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A town like Broome?


 
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Historian, Howard Pedersen, from the Kimberley Institute describes some of Broome’s history that has made it a unique Australian town.     
In the late 19th and early 20th Century, Broome was the centre of the world’s pearling industry.

The industry relied on specific skills to succeed and these could only be sourced from Asia, so, with special exemptions from the racist White Australia Policy, skilled Asian workers were allowed into the country to work specifically at Broome.

Workers were brought in from Japan, Timor, The Philippines, China and Malaya. While the Japanese were the pearl divers, others worked on tasks such as shell cleaning and sail making. All were indentured and statutory regulations prevented them from owning the pearl boats - which could only be owned by white folk. Many workers died here and a visit to the Broome Japanese cemetery provides a sobering reminder of the number of Japanese divers who literally died on the job.

 
The pearling industry was hugely profitable until The Depression, so that many of the Asian workers had returned to their native lands before the onset of World War II.    
However, others had married indigenous women and others were indeed born in Broome and they stayed. Those Japanese (or of Japanese descent) who remained were interned during the war. One of Broome’s most notable businessmen at the time, Jimmy Chi (father of playwrite and musician Jimmy Chi of Bran Nue Dae and Corrugation Road fame), was interned, losing his taxi business for which there was no recompense. Since many of the Asian workers who stayed on in Broome had married Aboriginal women, so most Aboriginal families in Broome also have an Asian heritage, a unique history for any Australian town.

Broome was racist and with a mix of European, Asian and Indigenous bloodlines, this gave rise to quite complex 'pecking orders' (for example on where people could sit in the Sun Outdoor Picture Gardens (reputedly the oldest operating film house of its kind in the world, having been established in 1916).  Not surprisingly, the indigenous inhabitants were at the bottom of the order and were typically not treated well. Often excluded from mainstream services, they were also not allowed into Broome after dark unless they actually lived in Broome. This Common Gate policy meant that permits were needed by Aborigal people to enter Broome after dark, a practice only discontinued in the late 1960s.

The town certainly needed a new Broome.

Text: V.B. August 2009

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See also..... Lessons to learn from history

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