Its famous pearling trade attracted adventurers from around the world, creating the immensely diverse cultural melting pot that characterises Broome today.
Selma Nadarajah

14 Jun 2012 - 9:56 AM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2021 - 7:58 PM

I’m having a beer at the Roebuck Bay Hotel (or 'The Roey’, as the locals call it) with Broome entertainer Stephen 'Baamba’ Albert, who was in the original 1990 stage production of Jimmy Chi’s Bran Nue Dae, and his friend, former pearl diver Fred Corpus (aka Uncle Fred). While girls in bikinis pull beers, Baamba serenades me with Saltwater Cowboy written by another local hero, Stephen Pigram. "Stand back you shallow-water man / Let a deep-sea diver through / Selamat tinggal nagula jarndu [goodbye saltwater woman] / Sayonara," croons Baamba. Featuring a scattering of Malay, Aboriginal and Japanese words, the song pays tribute to the many pearl divers who came from all over Asia to brave these waters.

While Baamba is full Bardi, one of the indigenous communities of Broome, he had a Japanese stepfather who was a pre- and post-war pearl diver. Uncle Fred, who now lives in Darwin, is part Malaysian and part Yawuru, another indigenous group, with a Javanese stepfather. As cultural mixes like these are commonplace in Broome, the faces in this sleepy coastal town, with its arid, rust-coloured Kimberley earth and shimmering azure ocean, represent an array of regions around the globe.

From the late 1800s, Broome’s booming trade in pearl shell and pearls attracted Japanese, Chinese, Malay, Timorese, Filipino, Pacific Island and West Indian labourers to its shores. When the Immigration Restriction Act was introduced in 1901 to facilitate the White Australia policy, these labourers had to be employed as indentured workers under strict contracts for up to three years, living on minimal wages. Over the decades, these groups blended with the Aboriginal communities and European settlers, resulting in a cultural melting pot.

In Broome’s early days of discriminatory social hierarchy, mixing outside your community, particularly with Aborigines, was taboo. Social rights were limited, depending on your position in the hierarchy (the Japanese, for instance, were favoured for their diving skills) and legislation was plagued with racism and exploitation. Despite this, many Asian men, some of whom already had wives in their home countries, went on to have families with local Aboriginal women.

Locals like Baamba, Uncle Fred and Pearl Hamaguchi – whose mother, a child of the stolen generation, was Scottish-Aboriginal, and whose father was Chinese-Japanese – were exposed to incredible diversity from a young age, long before the rest of Australia. "Broome was multicultural 100 years ago," says Pearl. Born in 1940, Pearl grew up surrounded by many other families with a similar background of European, Aboriginal and Asian ancestry. 'I am a typical woman of my generation," she declares proudly.

Language for many locals in the early to mid-1900s was a kind of Broome-style English-Malay as a result of the Malaysian and Indonesian workers on the pearl luggers. "There were about five dialects of Malay and Indonesian, so we made up a kind of pidgin Malay," explains Uncle Fred. "And for us [Aborigines], we all speak different languages anyway, so it was easy to learn," adds Baamba.

Today, Broome’s population is about 15,850, but this figure drops dramatically during the wet season (October-–March) when its workforce of predominantly international backpackers vacates. While Caucasians are now the majority, Aboriginal communities, including Bardi, Nyul Nyul, Yawuru and Jaru; Chinese and other Asians; mixed cultures; and a handful of Japanese families make up a significant proportion. "I think there are only five [Japanese families] left; I call them the 'last of the Mohicans’," says Pearl, in good humour.

Stolen generations and saltwater cowboys

There are members of the community who are keen to keep Aboriginal culture alive. Apart from singing and acting, Baamba was the inaugural chair of the former National Aboriginal Education Committee and is a director of Goolarri Media, a local indigenous media company. Instilling pride in the local youth is a big part of his work. Holding out his carved walking stick, Baamba explains, "When I teach my students about our culture, I say, 'Here is how old Australian Aboriginal culture is: 40,000 years,'" indicating the entire length of the stick. 'And then I show them how old Christianity is," indicating only a third of the stick, 'and the kids go, 'Wow!'!"

Pearl’s mother, who was Jaru from the east Kimberley, was taken to Beagle Bay mission, north of Broome, at the age of four. "She never knew her mother, never knew her culture. She was part of what they were calling 'assimilation'," Pearl explains. Many Aboriginal children were baptised and the women were often married off to Filipino men to become converted to Christianity. The men, in return, received support from the Catholic Church to buy land. Of course, there were partnerships that emerged from mutual love and respect as well. "I think Aborigines and South-East Asians make wonderful marriages," Pearl says. "Both cultures share similar values in that they respect their elders and have strong community spirit."

Pearl married her husband, Hiroshi Hamaguchi – a former pearl diver who was the first non-Caucasian to obtain a pearling licence in his own right and went on to run a successful pearl farm – in 1960, at the age of 20. 'Japanese culture was not so extreme for me. Growing up, we saw these other cultures," Pearl says. "[Hiroshi] knew I was independent; I was never going to walk behind him, and he had to make his own coffee every morning," she laughs.

