Festival of the Pearl

Now one of Australia's longest running festivals, Shinju Matsuri offers an opportunity to see many sides of remote and unique Broome.  For ten wonderful days the town throws itself into a fantastic celebration of colour, culture, art, food, music and people. Locals and visitors are all invited to share these experiences. 

Japanese, Chinese, Malay, Koepangers, Filipino and European workers all brought their cultural traditions with them when they moved to Broome to work in the early pearl shell harvesting industry some three generations ago. 

Through the years there were a number of prominent cultural festivals held in Broome each year, the three main ones being the Japanese Obon Matsuri and the Chinese Hang Seng. Both honoured ancestors and involved following rituals established in their countries of origin. The Malaysians celebrated Hari Merdeka, which marks Malaysia’s independence from British rule.

The first Shinju Matsuri in 1970 brought these traditional festivals together, sharing their food and
traditional rituals, and combining their cultural richness in a celebration which also honoured the end of each year’s pearl harvest.

Local hotel owner Brian Coppin (since deceased) also brought something important to the Shinju Matsuri. Sammy the Dragon, the festival’s cultural icon since its inception was Brian’s gift to Broome. The festival’s dragon is a magnificent 30 metre costume which requires dozens of hard-working voluntary legs, and many rehearsals to come to life. Sammy is awakened each year by the oldest living man of Chinese descent in Broome, and then performs at the festival opening, leads the float parade and is a family favourite at the spectacular festival closing ceremony.

Sammy the Dragon is enticed by the ‘Pearl of Wisdom’ which is carried before him symbolising both his search for wisdom and the large and exquisite pearls of Broome. Being part of ‘Sammy’s Legs’ is a rite of passage for many local Broome families. It’s not uncommon for entire families to be involved in the rehearsals before and the performances during the festival. If you’re fit and you’d like to volunteer, contact the Shinju Matsuri festival organisers to register.

Each year organisers bring something new to the festival experience. In years past Broome has welcomed troupes of Japanese drummers, an ikebana demonstrator, the pearling games, the Shinju Queen competition, beach picnics, pearl diving demonstrations, sand sculptors, light and puppetry performances and much more. 

Traditional owners Yawuru celebrate and showcase their language, culture and traditions with engaging, immersive and memorable events as part of the Shinju Matsuri.

For gourmands there are several interesting options. The pearl meat cook-off pits the skills of Broome’s most accomplished chefs against each other to win a title held with enormous pride and great advantage to their employers. The sunset long table dinner on Cable Beach provides diners with a bucket list culinary experience set in a bucket list destination.

Delighting youngsters, the Pets in the Park event allows them to show off their feathered, furry, hoofed and reptilian friends as parents and organisers assist in keeping those pets best kept apart a safe distance from each other. 

Broome is a renowned fine art destination, with a surprising number of resident world class artists. The annual Shinju Art Awards are a long running tradition of the festival. The Broome Civic Centre is converted into a gallery showing the work of many local and regional artists. Judged each year by a visiting art authority, the overall winner is acquired by the Shire of Broome and added to the town’s growing Civic art collection.

The lawned area overlooking Cable Beach is converted into a sculpture park for the duration of the festival,housing an event called “A View to Asia”. Local and visiting sculptors take up the opportunity to show their work and visitors are invited to vote for their favourite pieces.

Attending the Shinju Ball is an annual treat for locals. Each year is themed, historically or culturally, and features entertainment and experiences which reinforce the festival’s themes. It’s a chance for the locals to dress up and celebrate, and you’ll see impressive pearls displayed on skin of all different colours.

And of course, the pearls are always on display. Dampier Terrace, known as ‘The Pearl Strip’ houses an array of pearl jewellery outlets, some featuring fascinating exhibits showcasing the development of the South Sea pearl. The Pearl Strip is also home to some of Australia’s
most outstanding jewellery designers. A visit to Broome, or a residency here is not complete without acquiring a truly stunning souvenir – the produce of the local Pinctada maxima shell.

Each year the Shinju Float Parade culminates in a feast of local performers at a Mardi Gras held on the town oval. Dance schools, local musicians and visiting performers all entertain the local families who bring chairs or gather on picnic rugs and dine on a delicious multicultural range of offerings from local street food stall vendors. Don’t sit too near the stage – that space belongs to the local children, who happily provide their own form of entertainment, a rainbow of gorgeous and different coloured faces. Nowhere is the multicultural legacy of the pearling industry better displayed than in the faces of the children of Broome.

From pearl farm tours to pearl meat sampling, from lessons in pearl gem grading to immersion in pearling history at the local museum, Broome has an experience for every taste. And one of the best times to experience them is during the Shinju Matsuri, Broome’s Festival of the Pearl.