Travel to Western Australia is back, so savor the colours, dust and diversity of Broome
“[Dampier] wrote two really interesting things about this place: the first was the size of pearl shells, shallow water and plenty of it, and now we know he was talking about pinctada maxima, the biggest pearl shells in the world Maher explains.
“And the second was that he had met some aboriginals around here who clearly had a mixed aboriginal-Malay heritage. [Yet] everyone thinks multiculturalism in Broome starts with the pearling industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s.”
This cultural mix has been enriched by new arrivals from China, the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Europe. By 1900 their cabins were blooming across the pindan and pearl luggers were moored where the mangroves were. A fortnightly laundry service dispatched from Singapore ensured that the attire of the pearl masters matched those pearls secreted into their increasingly priceless casings.
The fun part of town was Shiba Lane. There were tradesmen, the guy who made coffins. And then there were the opium dens, the bars, the prostitution.
— Chris Maher, Salty Plum Social
“The red pindan here goes into everything, and it makes your white clothes pink, so that was a pretty big service for them,” Maher says. “Master pearlers were also known as ‘veranda pearlers’ because they did nothing but stand on the verandas in their pretty white outfits, drinking gin and tonic and champagne, waiting let their treasures come.”
The workers, for their part, spent their days pulling these treasures from the shallows and the depths; they would be exported and fashioned into buttons, jewelry, and various household objects. At night, the efforts of the men were rewarded in the torrid establishments of Chinatown.
“The fun part of town was here at Shiba Lane,” says Maher as we walk along the now-defunct lane, once filled with historic corrugated iron buildings and named for Japanese pension operator Kamematsu. shiba.
“There were all the Asian traders as well as the guy who made tombstones and coffins. And then there were opium dens, gambling dens, bars and prostitution.
Maher pauses to share the thoughts of an old pearler quoted in Hugh Edwards’ Broome story, Pearl Harbor. “In its early days, Broome was probably Australia’s most unique town. It was an affluent, sinful, and tolerant community, in which the clergy’s frequent references to Sodom and Gomorrah were seen as appropriate tributes to civic progress, rather than warnings of future divine punishment.
But land-type retribution loomed: in December 1920 – during disarmament, when cyclones confined men to the ground – a riot broke out between a group of Japanese and under-enlisted. koepangers (workers recruited in Kupang, Timor).
“So you have very hot, very humid weather, 4000 people crammed into this enclosure drinking, gambling, snorting opium and arguments that happened over the luggers kind of spilled on the floor,” says Maher.
The riot culminated at the site of the historic courthouse steps where we now stand; here the local magistrate read the riot act and the police fired a volley of shots which finally subdued the grumpy crowd. Many koepangers and Japanese were killed in the riot and dozens were injured. A police inspector succumbed to “thermal apoplexy and hypertension” after working 36 hours in a row in the intolerable suffocation.
Suitably thirsty for this tale, we stop for a drink and a plate of Chinese fried chicken at the Green Mango Café on Carnarvon Street, a once desolate thoroughfare reborn as a boulevard celebrating Asian shopkeepers. Puzzles of chee fah, an ancient game of chance, are carved into outdoor benches and Chinese characters are inscribed in the watermark of the streetlight.
We snack on salted plums, a pungent delicacy common to parts of northern Australia where Chinese immigrants have settled, says Maher. But it is the Yawuru heritage that is truly far-reaching. A short walk down Carnarvon Street takes us past Sun Pictures – the oldest working photographic gardens in the world – and up to Dampier Terrace with its timeless views of the creek and bay. This is where the Yawuru collected seashells for eons before Dampier passed.
“People here would buy mother-of-pearl and carve a geometric pattern in it – it’s called a riji – and rub ocher in it, and they wore it on a hairline,” says Maher. “They were found all the way to Victoria, traded across the desert, across Aboriginal trading lines.”
Later, Aborigines of the Kimberley and Pilbara would be forced by pearl masters to dive for this sacred shell, traditionally worn only by initiates. Today, a certain dignity has been restored to them: the Yawuru are the holders of the native title of Broome, and the largest landowners in the region.
Beneath these endless footprints and layers of history lie their own stories, secret maps of the past, directions etched inviolate like a shell of pearl in bedrock.
Catherine Marshall was the guest of Tourism Australia.
Flights Qantas offers services to Broome via Perth, as well as direct seasonal flights from Sydney to Melbourne non-stop to Broome. See qantas.com.au
Accommodation The Cable Beach Club Resort & Spa includes studios, self-catering apartments and three-bedroom self-contained villas with private pools. Rates start at $289 per night for a studio with king bed and garden view, including access to resort facilities.
Salty Plum Social walking tours start from $59 per person. See saltyplumsocial.com.au