Prostitution in Colonial Malaya with Special Reference to Penang


This paper is a preliminary version of a larger paper that will probably be presented at the international conference in Penang in April next year. It is the intention here only to stress certain salient aspects of prostitution in colonial Malaya and especially Penang which was a colonial port-town with a thriving flesh trade in the late 19′” century and the early 20’h century. The main issues emphasized here are: firstly, prostitution in Penang was a part of an international sex trade and a form of flourishing business for several parties involved in the trafficking of women and children. Secondly, the evolution of the flesh trade from licensed-brothels in late 19th century to sly prostitution in the 1930s accompanied by the emergence of new forms of entertainment for the Penang community. Thirdly, some possible explanations for the existence of licensed prostitution during the colonial period and finally the spatial distribution of prostitution in Penang and its social hierarchy within the profession.

The Phenomenon in Malaysian History

Prostitution in colonial Malaya and Penang should not be measured against western and modern concepts of ethics and conventions but rather should be seen within the social and economic context of the period under survey. It is all too simple a generalization to state that prostitution was morally degrading and that prostitutes were despicable creatures of society. Within the context of colonial society, they provided a service to the frontier society and prostitution should be seen from the viewpoint of the social order of the day. They were historically migrant laborers following the massive stream of labor inflow from China that provided the basis for the growth of the colonial economy that modern Malaysia and Penang have subsequently inherited. Prostitution was a form of economic opportunity in a land that was wanting in employment opportunities for women. With their sexual skills they had tamed to a certain extent the turbulence of a frontier society and had contributed to the evolution of a more orderly and stable society. Prostitution, after all, was a legalized profession and so were all the other vices such as opium smoking and gambling that were sanctioned by the colonial authorities. Even the wealthily Chinese had condoned its existence while some had indulged in it as an outlet for their uncontrolled passions. In any case the keeping of mistresses and concubines was the order of the day and some turned to prostitutes, particularly along Campbell Street, as what J.D. Vaughn said”…their wives who were young, pretty and graceful once but for want of exercise soon renders them obese and unwieldy and after bearing a few children they generate into ugly bags”. Brothels were centers of social entertainment performing a public service. In traditional China it was known that merchants and government officials transacted their business in brothels and scholars wrote some of their best lines in whorehouses. Chinese society in Penang was an extension of traditional china and what was good for China was good for them.

The Flesh Trade

Japanese and Chinese prostitutes (Karayuki-san and Ak Ku) were two main categories found in Penang. Their existence was the end result of an international network of trafficking in women and children that was centered in the seaports of Nagasaki, Shanghai, Ningpo, Amoy, Canton, Macao and Hong Kong. It was in these seaports that the buying and selling of girls and women were transacted and Hong Kong was the main center for the export of this human cargo for the vigorous market in Southeast Asia. Singapore with its unrestricted possibilities for traffickers was the hub of the movement for prostitution in Southeast Asia. The port-city as the distributing center for traffickers who intended to dispose off the women and girls to the main towns in the Federated Malay States, and some invariably landed in Penang brothels where the brothels keepers would eagerly seize them. The continuous export flow of potential prostitutes to meet the vigorous demand in Malaya and other parts of Southeast Asia was sustained by the poverty stricken condition sin South China particularly in the Kwantung and Kwangsi areas, the Akamasu Island and Shimbara Peninsula in Kyusu Island in Japan: the patriarchal system of the family tradition in which female children had little value and the close network of traffickers, procurers, ship captains, and brothel keepers. It is necessary at this stage to examine the existence of licensed prostitution in colonial Penang; it is necessary to look into the macro socio-economic forces that impinged on rural societies in china and Japan and also to look into the increasing economic prosperity in Malaya and Singapore at the turn of the century. On the words of James warren, it was stated in his book Ah Ku and Sarayuki-san, that prostitution was big business. The prices of prostitutes ranged from $150 to $500 or more depending on the women’s virginity, age, beauty and origin. It played an important role in providing the capital of the growth of Chinese and Japanese enterprises in Singapore and Malaya. It was prostitution that spawned a host of retail shops and business – restaurants, drug shops, tailors, boarding houses, hairdressing salons and others.

