This is part 1 of a talk I gave to the Cairns Historical Society in November 1998.
Malaytown no longer exists but many of you here today would have known and visited Malaytown. I hope the results of my research brings back pleasant memories of those times which are now gone forever.
I was doing research into Torres Strait Islander migration to Cairns before World War 11. As most Torres Strait Islanders who arrived in Cairns during this period settled in Malaytown, I ended up researching aspects of the history of Malaytown as well. I also looked at race relations between Malaytown residents and those in the adjoining suburbs as well as what life was like for the inhabitants of Malaytown.
Malaytown was a shanty town, a semi-permanent fringe camp to the south-west of the city centre. It no longer exists, as the area was reclaimed in the 1950s and where Malaytown once was is now the location of the Cairns bulk fuel depots. Malaytown was located to the west of the Kenny and Bunda street intersection, and I have located a 1940 map showing its exact location.
Considering that the community existed for some 60 years, it is astonishing, and a little sad, that so little has been written about Malaytown and its inhabitants. The written records are so few and far between that most of my research was gained through interviews with former residents and visitors.
Malaytown was so named because of a few Malay men who wanted to establish a small community for themselves. They chose the area on the banks of the winding saltwater Alligator Creek. They lived here because "it was nearer to the sea than anywhere else that you could get." Malays were brought to Cairns in the 1880s to work on the sugar plantations. As well as Malays, South Sea Islanders, Javanese and Indians also found work here. The area was a mangrove swamp and the huts were built wherever space could be found. The homes in Malaytown were mostly built from the timber of the mangrove trees which were plentiful around the banks of the creek.
The naming of Alligator Creek, is self explanatory, but this did not stop youngsters swimming in it. No one I spoke to had ever seen a crocodile in this part of the creek. The creek no longer exists, having been filled in many years ago.
Malaytown was a mixed race community, a place where most of the people in Cairns who were then known as coloured folk, lived. I am unsure when the community was first established. Malaytown was originally known as Malay Camp and according to Collinson had come into being by the 1880s. However I don’t think it was settled as early as this. The earliest written reference to Malaytown that I have found is an article in the Cairns Morning Post on 15 March 1904, which described Malaytown as being on the banks of the Alligator Creek where, "a motley township has recently opened up, inhabited by Chinese, Japanese, Javanese, Malays and Cingalese.” The settlement was mentioned because an outbreak of bubonic plague occurred there. This caused a great deal of fear and a gang of men worked on rat-destruction and fumigation and a systematic house-to-house inspection of the whole town was carried out. In the words of the Commissioner of Public Health,
A closely-settled portion of Malaytown, where coloured aliens resided, having been certified as being incapable of cleansing and disinfection, was destroyed by fire.
The settlement was destroyed because a Singhalese named Houssain had died there of the plague. Kerosene was liberally sprinkled and sixteen humpies were destroyed after the occupants had been allowed to remove all bedding, bedclothes, furniture and clothing. The unlucky inhabitants either went to Chinatown or to their boats on the Alligator Creek. As the residents had nowhere else to live, they soon returned to the area and rebuilt their shacks.
The young Malay inhabitants of Malaytown made a living cutting mangrove wood. The older Malays had boats and lived in them. They had rice mats to lie on, with a rice mat canopy over the top and a mast that would fold down. They made a living by fishing in the inlet. The later residents made their living from catching prawns, with the nets they made themselves. They built their own boats as well, their "flatties," flat bottom boats, being made out of whatever timber they could get, which then had the bottoms tarred to seal the joints.
Over time the population of Malaytown changed from just Malays and by the 1920s comprised an assortment of people from different cultures. They were mainly Hindus, Chinese, Japanese, Aborigines, Torres Strait Islanders, Jamaicans, South Sea Islanders and Filipinos. The first Torres Strait Islanders settled in Malaytown in the early 1920s. Led by Douglas Pitt Jnr, who was famous for his marathon swimming feats including swimming to safety after losing his boats in the 1899, 1916 and 1920 cyclones, they soon became the dominant group in Malaytown. However this does not appear to have caused much friction and they were probably welcomed into the community, because of the increased status that men such as Douglas Pitt would have brought, along with their potential to lift the economic well being of its residents. A comparison of two photographs of Malaytown in 1922 and circa 1932 shows a more settled community, with increased vegetation and additional dwellings which appeared to be more substantial and better maintained than previously. The boats on Alligator Creek also appear to be newer and larger. This change is especially pronounced when it is considered that the 1932 photograph was taken at the height of the Great Depression.
