Black Market Business

Black Market Business

Selling Sex in Northern Vietnam, 1920–1945

Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute, Columbia University

by Christina Elizabeth Firpo

Published by: Cornell University Press

276 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm, 2 b&w photos, 1 b&w line drawing, 8 maps

  • ISBN: 9781501752650
  • Published: December 2020


Black Market Business is a grassroots social history of the clandestine market for sex in colonial Tonkin. Lively and well-told, it explores the ways in which sex workers, managers, and clients evaded the colonial regulation system in the turbulent economy of the interwar years. Without denying the authoritarian role of the colonial state, Christina Elizabeth Firpo argues that, in marginalizing certain colonized populations—in this case, impoverished Vietnamese women—the French state lost much of its ability to monitor and control them.

Despite numerous state regulations and exhaustive policing efforts, these women sidestepped the reach of the government and found ways to earn a living in an informal economy. Yet while their relative invisibility to the law did afford these women a certain agency, it also put them at risk of being raped, forced into prostitution, trafficked, or infected with venereal disease.

Drawing on an astonishingly diverse and multilingual source base, Black Market Business includes detailed cases of juvenile prostitution, human trafficking, and debt bondage arrangements in sex work, as well as cases in Tonkin's bars, hotels, singing houses, and dance clubs. Using GIS technology and big data sets to track individual actors in history, it also serves as a model for teaching new methodological approaches to conducting social histories of women and marginalized people.