• Trepang: China and the Story of Macassan Aboriginal trade (SBS)
Cadet journalist Larteasha Smith on one of Australia's earliest international export markets: sea cucumber trading.
Larteasha Smith

Living Black
8 Sep 2011 - 10:00 AM  UPDATED 18 Jun 2015 - 5:14 PM

When I walked into the Trepang art exhibition I was amazed. 

Paintings, artefacts, old maps and photographs surrounded me, giving a taste of what life was like in centuries past.

These were incredible paintings with stunning colours that intrigued my senses. 

But it wasn’t just the colour: it was the unbelievable story behind it. 

The artwork was done by the highly respected Aboriginal artist the late John Bulunbulun and Chinese artist Zhou Xiaoping. 

The exhibition is built on their friendship, but also a special relationship that started 200 years ago. 

'Trepang: China and the Story of Macassan Aboriginal trade’ was inspired by the trade system between the Macassan people of Indonesia, the Chinese and Aboriginal people in the Top end of the Northern Territory.
It’s become a legend that many Yolngu people have passed down to their children through song, dance and their artwork. 

This new exhibition is bringing this legend to life.

It’s an important part of history that’s been ignored in the history books for many years despite the fact that it marks the first trade export that ever occurred on Australian shores. 

It could have even marked the time in history where dingoes first came to Australia - but that still remains a mystery. 

What we do know now is this trade relationship lasted for over two centuries and was mainly fixed around trading a sea creature called trepang, also known as the sea cucumber.

The sea cucumber isn’t found easily in our local restaurants today but it is used as a delicacy in some parts of the worl - and it doesn’t come cheaply.

Some sea cucumber can reach a whopping $200 per kilo. 

I asked artist Zhou Xiaoping, what was so important about this ‘trepang’. 

His reply? “It tastes like rubber”. 

So as much as I’d love to try this history-making trepang, I’ll leave it to you guys to give it a taste test.