Flower Boats

Flower Boat

Flower Boats

Flower boats were floating brothels, found in ports large and small along the China coast, but none more more legendary than the flower boats of Kwangchow (Guangzhou).

The center of Kwangchow’s nightlife was Shamin, a sandy island beside the city which years later was ceded to French and British concessions after the Opium Wars. But up until that time, it was the place to board an “egg boat”—a small water taxi with an egg-shaped hull and canopy—to seek entertainment aboard one of the many boats lined up offshore, each elaborately decorated on the outside with paint, carvings, and lanterns, where pretty girls dressed like Chinese opera figures beckoned, to the accompaniment of drums and cymbals.

Flower boat lineup
Flower boats lined up and waiting for customers

Customers were escorted into a reception room furnished with ornate furniture, mirrors, inlays, and marble, where patrons were served tea and feasts,  Because chastity was one of the loftiest feminine virtues, there was normally at least one scroll extolling high moral precepts on display. Eventually, the men were led past the lounge into a maze of cubicles, separated by colorful embroidered curtains, where heavily made-up and gaudily attired young ladies indulged them in a variety of pleasures.

Flower boat painting

The flower boats were divided into two classes: ones which served wealthy customers, in which the girls were mainly Han Chinese with bound “lotus feet”, and those which served the lower classes, in which girls’ feet were unbound. The latter were often from desperately poor Tanka boat people families, who for pragmatic reasons of life at sea did not practice foot binding.

A colorful account of flower boats is preserved for posterity in 浮生六記 Six Records of a Floating Life, a memoir by 沈復 Shen Fu, a young civil servant who generously shares his experiences while visiting Kwangchow in 1793. His mention of the flower boat girls’ feet gives us some idea of his budget.

Following is a brief excerpt:

We went out together from Chinghai Gate, took a small boat that looked like half an egg shell with a tent over it, and went first to Shamien (Shameen). The girls’ boats are called ‘flower boats’; they were all arranged in two ranks facing one another with a water lane left between them so that small boats could get through. Each group of some ten or twenty boats was tied to a horizontal timber to protect it from the sea wind. Between each two boats was a wooden stake with a rattan ring around it, and the boats were tied to the ring so that they could float up and down with the tide.

The madam of the first boat we called at was called the Lady With the Combed Hair. On her head was a hollow framework of silver wire about four inches high around which she wound her hair, and with a long hairpin she had fixed a flower behind one ear. She wore a short jacket and trousers of black, the trousers reaching to her ankles. A towel of red and green was tied around her waist, and she had taken off her shoes. Her costume made her look like the actors of women’s parts in a play.
She bowed and welcomed us to the boat with a smile and pulled aside the curtain so that we could enter the cabin. Chairs and stools were arranged along each side and in the middle was a large couch. A door led to the stern of the boat.

The woman shouted that guests had arrived, and we immediately heard the sound of shoes pattering out. Some of the girls wore their hair in a bun, some in braids coiled on top of their heads. They had used so much powder they looked whitewashed, and then had used rouge as red as a pomegranate. Some had red jackets and green trousers, others green jackets and red trousers. Still others wore short stockings and embroidered butterfly shoes or were barefoot and wearing silver anklets. They knelt on the couch or leant against the doorway. Their eyes sparkled, but they said not a word.

Next, we went to the Arsenal, where the girls were dressed in the same fashion. The only difference was that all of them, young and old, could play the mandolin. When I spoke to them, they would only reply, ‘Mi?’ (“What?” in Cantonese).

Flower boat postcard

Souvenir postcard (date unknown)

Typically, the girls’ fees were collected by the boat’s proprietor, with most going to pay off their indenture, and some distributed as tips to the young boys who also lived aboard, performing cleaning duties and sometimes escorting troublesome customers away. Many working girls mired themselves in a cycle of perpetual servitude by squandering their meager earnings on exotic birth control remedies, including mercury, while escaping the bleakness of their lives by succumbing to opium addiction. The more ambitious ones salted away their income and bought their freedom, Many went freelance as sing-song girls, a somewhat higher rank of female entertainer, who each operated their own one-woman pleasure sampans. Others were encouraged to invest in or buy their own floating brothel. A lucky few were taken away by customers to become concubines or wives, escaping life on the deceptively lovely named flower boats.

Flower boat