Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Double Three Dominoes, Wild Pheasants, White Pigeons, and Salt Water Sisters: the world of the 1920 Shanghai prostitute

From the North-China Herald, 12 May 1923:

As Known to Chinese

The topic of the "sing-song" girls having once again come upon the journalistic horizon, it may interest many readers to have a Chinese view of these public characters, and to learn something from Chinese sources about the Chinese section of the demi-monde of Shanghai in general.

Some time ago there appeared in a Chinese magazine the "New Man" a long article on the subject, which is very informing and valuable as it was written by one who had made careful investigations and was well qualified to write on the matter. The salient points are contained in the following article. It needs only to be added that the information given relates to conditions prior to the recently-adapted policy of licensing and gradually closing public houses of prostitution.

What are commonly called "sing-song" girls have been known by varying names in Chinese, the more fashionable designations not being equivalent to "sing-song," but to "story-teller" or "entertainer." The term shu yu was used to denote the residences of these so-called "narrators of books" or entertainers. The places of public entertainment where they displayed their art were called shu ch'ang or shu lou. This class of prostitutes in their residences sold their beauty (or venery) and in the public places of entertainment they sold their skill. The two matters were kept quite distinct from each other.

The use of the name shu yu in Shanghai's underworld began in the early days of the emperor Hsien Fêng, and the originator was a skilful entertainer named Chu So-lan. Although she did not know many characters, yet she could write a little, and sing and improvise a few songs, so she attracted the lovers of gaiety. Having started a hall of entertainment, she had a signboard hung up at her residence to signify that the entertainer lived there. In the early days of T'ung Chih there appeared many noted entertainers, and the boards used on their residence could be seen in many places.

At that time the entertainment halls had strict regulation; every prostitute who took part had to know at least a few songs and be able to sing them, and the young girls had to be under the tutelage of an older one in order to gain admission to the stage. That the entertainers or "sing-song" girls practised prostitution in their residences was an open secret, but they themselves said they only sold their skill, and would not admit the secret vice. Included in the duties of these entertainers, besides singing or reciting, they had to assist in drinking festivities. They were often sent out just for this purpose; and they would sit close to the guests and make themselves agreeable, while at the same time preserving the decorum of an entertainer.

Ostensibly they had only one source of income, that is they got a little for their singing; but this was only one dollar for each occasion; the expenses were heavy, and if the girls had depended only on that one source, would they not have died of hunger? But their actual receipts were not small as they had other sources of income; when they sold themselves they received high prices, so that although their apparent income was small, yet they were able to display great extravagance, and might be seen with opium pipes or water tobacco pipes worth eight hundred or a thousand taels. As for the splendour and extravagance of their clothing there is no need to speak about it.

But even when their numbers increased, these "singsong" girls or professional entertainers could not be reckoned as of the ordinary stream of the vice world, as their price was still very high, and only officials and rich people could approach them. They were the aristocracy of the prostitutes and although they sold themselves to vice, yet they did not have a very hard time, and they met very little in the way of ill-treatment.

In the early days of Kuang Hsu the "sing-song" girls of the Chinese city nearly all migrated to the International Settlement, and their signboards could be seen in many streets; their number was then from 200 to 300. Entertainment halls were popular, with five or six girls attached to each, and having an old entertainer as manager. Formerly the entertainers did not speak openly about accepting guests for the night, but later they face to face talked jokingly about the price of this indulgence.

As the price of the entertainers became lower, the number of men who consorted with them for vice became more, and as the number of men increased, so the number of entertainers also increased. But the life became gradually harder; the girls used to live in good houses, wear fine clothes and adornments, and also have good food; this was considered the proper thing. As they became more numerous and the price less, the housing and clothing and jewelry, etc., might still be passable, but in food they came off badly. This was because house, clothing, etc., were part of the stock-in-trade to attract men, while the food was a matter for the girls themselves. It was truly said that as the business of the "sing-song" girls became more extensive, their own position became steadily worse. When the prices were cheapened, many men who could not before compete with the rich patrons, were now able to take advantage of the situation and so visited the residences of the girls, and the girls could not, as before, select their patrons from the most apparently respectable, but they were obliged to receive even grooms, actors, and others. The richer patrons of the past had some respect for etiquette and appearances, so the worst forms of vicious indulgence could to some extent be avoided; but with grooms, actors, etc., there was no preserving of decorum, and no limit to the kinds of low practices, and a bad reputation was the result.