The Justification of Licensed Prostitution
The Chinese community in Penang neither openly accepted licensed prostitution nor did they officially protest to the authorities. It was only on the 1930’s that the comments were rampant on the necessity of suppression. The colonial government, on the other hand, officially sanctioned prostitution, as it was considered a social necessity. Demography is a vital consideration as it was comsirederd as to why the authorities regarded licensed prostitution to be important to the social order. Without going into the statistics of Chinese immigration at this stage, it is generally known that there was a massive gender imbalance in Malaya and Penang. This imbalance was only rectified in the 1930s following the onset of the World Depression when a new ordinance was introduced imposing a quota on the immigration of Chinese males into Malaya while female immigrants were exempted from the quota. Until the 1930s the booming economy from the 1880s to the 1920s saw the unprecedented influx of male Chinese, the majority of whom were bachelor laborers. Penang, one of the entry points of Chinese laborers, had virtually become a Chinese city outside China. From the colonial point of view, it was this gender imbalance that prompted the authorities to sanction the existence of licensed prostitution.

Apart from considerations of social necessity, prostitution was permitted as a means of controlling the incidence of venereal disease. Venereal disease was a concomitant development of prostitution and concubine, the latter of which was common among the young European planters in the estates. The alarming fact was that the British community was reported to have incidence of venereal disease on the 1890s and at the turn of the century. Nevertheless, the control of venereal diseases was not thought in terms of suppression and closure of licensed brothels. For the authorities, sexual indulgence had to be condoned. The hot equatorial climate had a stirring effect that a man in England could not fully appreciate. For the vast majority of Chinese laborers and the British bachelors in Penang, sexual passions were aroused by the hot and damp equatorial climate. It was thought that the fires of passion could best be dampened through the channels of licensed brothels, be they Japanese or Chinese. Recognition would entail registration, compulsory medical examination of prostitutes to ascertain that they were safe for consumption and, in general, to check venereal disease from reaching epidemic proportions. It seems that the colonial government tended to blame everything on the climate – the evergreen tropical rainforest, Indian adultery problems in the estates and the uncontrollable sexual appetite of Chinese laborers and the British. It could also be said then that venereal disease thrived under hot climatic conditions.

Spatial Distribution of Licensed Brothels

By 1893 prostitution was already well established in the Straits Settlements. It was estimated that there were 1808, 958 and 150 licensed prostitutes in Singapore, Penang and Malacca respectively. In Singapore, brothel prostitution was located within the precincts of Hylam, Malabar, Malay and Bugis streets with European and Japanese prostitutes predominating. Chinese opium-smoking brothels in Singapore were mostly found around Fraser and Tan Quee Lan streets, the Smith Street area and the Chinatown district in the Kreta Ayer neighborhood. In Penang, the boundaries of brothel areas were also well demarcated: along Campbell Street where the higher class prostitutes and virgins were located for the wealthy, Cintra street where Chinese and Japanese brothels were found, Rope Walk and the Kuala Kangsar Road area (behind Chowrasta Market) where services could be obtained at budget prices for the coolie class and the rickshaw pullers.

With the passing of the Contagious Diseases Ordinance in 1870 both the brothels and prostitutes were registered and each brothel had to keep a list of inmates with their respective names, ages and nationalities. The registration exercise invariably brought the prostitutes into closer contact with the officials of the Chinese Proctectorate through frequent inspections of brothel premises and interviews with prostitutes. The registration system not only defined brothel prostitution within certain boundary limits but also subjected prostitutes to vaginal examination by colonial doctors. Prostitutes who were certified clean and healthy were each issued with a certificate of good health.

The brothel houses carried with them alluring names signifying fragrance, entertainment and pleasure, passion and everlasting happiness. In 1899 it was estimated that there were more a hundred brothels in the red-light district of Penang town. Below are names of the brothels along Campbell Street in 1900:-

• Cuixiang Lou
• Dongyang
• Fengyi Lou
• Fuhe Tang
• Huihua Lou
• Tinxiang
• Qiong Lou
• Qunxiang Lou
• Shunyi Tang
• Weichu Quan
• Xyiu Tang
• Xinhehe
• Xingshengda
• Yangfeng Lou
• Yuanfu Tang
• Yuechang Tang

It was obvious that many of these names were imported from China where brothels with such names had existed in the main towns of China, some of which were made famous in Chinese novels.


Social Hierarchy

It was generally known that the distribution of brothels was related to the popularity of individual prostitutes. Popularity in this respect was concomitant to the relationship between prostitutes and their clients, and their level of acceptance. It should be noted that popularity was determined by beauty, age and adroitness. As a corollary to this, popularity commanded the ability to levy higher charges for sexual services thereby classifying them into higher, intermediate and lower class prostitutes. It could be a coincidence that the gradation of prostitutes was related to their physical locations subjected prostitutes to physical locations within the red-light district of Penang. The higher-class prostitutes were found along Campbell Street, followed by the intermediate class in Cintra Street and the lower class along Kuala Kangsar Road. As such, while the wealthy and the less wealthy frequented the Campbell Street and Cintra Street brothels, the coolies and rickshaw pullers thronged the Kuala Kangsar Road brothels.

