rickshaw Coolie, have become an inspiration to those seeking to come to grips with Singapore's past.

This monograph shows how prostitution flourished in Singapore due to the massive influx of male migrant labourers without a corresponding increase in women immigrants. Another reason was the famine in south-east China and north-west Kyushu, which moved many families to sell their young daughters to traffickers. It describes the two brothel zones set up in Singapore. The VD epidemic that struck following the repeal of the Contagious Diseases Ordinance, as a result of agitation by Victorian moralists in England, is highlighted. As elsewhere, wishing a "problem" away did not solve it, if fact if made it worse. The second part of the text deals with events in the lives of these Chinese and Japanese prostitutes.


Like in his other book on Rickshaw coolies, the author tells us about the history of Singapore around the turn of the XX century as seen by some of the most humble people living there. In particular, we are led through Singapore by the Chinese ah ku (euphemistic Cantonese for lady) and the Japanese karayuki-san (Japanese: the women who went South, to China).

These women were running away from abject poverty at home, and were prepared to take any risk to buy or bribe their way to Singapore in the hope of making a livelihood. But what awaited them in Singapore was not a promised land, but rather violence, hard work, disease, exploitation. Many died violent deaths. Most got VD.

While exploitation was rampant, the exploiters had no easy life. We understand that "to run a good brothel in Singapore around 1900 required courage, shrewd judgement of character, physical stamina on a round-the-clock basis, a decent knowledge of first aid , do-it-yourself gynecology, and skill in self-defense" (p.229)

Some however were able to make a living, pay off their debt and open a brothel of their own. A few lucky or cunning ones were even able to marry one of their clients and become ladies in the Victorian society.

More about prostitution in Singapore today can be read here, including a useful bibliography.

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