Dispatch From Darwin: Discovering Asia In The Outback

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I was sitting in the Speakers Corner Café in the stunning (and unexpected) Parliament House in Darwin, a rare marriage between a Southeast Asian bungalow and a po-mo shout in light and glass; all around-as everywhere in central Darwin-were plaques recalling the Japanese air raids on the place in February 1942, and markers announcing, “An enemy bomb fell here and killed 10 people.” The biographies of some of the employees of Darwin’s post office who were lost in the attack were on prominent display on every side. And Sachiko Hirayama, a sweet, elegant and determined young woman from Nagasaki was telling me about how she was hoping to bring Japanese tour groups here to visit the sites where they had lost loved ones and so put old fears to rest.

Hirayama had been appointed by the Northern Territory’s new Chief Minister, Terry Mills, to act as a liaison with Japan-and such is the strangeness of the small town set amidst a huge territory thirty times the size of the Netherlands (with 1/60th of the population) that, within less than 24 hours of my return to Darwin last August, I bumped into Mills at a little café. Just one day before, he had been named Chief Minister and brought the Country Liberal Party back into power in the Top End after 11 years. We exchanged pleasantries, and he asked me where I lived.

“Japan,” I said, and his eyes lit up. “The second call of congratulations I received was from the Consul-General of Japan. I am really interested in Japan. Seriously!” The fact that Japan is the Territory’s largest trading partner-and that the Japanese oil development company INPEX had already sunk $100 million into the exploration of gas fields nearby–was surely one reason; but it really did seem as if Darwin was suddenly realizing how well-placed it was to become a global player.

“Darwin is closer to Jakarta than to Canberra,” Mills went on, pointing out to a local journalist that he wasn’t “fluent” in Bahasa Indonesia, but had studied it at university in Jakarta. Then he began talking about his work with the “traditional owners” of the Territory.This couldn’t have flowed more naturally out of my very first taste of Darwin on this trip: as soon as I got off the plane from Melbourne, on a hot Sunday night, I took myself off to the Mindil Beach Sunset Market, and realized, as I looked at the crocodile-foot back-scratchers on sale, the crocodile skulls being sold for $75, the crocodile-tooth headbands and crocodile-skin earrings, that the Top End still boasts an improbable, fantastic mix of New Agers and old salts.

A guy I might have seen in Goa was playing the didgeridoo, while three Aboriginal kids twirled themselves around in front of him. A strapping local cowboy was flogging whips. The next stall down in the makeshift assembly of shacks on a patch of grass across a ridge from the ocean was selling propeller planes made of beer cans; these were deftly brought into the new multi-culti order by a Chinese boy at the end of the row who had fashioned Mickey Mouse out of balloons.

You don’t come to the Top End, of course, to be part of the mainstream; in a territory larger than Italy, Germany, Japan and Britain combined (with a population 1/80th that of Shanghai), you have to define yourself in bold colors against the thousands of miles of red emptiness. I was offered soy candles amidst the crocodile and mud-crab rolls at the market, and saw tie-dye dresses for 3-year-olds for sale next to “night-display, sound-activated” t-shirts. I could get Chinese-made tacos or Fijian-stirred milk shakes, goatmilk soap or “dragon fruit sorbet.” The only governing assumption-and maybe this spoke for something essentially Australian-was that the one thing I’d never find was anything that was available at Woolworth’s (though the local Woolies, not so far away, was a huge emporium, complete with its own large liquor shop).

Privileged urban refugees eager to go back to the land seemed to be bumping into indigenous people taking their first uncertain steps into city life. And kids who had just left Kuta or Ko Phi Phi were walking into Thais and Filipinos and Indonesians who had come here to experience the life the kids thought they were fleeing. As Terry Mills had pointed out, the tag-line here about Darwin being closer to Bali than to Sydney speaks to something deeper than geography; here was an ever more Southeast Asian town that just happened to be talking with an Aussie twang.

I’d been to Darwin before, in 1988, the year of the Bicentennial. At the time, the sudden explosion of tropical green after hours of nothingness below, the Jurassic Park landscape of Kakadu National Park nearby, the scrappy little settlement of ferns and larger-than-life eccentrics trying to market their reptiles (a multi-national chain had recently constructed a whole hotel nearby shaped like a crocodile) had all made me feel I was on a different continent from Adelaide or Cairns. Now, with the prospect of oil nearby, and with Darwin offering the last word in freedom from hustle-bustle with relaxing ocean views, the local glossy lifestyle magazine was shouting “Uber Luxe” on its cover and advertising $3.5 million penthouse apartments overlooking the one-story narrow main streets. I might have been in a piece of Miami Beach airlifted to rural Utah.