There was little doubt that the status of prostitutes changed in the course of time. With advancing age and changing conditions of health, beauty and adroitness popularity tended to fade away. Consequently, the status of prostitutes descended from Campbell Street to Kuala Kangsar Road. However, not all experienced the descending process on account of suicides and venereal disease affliction. It was known that a kongsi house existed for brothel-keepers and prostitutes, believed to be located along Rope Walk. The kongsi not only functioned as a meeting ground for brothel-keepers to settle disputes and squabbles among the inmates but also as a sanatorium for the infirm and disease ridden prostitutes to rest out their dying days.

The hierarchy of prostitutes was also determined by the essence of relationship between the brothel-keepers and prostitutes. Relationship here was dictated by the prostitutes’ origins and financial relations with the brothel-keepers (kwai po). There were three main categories in this relationship. First were the sold prostitutes whom the keepers had purchased from the traffickers. In Chinese they were known as kongchu and considered as “adopted daughters” of the brothel keeper. Second were the “pongnin” who were pawned or hired to a house and in most cases were girls working off a debt on behalf of their poverty-stricken parents in China. Third were the tap-tang or voluntary prostitutes who were allowed to retain half of their earnings while the other half belonged to their keeper.

From Licensed to Sly Prostitution

Sly prostitution had all along existed alongside with licensed prostitution but its significance and prominence had been overshadowed by the latter. It was only in the early 1920s that sly prostitution attracted the attention of the Secretary of Chinese Affairs, W.T. Chapman. This was largely in connection with the control of venereal diseases and the involvement of European men. The sly prostitutes in Penang were principally Chinese, Malays and Siamese who were subsequently joined by the Japanese in the 1920s. The patrons of sly prostitutes were mostly Europeans, Malays and some Chinese of middle and wealthy class origins.W.T. Chapman, in this respect, enumerated several factors that contributed to the popularity of sly prostitution in the 1920s:-

1. In 1909 Lord Crewe, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, issued what was known as the “concubinage circular, warning all officials in colonies not to keep concubines or mistresses. This was in the interest of preserving the image and prestige of the British as the ruling elite in Malaya. The circular had the effect of leading to the concealment of their activities and their patronage of sly prostitutes for it was damaging to British prestige if they frequented the regular licensed brothels.
2. The increase in the number of cinemas in the main towns of the Federated Malay States and Penang. Cinemas provided a convenient means for sly prostitutes to display themselves and where men could contract the service of one without the publicity associated with licensed brothels.
3. The closure of Japanese brothels because the presence of karayuki-san had an adverse effect on the image and prestige of Japan as a ruling imperial power in the east. Consular representatives were ordered to close down all Japanese brothels and to repatriate all the Japanese prostitutes. Invariably, some evaded repatriation and turned to sly prostitution while others worked as waitresses in restaurants.
4. The post-World War One slump had affected the economic viability of a few establishments, which were forced to close down. The prostitutes followed the footsteps of the karayuki-san and became sly prostitutes and extended their clientele to other nationalities.
5. The raising of the entry age for licensed prostitution from 16 to 20 was also responsible for the increase of sly prostitution. Some of the girls who were below 20 and who had been trained as prostitutes inevitably turned to sly prostitution. As to why Europeans and Sikhs resorted to sly prostitution, W.T. Chapman had the following to say. To quote from Chapman:
6. “Among Europeans, the feverish and insatiable thirst for gaiety and excitement which finds its e expression locally in indulgence in the various sensuous forms of jazz dances. I believe that the result of the excitement produced by participation in these dances is to drive many young men out to find women willing to satisfy the desires aroused.”
7. “Sikhs are forbidden by their religion to have intercourse with a woman other than their wives. There are very few Sikhs here who are married, subsequently the bulk of this class of the community are driven to the cult of sly prostitution, instead of patronizing the inmates of regular brothels.” In the case of the Malays, Chapman claimed that
8. “Many Malay women are married at 13 or 14 to very young husbands. After they have been married a few years the husband tires of his wife and divorce her. By this time she is at an age when she is sexually vigorous. Before marriage a Malay woman is kept carefully shut up and looked after, but as a divorcee, she enjoys a practically unrestrained freedom to which she has hitherto been unaccustomed. In addition to this she has been put to shame by her husband and it is small wonder that she decides to give reins to her sexual desires, and have a good time either as an enthusiastic amateur or a professional. In the present state of education of Malay women a divorcee unless she happens to get remarried, has few interests to which she can devote herself.”
9. As to why Malays resorted to sly prostitution, Chapman explained that it was due to the increase in the amount of “mas kahwin” for the marriage of an “anak dara”. It was said that the amount, which used to be $22.50 had increased as much as between $100 to $125. Thus, instead of marrying in their teens, Malay males tended to postpone it to 25 or 26. As a result, more and more young Malays were driven to illicit intercourse to satisfy their sexual desires. In the case of women, it was the ease with which a Malay man could divorce his wife that drove them to become sly prostitutes. According to Chapman it was this marital problem that had led to the appearance of sly prostitutes in the sex market.
Sly Prostitution in Penang in the 1930s
By the 1930s social conditions had changed in Penang. Cinemas with sound-track movies such as Majestic, Cathay and Odeon, had become popular entertainment outlets for the Chinese community in Penang. They were exposed to the antics of such notable Chinese actresses as Li Hsiang-Ian who used to sing ever-popular songs – The Fragrance of the Night and China Night – as well as the dimpled and sultry smile of Butterfly Wu and Pai Yang. Coffee shops mushroomed and became popular centres for social gatherings and social discourse on the issues of the day. Dance-halls,cabarets and singing cafes appeared, the earliest of which was Wembley Park where the more enthusiastic could dance cheek-to-cheek with taxi dancers. Dancing had become a form of popular culture as dance clubs flourished and provided instruction in the techniques of waltz, foxtrot, quickstep and the tango.

