Between Colonial Order and Public Health – Prostitution in Tonkin
Between Colonial Order and Public Health: Prostitution in Tonkin (1885-1954)
During French colonization, the world of prostitution in Tonkin evolved as the result of the numerous social and economic changes that were occurring at the time. The increasing mobility of the population led to rapid, significant urbanization: consequently, the city changed in form and in culture. Prostitution hence became increasingly visible. Its expansion was both quantitative and qualitative in the sense that prostitutes were no longer confined within the so-called spaces of “legal” brothels and were no longer perceived as being the only women capable of providing sexual services. In this regard, the world of prostitution is a critical vantage point which permits a far-reaching study of these global changes as well as a unique vantage point onto the complexity of colonization itself.
This world was a microcosm of colonial society with its latent notions of racial hierarchy, inherent domination, and intimacy for colonization, and these all represent an intimate yet politically charged encounter. The racial boundaries delineated at the very foundations of the colonial order were therefore blurred and had to be redrawn and sharpened. The regulation of prostitution was one of the means used by authorities to control the interaction between the colonizers and the colonized because it reproduced the racial distinctions of the colonial society.
The second dimension of the administration of prostitution was medical: because of venereal diseases, prostitution was perceived to be a threat to individuals and the nation as a whole. The regulation of prostitution thus was part and parcel of the policing strategies set up by the authorities to insure colonial order and public health. Nonetheless, its application proved to be difficult because prostitution, which was understood as construing both actors and places, resisted the police and medical frameworks that sought to confine them. Authorities’ attempts clashed with the evasive strategies of prostitutes, madams, clients, and others as well.
In light of these issues, this study offers a thorough examination of the official frameworks and the reality of prostitution as it existed in colonial Tonkin.
Keywords: Vietnam; Tonkin; prostitution; colonization; public health; venereal diseases; police; urban culture; social problem; newspapers influence