WILSON da SILVA
INCENSE pervades the hushed streets around the red and gold Tao temples, wailing greets the dusk as Muslims are called to prayer and Chinese or Malay dialects are mostly spoken.
Yet this isolated Indian Ocean island, just 360km from Indonesia, is part of Australia.
Seemingly forgotten for decades, Christmas Island is now stirring.
An Australian casino resort, being built by Indonesian and Singaporean interests, promises to bring a rude shock to the island’s run-down colonial streets and sleepy lifestyle.
“The changes are going to be massive and not everybody on the island is ready for it,” said island administrator Michael Grimes, Canberra’s representative. “The social effect will be astounding.”
The casino, with 156 rooms, is targeting the overnight or weekend gambler who can hop on a plane in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, and be on the island in 45 minutes.
Indonesian authorities closed Jakarta’s three casinos in the early 1980s because of “social pressures”.
“There will be people who will come on a whim,” said director Herman Gani, an Indonesian overseeing construction.
“Most people will only stay a few days. It is the medium to high customers who are being aimed at.”
The plush halls have granite floors and marble walls, a tropical garden of 67,000 imported plants overlooking the seacliffs and a protected beach with sand of crushed limestone.
Blackjack, roulette, baccarat and other games will be played in the main building, which also houses four bars, a dance floor with a stage for bands visiting from Singapore or Jakarta, a piano bar, restaurants and a 24-hour cafe.
The resort will employ 380 mostly experienced mainland Australians, who will eventually be replaced by islanders.
“We know the potential and we believe there is a market,” said John Moneta, a director of the Perth-based Christmas Island Resort Pty Ltd.
The company is 63pc owned by Indonesian investor Robby Sumanipow, 27pc by Singapore’s Lauw & Sons Pty Ltd and 10pc by Australian Frank Woodmore, who first pushed the idea of a casino in the mid-1980s.
Promoters say the casino already has bookings for the next three years.
But the island’s population of 1,400 may not be ready.
The population is 65pc Chinese, speaking mostly Mandarin and Hokkien, one in seven is Malay and one-fifth of residents are Westerners, mostly Australians.
Should it take off, the casino could bring 1,000 people a week to the island on 20 flights-the kind of hustle and bustle undreamed of before. Currently two flights a week from Perth, 2,600km south-east, service the island.
Much of the island is run-down and buildings have fallen into disrepair as the peak population of 3,000 has fallen with the exhaustion of high-grade phosphate deposits and the shutdown of State-owned mining operations.
Workers in late 1990 formed a company and leased the mine back from the Australian Government, extracting lower-grade ore for export to Malaysia and Indonesia.
The company, with 320 mostly islander shareholders, has a turnover of $A17 million and employs 100 people.
With 25pc unemployment, workers see it as logical to share their jobs, working for some months of the year each.
There is a 4.5 million-tonne stockpile of mined-out deposits to draw on, enough to keep the mine going for another 15 years.
Although just 360km across the water from Indonesia, islanders are more in tune through radio and TV with what happens in Australia, at its closest point 1,300km away.