Invariably the changing backdrop provided new modus operandi for prostitutes whose carriers were rudely disrupted by the compulsory closure of licensed brothels in 1930. Being forced out of licensed prostitution, many of them continued their profession as sly-prostitutes under various guises. Some worked as domestic servants in lodging houses, which used to accommodate newly arrived immigrants to Penang but on account of the depressed economy following the World Depression were transformed into slybrothels. Some became girl cashiers and waitresses in coffee shops where their coquettish looks became a source of attraction for customers. However, it should be said that not all girl-cashiers were sly prostitutes. Nevertheless the more respectable classes of the Chinese community regarded that they were so. The editorial column of a Chinese newspaper, Chung Hwa Siang Pao, in this respect, reflected the general opinion of Chinese society at that time.

“Since the Government’s prohibition of prostitution, those pitiful creatures who depend on prostitution as a means of living were forced to become sly prostitutes, but as the Government is also adopting drastic measures to put and end to these, the more ingenious ones therefore, after racking their brains over this problem, hit upon a plan to earn a living by becoming girl-cashiers, as this title sounds sweeter to the ear. They think that this sort of occupation is legal and that the Government has no right to prohibit it. Moreover they think that they can do whatever they like. Now, if we were to look at their dresses and their behavior, we can be perfectly sure that eight or nine out of ten of these girl accountants were once either licensed or unlicensed prostitutes.”

The third avenue for sly prostitution was the cabarets and dance-halls. The cabaret was a new form of male leisure activity in which they could enjoy the music and songs, the pleasure of dancing and the company of taxi-dancers. Taxi-dancers were not registered and it was not possible to know whether a taxi-dancer was a former prostitute. It was not difficult for prostitutes to work as taxi-dancers as they could master the skills of dancing easily. Their earnings were derived from coupon-dancing, “sit-outs: (providing companionship with an accompanying charge) and “sleep-outs” when sexual services were offered beyond their duty hours.

Concluding Remarks

Licensed prostitution was a colonial phenomenon in the 1920s. With its abolition in 1930 it was succeeded by sly prostitution but its preponderance as a social phenomenon gradually diminished with the eradication of gender imbalance and the stabilization of social order with the massive inflow of women in the 1930s and the transformation of the majority of bachelor laborers into a family-centred labour force. However, brothel prostitution together with gambling farms and amusement parks resurfaced during the Japanese Occupation. Women were rounded up and kept in military brothels to service the imperial army. Open prostitution came to and end with the return of the British in September 1945. Sly prostitution resumed with the reopening of cabarets such as Wembley and City Lights, amusement parks and bars. It has persisted until this very day but it is a far cry from the prevalence of sly prostitution in the 1930s.
(Please note that for the purpose of this draft paper, footnotes are omitted. Comments are invited for any correction, improvement or elaboration. Thank You)

Leong Yee Fong 5th December 2001.