But even when the price of vice was lower than it used to be, yet it was not easy to gain entrance to an entertainer's residence. Unless one had an introducer he had to seek an invitation by means of paying for the girl's songs at the entertainment hall, and this required repeating for days; then when entrance to the residence had been gained it was not at all certain that the girl would sell her favours on short acquaintance. This being so, men of strong passion did not care for the slow process, and as at that time the "Ch'ang San" prostitutes were numerous and easily accessible, and cheap, many men turned in that direction, and the commercialized vice of the "sing-song" girls was interfered with by the Ch'ang San girls. Attempts have been made to reestablish the prestige of the shu yu, but these have been short-lived, and the name shu yu is now chiefly one of past history.

The term "Ch'ang San" is the name of a domino used in playing; it has three dots doubled. In past days a certain class of prostitutes received three dollars for their services in pressing guests to drink, and three dollars more for accommodating the guest for the night. These fixed amounts resembled the "double three" of the domino, so this class of girls became known as the ch'ang san. At one time they used to be Shanghai's highest grade of prostitutes. When the name became common, some noted women like Chu So-lan (noted above) introduced the name shu yu to differentiate between higher and lower classes, selecting for the former those who could gain a living by their skill. The distinction being made, some of the patrons naturally preferred the shu yu and lightly regarded the ch'ang san, so in the early years of Kuang Hsu the latter had come to be regarded as a lower class of prostitute, when the ch'ang san moved into the International Settlement they did not number 500. Subsequently, when the shu yu was no longer a novelty and men began to tire of it, the ch'ang san used their best endeavours to better their position; they abolished the "double three" system and followed much the same customs as the shu yu, but made themselves very accessible to pleasure seekers; thus the "sing-song" girls of the shu yu were displaced by the ch'ang san, and had nothing to do but change and themselves become ch'ang san; and this class then naturally became the highest class of prostitutes. For a time the name "story-teller" was applied to them, but as they seldom appeared at the entertainment halls, or if they did they only sang a few songs and did not tell stories, they gradually ceased to be called sheng and were only called hsien.

The ways of getting money from the guests were many; besides what was paid for encouraging drinking and for the accommodation of the night, there were the expenses of the feast; these feasts cost from four taels to ten tales, and the brothel's share was about one-third. Then there were presents or tips, amounting to about four taels; it was reckoned that half of this was to go to the instrumentalists and accompanists, and half to the cook and servants; but in reality the greater part of it went to the brothel. When Mexican dollars came into general use, taels gave place to dollars, which was good for the guests but was hard on the brothels, especially as expenses always increased.

The receipts of the ch'ang san were of four kinds; 1. The price for going to a place when invited; 2, the share of the feast expenses; 3, receipts from the games at cards or dominoes; 4, presents and tips. The first of these was one dollar;, the feast would bring in 10 dollars, and dominoes six dollars or more. While under this plan nothing was openly charged for spending the night, yet in fact with one thing and other this item cost more than the previously mentioned four kinds put together, as one night would cost the pleasure seeker from 30 to 50 dollars. The gambling receipts are now more, as many men connected with foreign firms, and returned students, like to play poker for high stakes and it is customary to reckon 12 dollars as the girl's share.


