Claire Lowrie
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Historicising ‘houseboys’
Cultures of male servitude in the tropics, 1880s–1910s
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In colonies across the tropical regions of Southeast Asia, northern Australia, the Pacific, India and Africa, male domestic servants called ‘houseboys’ were widely employed in European homes well into the twentieth century. In Southeast Asia and northern Australia, Chinese ‘houseboys’ were considered to make the best servants. Chapter 2 considers why it was that Chinese ‘houseboys’ became the favoured servants in Darwin and Singapore. It points to the transfer of culture as people, products and literature moved along the steam ship lines between the two colonies and across the tropical colonial world more broadly. The chapter also outlines the influence of pre-colonial traditions of male servitude which colonial migrants brought with them to the colonies. In the descriptions of Chinese ‘houseboys’ in Darwin and Singapore it is possible to observe the influence of the British tradition of the butler and valet along with the Chinese tradition of the male steward and the eunuch. By exploring the emergence of the tradition of the Chinese ‘houseboy’, this chapter provides broader insight into the complex process of interaction between colonisers, colonial migrants and Indigenous people through which cultures of colonialism were produced.

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