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Becoming Kalgoorlie

ON OUR FIRST day in Kalgoorlie, a local woman in her mid-thirties tells us that ‘Kal wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for mining and prostitution’. In the ensuing days many others would tell us the same thing. More explicitly, in the words of another local resident, ‘The town was founded on brothels. [Without them] the men wouldn’t have been happy and they wouldn’t have got as much gold.’ These two phenomena – mining and prostitution – and their seemingly natural and straightforward connection to each other are also routinely invoked in tourist and popular culture depictions of Kalgoorlie. The Lonely Planet, for example, notes that ‘historically, mineworkers would come straight to town to spend disposable income at Kalgoorlie’s infamous brothels, or at pubs staffed by “skimpies” (scantily clad female bar staff)’. Reading further, we encounter an interrelated theme underpinning stories of Kalgoorlie: that it ‘still feels a bit like the Wild West’ as a result of the contemporary ‘rough-and-tumble pubs and “skimpy” bar staff’. The television series Kalgoorlie Cops likewise trades on and reinforces the city’s identity as ‘Australia’s Real Wild West’, presenting it as an outback town ‘flush with money, miners, hookers and bikers’.

In this well-rehearsed story Kalgoorlie is a frontier town where mining and what one local male old-timer referred to as ‘the holy trinity of gambling, drinking and women’ have come together in mutually reinforcing and romanticised ways. This dominant story does not of course encompass or capture the full character of a city of over thirty thousand people with any number of potentially contradictory if not colliding histories, experiences and relationships to place. Doreen Massey in Space, Place and Gender (Polity, 1994) explains that it is through the ‘weaving together’ of strands of locally distinct combinations of these elements that places are created. They are not static products or sites of a singular, shared and true identity, but are being continually reproduced. Places are processes where the multiplicity of relations at any given moment ‘interact with and take a further element of specificity from the accumulated history of a place, with that history itself imagined as the product of layer upon layer of different sets of linkages both local and to the wider world’. Many agents including local residents, corporations and tourists also interact with these processes of place-making. Thus the dominant story of Kalgoorlie can be understood as an unstable outcome (always in a process of becoming) of this weaving together of select relations and linkages inhering in the processes of global mining and gendered frontier understandings of place and sexuality.

 

GOLD MINING IS a longstanding, dominant industry and way of life for large numbers of workers and their families – it enacts a complex set of social relations and practices – and is deeply inscribed on the local landscape and character. Kalgoorlie as the ‘City of Gold’ is evident in the wide main street named after Paddy Hannan, a prospector credited with making the first substantial gold find in the area. The street is lined with impressive, if not imposing, historic buildings, including a significant number of hotels. Two of these stand out: the Exchange Hotel (also known locally as the ‘Sexchange’ Hotel), replete with ‘Wild West saloon’; and the Palace Hotel, home to the Gold Bar, where topless skimpies can be found. A head frame from the now defunct Ivanhoe shaft, the relic of a past era of gold mining, rears above the rooflines of Hannan Street as it sits astride the entrance to the Western Australian Kalgoorlie-Boulder Museum. Visitors are encouraged to scale its heights and ‘enjoy fantastic panoramic views of Kalgoorlie’ available from this vantage point of mining history.

While there is much evidence of mining as historical practice, Kalgoorlie is also very much a working mining town. Where once numerous single operations constituted what was known as the Golden Mile, in 1989 these were amalgamated into a vast and dominating enterprise now jointly owned by Newmont Mining and Barrick Gold. The result is the Fimiston Open Pit – commonly known as the ‘Super Pit’ – the ‘one big hole’[i] that consumed those numerous smaller underground mines. Some 5,800 workers are currently employed directly by Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines (KCGM), the company that manages the Super Pit on behalf of Newmont and Barrick Gold.

Hotel opening hours and patronage mirror the rhythms of the 24-hour mining industry. At 6 am bars are busy with patrons unwinding after a night shift, drinking hard liquor and playing pool. Dust from the Super Pit’s 24-hour production regime infiltrates the town, despite the company’s planting of two hundred trees in an effort to reduce the pollution. Inhaled with each breath, the dust is an ever-present reminder of local mining practices.

A scrolling digital display mounted high on the front wall of the Palace Hotel shows the continually updated current gold price and serves as a visible reminder that, as locals told us, ‘the price of gold drives everything in this town’. There is not, however, a simple transmutation of high gold prices into local wellbeing. In the early 1960s, low gold prices felt ‘like a sword hanging over the town’, but then increasing prices drove an exodus of families fleeing inflated property prices. Retirees could sell and retire comfortably to Perth, while young people couldn’t afford to buy, and the character of the town was reconfigured.

