Art Education as Exhibition: Reconceptualizing Cultural History in Singapore through an Art Response to Ah Ku and Karayuki-san Prostitution

  • Kay Kok Chung Oi Visual Artist, Researcher, and Art Educator


In this essay, the author discusses her understanding of art education in relation to her exhibited artworks, which were developed on the basis of research on particular historical figures in Singapore. These historical figures were referred to in the book entitled Ah Ku and Karayuki-san:-Prostitution in Singapore, 1870-1940, written by James Francis Warren who is a renowned ethnohistorian and professor at Murdoch University in Australia. According to Warren (2003), both terms referred to prostitutes. Ah Ku was a term that was used to address in Cantonese2 a woman or lady irrespective of age, the polite way to address a Chinese prostitute in colonial Singapore3. Karayuki-san was the word used traditionally by the Japanese of Amakusa Island and the Shimabara Peninsula, Northwest Kyushu, to describe rural women who emigrated to Southeast Asia and the Pacific in search of a livelihood.

The author translated the contents of Warren’s book into a series of paintings that were used as an art education tool to educate viewers about the history of Ah Ku and Karayuki-san. In this essay, the author addresses her understanding of art education, re-defines the history of Chinese and Japanese immigrant prostitutes as part of Singapore cultural heritage, and describes the research methods used to derive the artworks as well as the exhibition format to explain the relationship between the meanings of the paintings and Warren’s book.


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