The life of a ch'ang san is at best one of great bitterness. These are four things they have to do all the year round--1. To use words of entertainment which often do not agree with their feelings; 2. To pretend to be gay and jolly, or feign irrigation; to simulate affection, and make sport, and do other things, just for a living; 3. They have to adapt themselves to the psychology of the vicious men who consort with them; 4. They have to practise songs and to get themselves up for the occasions. While their clothing is good, their food is bad, and they get no opportunity for sleep before about three o'clock in the morning. There are some people who can only speak of the gaudiness and extravagance of the ch'ang san prostitutes; but they do not know of the bitter tears of the girls, and that the gaudiness is but a sign of their distress. What has just been said refers to ordinary conditions; sometimes things are much worse and the suffering is intense. When they are very popular, or when they are passed by coldly by men, then their life is made very miserable. When very popular they are kept busy all the time, without enough food to eat and with insufficient sleep; though hoarse, they must sing, and though utterly tired out, they must still entertain. But greater still is their bitterness when men look coldly on them and pass them by; they cannot then escape the beating and cursing of their mistress, and ridicule and indignities from others; at such times only the sun knows their grief by day, and the lights see their tears fall at night.

There are three kinds of ch'ang san prostitutes--the free, the half free, and those not free at all. The first kind enter the brothel of their own accord, pay all expenses from their earnings, and are in everything their own mistresses. The second kind have mortgaged themselves to the brothel for a term of years, after which they revert to their previous condition; in this case some control is exercised over them by the house. Those not free have been sold absolutely to the brothel and are regarded as chattels to be dealt with as their owners please; they have a very bitter lot. At present most of the ch'ang san belong to the second kind; those of the third kind are fewer, while those of the first kind are not more than one in 20 of the whole. There are also some mothers who put their own daughters into prostitution, but these are few.In 1918 the number of ch'ang san was about 1,200 (over 1,100 names are given by the writer). This refers only to those whose names are exhibited; the number of those engaged in brothels in various capacities is quite as large, as every prostitute of the ch'ang san class had one or more attendants of much the same moral character, so the number just given might safely be doubled. in an estimation of the number concerned there is also to be taken into account the mistresses and other women, the book-keepers, cooks and servants, runners, ricsha pullers, etc.


We next speak about the Yao er class. Yao er is the name of a domino, the "one-two." In the early days of Tung Chih, there was at Shanghai a class of prostitutes who received 1,000 cash as tea money, and 2,000 cash for assisting in the wine drinking. This reminded people of the "one-two" domino, so the name yao er was popularly applied to these girls. This class at one time ranked about the same as the ch'ang san, but as the last-named advanced to the place of the shu yu, the yao er were left behind and are now regarded as a lower class. The receipts from their patrons were 1,000 cash for tea, 2,000 cash for the wine drinking, 5,000 to 10,000 for the feast, and 2,000 for the night. This was afterwards changed, so that while new acquaintances paid for tea, regular patrons paid nothing; the feast cost $6 or $8, and there was $12 for cards or dominoes. For the accommodation of the night, newcomers, or those who had not shared in the drinking or playing, paid $6, while old friends just gave $2 as a present. As lower grades became more popular, the yao er lost some of their business, their patrons being limited to a few of certain classes. An investigation in 1918 gave the number of yao er at about 500.The life of the yao er is a hard one; in clothing, housing and food, the conditions are unsatisfactory. Being of a lower class, they wear poor clothing, and their food is very poor; the houses they are in may be passable on the outside, but they are extremely bad inside. I have a friend who has been with these girls, and he told me that their conditions are extremely hard. They even look to their patrons to give them clothing; in warm weather, when they require but little, this can be done, but in cold weather, when plenty of warm clothing is required, the guests cannot supply what is necessary, so the girls shiver and become purple with cold. As for food, better not mention it. They have a meal at midday and another at six or seven in the evening, but this is mostly taken cold, as it is about the time when guests begin to arrive, and at a signal the girls have to put down their bowls and assemble to let the guest make his selection. If selected, the guest must be accommodated before the girl can return to her cold food; and if passed over, yet time has to be spent in waiting about, during which the food has become cold. As for sleeping room, except those who have night guests, they are packed five or six in a small room without as much comfort as pigs or dogs. Those with guests have beds, truly, but what sleep can they get? They have other hardships; when the guests are many the girls suffer physically, and they contract venereal diseases. If the guests are few, they are bullied by the mistresses and others and this kind of life is a life of hell.


There are places where men and women are introduced to one another for illicit intercourse, which are known as t'ai chi. Some of these are camouflaged as photographers' shops. A place is rented, and arrangements made with a few girls, and the thing is begun quite easily. At first there are some restrictions, and only those who are known can enter, but in course of time anyone can go. The higher grades of t'ai chi require $10 to $15 for introducing a couple to each other, and the next grade want $5 to $8; of this amount two-thirds go to the girl, and the rest to the master of the shop or house. Most of the girls who go to these places have an infatuations for some particular man, but because of family difficulties they cannot get their desire, so they use this means to gain their end. At first they only have relations with the one to whom they are specially attracted, but the proprietor of the house knows how to take advantage of the weakness and brings pressure to bear, with the result that after one visit other visits are paid, until the girl becomes a regular prostitute. Some girls go to these places from economic reasons, or family or marriage difficulties; others are led by passion and seek introductions with the idea of gratifying desire and getting a little extra money at the same time.

The Yeh Chi, "Pheasants," or "Wild birds," are a class of prostitutes who go about from place to place like flying birds, and as their gaudy clothing resembled the pheasant, the name yeh chi, or pheasant, has been given to them. Formerly they operated in the Chinese city, but gradually they invaded the Settlements until, in the central parts, they could be found anywhere. Their number is greater than that of any other class of prostitutes, they are of low class, and are entirely dependent on vice for a living. They are great disseminators of venereal diseases and in general are much like mere animals, so people regard them simply as a means for passion gratification, and do not dream of thinking about their condition, which is worse than that of animals, and cannot be regarded as human. As the number of yeh chi increased, they became of different grades; besides those who stood on the sides of the streets, there are those who went into tea-shops, or wandered about the streets seeking custom, so that vice-seekers were gathered in by them from all classes. The practice of seizing hold of men was followed by some; others used their arts to get men to go with them to places for immoral purposes. Bartering took place on the streets, and the girls would go wherever the patrons wanted. Street-walking began about seven in the evening, and went on till eleven or twelve, and these girls were known as "night-wandering spirits." An investigation made in 1918 of the numbers of yeh chi gave an estimate of at least 6,000.

The lower class of yeh chi consisted practically entirely of those who had been sold into the life, and they had no freedom of movement to speak of. In teashops and on the streets their business was to attract men; in the former much trouble and many arts were required to lead men to the houses, and often efforts failed, so it was not an easy task. But the streets were worse. No matter the weather, hot or cold, rain, frost, or snow, when evening came they must stand in groups and call out to men and on the least response they must take hold of them and cajole them to respond. If not successful, the girls were beaten. In the cold weather their clothing was insufficient, but as they dare not go back without a patron they had to stand shivering and enduring hardships from the elements. If they secured a patron they had a little respite, but if not they know what to expect from their mistress, and the poor girls could only prepare their skins for a good hiding! The lower grades had very poor food and no proper sleeping accommodation. Among the yeh chi there are very many girls of 13 and 14 years of age; this compulsion of young girls to prostitution is a crime against humanity, but brothels are most anxious to get these young ones, and the mistresses are after profit, so while the brothel system is allowed, the compulsion of young ones cannot be avoided.


The name P'eng Ho T'ao is given to the higher class of clandestine prostitutes. They hang out signs at their doors, giving their names, and in the houses there is card-playing and drinking, with payment for the same similar to the ch'ang san. When they go out by invitation, the charge is $1. Some of them have no fixed charges for the night's accommodation, but those connected with the smaller places require at least $10. There are about 40 houses, with about 110 inmates of this class.

The Po Ko Tang are the "White Pigeon Gang." Pigeons only know their old homes, and if taken elsewhere they take the first opportunity to return. In Shanghai there are men who sell their own wives to other men, and before long the women escape, leaving the purchaser without woman or the money he paid for her. Because of some resemblance to the habit of the homing pigeon, this class of woman is known as the "white pigeon," and as they work together, the word "gang" has been added. This trick is usually worked by men kidnappers, who by various devices kidnap a woman and then use their power and also their art to gain her affection, and when they know she will return, they sell her to some foolish rich man, as a way of relieving him of some of his money. Various schemes are used. The man will sometimes himself sell the woman to the victim, and cause her to escape soon with some valuables; at other times someone else will take the woman, and after a few days the pimp will appear to claim her, asserting she has been kidnapped, and talking about going to law, and so extorting money from the victim as well as taking the woman away. Another plan is for the woman to entice the victim to her house and while in the midst of his infatuation he is seized and charged with adultery and made to pay heavily to settle the matter.

The Hwa Yen Chien are a lower class of prostitutes, whose lives are very pitiable. Disease is so rife amongst them that almost every one of them may be called a representative of disease. In 1918 there were over 1,000 of these girls; some have been sold to brothels because of poverty, others have been kidnapped or in other ways victimized. They are the slaves of the mistresses, and their earnings are taken by them. By day or by night these girls have to be on the lookout to invite patrons, and on receipt of 20 cents they have to submit to vice. If they have a guest for the night they may get a little rest, but otherwise there is little or no sleep for them. The mistresses treat them harshly; if they do anything a little displeasing, anger is vented upon them, and if they do not secure many men they are beaten and cursed. They have to be seeking business in all kinds of weather, and also occupy spare time with needlework.

The Hwa Yen Chien might well be called the lowest class of prostitutes, and yet there is a lower class still, a most deplorable set, the Nailing-shod [I think--the article scan is faint here--Jess] prostitutes, Ting P'êng Ch'ang Chi. The origin of the name ting p'êng cannot be discovered for certain. There are in Shanghai about 40 of this class, who have sunk below the other classes. They are so full of disease as to be outcast, or they are of evil disposition, or they have been sold specially out of spite by hard mistresses. The price of their service used to be five cents, but may now be 10 cents; and yet they have so many visitors of the lower classes that they may make $2 for the day and night; if they take less than this their mistresses exhibit the whips of punishment.


The Hsien Shui Mei, Salt-Water Sisters, are Cantonese prostitutes who mostly live at Hongkew and their number in 1918 was about 250. Most of these girls speak a little English, and cater for foreign sailors and soldiers, etc. Others are patronised by Cantonese. These girls dress differently from the usual Chinese courtesan; they do not have the gaudy finery, and often they do not wear stockings, and at times are bare-footed. They are more hygienic than some others, partly because of the Cantonese love of cleanliness, and partly because they wish to attract foreigners.

To complete the picture of Shanghai's underworld, mention must be made of various other forms of vice-attractions, and this will now be done briefly. When opium-dens were in evidence, there were women who frequented them for vice purposes. Tea-houses are often associated with vice, and so are many places of amusement. Many Chinese hotels are used for assignation, this being a very serious form of the evil at Shanghai. Houses or rooms are often advertised as being to let, and on inquiry it is found that the intention is temporary accommodation for immoral purposes. What are known as "little rooms" are also rented for these purposes, and are much frequented. Then there are indecent pictures and photographs, and lewd books sold for the purpose of stimulating vice. Gambling, drinking, opium-smoking and extravagance are associated with prostitution, and it is not easy to effect reform in these matters. Various attempts have been made to improve matters, and there are also institutions for rescue work, the Door of Hope being especially well known and appreciated. After hearing the report of the Vice Commission not long ago, the foreign ratepayers at their annual meeting adopted the policy of gradual elimination of brothels from the International Settlement. It will be an excellent thing if we all help the movement which has such a good intention.

This article has been written after three weeks of thorough investigation by those who undertook the duty, and a week was occupied in preparing for publication the information gained, there being much more than is given above. The investigation took place in 1920.

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