HPC: A Change of Pace

Visualising China blog - 13/04/2021

It is 15 years since the launch of Historical Photographs of China. In that decade and a half we have copied about 170 mostly privately-held collections of photographs, which has generated just over 62,000 unique images in our databank, and published over 22,000 of them on our platform (and its mirror site in China), under a Creative Commons license which allows non-commercial reuse (with attribution). While something like 7000 came to us digitally, in the main we have taken loose prints, photograph albums, negatives, magic lantern slides, real photo postcards and transparencies (35mm slides), ranging in date from the late 1850s to the late 1960s, and copied them here in Bristol, or on site.

In recent months we have been preparing our digital holdings for transfer into the University of Bristol’s new Digital Assets Management System (DAMS), which will ensure very long term preservation of these records of China’s history. This has always been our long-term goal.

Fifteen years is a very long time for a standalone project to run, and the time has now come for a change. Although we have over that period been awarded something like half a million pounds of funding from a range of public and private sponsors – the British Academy, AHRC, ESRC, JISC, Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation, John Swire & Sons – as well as a great deal of tangible in-kind support from the University of Bristol (not least the DAMS), it has never been easy to secure funding for a resource-building project like this.

From this month onwards, as our digital holdings are moved into the DAMS, which is hosted within the University Library’s Special Collections and Archives, ‘Historical Photographs of China’ has become one amongst other notable individual collections held within Special Collections. It will no longer have that separate identity as an active project, and will no longer be looking for new materials to digitize. The project has ended, but the collection will last.

My key ‘asset’ as project director has always been the project’s manager, Jamie Carstairs, who joined it in February 2006, and who has himself copied the greater part of our collection, added and checked a great deal of metadata, arranged the collection and return of materials, handled requests for publication and reuse, and spotted coincidences and connections across the materials (most wonderfully the fact that we had two photographers who actually stood side by side as they photographed the same group, and that we had shots across three separate collections of an impromptu football kickabout in the Jiangsu countryside). Jamie has over that period been supported by, in particular, Shannon Smith, and Alejandro Acin, and by others who worked on discrete collections or initiatives, by colleagues in the University of Bristol’s Research IT team who have worked our platform, and by Christian Henriot and Gerald Foliot who first provided a home for the project ‘in’ France.

Jamie has now moved to join the library’s Special Collections team full time, working on that team’s work. When time allows, we hope to publish new collections from our backlog, and some work continues on creating metadata for our unpublished holdings to support this. Queries about reuse of project materials will now be handled through the Special Collections mailbox. Over the years we have had several collections of original material donated to us, and these have been transferred from the project to Special Collections, and this remains an option for those who might be wishing to find a long-term home for such materials.

Green boxes of HPC materials in the Special Collections stacks, University of Bristol Arts and Social Sciences Library

As director, I am immensely grateful to Jamie for his work across the past decade and a half, which has taken him across the country, and of course to China, and during which he has learned a great deal more about the historical cityscapes and landscapes of China than he ever expected to back in 2006. Give Jamie an uncaptioned photograph of a bridge in Sichuan, and likely as not he’ll know where it is, or where to look to confirm a hunch. Without Jamie, none of what the project has achieved would have been possible, and that also includes our own exhibitions in London, Bristol, Bath and Durham, Nanjing, Chongqing, and Beijing, and contributions to other exhibitions and museum collections across China and Hong Kong, as well as our own publications — including this blog.

I am of course hugely grateful to all those who allowed us to copy their albums and photographs and to share them with the world. Mostly, people have proactively sought us out, having heard about us by word of mouth or having listened to the BBC Radio 4 programme about the project, or who have found us through internet searches. This is very much a project that has thrived because of the generosity and kindness of our community of donors, who have entrusted us with their albums and documents. We have had material sent to us from Asia, Australia, north America, the European continent, and of course from across Britain. In addition we have benefitted from partnerships with SOAS, the Cadbury Research Library (University of Birmingham), The National Archives, John Swire & Sons Ltd, the Needham Research Institute, Special Collections and Archives at Queen’s University Belfast, the Bath Royal Literary & Scientific Institute, and Harvard-Yenching Library: these have helped enrich the collections enormously.

