Welcome to Tonga: Kingdom of fantasy

by Stevan Eldred-Grigg / 15 March, 2017

Stevan Eldred-Grigg takes the pulse of Tongatapu, island hub of one of the world’s strangest kingdoms.

A white tropical beach curves lazily alongside the blue waters of a lagoon while a ragged man sweats in a taro patch. Waves break on a coral reef. A maimed pig drags its rump through mudflats. Fragrant flowers. Rusty hovels. A pretty young woman, head held back while she walks slowly down a village street, smiles serenely. A village boy begs for a dollar. A fakaleiti, iridescent nail polish on his powerful feet, scrounges booze and fags off a paunchy Palangi with shifty eyes.

Welcome to what tourist brochures call “Tonga, the True South Pacific”.

Tongatapu, the main island of the kingdom of Tonga, is a flattish slab of limestone not 40km long. The island has been gently tilted towards the sun by tectonics. Rocky cliffs crop up along the southern coast. Inlets where warm water wanders through mangroves can be found on the northern coast. The people of the island number close to 80,000, nearly all Tongan, but also many Fijians, a big community of Chinese shopkeepers, and some Indians and Palangi.

Seini, who meets me at the airport, drives a cab. She takes turns driving it with her husband. A lithe, wiry woman in her early 40s, yet looking well over 50, she sports a hibiscus blossom behind her ear. The couple have six youngsters and live in a modest little house of wood and corrugated iron on a leased section in town, where they run a few chooks. Seini studied at the University of the South Pacific for two years but dropped out to have her first baby.

“We should eat the chickens,” says her husband, Vevoni.

“They’re too little,” she tells him.

“When they’re big enough,” he answers, “there won’t be any left to eat!”

The neighbours keep nabbing them and popping them into their own cooking pots. Seini won’t protest to the neighbours about the chicken rustling. That’s not the Tongan way. Seini and Vevoni and their kids are poor, but so are the neighbours. Seini’s son, when he comes home from school, always asks the same question: “Did you make money today?”

Often the answer is no. Tongans can seldom afford a cab; tourists who can are few.

The government of Tonga wants tourists. What do tourists want? On the whole, they don’t want reality, they want fantasy. Tonga tries to cater to the fantasy. And the white beaches in the brochures are real. The flowers are fragrant. The palms do nod. The women are often strikingly beautiful – and the men often strikingly handsome. Some tourists and a lot of Tongans love Tonga.

“Tongans have lots of natural things,” says Besi, a young mother who works as a cook, “and the Tongan people are very friendly.”

“Yes,” I say. “What don’t you like about Tonga?”

She looks puzzled, then laughs shyly. “There’s no not-good here. Everything is good here.”

Tonga’s King Tupou VI and Queen Nanasipau’u are driven to the Royal Palace during the coronation ceremony, July

Tongatapu has been home to a complex society far longer than New Zealand. Massive stone tombs, terraced like pyramids, were built for a dynasty of its kings in the 13th century, when in faraway Aotearoa a few first bands of settlers were setting to work burning the forests and hunting. The first people landed in Tongatapu nearly 3000 years ago.

Yet the kingdom is poor. Although the royal family has money, and chiefs often have money, the commoners on the whole make do with very little. Capital is lacking to farm the land or fish the seas and people are by far the most valuable export. The talented, the eager and, above all, the young head for what they hope are the bright lights of Auckland, Toronto and Sydney. Remittances from family members living overseas are the main income of many households. Aid from foreign states, together with those remittances, are key to keeping the economy solvent.

Who gives the aid? Only four countries have diplomatic representation in Tonga: New Zealand, Australia, Japan and China. Japanese aid is obvious everywhere. The best hospital in the kingdom has been upgraded as a gift from Japan. A village school near where I stay bears a sign spelling out that a new classroom and bathroom block is a gift “From the People of Japan”. I strike up an acquaintance with three businessmen from Nagoya. They are looking into the possibility of importing used Toyota cars to the kingdom directly, rather than through New Zealand. China also is present everywhere in the little country. Real Tonga, the domestic airline, runs a Chinese passenger plane given to the company by Beijing. The government of China has paid for resurfacing all the main highways of Tongatapu.

