Lust will and testament

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 August, 2011, 12:00am


The Hong Kong of 1850 was a fast-growing immigrant city, with a crime rate to match. Police corruption was rife and, in the two decades after the island was ceded to Britain, more than three-quarters of the population was involved in triad activities.

Opium and prostitution were both legal and highly popular, while gambling was big business.

Those in the lower echelons of society were often left to fend for themselves. People arrived in the city with nothing, hoping to make something of their lives in this 19th century boomtown.

From the chaos and lawlessness, a group of women did just that. They rose to run their own businesses and own their own properties.

They held bonds in public companies and took charge of their families' futures by becoming the first women in the city to make wills.

And most of them had one thing in common - they made their money from the sex trade.

A book published by two Hong Kong University professors has lifted the lid on the earliest recorded wills made by women in Hong Kong.

They reveal the earliest female property owners - often financially independent - were those working in a trade more often associated with poverty, squalor and misery.

'Chinese wills were very rare 100 years ago - and it's even rarer to find women's wills.

'Women in those days don't even own a name - they were only known as 'so-and-so's wife' - let alone owning property and having a say in how it should be distributed when they died,' said Dr Victor Zheng Wan-tai, who co-authored Women's Wills, Property and the Early Hong Kong Society with Professor Wong Siu-lun.

But prostitutes in the city could make wills - and had good reason to do so. 'An overwhelming majority of wills, we believe, were written by people who were in the prostitution trade,' said Zheng.

'These women were not in a traditional marriage - many were single - and the lack of blood-related relatives mentioned in the wills showed that they were on their own.

'Many chose also to buy property in Hong Kong and not back at home - maybe because there was no other 'home'.

'Put together with the historical circumstances, these points led us to deduce that many of these successful women came from prostitution.'

Of the 98 wills obtained and analysed for the book, more than 40 per cent were from women who indicated that they were 'single', with most of the others listing themselves as 'widowed' or 'concubine'.

Most of the beneficiaries were not blood relatives of the deceased, with most of the beneficiaries being adopted children, friends and 'sisters'.

Also, most of the properties mentioned in the wills were in areas with the most brothels in the day - around The Peak, Admiralty and parts of Wan Chai.

Without family members to inherit their properties, these women turned to a practical and fuss-free way of distributing their wealth without causing strife among those left behind - writing wills.

Brothels were legal throughout Chinese history until the Communist Party took power, and were only allowed to be run by women. In Hong Kong, the unique circumstances of a city on the brink of a new era brought in unique opportunities.

'We can say that there is great need for prostitution then [in 1841],' said Zheng.

Long before The World of Suzie Wong - the novel by Richard Mason which became a 1960 film starring William Holden and Nancy Kwan and cemented Hong Kong's association with prostitution in the minds of Western audiences - the vice trade was a hallmark of the city.

With men making up some 75 per cent of the population of the city in 1851, prostitution became highly lucrative. Many of the new Hongkongers were young and single, hoping either to make a life in the British colony or to earn enough to buy a property back in their hometown.

Masses of ships and scores of British soldiers and sailors boosted trade still further.

In an age when most women were treated as second-class citizens or just invisible, prostitution was often their only available springboard to a more respectable life.

'Women could choose to become maids, but the income was meagre, with no promise of a more comfortable life later. Prostitution, on the other hand, could generate enough income for women to save up and eventually buy property or invest,' said Zheng.

The transient nature of the population also allowed more shady professions to flourish. 'Prostitution in China was quite contained because of the moral problems it brought and the close-knit nature of communities. Hong Kong was unique - everyone was an immigrant, everyone was a stranger. The community was very loose. And as long as you had money, how you made money didn't matter,' Zheng said.

A report written at least two decades later, during the administration of governor John Pope Hennessy, revealed that in 1857 a law was passed to curb the spread of venereal diseases, requiring brothels to register with the government.

Prostitutes needed to go through a health check before they were allowed a licence for business.

The number of brothels hit 190 by 1871. Some 10 per cent catered only to foreigners, while the remainder catered to Chinese from all levels of society.

The biggest brothels offered the services of some 100 women, while maids and a host of servants helped administer the establishment. But any idea that these women loved their jobs can be safely dismissed.

The majority quit prostitution as soon as they gathered enough money, often to become brothel keepers themselves, start other businesses or rent out properties to secure an income.

'Even though most of them were illiterate, these are smart and competent women - they invest mainly in properties. They know how to place mortgages and to buy bonds in bigger companies. They rent out properties to create a stable income for their latter years,' said Zheng.

Hong Kong has changed much since those days, but the study of those women who turned misfortune into a blessing reveals some core traits of the personality of today's Hongkongers.

They dealt with their problems in a practical and efficient way, saw the importance of owning property to provide security and showed their tenacity in working to secure a better life.

'Perhaps this is a blend of Western thought and Eastern tradition. Hong Kong is very different from the mainland - we can see this 100 years ago and in the rationale of Hong Kong's earliest people, and the way they do things,' said Zheng.

'[These women's wills] tell another side of the Hong Kong story. Their story is an integral part of the Hong Kong identity.

'This city may be built on things less than respectable, but it was for survival. It was done with tenacity and a hope for a better future.'

The sex trade

1850s - Prostitution thrives, helped by the fact that men outnumber women three to one in the city's population of just 33,000

1857 - A new law requires brothels to register with the government in light of a high rate of sexually transmitted diseases. Licences are also given to prostitutes.

1870 - Some 190 licensed brothels are in operation, catering to a population of 119,400.

1894 - The system regulating the sex trade is abolished due to pressure from activists in Britain.

1897 - Half the soldiers in Hong Kong receive treatment for venereal disease, up from 10 per cent 10 years earlier.

Early 1900s - The colonial government begins restoring regulations without informing London, in an effort to combat the spread of disease.

1920s - A highly complex regulatory system, almost identical to that abolished 30 years earlier, is in effect.

1931 - A directive issued by London requires the government to close down all brothels.

1935 - The last brothel is shut down. The industry is driven underground, and becomes more dangerous and less profitable.

1938 - With the spread of venereal disease causing alarm and a restoration of controlled brothels politically impossible, the government launches a crackdown on the trade. Treatment facilities for the infected are also expanded. Policies remain in effect today.

1951 - The UN Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others is introduced. Britain is not a signatory.

1960 - Wan Chai's sex industry gets the Hollywood treatment as The World of Suzie Wong is released

1970s - Unofficial estimates put the number of prostitutes at 18,000 as Hong Kong's population swells to about four million.

1980s - The decline of the manufacturing industry drives more women into the sex trade. An estimated 40,000 work in the industry. The city's population hits 5.5 million in 1985.

1990s - The Asian financial crisis increases unemployment and more women enter the trade. Sex workers' rights groups are formed, beginning outreach and lobbying activities.

2000s - Outreach workers report that prostitutes are coming to the city from more countries as international travel becomes easier, while the handover brings more migrants from the mainland. An estimated 200,000 prostitutes cater for a population of seven million.