ZOOMING down the Brisbane River on the CityCat, it’s easy to spot a rather magnificent building on Kangaroo Point not so far from Story Bridge.
It’s white with two towers with arched windows, old chimneys, iron lace and set behind gracious gardens stepping up from the river.While obviously not as grand, it’s in the same colonial style as Singapore’s Raffles Hotel, which isn’t that surprising as they were both built around the same time in the late 1880s.
Their purposes though were very different.
While the Raffles was a fine hotel for the rich and famous, Brisbane’s Yungaba (pronounced young-ga-ba) was built as an immigration depot when the young colony desperately needed to build its population.The view from the river is of a distinguished two-storey Italianate building crouching behind palm trees and lawn with the city high-rise towering behind it.
And lucky for me, the friend I was travelling with knew the place well as she had been employed there in the early 1980s as a social worker.She was keen to return and see what had happened to the place and I, not wishing to be the cat killed by curiosity, joined her on a mission.
We wandered down Eagle St Pier from the CityCat dock to catch the City Hopper across the river to Holman Street, from where it was only a short walk to find the gates at the rear of the unmistakable white building with its two towers.
This part looks more like a construction site, which it actually is at the moment. The building backs to an area under the giant support arches at the southern side of Story Bridge and is being redeveloped into upmarket housing.
Perhaps it was that we looked like we had purpose or perhaps it was because the workers simply didn’t care, but nobody stopped us as we stepped around the concrete trucks and the workers and headed in to get a closer look at Yungaba.I was informed that it had changed a lot in the past three decades, but I later learnt it has been consistently changing since its construction, buildings coming and going to suit its various purposes.
Built originally to impress the immigrants Queensland was eager to secure in the late 19th century, its first residents arrived on the Duke of Buccleuch in December 1887.
In between waves of immigration, it became a refuge for the destitute and a reception centre for troops returning from the Boer War.
In 1900, it was temporary accommodation for the inmates of the Dunwich Asylum when it was made into an isolation ward for plague victims and then in 1904-06 it was a departure point for Pacific Islanders being repatriated under the White Australia Policy.It was a military hospital during World War I and a reception centre for returning soldiers after it.
The State Archives show that in the 1920s, Yungaba was extremely important as the “immigration program had stepped up and accommodation generally is paramount”.
Immigration assistance was cancelled during the Great Depression so in the 1930s, it provided accommodation for the men building Story Bridge.
In 1938, large number of immigrants again arrived under the reinstated assistance scheme.Yungaba was used to accommodate a hundred and women and children evacuated from Hong Kong during World War II, became a hospital in 1941, and in 1942, was devoted to special cases – soldiers suffering from venereal disease.
Post-war immigration gave new life and the name we know – the Yungaba State Immigration Office and Reception Centre.
The word Yungaba is from the Gubbi Gubbi language of the Maroochy area and means “place of sunshine”.
Back to 2015, we climbed some stairs on the river side and walked around the verandahs and peered in the windows.
“They would arrive by ship at the dock and then, carrying their suitcases with everything they owned, would walk up the lawns to Yungaba, their first home in Australia,” my friend explained. “When I worked here though, they came by air and we would collect them from the airport.”There had been a magnificent front entrance facing the river to welcome arrivals.
In 1988, Yungaba was selected as Queensland’s first building to be entered on the National Estate Register maintained under the Cultural Record and in 1988, it was heritage listed.
We set off to the opposite end of the building and that’s when the two-legged watchdog caught us, told us off for trespassing and recommended we leave immediately.
It never felt like trespass.
With such a rich history, it seemed Yungaba should belong to the people, a perfect place for a museum recording that Queensland held the title of immigration of colony of Australia.
It’s a place for all those people who walked up the lawns carrying their suitcases to show their children and grandchildren and for those who recovered, worked or were protected there.
Its walls would have so many stories to tell of those who for more than a century called it their first Queensland home.
Sadly, the Queensland Government sold it a decade ago and Yungaba is now owned by a private development company that plans to turn this magnificent heritage-listed property into million dollar apartments.Apparently, it will be open twice a year to visitors, but I’m not betting on that.
So it may yet end up like the Raffles, a preserve only for those who can afford it. The difference is, visitors aren’t welcome and Yungaba will be forever locked away behind a security fence.
A close inspection therefore cannot be recommended, but look out for it from the decks of the CityCat or Hopper and enjoy the view of this grand old dame of times past from the river or the river path, which passes its elegant lawns at Kangaroo Point.