Man About The House
The history of houseboys provides interesting insight into colonial culture.
The colonial aspirations of the city of Darwin and a fascination with the intimate nature of master-servant relationships are behind intriguing research being undertaken by historian Dr Claire Lowrie.
Lowrie became immersed in the culture of the tropical north while studying South-East Asian history as an undergraduate. She was intrigued by the desire of Darwinians around the turn of last century to shape their fledgling city as a colonialist stronghold in the image of Singapore.
"Singapore was this big bustling colonial port and the white residents of Darwin wanted to create the same sort of place," Lowrie says.
Darwin was never able to shake off its "frontier town" status and become that bustling Asian metropolis but one of the ways that desire did manifest was in the trend among wealthy white people to employ Asian domestic servants.
"It was a big cultural tradition in the tropics to wear white plantation suits and have an entourage of domestic servants, just as they did in Singapore," Lowrie says. "It was all about demonstrating power by mimicking the culture of other British colonies."
Lowrie completed a comparative study of domestic service and colonial mastery in Darwin and Singapore for her PhD thesis. She is expanding that research through a collaborative project with Associate Professor Victoria Haskins, a colleague in Newcastle's Research Institute for Social Inclusion and Wellbeing (RISIW), and two researchers from the University of Wollongong.
Their Australian Research Council project will investigate the transcolonial culture of employing houseboys as domestic servants.
"Houseboys are a common thread among these colonialist cultures and the most highly sought-after houseboys were Chinese," Lowrie says.
"It is an unusual aspect of this culture because in most other domestic-service situations, females are the dominant gender".
Lowrie also has an Early Career Research Fellowship from RISIW to study the employment of Asian and indigenous servants by Indian and Chinese masters.
"The ARC study looks at how European colonisers were influenced by each other whereas the other study will be more about Asian and indigenous relationships," she says.
"The thing I find fascinating in all of these studies is the intimacy of having servants in the home, which is so foreign to most of us today. Colonial societies were all about hierarchy and racial segregation, yet everyone came together in the home. It's that 'secret area' of their lives that is so intriguing."