Siew Han Yeo explores a brief history of prostitution in twentieth-century colonial Rangoon.
The ‘houses of ill-fame’ in early twentieth-century Rangoon were said to fulfill the desires of all who sought them out, but not without the risk of catching some sort of venereal disease. Located on 27th to 29th streets between Montgomery (Bogyoke Aung San Street) and Dalhousie Streets (Maha Bandula Street), and on 33rd and 34th streets between Fraser (Anawrahta Street) and Montgomery Street, these five lanes to the east and west of the Sule Pagoda were once home to Rangoon’s infamous red-light district until 1921, when prostitution—then a segregated system— ended.
Segregationist policies were adopted as one of the early solutions for regulating prostitution throughout the cities of colonial India. Stephen Legg notes that this model of segregation adopted in Bombay and Rangoon in the mid-nineteenth century was part of a policy shift that treated prostitution as a ‘urban and civic problem’, one that could no longer be confined to the military Cantonments.
In the case of Burma, the policy of segregation had both spatial and social dimensions. Within the abovementioned five streets of the ‘segregated area’, sex workers and brothels were further divided by race. Though these were not establishments exclusively limited to brothels, 27th and 28th streets were ‘chiefly occupied by Indian prostitutes’, while 33rd and 34th streets were ‘native brothel streets’ of varying groups: ‘Indians, Burmese and Japanese’. These streets were visited by ‘Indian and Burmese clerks, shopmen, etc.’, and their brothels catered to the lower-middle classes, charging fees ‘as low as 4d or 8d’. On 34th Street, businesses were ‘carried on as coffee-shops or concert-rooms’ but were ‘centres of sodomy’ frequented by ‘Mahomedan and Hindu tradespeople…[and] Europeans were welcome’. The trade in flesh was not solely within these establishments, but the segregated area provided ‘a general market of prostitution’ since women could be hired within the brothel, or be engaged out to private houses and hotels for a few hours to a day.
The history of prostitution in Rangoon has been studied peripherally in broader contexts: as part of the colonial government’s attempt to regulate vice in colonial India, censorship, spatiality in colonial India, and ‘native sexualities’. Su Lin Lewis has examined prostitution in the context of Rangoon’s transformation as a diverse port-city in the 1920s, while Tharaphi Than explores how prostitutes have been represented as ‘signs of national decline’ in Burmese print media and government sources from 1942-1962. Still other contemporary analyses focus on the gendered discourses in missionary work that idealized Christian-centered models of domesticity, femininity, and western practices for childbirth. Yet for all the work on this subject, few have discussed the racialized rhetoric of government and police characterizations of Rangoon’s brothels–neither a novel or surprising element of colonial governance.
This essay shifts the focus squarely onto prostitution in twentieth-century Rangoon, looking at how indigenous and non-white sexuality, desire, and “transcultural intimacies”, to use Chie Ikeya’s term, were vilified in colonial-era documents about prostitution. I trace the changes in colonial legislation that legitimized a segregated system of prostitution between 1902 to 1921, when the Burma Suppression of Brothels Bill made illegal the display, occupation, and work of prostitution.
In examining legislative changes to the regulation of brothel-keeping and prostitution in Burma, there were several reiterations by municipal and state authorities between 1904-1921 to address two issues: First, to respond to the social pressures from groups like the Association of Moral and Social Hygiene (AMSH) after 1910 to protect public morality and the youth exposed to the dangers of “sexual vice” by enacting prohibitive legislation again prostitution. Second, to effectively expand the policing of crime in Burma’s seaports by deporting pimps, traffickers, and sex workers.
The calls for change by AMSH and Baptist Minister John Cowen from 1914 were effective enough to provoke an official investigation in 1917, when E.C. Shuttleworth, the Commissioner of Police in Rangoon, was deputed to Rangoon, Bombay, Calcutta, and Colombo to assess the extent of this ‘social evil.’ Shuttleworth’s report provided detailed descriptions of the workers, brothels and red-light districts in the various cities. His findings, like other colonial bureaucrats and medical practitioners of the time, understood prostitution and its everyday operations on the basis of the nationality of the sex workers and brothel-keepers, as well as the degree of ‘trouble’ these brothels had for public order.