Importantly, the scrolling gold price is a reminder of wider social relations and Kalgoorlie’s linkages to far-flung places and unpredictable demands for gold. The fluctuating prices signify ebbs and flows of transnational capital. These in turn inform the scale and pace of extraction in Kalgoorlie and thus the flows, for example, of workers and local residents into and out of Kalgoorlie and, of course, the outward mobility of Kalgoorlie gold. One could argue that it is also a reminder that Kalgoorlie is a site of capital accumulation on a global scale, a ‘money town’ in the words of a local worker where people ‘are just there for earning money’. This story of Kalgoorlie stands in contrast to competing narratives of Kalgoorlie as ‘home’. This difference is expressed in local perceptions that ‘there are lots of people here who don’t commit to a life in Kalgoorlie. They base their life on where their home is and their home isn’t Kalgoorlie.’

The complexity of relations between the mining industry and Kalgoorlie, and Kalgoorlie’s insertion into broader mining sector networks, is made prominent each year by way of two longstanding major annual events, namely the St Barbara’s Festival and the Diggers & Dealers conference. The St Barbara’s festival – named in honour of the patron saint of mining – has been held each December since 1999. According to its website, the festival has the express function of ‘solidifying the great partnership that exists between the mining industry and the local community’. [ii] During the St Barbara’s parade ‘enormous pieces of mining equipment’, including a six-metre-high haul truck, ‘rumble’ along the main street, thus asserting the position of ‘big mining’ in the heart of town. A young woman dressed as the Christmas Fairy stands upon its elevated, tinsel-festooned drivers’ platform. The complexity of this relationship is neatly encapsulated in one local person’s wry observation that ‘the mining companies are the heart and soul of the community and the soulless heart of the community’.

Diggers & Dealers, on the other hand, is touted by organisers and local tourism sites as ‘Australia’s premier industry event’, the ‘most important of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere’. Each year corporate delegates, predominantly ‘mining men’ and including high-profile representatives of major mining corporations, flood into town, swamping private and public venues. Deals are brokered, awards are won and the interests of mining capital dominate. Through initiating and hosting this event, a position is claimed for Kalgoorlie within a global and widely dispersed, yet highly localised, mining industry.

 

KALGOOLIE’S SEVERAL BROTHELS, according to numerous local residents, are ‘just part of the town like mining and, really, like mining they’ve made the town’. We are told that locals are ‘realistic about the brothels’, after all ‘there are so many [non-local] men with huge money here and what else would the men do on their day off?’ There was also much local emphasis on historical antecedent: brothels are ‘an age-old tradition here’. Indeed, we were told repeatedly of the unquestionable and potentially dangerous needs of miners returning to town after spending long periods in isolated and rough conditions.

This ‘taken-for-granted’ sexuality, along with the staunch belief of heterosexuality as the norm, makes female sexual labour problematic. According to numerous local interviewees, ‘women and children, young children, don’t get sexually abused because the brothels are here’. The following argument offered by a female resident in her late twenties exemplifies this reasoning:

Men in a town like this one are very aggressive, very violent. Prostitution helps deal with it and this means it takes the fear out of women. It’s like that with an army. You have an army and it helps calm down the army when it travels. And the women aren’t pushed into it. I think once families came to the town it wasn’t needed as much. It’s still here but they’ve got boundaries and people know it’s still necessary in a town like this.

Importantly, as one local resident pointed out, the brothels were tolerated because they didn’t ‘intrude on everyday life’. Such intrusion was avoided, as documented by Elaine McKewon in her history of Kalgoorlie’s ‘Scarlet Mile’, through selective local policing and a policy of containment which, at various times, physically restricted sex workers from leaving the brothel site. Today, just as tours of the Super Pit are on offer so too are brothel tours. Indeed, official tourism signage advertises these tours. Those taking part explain to us that ‘when you come to Kalgoorlie this is what you do. It’s just part of what is associated with Kalgoorlie. It’s the Super Pit and the brothels.’

These justifications, and methods of containment, suggest a locally specific, potentially dangerous form of heterosexuality shaped by frontier mining conditions. At the same time, explanations of why locals are not fazed by the high-profile presence of brothels as part of Kalgoorlie’s identity tend to blur past and present practice – not least by invoking tradition – while clearly assigning this behaviour to non-local males. One local tell us, in an interesting example of this ‘tradition’, that male graduating students at the Kalgoorlie School of Mines undertake a ‘nude or underpants’ rite-of-passage run through a local brothel.

