Tragic fate for the unwanted daughters

Tragic fate for the unwanted daughters
A karayuki-san in Singapore after 1920.

A sleepy park near Yio Chu Kang Road is the final resting place of about 300 women who helped Japan advance economically into South-east Asia about a century ago - by selling their bodies.

They were not "comfort women" forced to serve Japanese soldiers during World War II but sex workers in South-east Asia from the late 19th century to the 1930s.

Their plight has come under the spotlight once more with a new study on Singapore's historical role as a regional hub in the trafficking of women.

University of Wollongong historian Julia Martinez is embarking on a three-year study of the trafficking in women and girls in the Malay world, including Singapore.

Associate Professor Martinez, who studies labour migration, noted that current debates about the nature of international trafficking regulation refer to its long history, yet historians remain unsure about the nature or extent of this trade.

Her study aims to look at the networks of trafficking and compare colonial policies on immigration for sex - and to map regulation and abolition patterns in early 20th-century South-east Asia.

At a recent talk at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute, she said that, along with Cantonese women from China's Guangdong province, Japanese women made up a key group trafficked between East Asia and South-east Asia and also Australia, Japanese prostitutes were in Singapore from at least 1877, with records showing two brothels and 14 Japanese women here then.

Ironically, two "economic miracles" fuelled the growth in the trafficking of these women, as Australian historian James Warren describes in his landmark book, Ah Ku And Karayuki-san; Prostitution In Singapore 1870-1940.

Economic development in Meiji Japan (1868-1912) widened the gap between cities and the countryside, sparking a growth in migrant workers. Likewise, Singapore's rapid economic growth in the late 19th century brought an influx of migrant male labourers, who in turn sparked demand for sex workers.

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