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Intimate Labour in Singapore: Welcome


B.A Thesis and Research

This research explored constructions of masculinity within colonial Singapore through the lens of intimate labour circa 1850-1950. Within the broad category of intimate labour, I focus on domestic labour and sex work done by Chinese men and the relationship between the White colonial elite and the Chinese servant. Intimate labour, as I discuss, is a viable arena to observe how the boundaries between race, gender, and class are blurred to uphold the colonial system to which colonial masculinity is generative. To consider how the notion of colonial masculinity was constructed, I drew my methodological analysis from Judith Butler and Ann Stoler to consider how gendered labour was a performance and performative as well as how the body and sexuality can be viewed as a political apparatus of imperialism. 

I offer a structural analysis of the colonial system done through three illustrations: (1) the relationship between White men and Chinese male servants infatilized as “boys,” (2) the household dynamics between White women and their Chinese male servants, and (3) Chinese men who became sex workers and catered their services to men. I chart how the White colonial elite policed Chinese men through labour in the form of the Domestic Servants Ordinance of 1888, denying them the ability to organize labour action. I also consider policing done through bodies in the creation of Penal Code Section 377A in 1938 to forbid same-sex acts between two consenting men. Through this analysis, I notion that colonial masculinity enables the creation of the “unmemorable body.” The body that performed and was performative is relegated to simply being a cog within the colonial machine. The “unmemorable body” thus is not a body that does not exist but is a body in an active state of being unremembered.

Intimate Labour in Singapore: Text


The legacy of intimate labourers remains largely outside of the Chinese migration story in Singapore, yet its impact and reverberations have ramifications for bodies and people in the present day. Are these bodies we forget? Or are these bodies unremember? To illuminate this question, I draw my framework chiefly from the scholarship of Judith Butler, Ann Stoler, and Sharalyn Orbaugh to develop an interdisciplinary conversation around the value of masculinity within the colonies.

The concept of gender performance, as well as gender performativity from Butler’s work Gender Trouble, informs the way I approach gender identity not just as an act that one does to affirm one’s existence, but also how such a coordinated act produces a series of effects within the entanglement of power. Butler’s writing opens the field to considering labour and the dynamics of the master and servant as performative roles in reaction to each other. Ann Stoler’s work operates on the premise that power and the colony are constructions defined by social categories being erased and remade. This is undoubtedly the case with colonial masculinities, where White men erase notions of identity and agency to hold power for themselves to create the colony. Moreover, this display of power was also a demonstration of mastery over Chinese men and a display of masculinity targeted at other White men. From Orbaugh’s writing about bodies and agency within literary theory, dynamics of intimacy within the sexual also exist within the colonial framework. That is, “performing” the passive role in any relationship – sexual or otherwise should not be seen as simply an absence of power but that it is an active use of restraint to accomplish a specific goal or task

Intimate Labour in Singapore: Text



Chapter 1 explores how Chinese men migrating into Singapore were transformed from men into “boys” for their White masters. Key to this discussion are the idea that masculinity in the colonies was a construction of power that required “buy-in” from Chinese men and White men. The Chinese arriving for labour needed to submit a part of their own cultural notions of masculinity and “Chineseness” in order to find work, and White men were operating on a competitive basis to display masculinity through colonial dominance of people and material goods. The chapter highlights the foundations and posturing of colonial masculinity within Singapore and how it is sustained through images of masculinity. The following chapters will illustrate touchstones in which the configurations of powers describe in Chapter 1 are used to police aspects of Chinese men and bodies.

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Chapter 2 illustrates how Chinese men were also oppressed by the White mistresses, furthering their infantilization. Chinese workers began to band together in order to fight off abuse by the mistresses and masters. As they consolidated their power and identity, so too did the colonial elite gather their own power, leading to the enacting of the Domestic Servant’s Ordinance in 1888 to police Chinese labour and organization against their employers.

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Chapter 3 offers a different paradigm of intimacy in the colonies – one of sex and “male” sex work. Looking through the lens of Chinese bodies as threats to hierarchy, I chart how Chinese male and transgender sex workers’ bodies were made to be policed. Intimate labour and services offered by sex workers are grafted into a larger narrative of a gendered and racial threat caused by partaking in same-sex activities. The body became a political apparatus in which colonial power was subverted and questioned. As such, policing of bodies not just in the unhygienic sense, but also in a racial sense will be used to explain the creation of Section 377A of the Penal Code forbidding same sex between two consenting men. Through this exploration of sex work and the people who partook in it, I illustrate the development of the “unmemorable body,” or the bodies that were made to be forgotten.

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Intimate Labour in Singapore: Services


Are these bodies we forget, or bodies we unremember?

In an effort to open up a dialogue with the past and with bodies of labour, my research included ethnographic research on cemeteries and memory. I also visited and walked through Geylang Street in Singapore and "Gentlemen Clubs" to get a better sense of the current present day reality of sex work in Singapore.

Intimate Labour in Singapore: Image

Tan Twan Eng

"Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again."

Intimate Labour in Singapore: Quote
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