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  • The Transcolonial Politics of Chinese Domestic Mastery in Singapore and Darwin 1910s-1930s
  • Claire Lowrie


Feminist and postcolonial scholars have long argued that the home was a microcosm and a symbol of the colony. To exercise power in the home, to practice domestic mastery over colonised servants, was an expression of colonial power. At the same time, intimate contact and domestic conflicts between non-white servants and their employers had the potential to destabilise hierarchical distinctions, thereby threatening the stability of colonial rule.2 As Ann Laura Stoler puts it, the home was a site where "racial classifications were defined and defied" and where relations between coloniser and colonised could sustain or challenge colonial rule.3 The vast majority of the literature on the colonial home focuses on European homes and the domestic service relationship as one between a white master/mistress and a native servant.4 The 2007 special issue of Frontiers, for example, focuses on white-"native" encounters.5 Yet, in many colonial contexts, Asian and Indigenous elites employed domestic servants in their homes.6 As Swapna Banerjee has shown in her study of Bengal in British India, the relationship of "subordination" in colonial societies was not unique to "white masters/mistresses and native/black servants" but crossed class and ethnic lines.7

This paper rethinks understandings of colonial power and intimacy by analysing domestic service in Chinese homes in the neighbouring tropical British colonies of Singapore, in the Straits Settlements, and Darwin, in Australia's Northern Territory, from the 1910s to the 1930s. A comparison of this sort might, at first glance, seem implausible. Singapore was an exploitation colony where the aim was to extract labour and produce. Darwin, on the other hand, was part of a settler colony where the intended outcome of colonialism was permanent white settlement based on the dispossession of the Indigenous populations.8 The different colonial objectives in Singapore and Darwin became more obvious following the federation of Australia in 1901, at which point Darwin became part of a settler nation rather than a British colony. However, as Penny Edwards and Deana Heath have shown, the process of analysing settler and non-settler colonies side-by-side enables historians to draw broader conclusions about colonialism itself.9 In this case, such a comparison highlights the extent to which the position of coloniser was ambiguous, bound up with issues of race and class, and dependent on colonial context.

Stoler's work on "poor whites" and mixed-descent individuals in the Dutch East Indies has shown how the distinctions between coloniser and colonised changed over time and depended not only race but also on "a critical class-based logic."10 The ambiguous position of non-European elites in the colonial scheme of things is just as striking. As Kam Louie has argued, far from being "victims" of colonialism, Chinese communities exercised colonial power in their own right.11 In Singapore, elite members of the China-born and Chinese descended communities collaborated with the British to keep the majority population in check.12 In Darwin, while the Chinese experienced racial discrimination at the hands of the colonial government, in many ways they behaved as colonisers themselves, seeking, as Penny Edwards and Shen Yuanfang write, "to accumulate wealth and land."13 As one contributor to the Northern Territory Times put it, the Chinese did not behave as colonial subjects but as "Mongolian colonists."14

The colonial significance of domestic mastery ensured that the capacity of the Chinese to employ Chinese and non-Chinese servants in their homes was seen as further evidence of their ambiguous place in the colonial hierarchy. In Singapore, illustrations of Chinese mastery had long been admired and celebrated by British colonisers. In Darwin, by contrast, the British and Australian-born residents resolutely condemned Chinese domestic mastery. The distinct reactions of white colonists in Singapore and Darwin reflected the structural differences between settler and exploitation colonialism. In Singapore, the ability to extract profits relied on the social stability provided by elite Chinese. Thus, illustrations of Chinese wealth and power were seen to solidify British colonial rule. Although Darwin was a multi-ethnic town on the edge of Asia, it was nonetheless situated...

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