This essay also explores how the women working in these brothels were portrayed in official representations, with attention to how desire and sex were differentiated along racial lines; these brothels were another key site of anxiety about whiteness, imperial power, and the perceived dangers of mobile working white and non-white women. More notably, for historians interested in the Chinese diasporic community, these debates about prostitution reveal the occupations worked by some Chinese women in Burma. There are no statistics on the number of Chinese women who immigrated to British Burma, but they are known to have taken up jobs as shop assistants in grocer shops, waitresses in restaurants, and in this essay, as sex workers and brothel-keepers: these form some of the only historical threads we have about Chinese women in British Burma thus far.
Sex, Race and Colonial Governance
The protection of ‘British prestige’ in the colonies through the strict policing of sexual and intimate unions of white populations is not a novel idea, and the brothels are another salient site of these concerns.
There were clear distinctions in how government reports characterized ‘native’ and foreign sex workers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Native women (i.e. ‘natives of India’) in lock-hospital reports between 1873-1886 were vilified as carriers of venereal disease, and seductresses of soldiers, sailors, and respectable men. In contrast, twentieth-century police reports identified the way sex workers ‘solicited and loitered about’ as the problem, all this while being ‘respectably dressed in various national costumes’. Though both groups were deemed to be dangerous for the youth of Rangoon’s schools in the 1910s, white (European) women were seen as victims of an exploitative traffic in ‘white slaves’. Other foreigners, such as Chinese and Japanese women, were tolerated as a necessary “shield” against the trafficking of Burmese women, the emphasis there being that the women had come to Burma ‘voluntarily’. In contrast, Burmese and Indian women were regarded as gullible, defiant, or ashamed victims of the trade. Police reports note that young Burmese girls, due to shame or intimidation, ‘returned within the month’ to brothels despite police efforts to return them home.
There was limited legislative action that the state could take against ‘native’ and Asian, as well as white women of other nationalities. A 1916 tally of brothels on the 27th to 29th and 33rd-34th streets count only 6 European women out of a population of 347 workers. Despite the meagre numbers, the government made considerable efforts to limit the trafficking of white women, and deport any women remaining in the city by the time of World War I’s inception in 1914. For white women, this was resolved with the International Agreement for the Suppression of White Slave Traffic of 1904, the first treaty of the twentieth century that targeted human trafficking and prostitution and allowed foreign states to deport European women to their country of birth. A similar move was used to deport European pimps, though legislative powers to deport the “Asiatic pimps and procurers” differed because Chinese and Japanese governments were not signatories of the International Agreement for the Suppression of White Slave Traffic of 1904.
It is perhaps not a coincidence that European barmaids were banned in Rangoon and Calcutta in 1902 – the same year that the policy of segregation was enacted. Ashley Wright has written about the scrutiny that European barmaids received in urban centres such as Rangoon – scrutiny that was then linked to wider movements for temperance and social purity. A similar paradox exists with the image of the European barmaids, whose ‘morally and physically taxing jobs’ also included their role as ‘temptresses who lured men into bars’. Wright notes that ‘mobility across racial boundaries’ was worrying for colonial authorities, especially since the new social spaces in hotels and bars that employed white barmaids could be patronized by any individual of the right socioeconomic class.
Non-heterosexual and non-marital intimacies also came under attack as part of the movement to ban prostitution by social reformist groups such as the AMSH, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). A 1916 report by the AMSH warned that prostitution was a ‘easy stepping stone’ to sodomy, wherein the failure to provide an outlet for the willful desires of horny men would lead to an eventual turn to sodomy. Men, they argued, ‘proceed through prostitution to sodomy, not from chastity to sodomy’.
Objections to Segregation: Rangoon Residents, Social Reformers and Religious Associations, 1894-1917
The policy of segregation did not go unnoticed by the residents of Rangoon. Numerous petitions against the segregationist policy from Rangoon residents and social reformist organisations were sent to the Local Government between 1894-1917. The petitions made different demands of the local government in the respective years, though residents’ petitions after 1910 seem to have been influenced by the activism of John Cowen, a zealous Baptist Minister, and other civic and religious associations, the WCTU, the Rangoon Vigilance Society (RVS), and the AMSH. Cowen was known to the RVS for his roaring success in the abolition of prostitution in Ceylon in 1912, later earning him an invite to Rangoon in 1914 by the Bishop of Rangoon, the RVS, and the AMSH, when Cowen lead the 1914 campaign for the suppression of prostitution in Rangoon.
