Monday, October 03, 2005

Prostitution in Hong Kong, Circa 1925

While I have demurred thus far in providing a history of prostitution in Hong Kong (as I've been requested several times on this blog), since I was reading about the way the industry was organized 80 years ago I thought I'd share it with you. I am neither condoning nor condemning the practice; rather it is interesting when you read this to think about how the system has evolved into its present state today, in its circumvention of colonial regulations finally banning brothels in the late 1930s (with a consequent skyrocketing of the VD rate amongst the soldiers!).

Allow me to quote from Norman Miners' excellent tome, Hong Kong Under Imperial Rule, 1912-1941:
...By 1923 a highly complex system of regulation had been elaborated. The system was so well established that when the Colonial Office asked for information in that year in order to reply to a parliamentary question a full account was sent to London. The Hong Kong government was quite open in describing its system of regulating prostitution and was obviously unconcerned or ignorant of the fact that the Secretary of State had ordered an almost identical system to be abolished 30 years earlier.
Miners then goes on to explain the system:
The administration described the arrangements as being based on the recognition of the impossibility of stopping prostitution but of the need for broad supervision to prevent abuse. The Secretary for Chinese Affairs kept a full list of tolerated houses, their mistresses, and their 'inmates'. Brothels were classified into those catering for Europeans (with subclasses of those with European, Japanese or Chinese prostitutes), brothels for Indians, and brothels for Chinese (subdivided into first-class, second-class and third-class houses). The Secretariat fixed the charges which the mistresses might levy on their girls for board and lodging. All those wishing to practise the profession had to attend before the Secretary for Chinese Affairs, bringing three photographs with them, and they were closely questioned to ensure that they were entering the profession of their own free will. When the authority was satisfied on this point, and that the girl was over 19 years of age [the age seems to have gone down! - Ed.], she was given a card showing her number, name and address, to which one photograph was attached. One photograph was retained by the Secretariat and the third by the brothel mistress, who pasted it in a record book kept in the brothel. The girl was also given a card informing her that she was free to leave the profession at any time and could appeal to the authorities for protection in the case of any ill-treatment.
The amazing bit is the process for weeding out VD, and the eminent practicality of this holdover from the Victorian age:
If any client complained to the Secretariat that he had been infected with venereal disease by a licensed prostitute the girl would instructed to attend for a hospital examination; if she was found to be diseased her card was taken from her and her record was removed from the house book until she had received hospital treatment and was considered to be cured. There was never any difficulty in compelling the girl to receive treatment since the mistress of the brothel knew that her house would be liable to closure if she was found to be employing a girl without a card and she was also herself liable to be fined if she allowed a diseased prostitute to work in the premises under her control.
The system for the European brothels were the most amusing:
Stricter controls were enforced by the police on prostitutes catering for Europeans. Their brothels were confined to a particular area in the eastern end of the city and the girls were expected to attend for a weekly examination by a firm of private medical practitioners in the area. In addition to the sanctions imposed by the Secretariat for Chinese Affairs, brothels could be put out of bounds to servicemen by the naval and military authorities if a soldier or sailor suffering from venereal disease identified the girl he had patronized; each girl was required to keep a book in which every client was supposed to enter his name and address and the time of his visit [an interesting book! - Ed.] and these books were open to inspection by the police and military authorities whenever a complaint was made.
Not really such a bad system; I've always believed that legalization would create a better environment for treatment of venereal disease, while the social stigma attached to prostitution would remain a high barrier to career entry. If one accepts that the industry will always exist, maybe it should be reinstated! It might certainly get rid of the streetwalkers outside my Tsim Sha Tsui office on Nathan Road...


Madame Chiang said...

These days the records would most likely be kept in a Blackberry!! As you say, the books would make interesting reading!

Dave and Stefan said...

hmmm...the forward function on the blackberry could cause some problems for otherwise upstanding citizens...:) but then again it seems the populace of Hong Kong assented largely to this system, keeping the VD infection rate for the Hong Kong garrison at an astoundingly low rate of 7% (for the Far East).