Singapore Poh Leung Kuk

Singapore Infopedia

by Tan, Joanna Hwang Soo


The Singapore Poh Leung Kuk (保良局), or “office to protect virtue”, was established by the Chinese Protectorate in 1888.1 It grew out of one aspect of the protectorate’s work: controlling prostitution through registration and inspection to prevent the spread of venereal diseases.2 The inspections found unwilling prostitutes, which necessitated the establishment of a refuge for suspected victims of forced prostitution as well as prostitutes who had escaped from brothels.3 Over time, the Poh Leung Kuk also served as a home for unwanted, ill-treated or destitute girls, including mui tsai or girls sold by poor families to richer families as domestic slaves, as well as a marriage bureau for Chinese men seeking a wife.

The Poh Leung Kuk in Hong Kong was established in 1878 mainly to temporarily house women and children rescued from kidnappers.4 This was followed by the establishment of similar organisations in Singapore and Penang in the 1880s. Melaka, the third Straits Settlement, set up a Poh Leung Kuk in 1915.5 The Poh Leung Kuk was also established in other parts of the Malay States with large Chinese populations, such as Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Sungei Patani.6

William Pickering, appointed Protector of Chinese in 1877, is regarded as having been behind the establishment of the Singapore Poh Leung Kuk.7 Based on government records, the Poh Leung Kuk seemed to have started as a committee meeting in 1886. It was subsequently given its official role as a place of safety under the Women and Girls’ Protection Ordinance of 1888.8

The Singapore Poh Leung Kuk probably began as a single room in Lock Hospital in the Kandang Kerbau area, and eventually expanded to accommodate up to 120 girls.9 In 1928, it moved to a more spacious facility at York Hill in the Chinatown area that could hold up to 300 residents.10 At its peak in the 1930s when the mui tsai practice was banned, the home took in over 400 girls a year. Of these, most were temporary boarders, either in the process of being sent home to their families or adopted by new families.11 Only those for whom no solution could be found became long-term residents.12

Organisation and activities
The Singapore Poh Leung Kuk was managed by the Poh Leung Kuk Committee – which comprised prominent Chinese leaders – chaired by the Protector of Chinese. The home’s daily operations were overseen by the Assistant Protector of Chinese, assisted by a ladies committee.13 The organisation’s activities were supported by government funds and private donations.14

In the 1920s and ’30s, visitors’ day was held annually to showcase life at the home, such as through exhibitions on needlework by its residents.15

Life at Poh Leung Kuk was disciplined, with a strict regime of training and duties.16 Older girls were taught English and Chinese as well as domestic skills, needlework and childcare.17 Long-term residents were required to leave the home when they reached 18 years of age. They were either placed on the marriage list or had to find work to support themselves.18 The girls were highly sought after as wives, perhaps due to the acute shortage of Chinese women in Singapore at the time.19 Chinese men seeking prospective brides from Poh Leung Kuk would be vetted by a sub-committee, which would conduct a background check on their character and employment status.20 Each successful candidate had to also post a bond as a form of protection for the girl he had chosen to be his wife.21

Supporters of the Poh Leung Kuk saw its work as positive and the training useful because the organisation protected females and equipped them with skills that enabled them to lead better lives through employment or marriage.22 A committee from the League of Nations (predecessor of the United Nations) commended the Poh Leung Kuk as “the finest institution of its kind” during a visit to Singapore in 1931.23 However, some detractors associated it with the tolerance of vice, regulation of prostitution and spread of venereal diseases, while others criticised it as an oppressive prison.24

Prewar, World War II and postwar years
Following public debate, a move to suppress prostitution was made through the revision and implementation of the 1930 Women and Girls’ Protection Ordinance  that outlawed brothels and associated activities.25 This was followed by the 1932 Mui Tsai Ordinance, which prohibited the acquisition of mui tsai.26

Following its move to York Hill in 1928, a Poh Leung Kuk Ward was established in 1931 at the Mental Hospital, which was located at what is now Yio Chu Kang Road. Girls who were mentally ill and without carers were sent there.27

From the late 1930s, admissions to the Poh Leung Kuk fell. Grace Paul in her 1990 thesis, The Poh Leung Kok in Singapore: Protection of Women and Girls, suggests that it might have been due to the change of government policy from toleration of vice to passing legislation aimed at suppressing it. This had the effect of driving prostitution underground and made protection work difficult.28

With the fall of Singapore tothe Japanese in February 1942 and the evacuation of British troops, nuns from the Good Shepherd order took over the management of the Poh Leung Kuk for several months during the first year of the Japanese Occupation (1942–45).29 More than 500 children were placed under their charge, including 40 girls already under their care and whom they had brought to the Poh Leung Kuk, the home’s existing 185 children and babies, and some 300 children and babies relocated there by the Salvation Army. Subsequently, the nuns were moved to smaller premises and could only take 56 girls with them, while other Catholic orders took in 32.30 The remaining children were left under the care of the Japanese and likely sent to other welfare centres. Poh Leung Kuk’s premises at York Hill were apparently abandoned thereafter.31

In 1946, after the war, the site at York Hill was re-opened by the British Military Administration as a haven for the destitute from Sime Road Camp.32 Unfortunately, Poh Leung Kuk was not included in the plans of the newly established Department of Social Welfare headed by T. P. F. McNiece.33 The York Hill premises were also deemed unsuitable for a proposed girls’ training home.34 Underage prostitutes picked up by the police were sent to the department’s girls’ home in Pasir Panjang instead.35