Yet for all the gestures towards urbanism, the question the Top End still seems to ask remains: what do you do in an area with a population density lower than that of Pitcairn (an island that boasts all of 66 people)? One answer was afforded by the pungent local newspaper, the NT News, which informed me, on arrival, that one Territory man had racked up nearly 70 criminal charges in 7 months, and which also gave an account of a local hero who had saved a mate the previous day by disabling a croc with a screwdriver. Much of Darwin seemed to have the outlandish air of an Outback chapter of the Hells Angels. A car parked downtown had “X-Men” all over its sides, and a huge portrait of a superhero (or his enemy) on the back, declaring, “An Agnostic, Dyslexic, Insomniac Stayed Up All Night Wondering if there was a Dog”; a “Toyota Rescue Vehicle” nearby had placed a sign on its back window advising, “Patience, My Little Grasshopper.”

When faced with a tabula rasa, people can make of themselves anything they choose, perhaps. So the native strangeness of faraway towns like Darwin seemed interestingly deepened by all the people who flocked there in order to rewrite their destinies. Signs in Hangul script pointed me to one of the town’s ubiquitous churches and three Chinese characters-nothing else-adorned a banner atop a high-rise. The man who took my breakfast order at the Holiday Inn on the Esplanade-and rather amazingly, they were serving up “English Bacon,” fleshy and pink, as well as “American Bacon,” crispy and streaked (I’d never known there was a difference)-was Indian. So was the man who collected the dishes. Even in 1891, I recalled, seven in every ten people here, thanks to the booming gold mining industry, was Chinese.

Australia, for me, is a land that overturns all foreign ideas of what is central and marginal, what the exception, what the rule: at the War Memorial Church, in the center of Darwin, I found signs on every side advising, “Please do not leave Bags or Other Valuables in the Pews Unattended,” perhaps the first time I’d ever been warned against robberies in a church. But the longer I stayed in the country, the more I could see that the real fascination of the lonely continent lay not in the brawny exterior, nor only in the old, deep interior, but in the constantly evolving interplay between them.

One evening I found myself at a chic Italian restaurant, at the bottom of the tallest building in Darwin, across from a quiet man who told me how he had fought in Vietnam as a teenager with the Australian army. He had so lost his heart to the region, he said, almost shyly, that he had stayed on in Laos after his service finished and lived in Bali for some years. He still kept a place in Saigon. “To be honest,” he said-now he was a lawyer offering his expertise to indigenous causes–”the reason I came up here to Darwin was that I didn’t want to live in Australia. I felt more at home in Asia. Just the smell, as soon as you arrive at the airport, the night sounds, the climate; the whole thing is Asia.”

The man next to me-his air of warm confidence and ruddy complexion might have made him at home in a London club-turned out to be another lawyer working with the “traditional owners” in the Tiwi Islands, a 30-minute plane ride away from the town, who had spent years as a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea; hearing that, the woman across from us started reminiscing about growing up as part of a missionary family in so rural a part of New Guinea that she was “educated under the house by my mum.” It seemed an everyday assembly, and yet there was an easy, lightly worn cosmopolitanism here that seemed both the rising feature of Australia and one of the things it could teach the larger world.

I had thought, when I arrived, and shuffled around the Sunset Park, that I was seeing the hyperdeveloped world meet the wilderness, the underdeveloped universe meet possibility, so that each side could check the other out. Perhaps I was. But every time I heard a story of what had brought someone here, I heard the sound of a fresh Australia, which is defining itself by everything that’s around and beyond it. Darwin seemed in large part a mild-mannered Chinese young man-I met them all over town-in specs, politely asking, “How’s yer day goin’?”

The next day, when I woke up, the cover of the N.T. News shouted, “MAN BITES CROC ON SNOUT.” I’d already read about a “community garden activist” who had run for office even though he had been convicted of killing a man. But by now I was able to see that such headlines were partly bluster and mostly about trying to satisfy expectations. I met loud voices and startling attitudes everywhere I went in the Top End; but it was in the silences, in everything people didn’t say, that something much more haunting and unique kept coming through.