Many of Broome’s Japanese divers, including Baamba’s stepfather, were interned at various camps around Australia during World War II and then sent back to Japan. However, many of them returned because Australia had become their home and they missed that sense of adventure. "[My stepfather] wanted to come back because of the ocean," explains Baamba. "It wasn’t his war."

Before the modern diving technology of the 1970s, pearl diving was extremely dangerous. Divers risked shark and stingray attacks, drowning and the bends; only one in three would survive their first dive. "There was no regulation of diving before about 1980. Anyone could be a diver or skipper of a boat. It was rape and pillage, boom or bust," says Bill Reed, principal owner and director of pearl-jewellery store Linneys.

About 90 per cent of the divers came from Taiji, a fishing village in south-western Japan. Employment was scarce, so many men left to find work. 'Some went to Norway for whaling, some to California for abalone diving, but the most adventurous thing they thought they could do was come to Broome to become a pearl diver," explains former Broome Shire president Kim Male. It was their resolute spirit and bravery that made the Japanese the most successful divers.

This year marks the 30-year anniversary of the sister-city relationship between Taiji and Broome. The two towns run an annual student exchange program; there’s a Taiji Road in Broome and a Broome Street in Taiji. As Kim recalls, about 25 years ago, there was also a Broome club in the Japanese town, where the remaining pearl divers would get together to reminisce about their days as 'saltwater cowboys'. "These were hardened old guys with silver hair and sunburnt faces," says Kim. "Real warriors."

Seafood and serai

The pearling industry is still flourishing in Broome, though today most of the pearls are cultured at farms. Pearl meat remains a delicacy, albeit mostly for tourists, while fishing is a way of life, with locals guarding the location of their secret fishing spots. "In the mangroves, you can catch mangrove jack, bream, snapper and barramundi, and in the reef, you can get just about anything," beams Baamba.

For Aborigines, fishing is especially significant. Traditionally, the catch had to feed an entire community, however, that has changed with the limits imposed by the state government. Fishing for turtles and dugongs, both widely eaten by Aboriginal and Asian communities during pearling’s heyday, is now limited to the indigenous community. "Killing dugong was a spiritual ceremony," recalls Pearl. 'We steamed it and ate it with soy sauce or mustard, and it melted in your mouth. The elders would eat it first and then it was passed on."

Broome’s vibrant blend of cultures has allowed for interesting culinary influences. Here, Asian flavours caught on light-years ahead of the rest of the country. In the 1920s and ’30s, men did most of the Asian-influenced cooking as the local women didn’t know how to make the foods the men ate in their home countries. Asian boat crews introduced tropical fruits, such as custard apples, bananas, pawpaws (or papayas) and mangoes; rice and spices were imported from Singapore; and later, people grew garlic, ginger and lemongrass (known to the locals by its Malay name, serai). The Malay influence on food in Broome was most prominent.

"The first time I ate curry was at a Chinese restaurant – I thought it came from China!" laughs Baamba. "We lived off rice; it was our main tucker, not bread. Every time we went fishing, we’d bring an onion and some soy sauce. There was always chilli and belachan [shrimp paste], too. And those little dried fish and prawns; we’d add them to pasta."
Kim Male, who represented Broome on the shire’s council for 30 years from 1973 and followed in his father’s footsteps as shire president for six of those years, recalls the food of his childhood with great fondness. "I grew up on meat and three veg, and grilled fish, but I slowly acquired a taste for chillies. There was a Malay camp just across the road from where I lived and at the weekends I’d go there for beef curry and chicory coffee made with condensed milk."

Unlike other Caucasians in Broome, the Male family lived in Chinatown in the town centre, not far from the family’s general store, Streeter & Male, which Kim’s grandfather, Arthur Male, co-owned from 1900 before becoming the Member for Kimberley. Surrounded by Malay, Sinhalese and Chinese families, Kim discovered new flavours and cultures through neighbours and friends. 'This part of Broome was everybody’s part," he says. "We went to all the festivals: the Full Moon Festival, Merdeka [Independence Day for Malaysia] and Hari Raya [or Eid-ul-Fitr, the end of Ramadan]."

There was also the Japanese Obon Matsuri (Feast of Lanterns, which, because of Broome’s dwindling Japanese population, is no longer celebrated) and the Chinese Hang Seng, when families remembered and paid respect to their ancestors. "Shinju was created as a way to pay tribute to all these cultural celebrations," explains Kim, in reference to the origins of Broome’s annual week-long Shinju Matsuri (Festival of the Pearl), for which he was part of the 1970 inaugural committee.

