Introduction

The dangerous cyclone season, between December and March, was known as ‘lay up’. With the boats safe in port, crews and master pearlers could socialise, spend time with their families or engage in cultural activities while preparing for the next season.

The foreshore camps rang with the sounds of hammers and saws as boat-builders, sail-makers and riggers rebuilt the fleets.

Foreshore

Pearl Hamaguchi, Pearl farmer:

“We lived by the moon, the full tide. They mostly came in, in the full moon. That’s when the tide was high. They couldn’t dive anymore. I mean when the luggers came in, yeah, the town came alive. And all the hustle and bustle, you know, talking across the street and everybody’s happy and the single men’s camps were all open. And of course there is merriment of drinking and eating, and you know, yeah.”

Donald McKenzie, Shell grader

“I worked in the shell shed for a long time. And all these people who went out on luggers, they’d go out for two weeks, two months, three months, sometimes six months. And then their shell will come back on the steamer.

My first job, passing the shell to the packer, and make it easier for him if you sit in the middle. Pile of shell. You pick it up, flat or round. That’s how we pack it. We pack it in flats. We pack it in round. And then my next job was packing the shell itself, and I got really good at that.

I was taught by a Japanese bloke how to grade the shell at the time, you know. I was only about seventeen then. And old shell, triple A, double A, A, B, C, SDL, SDH, DE, double E, triple E. And its not only size, but its weight. Because every time they send a shipment away, I had to sign the document. My signature had to be there. Otherwise they wouldn’t buy the shell, you know. I never thought about a signature will be worth about twenty bucks at the time. I would’ve been right, you know. Anyway, that was my job and I had to do it.”

Chinatown

Doug Fong, Chinese shop owner’s son:

“My grandfather owned a store in Chinatown. In 1947, my dad bought LL Tack Store. He ran that as a little general store. He purchased the building from a fellow called Chin Lim who owned the building, and he purchased the land from the Norman family.

In Chinatown that early in the century, land was owned by pearling masters, and the buildings were built by whoever wanted to build them. The building was built by Japanese and Chinese carpenters. It was a little general store. We sold a lot of shoes, we sold ribbons, and materials and dresses, tin food, lollies, gifts, jewellery, sugar, flour, rice, photographic material, electrical goods. You name it, you had most of it.

Our clientele was from Caucasians, the local Indigenous population. Mostly was the men who worked in the pearling industry and a lot of the multicultural population who lived around town.

We opened nine thirty, ten o’clock in the morning. Around about twelve thirty, one o’clock we close up shop and everyone will go and have a sleep for couple of hours. And that was quite a common thing. Then we’d open later in mid afternoon. Stay open until nine thirty, ten o’clock at night.”

Brian Dep, Gambling house owner’s son:

“The gambling house was run by my father. It was a pearlshell packing shed. All that was in it was bench seats around the square tables. They were mainly workers on the luggers, hang around in there and play the games. Sometimes they used to go all night. Most popular was, they called was kaja kaja, and that was played with sticks like little dominos. He used to have a chiffa as well, Chinese lottery. They had it all separated into different characters, and they could have meanings from pigeon or fire, thunder god. The banker gives a mundai, which is a little riddle and you have to try and connect that to one of the characters that’s on the chiffa paper.”