Chinatown is situated in the north east corner of the Broome peninsula. Its squeezed between the eastern end of the airport runway and Dampier Creek, at the historic heart of Broome. It’s why Broome became, well….Broome. Chinatown Broome is unique from any other Chinatown precinct in the world. You must look beneath the surface to find its charm and history. Until recently it had not been unusual to be stopped in the centre of Chinatown by a slightly confused visitor who asks “can you tell me where Chinatown is?” “You’re standing in it” is the response from a similarly confused or amused local.
In its heyday the precinct was known as Japtown. Then came WW2 and an increased suspicion of anyone of Japanese origin. The majority of the Japanese who were living in Broome at that time were interned and many of them had their land repossessed by the government. After the end of the war the precinct name changed away from Japtown to remove reference to the war time enemy and Chinatown came into being.
Broome’s most recent history (relatively short compared to Yawuru’s 60,000 year and continuing tenure) is the story of pearling. Chinatown developed along the edge of Dampier creek due to the easy access and safe mooring of pearling luggers. Its also the precinct where the major trade in shell took place. Around the industries that kept the pearl shell thriving, the Chinese traded in all manner of items. But it wasn’t just the Chinese, as Broome was exempt from the White Australia Policy, there were people from all parts of Asia living and working in Broome. The town had closer links to Asia than to any mainland Australian city.
The precinct developed its own architectural style with lugger builders also working on shops and buildings, their unique marine joinery silent witness to their skill. The precinct was only a few streets and laneways but home to a great array of activity including opium dens, gambling and prostitution. It’s the stage for rich drama including swindles, murder and theft. It’s also the place where famous culinary delights emerged like Tang Wei’s famous long soup. Its often said that Broome invented fusion food, or at least had discovered and enjoyed it long before it became the theme for reality cooking shows.
Its history is explicit on each street. Sun Pictures situated on Carnarvon Street is the oldest operating picture gardens in the world. Situated on the flight path, it provides an extra thrill to patrons as Qantas and Virgin fly overhead on approach to landing. The Roebuck Bay hotel with its famous public bar facing Dampier Terrace has been providing amber relief since 1880. Across from Sun Pictures is Yuen Wing General Store, which has been managed by five generations of the Wing family.
For the past 18 months Broome has seen the Chinatown Revitalization Project slowly transform the precinct with improved street scapes, public art and landscaping. The precinct has been redesigned to focus on people rather than cars and highlights the previously hidden charm and history. There is now a giant abacus installed on Carnarvon Street, a tribute to the Chinatown shop keepers of past. A directional sign proclaiming Carnarvon Street in 6 different languages (including Chinese and Japanese) has been replaced after a 20-year absence.
A major public artwork has been commissioned to draw on elements and values from the cultural precinct, the large-scale installation will be conspicuous as the official entry statement to Chinatown. One installation site under consideration is in the centre of the main roundabout entering the precinct. This site will result in some interesting synergy between the installation and the full moon as it rises up from the eastern end of Napier Terrace each September, promising to be an Instagrammers delight. The revitalization and the entry statement should put an end to visitors asking where Chinatown is and may even lead to the new hashtag #ChinatownBroomeImStandingInIt.