Prostitution in Trade Cities

Upon Matthew Perry’s expedition to Japan, the country was opened to the rest of the world in the late nineteenth century. Following British victory in the First Opium War, the UK successfully ended the Canton system opening up other areas of China to trade in 1872. With this new space opened to trade, the process of developing industry and all factors to accompany it would be a topic of much contention for both sides. However, in this early ambiguity and chaos, many illicit industries were stimulated including the sex industry within these areas to supply services to a growing detached and mobile male population.[1]

Following Perry’s expedition, unequal treaties were negotiated with Japan giving Western powers the upper hand. The Japanese adapted quickly with widespread education and literacy as well as economic changes to help Japan match its Western counterparts in this new era. Thus, the increasingly successful nation attracted many people to its newly opened cities. As practical details were still being ironed over, the legal grey areas enabled the growth of prostitution within these trade cities. Yokohama was one such city where Historian Foster Rea Dulles stated by 1865 ‘five hotels, twenty-five grog shops, and an unrecorded number of brothels in the foreign settlement [Yokohama]’.[2] Thus, the idea of this chaotic trade city as one of much vice and sin was a popularly expressed concern seen in the protests of many English clerics. However, it continued to flourish until government intervention decades later.

This theme of debauchery was also echoed in Shanghai in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. As Shanghai was opened to Westerners in 1872 upon the end of the First Opium War, the city became the perfect place for the sex industry to flourish with lacking contagious diseases acts like those in Hong Kong and the extraterritorial rights of Europeans. Thus, women trickled into the country to fill this demand. Here, they were able to make in some cases, a quite generous livelihood. However, after the 1890s this ‘golden age’ of prostitution had come to an end with Qing officials pushing Western powers to crackdown.[3] This manifested itself in legislation like that enacted in Singapore in 1890, and on encouragement of the League of Nations saw the deportation of such women in the early 1930s from Singapore and in 1932 from Hong Kong.[4] This was partly fueled by religious groups who saw these practices as distasteful and contributed to consuls abstaining from overseeing disputes in such affairs and instead directing them to the courts.

Prostitution was able to flourish in these chaotic new trading cities opened up between East and West. Ambiguous legal and moral conditions in the beginning to mid-nineteenth century facilitated such growth as trade continued to develop in newly opened areas.

[1] Eileen P. Scully, ‘Prostitution as a Privilege: The “American” Girl of Treaty-Port Shanghai, 1860-1937’, in the International History Review 20 (1998), p. 876

[2] John W. Dower, ‘Yokohama Boomtown: Foreigners in Treaty-Port Japan (1859-1872)’, MIT Visualizing Cultures, MIT

<> [accessed on 10 December 2019]

[3] Eileen P. Scully, ‘Prostitution as a Privilege’, p. 869

[4] Ibid., pp. 869-70

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *