Prostitution in Postcolonial Taiwan


A review of Governing Sex, Building the Nation: The Politics of Prostitution in Postcolonial Taiwan (1945-1979), by Wan-Chen Yen.

Wan-Chen Yen’s doctoral dissertation is a thoughtful study of the official discourse on prostitution in Taiwan during the height of the Cold War. Since 1895, Taiwan had been ruled as a model Japanese colony, and its integration into the Republic of China in 1945 was a traumatic clash of cultures. The cultural tension was exacerbated after 1949, as more than two million Kuomintang (KMT) personnel and their families retreated from the Communists in Mainland China. After witnessing atrocities that the Japanese perpetrated on the mainland, KMT officials were understandably suspicious of their new Taiwanese compatriots. And as the ethnic stratification and violence of KMT rule became apparent, Taiwanese were equally mistrustful of their new overlords. Under Japanese rule, prostitution in Taiwan had been legal, licensed, and profitable. Yen’s dissertation examines how KMT officials, from women’s groups to police to the provincial government, framed prostitution both as a problem to be solved by a rationalist modern state, and as an industry that could generate lucrative profits.

The experiences of Taiwanese sex workers and the popular culture surrounding prostitution have been documented in published work in Taiwan and abroad. Yen’s primary contribution is to engage with sociological analysis, postcolonial studies, and feminist studies of prostitution to provide a comprehensive picture of how KMT activism encompassed movements to abolish, as well as movements to regulate, prostitution.

Chapter 1 provides brief histories of Chinese nationalism and Taiwanese prostitution. Yen defines “Taiwanese” as the aboriginal and Han peoples living in Taiwan prior to the arrival of the KMT, and “Chinese” as the Mainland immigrants who followed the KMT to Taiwan after 1945 (p. 2-3).  She convincingly argues that much of the KMT’s approach to prostitution was founded on an ethnic hierarchy that considered Taiwan’s people “tainted” by years of Japanese colonialism and embarrassingly unconventional adoption and marriage practices. Correcting these un-Chinese disparities, KMT groups argued, was essential to creating a unified national identity. Yet in spite of the KMT’s attempts to distinguish their approach to prostitution from that of the Japanese, Yen observes that “the organisation and regulation of prostitution under the KMT regime arguably had much in common with Japanese practices” (p. 12).

Chapter 2 is a literature review. In it, Yen introduces the analytical categories of the dissertation: gendered nationalism, official representation, and sexual governance. In particular, Yen draws on Partha Chatterjee’s theories of anti-colonial nationalism, Edward Said’s concept of Othering, and Michel Foucault’s ideas about the relationship between power and discourse, and describes their applicability in the Taiwanese context. Taiwanese women became symbols of both Chinese national purity and post-colonial immorality, thereby justifying the KMT’s interventions into Taiwan’s sexual culture. Although Yen cites Western feminist literature on prostitution, particularly the debate over sexual slavery versus sex work, she argues this dichotomy limits analytical possibilities in the Taiwanese context, since the KMT was more concerned with national unity than with gender equality.

Chapter 3 walks the reader through the methodology of the dissertation, the selection of official sources, and the primary KMT activist groups and institutions. Of particular interest are the publications of two KMT women’s groups, police journals, official newspapers, and the archives of the Taiwan Provincial Assembly and the Taiwan Provincial Government. These groups were far more diverse in their approaches to prostitution than the phrase “official representation” might indicate. For Yen, one of the perceived weaknesses of official sources–their propagandistic one-sidedness–is in fact a strength. It allows her to examine prostitution as a “symbolic problem” (p. 72) of the state rather than a social and cultural phenomenon. Her approach adds nuance to existing studies that have examined the experience of Taiwanese prostitutes but only skimmed the surface of prostitution as a regulatory conundrum. Yen’s work is an excellent reminder that the lived experience of prostitutes, while often distinct from official representations, was shaped by the perceptions and misperceptions of official activists and government policy makers.

Chapter 4 investigates two women’s groups, the Mainlander-dominated Women’s Department of the KMT and the Taiwan Provincial Committee of the Movement for the Protection of Fosterlings, which was initiated by a Taiwanese elite woman with close connections to first lady Song Mei-ling. These groups formed a campaign to rescue so-called fosterlings (yang-niu or sim-pua) in the 1950s. “Fosterlings” referred to girls who, according to a common Fujianese and Taiwanese practice, were adopted into new families for a price. They might act as surrogate daughters, marry sons from the same family when they grew older, or work as servants. KMT women’s groups presented the practice of buying fosterlings as an embarrassment to Chinese culture, a relic of Japanese colonization, and a means of selling girls into prostitution. Consequently, female KMT activists began a campaign to save fosterlings and remold them as properly Sinicized women. Yen argues that this campaign targeting Taiwanese girls, led by powerful and well-connected KMT women, was informed by an implicit ethnic hierarchy, and a desire to homogenize Chinese national culture under the KMT’s moral standards.

