THE HISTORY BEHIND CHINATOWN...
Chinatown is the historic centre of Broome. It contains some of the town’s most significant built heritage relating to the town’s genesis as a centre for pearling during the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
Broome’s Chinatown is unlike any other Chinatown in the world as it was home to several Asian and European cultures alongside its Aboriginal traditional owners. It’s situated on the traditional lands of the indigenous Yawuru people, imbued with deep significance for this community.
Chinatown features the distinctive Broome vernacular architecture that developed in response to the town’s climatic conditions, remote location and limited access to building materials, and the influence of several Asian cultures.
Photos supplied by Broome Historical Society
Known as Japtown before WWI, Chinatown was the commercial centre of Broome. So unique was the cultural mix of Chinatown’s residents that Broome was exempt from the ‘White Australia Policy’ as its pearling industry relied heavily on the skill of Asian divers.
Residents of Chinatown recall days when the aroma of Asian cooking wafted down the streets, exotic music played and people swung in hammocks resembling a scene straight out of China. Three o’clock in the afternoon was siesta time and the authorities would turn a blind eye to gambling, a major past time of the pearling crew, that could sometimes go all night.
Whispering among the old buildings that still stand and the remnants of luggers dotting the foreshore of Chinatown are exotic tales of a pearling era gone by, and the deep tragedy of many lives lost in pursuit of the precious pinctada maxima mother-of-pearl shell.
Chinatown is a heritage listed area and much of the original buildings still stand, including Sun Pictures, the oldest operating picture gardens in the world which opened in 1916.
As a result of its rich built and cultural history, Chinatown has long been a focus for tourism. For even longer it has also been the traditional centre for retail shopping and services for residents of Broome and the wider region who would, and still do, travel great distances to access the goods and services available here.