This is part 2 of a talk I gave to the Cairns Historical Society in November 1998. Part 1 is here
An interesting account of conditions in Malaytown is provided by Lala Nicol. She recounts that most time the children would swim in the Alligator Creek to keep clean in preference to using the only shower in the settlement. She lived at the end of the road closest to the creek. When there were king tides the water came right through the house. When the tide receded her mother would get down on her knees and scrub the floor. The bulky sideboard, in which were packed the clothes, had to be emptied, scrubbed and dried. The toilets were little outhouses built at the end of a jetty called the landing, and that was scrubbed with boiling water and phenile every day, even though the pans were only emptied once a week. If there were visitors or a lot of people passing through, her parents would have to dig a hole in the mud to bury the contents. Newspaper was used as the toilet paper and sawdust was the fly deterrent. Her mother boiled the clothes and all other washing everyday and the clothes were always snow-white just from scrubbing with kerosene soap and boiling.
When her family first arrived at Malaytown, meals were bread and tinned butter for breakfast, and if there was any fish left over from dinner it was warmed up and they would have that instead. Sometimes instead of fish they might have crab, turtle or dugong leftovers, washed down with a cup of tea or a drink of water. Lunch and dinner was usually fresh fish with vegetables. The vegetables eaten were taro, cassava and yams as well as onions and potatoes. Sometimes after breakfast they would go fishing for the evening meal, rowing up to bark hut or at different locations around the inlet. Her mother had her favourite spots and she would take her bearings by lining up the mouth of the creek, the brewery building and a dead mangrove tree. Sometimes they would row over to Second Beach to get prawns to sell, filling a rice basket up. The family would receive 6 or 8 shillings for it, and they would some of the money to buy soup bones. After a while the family eating habits changed and they developed a liking for jam, syrup, honey, stews and corned beef, bread instead of damper and johnnycake and fried scones! The other Malaytown residents introduced them to jelly, custard and tinned fruit. As there was no electricity and no fridge, the jelly was set in their biggest washtub, in which blocks of ice were placed with bags over the ice to keep it from melting.
A police station was set up just outside Malaytown in 1909 to oversee the shanty town. The Inspector charged with establishing the station noted that, “as there are many Europeans residing in the vicinity of the locality commonly called “Malaytown,” they would no doubt be offended at being designated as residing in that quarter. I would therefore suggest that the place be called “South Cairns.”” In 1923 the need for the continuation of the police station was justified, “owing to the large number of coloured people residing at South Cairns.” The South Cairns station continued until 1934.
The Torres Strait pearling and trochus boats used to ply their trade down the east coast and came into Cairns to replenish their water and food supplies. Most of the crew were Torres Strait Islanders and would visit Charlie Sailor's house. An evening of Islander dancing would ensue. As Nancy Guivarra recalls:
The music and songs and the beating of the drums, mostly on kerosene tins created a very happy atmosphere. Even the white people who lived in Bunda and Kenny streets would wander down to listen and watch.
The children of Malaytown went to the Cairns Central State School. In her first year at the school Lala Nicol was one of only five non-white children there. She recalls that initially the "white kids were a little afraid of us; some were afraid our colour would rub off on them and some thought we would eat them or something along those lines." Once she asked to be a fairy in the school play but was not allowed to because her eyes were not blue and her hair was not yellow. Although she was friendly with her classmates, she was never invited to their homes.
The relationship between Malaytown residents and the wider Cairns community provides us with an insight into race relations in Cairns during the 1920s and 1930s. At the time Cairns was a geographically remote working class town, with many of the residents being of Irish extraction. Conservative Labor Party parliamentarians have been returned to the electorate of Cairns since its inception in 1893. This representation was founded on support from workers in the four main industries in the town; sugar, timber mills, the wharves and the large railway workshops. The White Australia Policy was supported by most of the residents, who by and large were suspicious of Asians and those who were different.
Incredible as it may seem , it appears that many Cairns residents were not aware that Malaytown existed. It was geographically separate from the town and the races in that day did not mix much. Often the only interaction was between been Malaytown residents and white fishermen, as Alligator Creek provided the safest mooring in Cairns and many white fishermen moored their craft here.
To some of the middle and upper class residents that I interviewed, Malaytown was considered out of bounds and, as school children, if they had gone there they would have got into trouble from their parents. Despite living in well-to-do suburbs within walking distance of the settlement, these people never knew any of the Malaytown residents. They were of the opinion that the only time Whites came to the settlement was in the case of “young men who had had too much to drink and were looking for women.” The comment was made to me that it was mainly the “lower class” of white who went there. However, it was pointed out to me that in those days “Coloured” people were accepted as long as they kept to themselves and didn’t cause trouble.
However several working class people I interviewed had very different recollections. They had fond memories of Malaytown and its residents. They went there frequently, and many white children used to swim in the Alligator Creek with the Malaytown children, and would go fishing, crabbing and prawning with them as well as play cards. They recall the dances and the island style dancing and feasting when the luggers were in town. White men were welcome at the dances, with Charlie Sailor remarking, “Come on you fellows, dance with the coloured girls, they’re the same as the white girls.”
The different experiences I have just mentioned in relation to White attitudes towards Malaytown residents indicate the dangers and difficulties inherent in generalising racial attitudes and race relations in Cairns during this period. There was obviously a wide spectrum of attitudes and interrelationships between the Malaytown residents and their white neighbours, along a continuum from outright racism and hatred to friendship and intermarriage. The experiences of those people I interviewed reflect this diversity.
