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. Christina Elizabeth Firpo argues that the confluence of economic, demographic, and cultural changes sweeping late colonial Tonkin created spaces of tension in which the interwar black market sex industry thrived. The clandestine sex industry flourished in sites of legal inconsistency, cultural changes, economic disparity, rural-urban division, and demographic shifts. As a nexus of the many tensions besetting late colonial Tonkin, the black market sex industry serves as a useful lens through which to examine these tensions and the ways they affected marginalized populations. More specifically, an investigation of this black market shows how a particular population of impoverished women—a group regrettably understudied by historians—experienced the tensions.
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 serves as a model for teaching new methodological approaches to conducting social histories of women and marginalized people.
Christina Elizabeth Firpo is Professor of History at California Polytechnic State University. She is author of The Uprooted, awarded the 2017 International Convention of Asian Scholars Colleague's Choice Book.