Lost in translation

Today, Broome’s Chinatown is a mere shadow of its former self. Gone are the satay and curry stalls, boarding houses, gambling dens and Japanese, Malay and Filipino clubs. Sun Pictures, reputedly the world’s oldest operating outdoor cinema, dating back to 1916, arguably offers the best glimpse of the old Broome. Johnny Chi Lane – named after Pearl’s grandfather, one of the first pearlers in Broome – is the nucleus of Broome’s compact Chinatown, but it isn’t the original historical thoroughfare. Burnt down in World War II, it was rebuilt in the mid-1980s in a different location, but it is now filled with modern clothing stores and cafes. Johnny Chi, like most of the first Chinese migrants, came from the Guangdong province in southern China.

Hong Yu, also from Guangdong, is a more recent immigrant. In 1984, she arrived in Sydney, where she met her husband, who came from the village in China where her grandparents had worked. They moved to Broome two years later and, in 1993, set up Son Ming Chinese restaurant on the site of the former Ah Ming Store owned by Hong’s husband’s grandfather, Ming Noi, who arrived in Broome in 1893.

While Asian restaurants in Broome are mostly Chinese, they don’t reflect the food of the Chinese community. Mongolian lamb and lemon chicken are popular, but when I ask Hong what she eats at home, she pulls out a container of steamed prawns in the shell, fragrant with ginger and garlic. "Why don’t you serve that at the restaurant?" I ask. 'Too plain, and people don’t know how to eat it with the shell," she says.

Similarly, home-style food for Kevin Tong of Tong’s Chinese Restaurant, which his late father opened in 1973, is a far cry from the dim sims and fried rice he dishes up in the restaurant. 'At home, we eat a lot of steamed food: steamed chicken, steamed eggs," he says.

The authentic food is not only being enjoyed in private homes, but also on Cable Beach. As the sun starts to set, four-wheel drives congregate at the 22-kilometre-long stretch of wide, white sand. Eskys are unloaded, gas barbecues are rigged and the catch of the day (for some, that might be snags bought from the supermarket) is thrown on the grill. Depending on your cultural leanings, the condiments run the gamut from soy sauce and vinegar to good old-fashioned tomato sauce.


Eat & drink

Cable Beach Club Resort & Spa
With its exposed wooden beams, antique birdcages, romantic candelabras and Sidney Nolan originals, the resort’s Club Restaurant offers an elegant backdrop to its sophisticated modern Australian menu. Think pearl-meat tortellini with grilled scallops in a creamy tomato-and-herb-butter sauce, and Cone Bay barramundi with prawns and wakame-and-asparagus salad in a ginger dressing. Other dining options at the resort include the poolside Thai Pearl restaurant and the beachside Sunset Bar & Grill. Cable Beach Rd, (08) 9192 0400,

Pinctada Cable Beach Resort & Spa
The menu at this boutique resort’s Selene Brasserie is designed by Greg Malouf of Melbourne’s MoMo, so you can expect plenty of elegant Middle Eastern and Mediterranean flavours – perhaps pan-fried haloumi with a shot of ouzo followed by textbook pastilla. There is also a pearl-meat tasting plate, featuring a trio of preparations. 10 Murray Rd,
Cable Beach, (08) 9193 8304,

Matso’s Broome Brewery
Sample the brewery’s alcoholic Ginger, Mango or Chilli beers or try the 'Chango’ (half Chilli, half Mango) with one of the three curries served daily with the works at the Curry Hut. There is also a cardamom-infused Monsoonal Blonde wheat beer, and a lychee beer in the works. 60 Hamersley St, (08) 9193 5811,


See & do

Pearl Luggers 
Learn about the history of pearl diving and see the original diving suits and equipment, and two of the last remaining timber luggers. 31 Dampier Tce, (08) 9192 2059,

Relationships Exhibition
Launched in 2007 to celebrate the work of the Sisters of St John of God in the Kimberley region, this permanent exhibition showcases 100 years of the ministries in Beagle Bay, Broome, Derby, Lombadina, Bidyadanga and Balgo. The Heritage Centre, 9 Barker St, (08) 9192 3950,

Broome Camel Safaris
As clichéd as tourist attractions come, but a unique experience nonetheless. There’s nothing quite like riding camels in a conga line along Cable Beach, while gazing at a pink-orange sunset.

Minyirr Park
On a guided tour of Yawuru land, learn about indigenous culture and native plants such as the gubinge tree, after which a road in Broome is named. The tree’s fruit is said to have 100 times more vitamin C than an orange. While you’re in the area, visit the craggy red rocks of Gantheaume Point at lowest tide to see 130-million-year-old dinosaur footprints. Kujurta Buru, (08) 9192 1662,

Cape Leveque
Stay at award-winning wilderness camp Kooljaman at Cape Leveque and luxe it up in a safari tent or keep it rustic on the camping ground. It’s an excellent base from which to explore the pristine, secluded beaches of the surrounding area and immerse yourself in a variety of activities, from mud-crabbing to snorkelling. Drop into Beagle Bay on the way and visit Sacred Heart Church, which was completed in 1917 by German Pallottine missionaries and features beautiful mother-of-pearl and cowrie mosaics. Kooljaman, (08) 9192 4970,

For more information, visit



Photography by John Laurie.


As seen in Feast magazine, December 2011, Issue 4. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.