The Poh Leung Kuk Committee held several meetings after the war, but quietly dissolved thereafter. According to local philanthropist and businessman Ee Peng Liang, Poh Leung Kuk’s funds were channelled to the Department of Social Welfare.36

Joanna Tan

1. Grace Paul, The Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore: Protection of Women and Girls (Singapore: National University of Singapore, 1990), 20. (Call no. RCLOS 305.42095957 PAU)
2. Edwin Lee, The British as Rulers: Governing Multi-Racial Singapore 1867–1914 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 1991), 87–90. (Call no. RSING 959.57022 LEE-[HIS])
3. Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 10–11, 13–16.
4. G. B. Endacott, A History of Hong Kong (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1973), 246 (Call no. RCLOS 951.25 END-[GH]); E. Sinn, E. (1994). “The Protection of Women in 19th-Century Hong Kong,” in Women and Chinese Patriarchy: Submission, Servitude and Escape, ed., Maria Jaschok and Suzanne Miers (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1994), 155–63. (Call no. RSING 305.420951 WOM)
5. Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 16–20, 22.
6. “Chinese Girls Aided By Homes,” Straits Times, 13 July 1939, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
7. R. N. Jackson, Pickering: Protector of Chinese (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1965), 82–83 (Call no. RCLOS 959.503 PIC-[JSB]); Yen Ching-hwang, A Social History of the Chinese in Singapore and Malaya 1800–1911 (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1986), 257. (Call no. RSING 301.45195105957 YEN)
8. Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 24, 26.
9. Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 17; “Chinese Affairs in Malaya,” Straits Times, 14 April 1932, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Chinese Topics in Malaya,” Straits Times, 22 September 1932, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 54, 60–62, 72–73; Yen, Social History of the Chinese, 258.
12. Ng Siew Yoong, “The Chinese Protectorate in Singapore, 1877–1900,” Journal of Southeast Asian History 2, no. 1 (March 1961): 88–89. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
13. Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 30–32.
14. Philippa Levine, Prostitution, Race, and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire (New York: Routledge, 2003), 214. (Call no. R 306.740941 LEV)
15. “The Poh Leong Kok,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 30 April 1929, 8; “Po Leung Kuk at Home,” Straits Times, 17 October 1937, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
16. Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 28, 30.
17. Lai Ah Eng, Peasants, Proletarians and Prostitutes: A Preliminary Investigation into the Work of Chinese Women in colonial Malaya (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1986), 40. (Call no. RSING 331.409595104 LAI)
18. “Chinese Topics in Malaya”; Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 61.
19. Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 36–37.
20. “Chinese Topics in Malaya.”
21. Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 28.
22. Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 35–36.
23. “Happy Family of Chinese Girls,” Straits Times, 26 October 1931, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 52; Yen, Social History of the Chinese, 258.
25. “Brothel Suppression,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 11 July 1930, 8; “The Colony’s Social Evil,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 3 October 1930, 11. (From NewspaperSG)
26. “Unification of Colonial Service,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884–1942), 5 April 1932, 7. (From NewspaperSG)
27. “Deficit on Colony Securities,” Straits Times, 15 August 1932, 6 (From NewspaperSG); “Chinese Topics in Malaya.”
28. Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 62, 73.
29. “Homeless Are Being Cared for By Authorities,” Syonan Times, 26 August 1942, 4 (From NewspaperSG); Fiona Hodgkins, From Syonan to Fuji-Go: The Story of the Catholic Settlement in Bahau in WWII Malaya (Singapore: Select Publishing, 2014), 63–64. (Call no. RSING 307.212095957 HOD)
30. Hodgkins, From Syonan to Fuji-Go, 63–64.
31. Hodgkins, From Syonan to Fuji-Go, 64; Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 63, 66.
32. “Singapore’s New ‘Sime Road Camp’,” Morning Tribune, 9 September 1946, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
33. “Plans to Fight Social Evil,” Singapore Free Press, 16 September 1946, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
34. Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 64.
35. “Plans to Check Traffic in Women,” Straits Times, 13 April 1947, 7. (From  NewspaperSG)
36. Paul, Poh Leung Kuk in Singapore, 63 66.

Further resources
Henry Lethbridge, Hong Kong, Stability and Change: A Collection of Essays (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1978). (Call no. RCLOS 951.25 LET-[GH])

James Francis Warren, Ah Ku and Karayuki-San: Prostitution in Singapore, 1870–1940 (Singapore: Singapore University Press, 2003). (Call no. RSING 306.74095957 WAR)

Janet Lim, Sold for Silver: An Autobiography of a Girl Sold into Slavery in Southeast Asia (Singapore: Monsoon, 2004). (Call no. RSING 940.547252 LIM-[WAR])

Neil Khor Jin Keong and Khoo Keat Siew, The Penang Po Leung Kuk: Chinese Women, Prostitution & A Welfare Organisation (Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Association, 2004). (Call no. RSEA 361.763 KHO)

Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years' History of the Chinese in Singapore (Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1984). (Call no. RSING 959.57 SON-[HIS])

The information in this article is valid as at September 2020 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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