Two petitions in 1894 focused on the import of women, and the debauchery associated with the segregated area. One petition from a ‘Cantonese sect’ appealed to the District Magistrate in 1894 to restrict the trafficking of Chinese prostitutes to Rangoon–women who were said to have travelled from Penang or Singapore via the British India Steam Navigation Company. However, this was not a concern for the Chief Secretary of Burma since it appeared that Chinese brothel-keepers ‘provided board and lodging’ in return for ‘half of the women’s earnings’. Furthermore, the brothels were said to be reserved ‘for Chinamen only’, and that the women seemed ‘perfectly contented’ and frequently married later despite their occupation. Some mothers even ‘resided with their daughters’ with the eventual hope to ‘sell them off to the highest bidder’. Other references to this system of Chinese brothels in Burma are not found in the colonial-era documents consulted for this essay, but it seems that the pattern of Chinese brothels discriminating against non-Chinese clientele was common in the brothels of Singapore, too. The second petition in 1894 originated from 1104 memorialists, all Rangoon residents, who complained about the ‘detriment of public health and morals’ because of the location of the ‘evil in the centre of town’.
After the 1900s, however, appeals seems to have shifted to the visibility of sex work in Rangoon. A 1907 appeal from the WCTU urge a complete prohibition of loitering and solicitation in public places–since there was ‘no difference, as far as publicity is concerned, between soliciting on an open verandah and soliciting on a public thoroughfare’. Despite these protests, it seems that mission and civic organizations continued to provide homes for ‘destitute women’– whether these were limited to women who had escaped a life of prostitution, or included other women from impoverished backgrounds, is unclear.
By 1910, petitions and police reports to the Government differentiated the brothels and their workers by their pliability. Japanese brothels and the workers, for example, were said to ‘be well conducted’. Conyers Baker, the Esquire of the RVS, described Japanese women as the ‘most suitable…safeguard for Burmese girls’.
By the time Shuttleworth’s official report was released in 1917, official attention had shifted to the brothels’ disruption of public order. Shuttleworth notes that the Chinese brothels were the ‘worst’ as regards disease, but the most organized in terms of upkeep and protection by the Chinese community. He also notes that Chinese brothels were the ‘least troublesome’ in terms of ‘advertising and soliciting’ and that the clientele was ‘strictly restricted to the Chinese community’. However, the Chinese brothels and their internal networks were a ‘source of disputes and faction fights’ and home to other criminal activities, including houses for gambling and drinking. It is worth questioning whether the colonial authorities in Burma adopted a similar approach with the Chinese brothels in Burma, providing more autonomy to brothel-keepers, as they did in other colonies with a majority Chinese population, such as the Straits Settlements and Hong Kong.
These criticisms levelled against the segregated area eventually resulted in gradual reforms at the municipal and state level, beginning with the legislative power of the Police.
Municipal and Police Response: Public Order and Legislative Amendments from 1902-1915
In response to the 1894 petitions, a 1902 amendment to the Rangoon Police Act included three new sections 43A, 43B and 43C that effectively confined brothels within the segregated area (27th-29th, and 33rd-34th streets). These sections restricted prostitutes from the ‘main streets of the town’ and residence in these same areas by enacting penalties for a ‘disorderly house’ (43A); ‘residence of prostitutes in certain areas and prohibition of brothels’ (43B); and penalties for solicitation (43C).
Police enforcement of sections 43A, 43B and 43C of the Rangoon Police Act, however, proved challenging. First, the ability to act under Sections 43A and 43B was wholly dependent on the residents’ complaints (at least 3 reports) to the Police Commissioner. This was especially problematic since the ‘Oriental and native populations’ were seen to regard prostitution as a ‘necessary evil’ and provided little assistance to police efforts to shut down disorderly brothels. Lock-hospital reports from 1873-1886 similarly blamed the problem on a ‘degraded public opinion’ or ‘national moral degeneracy’.
