"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
“During the 1850s, Hong Kong was notorious for venereal disease amongst military personnel.”
Conducting training in the 1980s around Luen Wo Hui, I often encountered Gurkha soldiers lining up for 'short-time' pleasure outside back alley premises. They'd politely greet us and show no embarrassment.
Likewise, the police did not act against these 'establishments'. Instead, the word was that the 'girls' were subject to medical checks by the military, who tacitly facilitated the sex workers. The term ‘girls’ is loosely applied here because most of the ladies were in their 30s and 40s.
During the 1850s, Hong Kong was notorious for venereal disease amongst military personnel. The situation became a concern of the British Government, who felt the prevalence of VD might affect its military power. In response, the 4th governor, Sir John Bowring, introduced in 1857 the “Venereal Diseases Ordinance”.
A system for the registration and inspection of brothels was introduced as the first attempt to control the spread of the disease. Also, prostitutes who were considered as infected were liable to forced removal to hospital.
Yet the law only mandated the medical inspection of women whose clients were Europeans — i.e the military. The legislation's intent was not to protect the wider community but rather the soldiers and sailors who used the brothels.
These laws remained on the books until 1887, when concerns that the government perpetuated prostitution brought changes. Still the military kept an eye of the brothels visited by troops, a practice that continued into the 1980s.
All this came back to me with the announcement that the U.K. has banned military personnel from using sex workers. The horrors of the Agnes Wanjiru case proved the final straw — more on that later.
In colonial Hong Kong, the brothels came staffed by a mixture of 'professional' girls and the odd part-timer. Control of the activity rested with triads and local heavies. As long as the venue caused no nuisance, everyone went along with it. The often stated opinion was that, "soldiers need these places to prevent them interfering with local girls."
Yet, the dirty secret remains that a fair portion of the girls arrived in brothels either because of abuse, poverty or coercion.
Hong Kong’s sex industry has always been multifaceted and dynamic. Disguised as a bar, massage parlours, dance halls and short-time hotels, brothels existed near most of the military bases in Hong Kong.
At one time, even sleepy rural Kam Tin had a small red light area. The Wan Chai bar district strung up to entertain soldiers and sailors during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. None of this is unique to Hong Kong.
The massive U.S. military presence in Asia led to 'brothel towns' such as Angeles City dudded 'Sin City'. This sat next to the huge Clark Air Base. But as this BBC article from 2003 notes, these places also catered for the most vile types.
In recent years, with the impact of the Internet and changing demands, Hong Kong’s sex industry morphed. The appearance of the ‘One Flat, One Phoenix’ (一樓一鳳); literally a one women brothel changed the scene. But that’s another story.
For centuries brothels were part of military life, as armies sought to keep up the morale of the troops. The French had mobile 'fun houses' staffed by Vietnamese women towed behind their armies. These girls were sold into servitude by poor families. The Japanese rounded up women in Korea and China while the Germans snatched Polish and Russian girls off the street.
The outcomes for the girls were invariably awful. Serving 20-plus men daily was brutal, and the health risks took a terrible toll. No one can condone this and you'd think things have changed.
Yet, the 2012 Agnes Wanjiru case proved otherwise. The impoverished Kenyan part-time sex worker was found dead in a hotel septic tank close to a British Army training camp two months after she disappeared. She was last seen in the company of British soldiers in the hotel. Her decayed body showed signs of many stab wounds. Later nine soldiers faced interviews about her death, although no charges were laid.
Evidence has now emerged that the killing was openly discussed amongst British soldiers with the culprit known. As a result, the Kenyan police have reopened their investigation.
Two years ago, soldiers of the 3rd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, were confined to their barracks in Kenya after up to 100 sought medical advice after visiting temporary brothels near their base. Fears they'd caught HIV prompted the lock-down.
The Ministry of Defence has now banned troops from paying for sex after an outcry over these incidents.
Historically, armies have behaved terribly towards women during and after battles. For example, the rape of some two million German women by Soviet troops at the end of WW2 is well documented.
Little discussed are the rapes carried out by U.S. military personnel during their occupation of Japan after war. At the time, U.S. military leaders had data showing that as many as 330 rapes occurred daily. In response, the Japanese government agreed to provide brothels.
Will this blanket ban by the U.K. prove enforceable and have any adverse consequences? At one time, the argument went that by making sex workers available to soldiers, you prevented them from chasing 'nice' girls and stopped rape.
That argument involves accepting that some 'girls' get sacrificed; the vulnerable, the abused, drug addicts or trafficked women. Also what does it say about your national values that you opt to allow soldiers to use these women?
Then again, armies are full of active, fit young men in the prime of their life, who need to let off steam. These are people you expect to kill for your country. And let's recognise that many of the best soldiers are not always restrained individuals — that’s the nature of the business. Which circles back to the point, are you asking for trouble by cutting off the 'sex worker' option.
The British Minister of Defence, Ben Wallace, asserts that times have changed. He opines that Britain can hardly stand on the moral high ground when it allows troops to exploit vulnerable women. That stance is unimpeachable.
Except the critics will assert this move is part of a further softening of the Nation’s fighting forces. I don’t know how that argument works. I can only conclude that if the U.K. wishes to keep its moral authority, there is no alternative.
And, yes, the possible adverse consequences of this decision are hard to predict. Will military discipline be adequate to keep things in check? Has the culture changed so much that we can expect young men who are in such stressful roles to control their urges at all times?
That may be wishful thinking. Hence, I suspect that a minority will continue to avail themselves of sex workers but be more discreet. But, never underestimate the stupidity of a few; a group of paratroopers recently filmed themselves during an orgy with a sex worker and the footage leaked.
In the end, you can’t legislate away such behaviour.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.