Thursday, July 3, 2008

Once in Broome

I have just read a book by artist Sally Bin Demin about her fond reflections of her childhood in Broome post-WWII.

She was born at the Beagle Bay Mission just after her mother was evacuated from Broome, with Japanese planes flying overhead. Her mother was of the Jaru people of the East Kimberley and was Stolen Generation, and Sally says “I also have Asian blood in my veins”.

On return to Broome she and her sister lived in the orphanage (run by the St John of God sisters) while her mother sought work and a place to live.

Her story is based at time when the pearling industry was rebuilding itself after the war, and Broome was a mixture of cultures and classes. Her mother’s partner was a Malay pearl diver, and they shared houses with people from a number of different races, religions and backgrounds. She learned the stories of her people from her mother, aunt and through Indigenous people who lived on the outskirts of town. She celebrated Chinese, Japanese and other Asiatic festivals as well as the Catholic feast days.

She talks about racial segregation and how people were classified into groups to help the authorities decide who could go where and what they could do. The more ‘Aboriginality’ a person had, the less they were accepted. “Full blooded” Aborigines were only allowed into Broome through the ‘common gate’ which was a fence which ran through the town to stop people moving freely and prevent them from living in town. This fence ran down Herbert St, which is where I live. It’s hard to imagine it now as their camps, covered with bush and kangaroo traps. At the open-air cinemas, the ‘full bloods’ had to sit at the back behind a fence, the ‘coloureds’ (half-caste Aborigines, mixed blood and Asians) on the left hand side and a few rows at the back, and whites on the right. There were also separate doors through which they entered.

In the 1940s some of the Indigenous people were granted citizenship which meant they had to live a ‘European lifestyle’ (whatever that means) and were allowed into hotels and to purchase alcohol.

The post-war playground included bomb craters which, filled by the high tides, became swimming pools, a plane that was shot down and sat beside what is now a main road through town, bomb shelters and the Dutch planes which had been bombed by the Japanese in Roebuck Bay (right). They fished, swam in the shark nets at Town Beach, caught the tram from the pier to town, wandered between the brothels, picked fruit and canoed the streets of Chinatown during king tides.

Her stories are accompanied by some photographs and also by her silk paintings. She paints a rosy picture of what would have been a very difficult time in Broome, especially as a mixed race person.

It ends when she finishes school at 14 years old, and I would love her to write a sequel reflecting on her later years and how she got into silk painting. For quite a few years from age 14 she worked at Streeter and Male selling ice-cream from the front steps.


Looking at Broome now, the historic mix of cultures is reflected in the faces of some of the people, but it is not as multicultural as it once was. The many festivals have been merged into one, Shinju Matsuri.

Herbert Street still remains as a divide between classes and colours. To the east, many of the old white pearlers' estates still stand on lush tropical gardens. Some have been turned into B&Bs. To the west, the population is predominantly Aboriginal, the houses ramshackle and gardens dusty.

How much has really changed?

2 comments:

Sueblimely said...

I did not realize that Broome was bombed during WWII. Perhaps you could tell us more about this sometime.

UltraViolet said...

Getting there, I hope! So many posts, so little brain!