I am also grateful for the warm support (and corrections, and other details) that we have received from supporters of our work, which we know is widely used in teaching and in research presentations, and which has an audience of researchers, learners, family historians and the simply just interested, across the globe, and to colleagues at the University of Bristol (including the Dean who, in 2006, asked, ‘so, there are a lot of photographs out there: when will you know when to stop’). We are currently in the midst of refreshing the platform itself (for technical reasons due to the looming end of life of its underlying software) but it will not be vanishing, and we hope in the not-too-distant future to be able to publish a wonderful collection from a family who lived and worked in Hong Kong and in Shanghai, and a little later something quite different: a large collection from the heart of revolutionary China during the Second World War. More on those anon.

In the meantime, many thanks again for all your support, and please, keep using the photographs: that’s what they’re there for.

Robert Bickers
Director, Historical Photographs of China project

Fu Bingchang, with camera: Fu Bingchang Collection Fu-n174 © 2007 C. H. Foo and Y. W. Foo

As the caption says, that’s Fu Bingchang, whose photography has kept us busy: we copied some 2,500 photographs he took in China, the USSR (when ambassador there), and western Europe, with some 550 available on HPC. This was one of the early collections that we copied.

Guest blog: Claire Lowrie on ‘Travelling Servants and Moving Images: A Photographic History of Chinese Domestic Workers’

Visualising China blog - 11/03/2021

Claire Lowrie is a Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Wollongong, Australia. She is the author of Masters and Servants: Cultures of Empire in the Tropics (Manchester University Press 2016) and the co-author of Colonialism and Male Domestic Service across the Asia Pacific (Bloomsbury 2019, paperback 2020) with Julia Martínez, Frances Steel and Victoria Haskins. Claire is currently undertaking a new research project titled ‘Ayahs and Amahs: Transcolonial Servants in Australia and Britain 1780-1945’ with Victoria Haskins (University of Newcastle, Australia) and Swapna Banerjee (Brooklyn College, City University of New York). The project is funded by the Australian Research Council (DP200100375).

My research focuses on Chinese migrants, both men and women, who were employed as servants in colonial Southeast Asia and northern Australia. Domestic service is a challenging topic to research given that domestic workers have left behind almost no first-hand accounts. In order to access their stories, historians need to take a creative approach to our source material. Historians of domestic service are proficient in the art of critically analysing employers’ accounts to locate clues about servants’ perspectives. They collect precious fragments of servants’ lives located in government archives, such as court records. They also make use of sources of visual culture, including photographs.

The mass digitisation of archival records in the last twenty years or so has brought to light thousands of photographs of Chinese domestic workers, with more being archived and digitised each year. A simple key word search for ‘servant’ returns 128 results in the Historical Photographs of China (HPC) archive alone. Most of the HPC photographs include servants employed in British homes, particularly in Hong Kong and within the foreign concessions of Shanghai, Fuzhou and Tianjin. Images of male domestic servants, referred to by British colonists as ‘houseboys’ or ‘boys’, and images of amahs, nursemaids to children, recur. Figures 1 and 2 provide illustrative examples of the kinds of photographs contained in the collection.

Figure 1. ‘Hung – our “Boy”. A studio portrait. He was with my father before his (my father’s) marriage, c.1917, and stayed with him till 1944.’ Tianjin, circa 1915. Image courtesy of Sheila Bovell and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol (HPC ref: SB-s08).

Figure 2. Gladys Hughes with her amah, Wuhu, circa 1886. Image courtesy of Colonel Leslie Addington and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol (HPC ref: Hu01-001).

While photographs of domestic workers in British homes predominate, the HPC archive also contains images of Chinese servants employed in Chinese households and in the homes of other ethnic groups resident in China. Figure 3 is one of two photographs of a Chinese girl employed as an amah by a Sikh family in Shanghai. It is an unusual image not only in that it depicts a Chinese domestic worker in an Indian household but also in terms of the young age of the amah. She is a child herself responsible for the care of other children.

Figure 3. Sikh family group, with amah, in the Cardon photography studio, Shanghai, 1936. Image courtesy of Jaskaran Sangha and Historical Photographs of China, University of Bristol (HPC ref: Jn-s20).

