Before the founding of modern China in 1911, concubinage was legal. In Chinese custom, males carry the family name and the family's heritage after marriage. To ensure male heirs were produced, it was a common practice for an upper-class married male to have one or more concubines, provided he could support them.
The custom could be invoked without the wife's consent: the husband's actions were protected by law. Concubines would co-exist in the family along with wives and children. A man might choose a courtesan to be his concubine. Many of these courtesans would sing songs to attract potential husbands, hoping to become secondary wives.
Western observers in China during the nineteenth century witnessed these women singing but had no idea what to call them since they were not classified as prostitutes. Thus the term "Sing-Song Girls" came about.
There is another version of the source of the term. According to the 1892 fictional masterpiece by Han Bangqing called Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai, also known as Flowers of Shanghai, people in Shanghai called the women who performed in sing-song houses "xian sheng" (Chinese: 先生) in Wu language. The term was pronounced like "sing-song" in English and the young women always sang to entertain the customers; thus Westerners called them Sing-Song girls. The word sian sang in this case is a polite term used to refer to an entertainer.
Sing-song girls were trained from childhood to entertain wealthy male clients through companionship, singing and dancing in special sing-song houses. Not all performed sexual services, but many did. They generally saw themselves as lovers and not prostitutes. Sing-song girls did not have distinctive costumes or make-up. Often they wore Shanghai cheongsam as upper-class Chinese women did. Sing-song girls often performed amateur versions of Chinese opera for clients and often wore the traditional Chinese opera costume for small group performance. The girls had one or several male sponsors who might or might not be married and relied on these sponsors to pay off family or personal debts or to sustain their high standard of living. Many sing-song girls married their sponsors to start a free life.
Historical use of the term
- The concept has been around for 2,000 years as recorded by emperors of the Han Dynasty who needed to provide female entertainment for troop amusement. In ancient China, many terms were given to these entertainers, such as "gē jì" (Chinese: 歌妓; literally: "singing female entertainer, singing courtesan"), "gē jī" (Chinese: 歌姬; literally: "singing beauty"), "ōu zhě" (Chinese: 謳者; literally: "singing person"), etc.
- The English term came from 1911 (see Origin).
- During the 1930s, Li Jinhui started the Chinese popular music industry with a number of musical troupes. The groups were mostly young women performing and singing. The term Sing-Song-Girls stuck, since the Communist Party of China associated pop music as Yellow Music or pornography in the 1940s.
- Sing-song girls are popularized in the 1892 fictional masterpiece by Han Bangqing called Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai (also known as Flowers of Shanghai).
- Sing-song girls play a minor role in Isabel Allende's Daughter of Fortune (Hija de la fortuna). Tao Chi'en dedicates his work to healing sick girls – although most end up dying – because it is when they are sick that he can sneak them out of the house under the pretext of conducting "experiments". He tries to help those girls who manage to recover to improve their lives so that they no longer need to prostitute themselves.
- Allende also mentions sing-song girls in her book Portrait in Sepia (Retrato en Sepia).
- Amitav Ghosh's novel River of Smoke, set in southern Chinese port cities, refers to prostitutes in Canton as "sing-song girls."
- Morris, Peter Thomas. (1992) Cantonese Love Songs: An English Translation of Jiu Ji-Yung's Cantonese Songs of the Early 19th century. Hong Kong University. ISBN 962-209-284-5
- Jones. Andrew F. (2001). Yellow Music - CL: Media Culture and Colonial Modernity in the Chinese Jazz Age. Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-2694-9