Kalgoorlie local residents tell us that skimpies are also part and parcel, indeed ‘icons of the town’. These ‘icons,’ it must be noted, work long hours, including split shifts and, like the majority of sex workers in Kalgoorlie brothels, are not local residents. Skimpy bar work is not for the faint-hearted. The challenges are less about working in scanty attire – as one skimpy worker pointed out, ‘you wear less to the beach’ – than about understanding one’s place in – and ultimately controlling – a highly masculinised public bar environment devoted to public displays of frontier heterosexual masculinity. Patrons, skimpy workers tell us, ‘want to look good in front of their mates’. Most of them ‘know not to touch the skimpies’ but others must be taught. To be successful, a skimpy barmaid must ‘have the persona of having a good time’: ‘You have to stroke egos and say “hello darling”. That’s how you get the dollars.’ A skimpy’s job is ‘to hold attention and hold them [paying patrons] in the bar’.

Although one of our interviewees involved in the Kalgoorlie hotel trade explained to us that skimpy barmaids are a relatively recent phenomenon, they are, like mining and prostitution, understood in relation to an idealised past. When we asked local residents, young and old, what they thought of skimpy barmaids in local bars we were offered numerous anecdotes in support of the general claim that ‘Oh, they used to be really good!’ For example, we were told of naked skimpies and their numerous ‘tricks’, as befits a ‘Wild West’ past. Today’s skimpies by comparison are ‘relatively mild’. Skimpy workers are also aware of this, noting that:

The guys say it was way better [in the past] – you were totally naked – things have pretty much changed lots in two years. Now you can show only 50 per cent of your bum and no nipples, unless there’s a cabaret license [when you can show more]. Apparently, in the past girls would get up on the bar and spray people with soda.

These changes have been enforced by legislation, which, like the various ‘containment’ strategies discussed above, is suggestive of limits to the professed toleration of brothels, sex workers and skimpies in the broader story of Kalgoorlie.

Interestingly, the Diggers & Dealers conference, when mining delegates swamp the town, is described by skimpy workers and local residents as something of a return to ‘the old “no-holds-barred” Kalgoorlie’. Extra ‘A-class’ skimpies and sex workers are brought to town as part of what is described by organisers as a ‘world-class entertainment program’ that ‘ensures that delegates experience the very best of the style and hospitality of Kalgoorlie’.[iii] In the experience of seasoned skimpy workers, ‘there will be twelve girls in every pub. You can make $1,500 a night. They’ll be fifteen deep here. We’ve done nude jugs. It’s more like a strip club then.’ This past and present ‘old’ Kalgoorlie is thus presented as the product of ‘outsiders’ – mine workers, industry representatives, sex workers and skimpies – people who, as locals point out, ‘do not call Kalgoorlie home’.

 

THE DOMINANT STORY of Kalgoorlie as a successful outback mining town, firmly rooted in an idealised past based on a very particular understanding of mining practices and male heterosexuality, is of course exclusionary, and other counter narratives surely exist. As displays at the Kalgoorlie-Boulder museum point out, the arrival of large numbers of outsiders pursuing dreams of a golden future ‘had an immense impact on the lives of Aboriginal people’ who were, with the help of various pieces of legislation, brutally displaced. In the experience of an older Aboriginal resident, Kalgoorlie ‘has extremes of the rich and poverty. Not everyone has a job at the mine and is earning big money out of mining. It’s a tough town across the board but it’s really rough for Aboriginal people. There is a lot of racism here.’

While many of our local interviewees spoke of Kalgoorlie as ‘a really friendly town’ where ‘people always say “g’day” when you’re walking up the street’, this is not the experience of the skimpy workers we interviewed. One local mother, in confirmation of the cold shoulder shown to skimpy workers, told us emphatically: ‘I don’t want my son to have anything to do with a skimpy.’ There is also a broader experience among local women of Kalgoorlie as an unsafe place. Despite claims that the presence of brothels and sex workers protect family women from male heterosexual violence, many women told us: ‘It’s not safe here. We are never on the streets at night.’ Many interviewees, including some men, spoke of avoiding the brothels and of keeping away from skimpy bars. Those who did attend such bars – ‘that’s where the best bands are’ – spoke of feeling uncomfortable but getting used to it. One woman told us that she had written to the local newspaper about how she had driven past the brothels one evening with her children in the car, and how upset and embarrassed she was. Following this, ‘people got stuck into me saying “what were you doing in Hay Street at night? You should know better and keep away.”’ Thus women restrict, or are expected to restrict, their movements not only to avoid particular masculinised/sexualised spaces, but also to ‘fit in’.

At the same time women have challenged the gendering and sexualisation of public venues and spaces. For example, they have organised a weekly event at a local nightclub when ‘himpies’ – local tradesmen ‘wearing little more than their work boots, a work shirt and jocks’ – staff the bar as a ‘means to raise money for charity and to give the women of the Goldfields something to do’.