Moreover, shutting down a brothel did not mean immediate closure, since the ‘occupiers’ could simply move next door. Women were similarly forced to find new accommodation once evicted–meaning that they would be ‘continually hounded from place to place’ within the segregated area–an expensive and time-consuming chase that the Police force simply could not afford. One way to combat this was by maintaining a thorough register of women and monitoring of the brothels, but this was only possible if Police officers of the rank of ‘Head Constable or higher’ were granted the ‘power of entry’ into the brothel for inspection and reporting new arrivals. This right to entry for inspection was not granted in later amendments to the Rangoon Police Act. The earlier challenges before 1914 were thus compounded by two other problems: the shortage of residences for sex workers outside the segregated area, and the insouciance of the local populace.
Proposals from the Municipal Committee between 1906-1914 thus shifted their focus towards regulating the operation of brothels, first by targeting the pimps or souteneurs responsible for the trafficking of women, then later by targeting what was considered an appropriate ‘display’ of women’s bodies.
By 1908, the Municipal Committee in Rangoon turned its attention towards the prohibition of loitering and soliciting ‘on or from verandahs, windows or doorways’ over main streets. The push to amend section 43C of the Rangoon Police Act (penalties for solicitation) did not pass, since the Government of India fearing that these provisions were ‘unduly harsh’ and would inadvertently result in a woman ‘being made liable to prosecution’ simply for ‘standing on her verandah or by her window’. Since the police could not suppress the presence of brothels, the only solution was to remove these vices from the public eye–ensuring that these operations would not be ‘conducted ostentatiously or in such a manner as to offend public decency’.
Statistics by W.H. Tarleton, the Commissioner of Police in Rangoon, in 1915 reported the following numbers of brothels in the segregated area:
Brothels in the segregated area, c. 1915
Tarleton notes that all the ‘public advertisement’ had ceased, and that the ‘streets in question now present a different appearance to what they did before action was taken’.
Women within police and municipal debates occupied no other identity except as that of the ’prostitute’– defined by their trade as sex workers, yet also faulted as immoral and vulnerable for making such choices (or having fallen victim to it); their fates lay within the palm of the brothel-keeper, and at the mercy of police officers. To be a prostitute, as well as a mother or wife, were impossible identities, and the debates around the protection of women’s bodies by the 1910s and 1920s thus focused on the power of the state to prosecute the male souteneur, and the profits they earned off women’s bodies.
State Protection and Action: Pimps, Souteneurs, Brothel-keepers 1906-1917
Groups like the AMSH in their early campaigns against prostitution acknowledged the challenge of dealing with foreign sex workers, often defining them by their status as a foreign alien or British subjects, and by the ease of deporting them from Rangoon.
The Government of Burma in 1906-1917 grappled with a similar concern, albeit focusing on the souteneur or male pimp who trafficked women into Burma. The ‘male procurer or pimp’ was known to stay only long enough to ‘relieve the women they are acquainted with’ before leaving for Bombay or other port cities. Deportation orders like the Foreigners Act III of 1864 required at least ten days to process, a lengthy procedure that made immediate arrest of traffickers at ports almost impossible.
The blame on only male souteneurs also proved ineffective, since it was well-known that women were complicit in the coercion of girls as prostitutes, as well as the guarding of girls ‘in the establishment’. This was the case not only in the operation of brothels, but with the women involved in luring women and girls to work as prostitutes. Poor families would sell girls into the trade, though the nature of these transactions (whether as ongoing transactions with the family, or ‘final transactions’ where procurers were allowed to do as they wished with the fate of the girl) remains unclear. Another strategy involved enticing girls to Rangoon and Mandalay where the largest red-light districts were located. A man, under the pretense of being a trader, would dupe his victim into marrying him, thereby removing her from her parents’ care. Following this, they would travel under the guise of his work as a trader and be introduced to the ‘woman in charge of the so-called boarding house’. In Mergui, the District Commissioner noted that women agents, also brothel-keepers, would visit poor villages in Tavoy, on pretenses that their children would be adopted by ‘rich Chinese and Burmese families in Rangoon’–these girls would later be sold into ‘a life of prostitution’. Similar methods were used by Cantonese traffickers in the trafficking of women and children from China to Singapore for prostitution.