The conditions in Malaytown resembled those of a fringe camp and malaria was rife. The houses were built on stilts above a rotting mangrove swamp. The non-white inhabitants lived here because they were not really welcomed elsewhere in Cairns. Frank Davidson, who visited Cairns in about 1930, described Malaytown as a
Collection of huts among the mangroves on the banks of a salt-water estuary near the outskirts of the city. A coloured population live here. Not many Malays; Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders mostly, with some that appear to be a mixture of all three. They live chiefly by fishing and the little estuary where they moor their boats lies just below the line of huts. It stinks at low tide, but looks very picturesque with its crazy little jetties built of stakes, its coil of mangrove, its moored boats, and the flatties dragged up on the mud.
The famous author, Vance Palmer, writing of his time in Cairns in 1932, captures the essence and soul of Malaytown in his description of the community.
A mile or so behind the port, where the saltwater creeks flowed into the estuary and dry gullies provided harbourage for empty tins and bottles, lay the scattered settlement of (Malaytown). It had its own smells, its own atmosphere, its own way of life. In the shockle of huts, the tumbledown cottages half-hidden with greenery, lived the coloured folk who largely controlled the fishing, and their boats were anchored in muddy backwaters. You were in a different world once you passed the pyramidal dumps behind the timbermills. An easy-going, to-morrow-or-next-day world! Girls with berry-dark eyes and full busts leaned over the paling fences, exchanging gossip with friends forty yards away, youngsters scrambled with prawning-tins among the mangroves, young men sang as they dried their nets along the banks. At night there was a firefly glimmering of lights behind trellises, a thin fret of ukuleles on the warm, still air.
A parasite on the port whose wealth provided it with scanty nourishment, (it) had somehow kept itself from sinking into slumdom. It had a character, an air of independence. Its people were islanders or the children of islanders, and they clung to their ancient illusions of freedom, moving about their work with an indolent pride that never quite developed into swagger. They had no need to assert themselves. Their boats and homes were their own, their youngsters carried off most of the prizes at the State school on the town boundary: their catches brought in as much as those of white men.
Even though eking out a living was difficult and the conditions of the settlement resembled a squalid fringe camp, some of the younger residents looked back fondly on their childhood experiences. They remember growing up in Malaytown surrounded by a warm and caring community. Nancy Guivarra noted that the people "shared their cultures, their hopes and their food." As a child she remembered it as
A great time, especially when it was moonlight. Some of us kids and adults too would gather under the one and only lamp post in front of the Jacob's house and play an Island game called water. If we were allowed we could play Hide and Seek or Red Rover come over. It was a happy time.
Malaytown was known for its dances and singing. The dances were held in the big hall which was built by a Hindu man named Nam Singh as well as in a building owned by a Japanese man, Setaro Ishimoto. Most Saturday nights the dancing was accompanied by lively music supplied by the Jacobs and Pitt families. Benny Jacobs was on the turtle back mandolin, Doug Jacobs and Tom Guivarra on the steel guitar, Francis Guivarra on the banjo mandolin and Arthur Pitt on the Spanish guitar. Charlie Sailor, a big Torres Strait Islander man, who was known as the King of Malaytown, was noted for his baritone voice. When Donald Friend, the noted painter, came to Cairns from 1932 onwards, he used to stay with Charlie Sailor and his family in Malaytown.
Often the dances would end in fighting, after too much alcohol had been consumed. The fighting was so frequent that one of the people I interviewed remarked that it was only when she was much older that she realised that not all parties and dances ended in fights and that this was not a normal occurrence! It appeared that while white men would come to Malaytown to the dances, the fights were predominantly amongst the Malaytown residents and were not racial in nature.
Part 2 is here
Part 2 is here