Prostitution was common in Singapore. However, few came willingly. Rampant abuses and forced prostitution led to the Chinese Protectorate’s establishment of the Poh Leung Kuk, or Office to Protect Virtue.
Many prostitutes were from China and Japan.
This is because there was very little control over prostitution or international trafficking of women in Chinese legal codes, and the lack of restrictions on Chinese movement in territories such as Guangdong and Hong Kong led to a large supply of Chinese prostitutes to Singapore at the end of the 19th
Meanwhile, prostitutes also arrived from Japan. The prostitute brokers and human traffickers in Japan were highly organised. Most women were smuggled overseas from Nagasaki, and once they reached Singapore, they were sold at the wharf to brothel keepers.
Prostitutes from China and Japan were known as Ah Ku
respectively. The term Ah Ku
was a general Cantonese term used to address Chinese prostitutes—regardless of age—in colonial Singapore. The term karayuki-san
was originally used to refer to Japanese people who went to work in another country as seasonal labour, and literally means one who has travelled to China. After World War II, this term came to refer to women and young girls who went abroad as prostitutes.
Here are some of the reasons why prostitution was big business back then:
Reason 1: Patriarchal expectations
Prostitution in Singapore was closely tied to chronic economic insecurity in rural China and Japan in the second half of the 19th
century, as well as the patriarchal nature of both cultures
Women in both Chinese and Japanese cultures had very little rights and power, as they were expected to be subordinate to men. The cultural ideal was for a man to produce as many sons as possible for the sake of the family clan. Daughters were much less valued, as they were viewed as outsiders who would eventually be married off to another family.
Patriarchy in traditional Chinese and Japanese culture diminished the roles of women in families. In times of difficulty, daughters were expected to support their family members without question as a show of filial piety. In many cases, girls entered a life of prostitution abroad in order to fulfil the cultural expectation that they financially assist their parents and extended family.
Reason 2: Gender imbalance
There was a massive gender imbalance in Singapore due to the immense number of single male Chinese labourers. There was one female to 14 males in 1860 and this imbalance continued to exist for the next 70 years. This created a sharp demand for women, which could not be met through marriage, resulting in many men turning to prostitutes.
Reason 3: The government looked the other way
The patriarchal attitudes of British planners and administrators saw prostitution as a solution for the gender imbalance in the colony. It was also believed that prostitution was key to preventing social unrest in a male-dominated society. Hence, many colonial officials turned a blind eye to the trafficking of women. Some were complicit in deceiving girls into thinking they were headed for decent wage-paying jobs such as waitressing, or that they owed a debt to the broker.