Photographs such as these can tell us a great deal about domestic workers. They provide insights into the materiality of workers’ lives, highlighting, for example, the black uniforms commonly donned by amahs as illustrated in Figure 2. In the rare examples where domestic workers are named in photographs, they allow opportunities for tracing the life histories of these workers. Photographs also provide insights into colonial power relations with domestic workers invariably depicted in poses that emphasise devoted servility. Yet, rather than a medium through which servants were simply dominated, it is possible to read workers’ constrained agency in relation to pose, expression, and attire.[1] Observe, for example, the way in which Hung in Figure 1 stares down the lens of the camera, self-confident and assertive despite the caption describing him as a ‘boy’.

The patterns of Chinese servitude in British homes in China were replicated in Southeast Asia. Chinese amahs and ‘houseboys’ were central figures in many colonial homes throughout the region. In Singapore and British Malaya, for example Chinese ‘houseboys’ and male cooks, mostly from the Hainanese dialect group, predominated in domestic service until the 1920s. They were employed not only in British homes but also in Chinese, Indian and Eurasian households. In households where children were present, Chinese, Indian and Malay nursemaids were also employed. They were variously referred to as amahs or ayahs. By the 1930s, the domestic workforce changed as large numbers of Chinese working-class women began migrating to Singapore. Chinese female servants called maijie gradually replaced the ‘houseboys’ of the previous era. They worked as nursemaids, cooks, and general servants not only in Singapore but in Malaya and Hong Kong. Maijie were known to the English as ‘black and white amahs’, in reference to the colours of their uniform. They were a highly organised group of workers who were members of spinster sisterhoods that had originated in Guangdong province.[2]

Strikingly similar images of those contained in the HPC archive – of the ‘houseboy’ standing to attention and the dutiful Chinese amah watching over her ward – were created in colonial Southeast Asia. Figures 4 and 5 are typical of such images. The repetition of this kind of iconography and the location of these photographs in archives all over the world reflect the ways in which images travelled – circulated in ethnographic books, exchanged as postcards and in letters home, or journeying within the personal albums of imperial families. Figure 4 is part of a pair of photographs depicting the same Chinese man in the same studio presumably on the same day. While Figure 4 made its way to the Netherlands, its twin is housed in the collections of the National Archives of Singapore.[3]

Figure 4. ‘301 – Chinese Boy on duty’. Photograph by Lambert and Co., Singapore, circa 1900. Image courtesy of University of Leiden, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies.

Figure 5. A Chinese ‘amah’ and a European baby, Singapore, circa 1880s. Photograph by Robert Lenz & Co., Singapore. Image courtesy of the National Museum of Singapore, National Heritage Board.

Just as images of domestic servants travelled, so too did the workers themselves. I am currently embarking on a research project, led by Victoria Haskins with Swapna Banerjee as a co-investigator, that seeks to trace the mobility of Chinese and Indian women who worked as nursemaids to children and travelled to Britain and Australia. A range of historians and public history practitioners have brought to light the stories of travelling Indian ayahs in Britain.[4] Much less is known about the Chinese amahs that travelled with employer families to Britain. The stories of Chinese amahs and Indian ayahs who travelled to Australia (even after the passing of the infamous White Australia Policy in 1901) also remain largely unknown. Our project seeks to uncover those histories and to analyse Indian ayahs and Chinese amahs side-by-side.

If you have stories of Chinese amahs or Indian ayahs that travelled to Britain or Australia, we would love to hear from you. Please use the Contact Us link on our project website or email me directly. We would also be interested in images of amahs or ayahs.

Ayahs and Amahs Project website: https://ayahsandamahs.com/.




[1] Claire Lowrie, 2018. “What a picture can do”: Contests of colonial mastery in photographs of Asian ‘houseboys’ from Southeast Asia and Northern Australia, 1880s-1920s, Modern Asian Studies 52(4): 1279-1315.

[2] Claire Lowrie, 2016. Masters and Servants: Cultures of Empire in the Tropics, Manchester University Press, 2016, 30-32.

[3] For more discussion of the mobility of domestic worker iconography see Julia Martínez, Claire Lowrie, Frances Steel and Victoria Haskins. 2019. Colonialism & Domestic Service across the Asia Pacific, Bloomsbury: 104-136.

[4] For foundational academic work see: Rozina Visram, 1986. Ayahs, Lascars and Princes:  The story of Indians in Britain 1700-1947. Pluto Press. In terms of a public history initiative, and one that draws on domestic worker iconography, see the campaign for a Blue Plaque for the Hackney Ayahs Home and associated Instagram account.