Vance Palmer, writing of race relations in this period made the astute observation that “There was little race feeling as the crews discussed fishing-grounds along the waterfront or danced with the coloured girls at the mixed gatherings ... The simplicities of the sea united men : the complexities of port stimulated feelings of class rather than of race.” Another person I interviewed, who grew up in Bunda Street across the road from Malaytown in the 1920s, agrees that class, not race, was the defining characteristic. He regularly went to Malaytown to play and as he grew older attended the dances and the feasting. He noted that race was not an issue and the children of the working class white families in the adjoining suburb frequently visited Malaytown and interacted with the families there. However children of middle class families, who lived further away from Malaytown, rarely went near there.
Location was important, even though Cairns did have a relatively egalitarian population, without the extreme differences of the big cities like Melbourne and Sydney, where the wealthy lived in mansions and the workers in humble cottages on tiny allotments. As a resident at the time noted:
In Cairns it was the swamps that identified the wealthy from the battlers. The battlers lived on the western side of the rail-line where it was still swamp, the more well to do on the ‘dry’ side of town. The better class houses were on the original sand dunes ... that is, areas that were better drained and with fewer mosquitoes.
Malaytown was to the west of the railway line, amongst the mangrove swamps, with working class suburbs adjacent to it. Children of middle class residents rarely went near there, fearing it, while the working class residents’ children of the south Cairns and Bungalow suburbs did not share these concerns.
Little research appears to have been done in investigating the interrelationship between race and class in Australia. It has been argued that support for the White Australia policy came from a strong middle class and small farmer base, with strong ruling class support, whereas within the labour movement there were always some prepared to fight against it. This contention concurs with the observations of my interviewees, who believed that working class people in Cairns were more accepting of Malaytown residents, compared to the middle and upper class citizens of Cairns.
Torres Strait Islanders began moving out of Malaytown from the late 1920s in search of a better lifestyle. The advantages included water and electricity, a luxury denied the residents of Malaytown, which had one tap and one shower, town water only be laid in by the mid 1940s. This migration was tolerated and accepted by Cairns residents as long as “they did not live next door.” This would explain why most moved to the adjoining suburb of Bungalow, which was sparsely settled at that time. It also explains why those Malaytown residents that did move out, continued to frequently visit the settlement, maintaining close contact with those residents that remained.
There were many characters in Malaytown and many special families, each with their own story to tell. One such family was the Walters family. This Torres Strait islander family moved to Cairns in 1935 as the father, Fred Walters, wanted better educational opportunities for his children than were available in Yarrabah, where they had been living for the past two years after moving from the Torres Strait. Initially the family stayed with a Singhalese fisherman, Thomas Da Silva and his Aboriginal wife Ida who lived at the mouth of the Alligator Creek near Malaytown. Fred Walter attempted to buy or lease a property in Cairns, but was unable to because of the colour of his skin. As his daughter Lala Nicol recounts:
When he approached the Real Estate people and the sales were ready to go through the owner or someone would put a stop to it because nobody sold homes to black people in those days.
Eventually Fred Walters leased a boatshed in Malaytown from a Japanese resident of Malaytown, Setaro Ishimoto from 6 May 1936. Half the shed was used as a house and the other half for Walter's boats. They resided there for ten years. These were the years of the Great Depression and Cairns was home to many swaggies, being located at the end of the railway line, and having a warm climate in winter. Some of these men used to camp near Malaytown on the banks of the Alligator Creek, between the De Silva house and Malaytown. Fred Walters used to help these men where he could, sharing food with them and allowing them to stay on his boats, during the cyclone season, until their luck improved. One of the men was Ian Fairweather, the noted artist, who came to Malaytown in June 1939. Over the years six people lived on the Walters family boats in this way. These men, five Europeans and one Torres Strait Islander, all had their meals with the Walters’ family, frugal as these were.
Besides being a reef fisherman, Fred Walters used to buy derelict boats, to rebuild, restore and then sell them. Some of the boats restored this way were the Tillicum, Sea Boy and Lady Betty.
Another character was Martin Tenni, a fishernman, who lived in Malaytown from about 1906 to 1911. He had 2 crocodiles, which he kept in his back yard. They were in a big cage with 2 troughs of saltwater to lie in. He fed them from the end of a stick with meat which he poked down their throats. He had them for 2 years and they were on show in Abbott Street at A. J. Draper’s shop, where Woolworths now is. There was a laneway there and Tenni had the crocodiles muzzled and tied up to a post with big boxes around them. He showed them at night and left them there till morning, when he would pick them up and bring them home to their cage. One morning he found that one was missing. Knowing that it could not have got out of the fence and that it must have been stolen, he reported the theft to the police and then went to the railway station to find out if a crocodile had been sent away that morning, to be told that a crocodile had been dispatched on a train to Chillagoe. The police then telephoned the railway station at Kuranda, and when the train arrived there a man was arrested and the crocodile sent back to Cairns. The thief got 6 months jail!
There were also tragedies associated with Malaytown, the worst being when several residents perished in the 1934 cyclone off Cape Tribulation.
World War 11 brought great changes to Malaytown. Black American servicemen congregated there and the area had a reputation as a rough area. After the war residents steadily moved out and some time in the late 1950s the remaining houses were demolished and the settlement was no more. Despite having been closed down some 40 years ago, Malaytown lives on in the hearts and minds of a surprisingly large number of people, who still carry with them pleasant memories and images of a life and lifestyle now long gone.