Chapter 5 examines KMT women’s groups efforts to abolish all forms of female sex work from the 1940s to the 1970s. With the US military presence in Taiwan during the Cold War and the Vietnam War, unlicensed prostitutes became increasingly visible alongside the burgeoning market in licensed brothels and “special wine houses.” Women’s groups sought to ban licensed prostitution in the 1940s, but, finding official support from police and health agencies insurmountable, they shifted their focus to unlicensed prostitutes. The lack of legal protections for unlicensed prostitutes made them easy targets for reform plans, and the ethnic divide made it easy for Mainlander-dominated women’s groups to attribute Taiwanese women’s work in unlicensed prostitution to moral and spiritual failings rather than social and economic necessity during a time of upheaval.

Chapter 6 details the measures put in place by KMT health officials and politicians who sought to regulate prostitution. Yen argues that “the collaboration that existed between official policies and foreign interests” (p. 201) was apparent in the policing and medical regulation of prostitutes. Both licensed prostitutes and suspected sex workers such as waitresses and bar girls in hotels and canteens were forced to undergo regular genital inspections and medical examinations for venereal diseases. By the 1960s, one of the primary reasons for these inspections was American sex tourism. For Yen, “medical supervision was not merely a pragmatic measure for controlling disease and men’s sexuality but also a calculated route for nationalists to manage interest-oriented business to hunt for political and economic gains from colonial powers” (p. 204). Therefore, although early KMT activists decried prostitution as a colonial bad habit, by the 1960s and 1970s KMT policymakers were encouraging Taiwanese women to put themselves in a sexualized colonial relationship with American soldiers. The sexual nature of Rest & Recreation (R&R) tours meant that the American military had a vested interest in the health and hygiene of Taiwanese prostitutes. Rather than concern for the health of the women themselves, KMT officials were primarily interested in prostitutes’ quality as sexual commodities.

Drawing on police gazettes, newspapers, and the provincial government archives, Chapter 7 examines how the police licensed and regulated prostitution for commercial gain. After 1949, regulationist writers argued that the influx of male Mainlander soldiers and the Taiwanese practice of receiving high bride prices made many soldiers unable to marry. Initially, therefore, licensed prostitution was an unfortunate necessity to channel single men’s sexual frustrations. To set their brothels apart from Japanese “geisha houses,” the Nationalists tried to impose their moral ideology on prostitution: they prohibited married women from working in brothels, denounced unlicensed prostitutes as morally corrupt, and prohibited women in bars that served KMT soldiers from dancing and drinking. The Vietnam War, however, brought large numbers of American troops to Southeast Asia, and the police continued to license brothels to profit from foreign R&R soldiers and sex tourists. The colonial double standard of the Cold War meant that Taiwanese women who worked in licensed bars that served American soldiers were permitted to dance and drink. The heyday of sex tourism came to an end with the US transfer of diplomatic recognition to Mainland China in 1979, where Yen ends her study. The conclusion of the dissertation places the study in the larger context of postcolonial and feminist studies of nationalism and prostitution, and suggests directions for further research.

Yen’s study makes significant contributions to the fields of gender and sexuality studies, cultural studies, colonial studies, and feminist studies. By looking at how KMT officials framed Taiwanese prostitution as a social, moral, and hygienic problem, and the diverse prohibitionist and regulationist approaches to the problem, Yen offers insight into the sexual politics of Chinese nationalism. She also outlines the ethnic hierarchy of the sex trade in Taiwan, in which local Taiwanese women were often disparaged by KMT groups for their perceived lack of Chinese moral ethics. Yen’s dissertation also offers insights into the workings of representation, power, and knowledge in one-party states. Finally, her comparison of KMT abolitionist women to Western feminists illustrates how the consistent Othering of Taiwanese prostitutes left KMT women’s groups “unable to connect with their fallen sisters nor search for communal women’s interests” (p. 304). Yen’s dissertation enriches our understanding of the complex relationships between the Japanese and the Taiwanese, between the KMT Mainlanders and the Taiwanese, and between the American military and the KMT that created profitable commercial sex markets perpetuating gender, ethnic, and national inequality.

Andrew Elmore
Department of History
Stanford University

Primary Sources

Archives of the Taiwan Provincial Government
Archives of the Taiwan Provincial Assembly
Women’s Companion
Taiwan Women Monthly (Alternate titles: Taiwan Women Bulletin; Taiwanese Women)
Police and People Gazette (Alternate titles: Police Torch)

Dissertation Information

University of Essex. 2012. 266pp. Primary Advisors: Eamonn Carrabine and Pamela Cox.

Image: Photo by Author.

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