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Christina Firpo, history professor at Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo, presents the complicated configurations of the black market for sex in Vietnam during colonial French rule.

By Kitty Hu (UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies)

Selling sex in colonial Tonkin

"The stories of the women in these books reveal a close relationship between coercion and choice," began Christina Firpo, associate history professor at Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo, who received her PhD degree from UCLA. "Taken individually, it's tempting to reduce these women's experiences to the binary of either agency or victim, but placing these stories instead within the contexts of larger historical trends such as mass poverty, migration and cultural change reveals that the binary is misleading."

In an event on February 24, 2021 jointly organized by the UC Berkeley Center for Southeast Asia Studies and UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Firpo discussed her latest book, Black Market Business: Selling Sex in Northern Vietnam, 1920-1945 (Cornell University Press, 2020), which details the social and cultural history of the clandestine sex market in colonial Tonkin.

During World War I, Firpo noted that the French colonial government faced increasing health concerns around venereal disease that led to tensions with sex workers and a strict system that limited the profit, mobility and freedom of those women. According to the 1921 law, sex workers were required to register with the police and submit to regular, invasive gynecological exams.

It was difficult for women to remove their name from the police registry and if they tested positive during an exam, they would have to quarantine. This led to a thriving black market for sex, which sex workers, pimps, madams, kidnappers and traffickers effectively navigated.

Sidestepping the government in the black market for sex

Looking at newspaper stories, court cases, police reports and public health records, Firpo identified more than one thousand cases of "heterosexual clandestine sex work," which described in detail how the business operated during this period. The unclear definition of what sex work entailed made it difficult for police to track individuals.

"Sex workers aiming to escape regulatory systems set up shop right outside city limits," Firpo explained, citing a French officer who described how the evasion of colonial laws led to "a belt of Venus that crowns the suburbs of Hanoi and other urban zones of Tonkin."

A dào singing houses and dance halls were also used as sites of both entertainment and sex work. Firpo said the singing houses couldn't be raided because they were not listed as sex-selling venues and local police were "often their best customers." The "taxi dancers" in the dance halls appealed to a more international clientele that presented the illusion of having more "modern girls," but many were actually from peasant families in the countryside.

Adolescent sex work, often a function of extreme poverty, also found its place in the black market due to its secrecy. Firpo described the network as decentralized for only those "in the know," meaning that juvenile sex work usually occurred in someone's home, a boarding house or brothel. She said managers used false identities to hide the girls, created fictious familial narratives and used flower sellers and rickshaw drivers to find clients.

"Because the state was unable to effectively police sexual commerce with the 1921 law, authorities started drawing from discourses of moral panic," Firpo explained.

The state's response

Firpo said the political, cultural and environmental context changed before, during and after the colonial period, all of which affected the black market for sex. The state, through marginalizing women, was therefore unable to monitor them. Instead, authorities criminalized venereal disease and transferred policing from the police to hospitals, which had the power to "intern women" and limit their activities, according to Firpo.

Still, sex workers found ways to navigate the strict system through operating in suburbs, pretending to move, skipping town when raids were happening and simply ignoring the law at other times.

Although navigating their own business gave the women agency, Firpo said that it also came with some risks, which kidnappers and traffickers often profited from. Whether it was in the form of debt bondage or trafficking, she found that women were often forced to go into debt and would therefore lose their salary.

"Sex work in colonial Tonkin exhibited degrees of coercion and choice," Firpo added.

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Published: Tuesday, March 16, 2021