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A float parade at the Shinju Matsuri festival, a celebration of Asian cultures that has been held in Broome, Western Australia, since 1970. Photo: Shinju Matsuri

Australia’s 16-day celebration of Asian cultures held in a remote beach town – welcome to Broome

  • The Shinju Matsuri, an amalgamation of Chinese, Japanese and Malay celebrations, attracts thousands of visitors each year to Broome in Western Australia
  • The 52-year-old festival, to be held this year from August 20 to September 4, also encompasses Aboriginal heritage, including Indigenous art, music and film

Since 1970, Chinese dragons, Japanese lanterns and Malaysian flags have marked a unique festival in a remote Australian outback community.

Two thousand kilometres (1,240 miles) from Perth, the nearest city, Broome is renowned for its 22km-long beach, seaside resorts, rugged interior and annual Shinju Matsuri Festival, a celebration of its Asian and Aboriginal heritage.

In the far north of Western Australia, Broome has a significant population of Asians, their ancestors initially having come in the 19th century to join the town’s pearling industry. Shinju matsuri means “pearl festival” in Japanese.

A spokesperson for the wider Shire of Broome doesn’t know exactly how many people in the town have Asian ancestry, but according to Doug Fong, a retired teacher and amateur historian who is an influential member of Broome’s Asian community, more than 2,000 of its 16,000 people have Asian blood.

A musical procession at Shinju Matsuri. Photo: Shinju Matsuri

Fong, who says his family came to Australia from southern China a century ago, was born and raised in Broome, which he describes as probably the most multicultural small town in Australia.

“It is not just that there’s so many Chinese, Japanese, Malay, Filipinos and Indonesians here, but also so many of them have actually intermarried with other nationalities and with Indigenous people so there’s a real mixture of cultures,” he says.

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“I’m very proud of that. Because that makes us so different to most of the Australian towns, which really are very Anglo-Saxon.”

Fong says that cultural variety is brilliantly showcased during Shinju Matsuri, which, now 52 years old, has grown so popular it is held over 16 days, this year from August 20 to September 4.

“The great thing is Shinju Matsuri isn’t just about one nationality like you get with most cultural festivals, it’s about a lot of different Asian nationalities,” he says.

A performance at Shinju Matsuri. Photo: Shinju Matsuri

Unusually for an annual festival held in 2022, Shinju Matsuri isn’t making up for time lost to Covid-19 disruption. Western Australia was so successful in keeping the coronavirus out that the authorities didn’t find it necessary to cancel all public events.

This year’s festival will begin with a “Welcome to Country” ceremony performed by Indigenous Yawuru people, which acknowledges the traditional Aboriginal owners of Broome.

That will be followed by the annual waking of Sammy the Dragon. The festival’s Chinese mascot, Sammy takes part in the festival’s street parade, brought to life by the local children who climb inside the cloth beast.

During that parade, Chinese, Malaysian and Japanese flags fly from floats decorated with cultural symbols associated with each nation.

A sunset long table dinner at Shinju Matsuri. Photo: Shinju Matsuri

There’s further entertainment at the LiveLighter Mardi Gras, featuring song and dance performances by performing artists and schoolchildren.

The town’s Aboriginal heritage comes to the fore at Taste of Broome, a two-day exhibition of Indigenous art, music, dance and film.

Cuisine is a key element of the Shinju Matsuri, according to festival marketing coordinator Toni Flanagan.

She says a highlight is the Horizontal Falls Seaplane Adventures Jetty Gala. Held on Town Beach, flanked by mangroves and overlooking Roebuck Bay, this dinner features local delicacies including pearl meat complemented by locally brewed craft beers.

Pearl meat ready to be eaten at Shinju Matsuri. Photo: Shinju Matsuri

Elsewhere, there will be the Chinatown Feast. Lit by Chinese lanterns, this hawker market brims with stalls selling freshly cooked Chinese, Malaysian and Japanese dishes.

The festival also features a pet competition in which locals show off the skills of their beloved animals; a Japanese floating lantern ceremony, during which participants release paper lanterns into the ocean; and a pearl-meat cook-off between chefs.

The Shinju Matsuri attracts thousands of visitors to Broome each year “from near and far”, according to Western Australian regional development minister Alannah MacTiernan.

A Chinatown feast at Shinju Matsuri. Photo: Shinju Matsuri

She says it is a fine legacy for the small group of Broome locals who in 1970 started the event, which is an amalgamation of the three celebrations: the Chinese Hang Seng, the Japanese Obon Matsuri and the Malaysian Independence Day, Hari Merdeka.

“They wanted to create an event that celebrated the diverse cultural tapestry that makes Broome what it is,” she says.

Although that multiculturalism is now a source of pride, it has dark roots.

From the mid-19th century, Broome became a global hub of pearl farming. This lucrative trade was built on the slavery and indentured labour of Aboriginal and Asian pearl divers, dozens of whom died due to mistreatment, as detailed in the book Lustre: Pearling and Australia (2018), by Sarah Yu and Tanya Edwards.
Men carry baskets of shells containing mother-of-pearl onto a beach at Broome in this undated photo from the 1900s. Photo: Getty Images

From the 1870s, pearling bosses in Broome imported workers from China, Malaysia, Japan and the Philippines, who were poorly paid and subject to appalling working conditions.

After the end of World War II, this industry was slowly cleaned up, with worker exploitation gradually decreasing.

Broome still has a lucrative pearling industry and Asian workers remain part of it, but not to the extent they were a century ago, when they made up most of the workforce.