The people of Christmas Island
Who lives on Christmas Island?
Who lives on Christmas Island? Most Australians know little about the tiny jungle island beyond its connection to the immigration detention centre and plight of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia. The island is a Commonwealth of Australia colonial outpost and has no indigenous human population. Settlement occurred in the 1900s annexed by British phosphate mining and later transferred to the Crown Colony of Singapore. Chinese coolies, Indians and Malay workers were brought to work in the mines, given a subsistence wage and rudimentary living quarters. Their work and living conditions were harsh, with many individuals died from Beri Beri, a condition caused by Vitamin B1 deficiency as a result of extreme food deprivation. The lives of the early Chinese workers is documented by John Hunt in "Suffering through strength : the men who made Christmas Island" that you can access here
Christmas island came under Japanese occupation briefly during World War II and then an Australian territory in 1948. The local people have fought extremely hard to establish themselves as equal citizens to their mainland counterparts, a battle that continues today under their unique administrative arrangements with the Commonwealth.
These days, the local people are descendants of the miners and fishermen, primarily Chinese Malaysian and Malaysian Malay people, with a dusting of expatriate Australians.
The architecture of Christmas island is a living museum of the island's colonial past. The majority of the Malay community live at Flying Fish Cove in the Kampung (the Malay word for traditional village) that resembles housing built by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT). The SIT designed low-rise public housing blocks in the 1920s in Singapore in response to burgeoning inner-city populations, slums and increased crime.
The main Chinese settlement at Poon Saan has a shopping arcade similar to the Shophouses found in post-colonial South East Asia. The traditional Shophouse has a retail facade, a public arcade that extends to a deep rear with other branching retail outlets and a second storey for residences. Elsewhere on the island are fading federation terraces, and some grand colonial bungalows that are gradually being restored. Perched on the cliff overlooking the Kumpong and Flying Fish Cove sits the mansion, Tong Chee house that is an exquisite example of British-Singapore architecture.
The cuisine is a fusion of everything I love: roti chanai for $3 with curry in a take-away plastic bag tied by string; Cantonese stir fry and freshly roasted pork belly on Sunday mornings; Curry laksa, hokien mee, mee goreng and nasi goreng on weekly rotation; Asam laksa and curry puffs if you're in the know; and a good Aussie pub meal.
The island itself cultivates an array of seasonal delights with mango trees of all different varieties, avocados, bush chilli, pumpkins and tropical fruits. However, food security on the island remains a constant strain for locals because of the high cost of imported fresh ingredients with iceberg lettuce costing around $8 and a cucumber $11. The lack of trace elements in the soil and a particular nematode make growing vegetables on island difficult.
A new program by Hidden Garden Sustainable Farms is attempting to establish a horticultural industry on Christmas island, improve access to affordable food and manage waste for environmental protection. You can read about this wonderful venture here.
Christmas Island Festivals
The Island loves a festival - Chinese new year obviously, Rahmadan, weekly pasar malam night markets on the water front and all the Aussie favourites (Easter, Christmas, Halloween) in the mix. Depending on which sub-community is hosting the festival, uncles might be chopping roast pork, or ladies are selling satays and nyona cakes. As you would experience in Asia, there's an intricate weave of culture and religion from Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity to Islam that are expressed across the island in colour, art, architecture, food and sounds. Several times a day the voice of the Imam's prayer echoes across Flying Fish Cove, while a statue of Mary stands solemnly over the workers' union building and the Chinese cemetery has front-row ocean views.
The local people know the land intimately and wander through overgrowth to old abandoned villages where orchards still grow apples, oranges and mangosteen (Mangustan). Considering the local people are descendants of a slave trade, have experienced varying forms of occupation, invasion and colonisation, then in more recent times supported swollen populations with fly-in-fly-out detention centre workers, they are kind, generous and the most welcoming Australians I've found. If you ever have an opportunity to visit them you should.