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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. 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. 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. The 2007 special issue of Frontiers, for example, focuses on white-"native" encounters. Yet, in many colonial contexts, Asian and Indigenous elites employed domestic servants in their homes. 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.
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. 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. 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.