Broome’s Shinju Mat­suri fes­ti­val

Australian Traveller - - Contents - WORDS FLEUR BAINGER

LINGER A LIT­TLE IN BROOME and pretty soon you’ll start see­ing pearls ev­ery­where: in the full moon’s glow­ing orb as it shines on mud­flats, in strings of fairy lights hung above a grassy beer garden, even in the din­ner plates of a balmy, open-air restau­rant. Call it a lust for lus­tre, or too much time un­der the north­ern sun. Ei­ther way, the or­ganic gems, nur­tured by the Kim­ber­ley re­gion’s im­mense trop­i­cal tides and Tif­fany­blue bays, de­serve grat­i­tude: with­out them, Broome and all its sun-kissed hol­i­day es­capism might not ex­ist. And then we’d never twig that Broome is also home to the largest di­nosaur foot­prints on Earth, har­bours dol­phins so rarely spot­ted that David At­ten­bor­ough flew in to wit­ness them, and neigh­bours twin wa­ter­falls that flow, of all things, hor­i­zon­tally. It’s sur­pris­ing to learn that the pearls we pay thou­sands for today were once thrown away in lieu of their pearles­cent shells. Broome’s Pinc­tada max­ima is the largest pearl shell in the world and from the 1880s on­wards, it was punched with cir­cles to make shiny but­tons. The en­su­ing boom meant Ja­panese, Filipino, Malay, Koepanger and Chi­nese peo­ple flocked to the laid-back fron­tier town – one of the most re­mote in the world – but not be­fore lo­cal Abo­rig­i­nals were ex­ploited in the rush for mother of pearl shell. “In the early days, pearl shells were found out on the flats of the beach,” says Bart Pi­gram, a Yawuru man and leader of Nar­li­jia Cul­tural Tours, who guides vis­i­tors through the his­toric heart of Broome. “Over time, they had to dive deeper and deeper.” Bart’s UK-born four­times-great-grand­fa­ther was one of the early pearlers to en­gage in the pearling slave trade. A visit to the town’s Pearl Lug­gers mu­seum lays its ugly his­tory bare: most Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple were tricked into slav­ery. Preg­nant Indigenous women were par­tic­u­larly favoured as free­d­ivers, due to a be­lief they could hold their breath for longer – a statue in Pi­o­neer Park pays trib­ute to them. All divers had to sur­face with ei­ther a shell or sand in their hand to prove they had reached the bot­tom; hold­ing nei­ther re­sulted in a beat­ing. In the early 1870s, re­stric­tions were brought in against en­slav­ing Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, and fe­male divers banned. Asian im­mi­grants were in­stead in­den­tured to plunge even deeper be­neath the sur­face wear­ing heavy, space­man-like hel­mets, lead-weighted boots weigh­ing 20 kilo­grams each and hand knit­ted woollen un­der­gar­ments un­der­neath div­ing suits to brace against the cold. They’d spend up to seven hours un­der­wa­ter, and the sur­vival rate was low. By 1910, Broome was home to more than 400 pearl lug­ging boats, mak­ing it the largest pearling cen­tre in the world. “By the 1940s, there were gam­bling dens and five broth­els in town,” says Bart as we walk be­side Broome’s dis­tin­guish­ing cor­ru­gated iron build­ings with their wrap­around, cross-hatch lat­tice ve­ran­dahs, de­signed for air flow. Plenty of in­ter­ra­cial re­la­tion­ships blos­somed, the mul­ti­cul­tural legacy of which char­ac­terises the Broome of today. In­deed, Bart’s three-times great grand­mother, Agnes ‘Guil­wil’ Bryan, was one of the first of Broome’s mixed raced in­hab­i­tants – with an English/Ir­ish fa­ther and an Abo­rig­i­nal mother. Pearling is no longer the cash cow of old. The ad­vent of plas­tic in the 1950s killed the but­ton trade, and al­though the in­dus­try evolved to the point of cul­tur­ing per­fectly spher­i­cal pearls as high-value jew­ellery, it’s an in­tri­cate, chal­leng­ing and ex­pen­sive game. Today, there’s less than a hand­ful of work­ing pearl farms in the re­gion. Yet Broome is still deeply con­nected to the pearling trade, and not just as the lo­cal adorn­ment of choice. Each Septem­ber, Shinju Mat­suri – Ja­panese for ‘fes­ti­val of the pearl’ – bridges the town’s her­itage with present-day de­scen­dants. Where once there were sev­eral cul­tural cel­e­bra­tions mark­ing the re­turn of pearl lug­gers, now the 47-year-old fes­ti­val brings the en­tire town, and all its vis­i­tors, to­gether.


The nine-day event sym­bol­i­cally opens with the awakening of Sammy the Chi­nese Dragon, who dances past fes­ti­val pres­i­dent Chris Ma­her, proudly sport­ing

CLOCK­WISE FROM FAR LEFT: Red lanterns adorn Ca­ble Beach; Shinju Mat­suri cel­e­brates Broome’s mul­ti­cul­tural past; Sammy the Chi­nese dragon makes his pres­ence felt. OP­PO­SITE: Lanterns light the Sun­set Long Ta­ble Din­ner.

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