Jan, a white woman from a middle-class suburb near Wellington, patting her bobbed hair, fiddling with a silver necklace and bracelet, sits opposite my place at a resort dining table.

“What are they doing down here?” she hisses, just out of hearing of the Japanese businessmen and leaning forward with anxious confidentiality. “Getting ready for a war?”

Jan seems not to question our own presence, foreigners from New Zealand. Nor, when I ask her a follow-up question, does she seem to think that Japan gives money to its Pacific neighbours out of generosity of spirit. Tokyo, she believes, is plotting. She saves her worst fears for China.

“The Chinese are buying up everything,” she says, “just like in New Zealand.”

A mild elderly Chinese man strolls by, his fingertips knitted crossed loosely behind his back in a way familiar to anyone who knows Singapore, Vancouver or Shanghai.

“Next,” adds Jan, still jingling her jewellery, “it’ll be soldiers and bombers!”

Joseph, Indo-Fijian, a qualified steam-boiler engineer who now works as an odd-job man, has settled down here with his young wife and newborn baby girl. He talks to me next day about how he has come to get away from the emotional demands of the big extended families of Indian society, and the interracial tensions of Fiji.

“I love Tonga and want it to be home for my small family,” he says. “Tonga is very calm.”

 Interracial tension is not unknown on Tongatapu, however, because many Tongans share with Jan from Wellington an uneasy feeling about newcomers from China. A riot in 2006 turned many Chinese shops, restaurants and other businesses into smoking rubble, after shelves had been looted by angry crowds. Yet a good many Tongans feel badly about the riot. The Chinese have a lot to offer, they think. Chinese thrift, hard work and love of family are praised widely. Seini believes that she and her fellow citizens can learn many useful social and economic skills from the Chinese.

“We need to organise ourselves better, to use our land and our sea better,” she says, shaking her head at the memory of the race riot. “China can help us to not be poor.”

Ben, an athletic young man, thinks the way to stop being poor is to clear out. The big money, he believes, is to be made in New Zealand.

“You got a wife?” he asks me with a grin.

“I’m single,” I say, “and gay.”

“You want a boyfriend?” he goes on eagerly. “I want a Kiwi boyfriend or girlfriend so I can go to New Zealand.”

“Do you like guys?” I ask.

He looks down at the ground, which is alive with amber ants. “I like girl and I like boy,” he tries out. “You got a sister?”

The churches of the kingdom would look askance at this conversation, because priests and pastors know that sex between men leads to hellfire, and the kingdom officially lives in awe of pastors and priests. The Free Church of Tonga, the Methodists, the Catholics, the Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists levy a tithe of up to 10 per cent on the scanty incomes of poor households in order to build huge showy churches and huge showy houses for the clergy.

Seini points to the new residence of a Methodist parson, which she calls the “Million Dollar Mansion”. Christianity is very much at odds with many of the traditional values of Tonga. Often the rigid dogma of the churches seems to be nothing more than a cloak of conformity trying, not very successfully, to stifle a lively continuation of ancient folkways.

Finau, for example, is a fakaleiti, a fit young man who dresses as a man but lives as a woman. He speaks softly – as do most men in Tonga – but doubtless can throw a punch in a bar brawl if he finds himself the butt of mockery. He wears his long hair in a topknot.

“You got a wife?” he asks.

The question is common in Tonga.

“No, I’m single,” I say. “I like being single.”

Finau, saddened, looks at me in a steady sort of way. “Single is lonely,” he says. “Tonga men just sex and go, and I want a husband and live in New Zealand and send money to my mum.”

Seini, meanwhile, is looking forward to a big reunion to be held the following month by the graduates of her former high school. Plane-loads of graduates, hauling chilly-bins laden with frozen lamb and pork, and suitcases bulging with gifts for friends and family, will be winging their way homewards from New Zealand, Australia, Canada, California and Germany. A week of embracing and kissing will follow, together with feasting and singing – and dancing.

Seini’s eyes sparkle at the thought of all this friendship and food and alofa. She and Vevoni will park and lock their cab and dress up in what little they have in the way of finery.

“We won’t do taxi, we will dance,” she says, laughing. “Dance the night away!”

 Welcome to Tonga.                   

This was published in the February 2017 issue of North & South.
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