In 1906, the first (failed) proposal inspired by the English Vagrancy Law (1824) sought to make it illegal for male souteneurs to live off the proceeds of prostitution. Later attempts in 1906, 1911, and 1913 shifted to barring entry to, or deporting foreign pimps (Japanese, Germans, Hungarians, Austrians, Russians, Chinese). Since 1911, European pimps had already been deported from Rangoon and Calcutta under the Foreigners Act III of 1864 – a task eased by the participation of European countries as signatories of the 1904 White Slave Traffic Treaty. By 1914, foreign European subjects, especially ‘enemy aliens’ born in Germany and Austria, could be deported because of World War I. Pimps of foreign nationalities, however, such as the Chinese, Russians and Japanese, could not be dealt with by the 1904 White Slave Traffic law. Since countries such as Japan and China refused to sign on to the White Slave Traffic Agreement, state ‘protection’ of Asian women, via deportation back to their country of birth, could not be enforced.
In 1917, Shuttleworth’s report continued to push for wider legislative powers so that the government and police could deal with ‘pimps and brothel-keepers’. This included extending the Foreigners Act III of 1864 ‘against Chinese pimps and brothel-keepers’ – those solely responsible for the traffic of ‘young Chinese girls’. Unlike earlier government claims in 1894 that Chinese and Japanese women voluntarily came to Rangoon and even freely married, Shuttleworth argued in 1917 that ‘no Chinese woman would come out here on her own to set up as a public prostitute’. Action thus needed to be taken against the Chinese brothel-keepers, but not the Japanese brothels, as these could exist ‘without the aid of a pimp or brothel-keeper’.
Official debates about prostitution and the protection of women’s bodies were intertwined with Britain’s self-identification on the world stage as an imperial power that promoted ’rights’ and ‘civility’ in free trade and law, thereby fortifying Britain’s claim of cultural superiority over Burma’s non-white, local, and foreign population. The violence of English imperial sovereignty and power, as enacted upon the bodies of sex workers in twentieth-century Burma, was surely an indicator of the ‘destructive and constructive power of Euro-American empires’.
1917-1921: End of Segregation, Ban on Prostitution
The government’s response to Cowen and AMSH’s campaign of 1914 was enacted on two-levels: First, with the municipal-wide crack down on the advertisement of brothels in segregated areas through Sections 43A, 43B and 43C of the Rangoon Police Act. Second, in extending that expulsion under the Foreigners Act III of 1864 and the 1904 International Agreement to include pimps and foreign European prostitutes.
Shuttleworth’s inquiry in 1917 was an important step in shifting the colonial government’s stance on ending segregation. In 1918, a sub-committee was appointed to implement Shuttleworth’s recommendations, consisting of representatives from the Indian, Burmese, Anglo-Indian, and Chinese community, as well as from the Police and the RVS. These measures were enforced with mixed levels of success, eventually paving the way for the introduction of a bill for the Suppression of Brothels in 1919-1921 that prohibited ‘brothels, the traffic in women, the practice of solicitation’ in Rangoon Town..
Debates about prostitution in early twentieth century Rangoon coalesced around Britain’s ability as an imperial power to effectively regulate and police the movement of foreigners and contraband goods at seaports. Even though reformers like Cowen focused on the peril of prostitution posed by ‘licentious women’ and official sanction of the segregated area, government concerns in the 1910s-1920s evince a shift towards the implementation of new legal categories that defined foreign, alien and indigenous identities by perceived racial and cultural differences. Prostitution was one indicator of changing imperial anxieties, particularly since the existence of European prostitutes were seen to be the most damaging for the ‘white race’. Asiatic sensibilities and desires in contrast, were useful for the protection of Burmese women–but otherwise, seen as a ‘natural’ part of non-white colonial society.
Featured Image from Wikimedia Commons. Originally published in Typical photographs of Burma: Burmese life and scenes (Rangoon: Rowe and Co., 1900).
Author’s note: This essay has been modified from a chapter on the regulation of prostitution in colonial Burma, part of her dissertation on the socio-legal history of the Chinese diaspora in Burma, c.1886-1940.