First published in 1993, Ah Ku and Karayuki-San explores the life of prostitutes in pre-war Singapore. Together with James F. Warren’s other book, Rickshaw Coolie: A People’s History of Singapore 1880–1940, both books ventured into the social histories of Singapore’s past that has long been neglected by official discourse and by other historians of Singapore.
In Ah Ku and Karayuki-San, Warren studied the lives of two groups of prostitutes, the Ah Ku, which refers to Chinese (mostly Cantonese) prostitutes, and the Karayuki-san, the Japanese prostitutes. Using an impressive array of sources such as newspapers, oral histories, photos, newspapers, police and government documents and particularly, the coroner’s reports, Warren traced the life, or rather, the tragic deaths of these prostitutes. He divides the book into two sections: “Brothel Prostitution in Singapore” focuses on the institutions of prostitution and the city of Singapore, with chapters on migration, patriarchy, hierarchy, procurement, followed by a section “Ah Ku and Karayuki-San”, which focused on the individuals, bringing forth the life stories of the prostitutes who worked in Singapore. In the latter section, the chapters include the life-cycle of prostitutes and the concept of a brothel ‘family’.
This book represents an important attempt to write an ‘alternative’ history of Singapore, where the testimonies and narratives of the subaltern, the invisible and the powerless has a place in Singapore history despite the hegemonic dominance of a history writing that only records for posterity, those who are articulate and powerful.
More importantly, Warren reminds us of the human cost and the underside of Singapore’s economic success. Vice was part and parcel of Singapore’s histories, and as students of history, we should be sensitive to sacrifices made by people who got the short end of the straw of life.
Photo of a newly-arrived karayuki-san circa 1900s, from p. 209 of the book.
Ah Ku and Karayuki-san: Prostitution in Singapore, 1870-1940 by James F. Warren [Call no. HQ 255.12 War 2003]. See http://linc.nus.edu.sg/record=b2329195
Rickshaw Coolie: A People’s History of Singapore (1880-1940) by James F. Warren [Call no. HD8039 Ric.W 2003]. See http://linc.nus.edu.sg/record=b1425599
Han Ming Guang.
History Resource Librarian
NUS Libraries 110C team