And what of Kalgoorlie’s inevitable, not-too-distant ‘future without the pit’? After all, the extraction of Kalgoorlie gold is a finite process with a mooted end date somewhere between 2021 and 2029. Comfortingly, the company line, reproduced in a display at the local museum, is that there is thus time for a ‘long conversation’ to be had. In 2009, as part of this conversation, KCGM conducted a survey seeking ‘ideas about possible post-closure use of the Super Pit’[iv] from members of the community. Sixty-four of the sixty-six ideas recorded by participants involved filling the pit with water to create a lake, marina, or, in one case, an inland ocean by ‘filling it with seawater and beach sand from Esperance’.

The sheer pervasiveness of this idea of exchanging the Super Pit for a ‘super lake’ is notable. On an official tourist and visitor-oriented tour of the Super Pit we were told most emphatically by our guide that the pit – that 1.6 kilometre wide, 3.6 kilometre long and six-hundred metre deep hole in the ground – ‘can’t be rehabilitated’. It could certainly be filled up to make a lake, he noted, but ‘it will be saltier than the ocean, plus high levels of sulphur and arsenic will kill anyone who drank from it’. After an awkward moment as we stood upon the viewing platform gazing upon or photographing this vast crater and absorbing this information, we were directed to ‘look at the trucks’, which appeared like ants below. Disturbingly, this fact of the toxicity of the gold-mining process and its enduring legacy is not known or is ‘forgotten’ in these responses to the company survey.

The status and role of Kalgoorlie’s brothels and skimpy barmaids are undergoing change. Langtrees, arguably the most high profile of Kalgoorlie’s brothels, has recently become a ‘guest hotel’ where visitors are ‘served in a different way’ but still ‘leave with a smile’. This shift occurs in the contradictory contexts of the WA government’s 2011 Prostitution Bill, limiting prostitution in suburban locations and the special application made by a Kalgoorlie MP to gain exemptions for Kalgoorlie’s historic Hay Street red-light district.[v] Skimpy barmaids are increasingly associated with tourism rather than mining. The new owners of the Exchange Hotel have strongly promoted this link, arguing that ‘skimpies form an important part of the attraction of the Wild West Saloon for tourists and locals alike’.[vi]

Kalgoorlie as a specific frontier mining town can be seen to emerge from the intersection of flows of capital, people and practices constituting gold mining. As Massey (1994) has argued in the context of a broader discussion of the politics of ‘globalisation’, ‘different social groups, and different individuals, are placed in very distinct ways in relation to these flows’. While there is no single, essential story of Kalgoorlie, this narrative – at present hegemonic – is deeply gendered and has significant implications for how particular groups may experience the town. It also confirms that ‘mining towns’ are produced from specific, mutually reinforcing intersections of mining with broader gendered social relations and local histories constructed in, and used to explain and justify, the present both to locals and visitors.

 

Note: This essay draws on ethnographic fieldwork undertaken in Kalgoorlie in 2011. For more detailed discussion of mining and prostitution see Pini, B & Mayes, R 2013, ‘Gender, Sexuality, and Rurality in the Mining Industry’ in Sexuality, Rurality, and Geography, Gorman-Murray, A, Pini, B & Bryant, Bryant, L (eds.), Lexington Books, Lanham, Maryland, pp 187–198.

                               



[i] Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines 2014, The Super Pit, KCGM, Kalgoorlie. Viewed September 2014, http://www.superpit.com.au/.

[ii] St Barbara’s Festival 2014, ‘St Barbara’s Festival 2014’, Kalgoorlie. Viewed September 2014, http://www.stbarbs.com.au/.

[iii] Diggers & Dealers Mining Forum 2014, Diggers & Dealers, Perth. View September 2014, http://diggersndealers.com.au/.

[iv] Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines, ‘Closure Survey 2009 Results’, Kalgoorlie. Viewed September 2014, http://www.superpit.com.au/Portals/0/docs/aboutKcgm/publications/project_and_plans/pdf/Appendix%2018%20-%20Closure%20Survey%202009%20Results.pdf.

[v] Spooner, R 2011 ‘Historic Kalgoorlie Brothels could be spared, WA Today November 4, Perth. Viewed September 2014, http://www.watoday.com.au/wa-news/historic-kalgoorlie-brothels-could-be-spared-20111103-1mxe8.html.

[vi] Thomson, C 2013, ‘Skimpy barmaids good for tourism’, Independent Perth News, Perth. Viewed September 2014, http://www.oneperth.com.au/2013/10/02/skimpy-bar-kalgoorlie/.


From Griffith Review Edition 47: Looking West © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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