Broome’s pearling industry created a melting pot of cultures in an isolated and beautiful part of the world, which has made for an incredibly unique community, celebrated each year at the Shinju Matsuri, or Festival of the Pearl.
Japanese, Chinese, Malaysian, Koepangers, Filipino and European workers in the early pearling industry all bought their cultural traditions with them to Broome. The pearling luggers would traditionally stay out at sea for six to eight weeks at a time, returning in late August, and everyone had their own ways of celebrating their return to shore.
By the 1960s three main cultural festivals coincided with the arrival of the luggers back in Broome. The Japanese observed Obon Matsuri and the Chinese commemorated Hung Ting, both occasions honouring ancestors and involving paying homage to them in ways such as lighting lanterns and leaving out offerings of food. The Malaysians celebrated Hari Merdeka, which marks the date of the Federation of Malaysia’s independence from British rule in 1957.
Community leaders at the time saw an opportunity to bring all of these cultures together to share their heritage, food and traditions, creating the very first Shinju Matsuri in 1970 as a combination of all three cultural festivals and in celebration of the end of the pearl harvest.
Over the years the festival has included Pearl Lugger Races, a Grand Ball, Rodeos and a Miss Shinju pageant. One of Shinju Matsuri’s original events, the Float Parade, is still going strong 48 years later and is one of the most beloved events of the festival. School groups, local business and community groups showcase their creative flair in themed entries ranging from a few participants to a cast of many.
Another constant of the Shinju Matsuri is Sammy the Dragon, who has been officially opening the festival since its inception. There have been a few Sammys over the years, with the current dragon being donated by Brian Coppin, the late owner of the Roebuck Bay Hotel. Each year the dragon is awakened when Sammy’s blindfold is removed by the oldest living man of Chinese descent born in Chinatown, currently Broome community leader, Doug Fong.
“Symbolically opening the festival by removing Sammy’s blindfold is an honour,” Mr Fong said.
Sammy the Dragon makes several appearances at Shinju Matsuri, during which he is enticed by the ‘Pearl of Wisdom’ carried before him as a symbol of the dragon’s search for wisdom and the beautiful pearls of Broome. Sammy’s ‘legs’ comprise dozens of hard-working volunteers that carry the much-loved, 30-metre icon.
As Broome’s industry diversifies to include tourism and agriculture, Shinju Matsuri has adapted while retaining its character and community spirit. The festival’s recent additions include a barefoot formal Sunset Long Table Dinner on the pristine sands of Cable Beach and the Floating Lantern Matsuri which sees messages sent out to sea on decorated lanterns.
With long term funding agreements in place and a dedicated team committed to seeing Shinju Matsuri continue to thrive, the festival is in good stead to enliven Broome for many more years to come.
Check out the extensive collection of Shinju Matsuri memorabilia including the Shinju Queen crown made of pearls and silver, past Sammy the Dragons, festival programs and commemorative items at the Broome Museum.
Shinju Matsuri will celebrate 50 years in 2020 and planning is already well underway for one of the largest festivals in its history.
Stay in touch with developments for Shinju Matsuri’s Golden Jubilee by signing up to the festival mailing list below.