Brothels and sex workers in Sarawak under Brooke rule

Did you know that when Sarawak was under the reign of the Brooke family (1841-1946), there were regulations to keep the local sex industry in check?

Here are 10 things you need to know about prostitution in Sarawak during Brooke time.
1.The back alleys of Kuching’s Carpenter Street was known for its brothels.

Besides brothels, the street was once known for opium dens and gambling houses.

There are no other records found of possible brothels in Kuching or other parts of Sarawak.

2.There is no proper record on the number of brothels or of prostitutes in the country.

Actually, there is no proper record found on prostitution in Sarawak back then.

According to archivist Loh Chee Yin in The Sarawak Gazette on May 31, 1965, the revenue and expenditure reports over the period concerned do not indicate under which headings the licence fees from brothel keepers and prostitutes are classed.

He further stated, “The annual reports of the Medical Department of the same period do not even mention the number of prostitutes examined over the year, though they give detailed reports on lunatics and lepers.”

3.The first order referring to prostitution was issued on Sept 30, 1867.

If there was no record of legal prostitution, how do we know such activities exist in the first place?

When the first White Rajah had already left Sarawak and his nephew Charles was acting Rajah, there was a royal order referring to prostitution issued in 1867.

With the heading of ‘Contagious Diseases’, the order however was not directed towards the prostitutes but the Dayak fortmen instead.

It read, “Should any Dyak fortment wish to return to their homes on leave of absence, or on discharge, if suspected of having venereal disease they must be taken to the Medical Officer for examination, and should it be the case that any such disease has been contracted they are to be detained until cured.

“Strict attention is to be paid to this order; the necessary information as to the health of the men can be obtained from non-commissioned officers.”

4.In April 1886, more regulations were implemented to control the spread of venereal diseases.

Here are the summary of the regulations:

A)Any woman suffering from a venereal disease would not be permitted to practice as a prostitute and any man having the same disease would be forbidden to have connection with any woman.
B)A prostitute found at the usual fortnightly examination to be suffering from a venereal disease would be placed under treatment until cured. She had to pay the following fees – $1 for first consultation; 50 cent for every subsequent consultation plus charges for medicines.

5.Six years later in 1892, the fortnightly compulsory medical examination for prostitutes became voluntary.

Nonetheless, the Brooke government imposed heavier penalties ($50 fine or six months imprisonment) on brothel keepers and prostitutes for spreading sexual transmitted disease.

Furthermore, prostitutes from abroad had to undergo medical examination before the government allowed them entry permits.

6.Who were the migrant prostitutes back then?

Since there was no record, it is impossible to know who they were and where they came from.

However, there were records of Japanese immigrants coming in since 1915. Reportedly, some Japanese women were working in the red-light district of Kuching. The red-light districts could be referring to the back alley of Carpenter street.

7.In 1898, the Contagious Diseases Order was further amended.

These are the amendment made on the order:

A)Dayak fortmen on transfer to outstations were to be medically examined before leaving.
B)Medical examination of prostitutes was again compulsory. Additionally, it was to be done once a week instead of fortnightly.
C)Prostitutes found to have venereal diseases were to be detained until cured.
D)All brothels were to be registered at the police station and duly licensed.
E)Every brothel keeper had to supply to the police a list of the names and nationalities of the women in his brothel.
F)The inspector of police had right of entry to any brothel for purpose of checking.

8.Charles Brooke was scared that the Dayak girls in Kuching mission schools would turn to prostitution upon graduation.

He once wrote in a letter, “I ask, what is it to be their future when they are grown-up? One thing very certain is they will never be able to live in their own country again or marry their own race nor be able to farm or do the work of Dyak women in their own land – separated from their own people -they will become waifs – to be prostitutes.

I should be sorry to think that this is what our Dyak girls will come to but it is in my opinion almost a certainty if they are educated in Kuching away from they own people to country.”

Charles then cited examples from the mission schools of Singapore and Penang where school girls were the occupants of the brothels or who ever were enticed there at night time.

Consequently, the second White Rajah ordered that the handful of Dayak girls in the Anglican and Roman Catholic schools in Kuching be sent home.

9.In 1927, the Women and Girls’ Protection Order was enacted.

The order was to make provision for the protection of women and girls. Plus, it made provision for the suppression of abuse in connection with prostitutes.

In addition to that, the government issued protection tickets to the prostitutes. On this ticket stated, “Whenever a prostitute has any grievance, she may come to the Protectorate, District Office, or Police Office, and complain. Anyone daring to prevent her will be arrested and punished. These tickets are to be always kept by you on the person.”

Who would have thought prostitutes during Brooke reign had their rights protected more than a lot of people these days?

girl 114441 1280
Do you think brothels in the olden days had a sign similar to this? Credits: Pixabay.
10.There were notices posted in brothels informing prostitutes of their rights back then.

“Women and girls! If any of you have been kidnapped, purchased, seduced, deceived, or pledged for money; or have been forced to swear before entering the brothel that you will act as prostitutes for a certain term of year- understand clearly that anyone who has committed any of these offences against you, and is detaining you in a brothel against your wishes, is acting in contravention of the Orders of the State will, if detected, be punished.

If therefore you have any grievance, do not be afraid to tell the Protector on his visit of inspection or come in person to this office or go to the police station and report the matter at any time you please. If you want to leave the brothel the government will certainly let you do what you like and will not allow you to be detained against your will. All persons residing in the State of Sarawak are free agents and cannot be kept under the restraint of others. Be all of you then watchful! Be not deceived by anyone! Observe this notice!

Office of Protector.”

Do you anymore information about prostitution in Sarawak during Brooke time? Share with us in the comment box.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

Previous Story

Legend of the quarrel between Bakir hill and Gunung Lesung

Next Story

KajoPicks: 10 Chinese campus romance dramas to watch

Latest from Culture