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From the archives: A tale of two boys

From the archives

Steve Askin, the pilot who died fighting the Port Hills fires in Christchurch on Tuesday, was once a symbol of New Zealand’s nationhood. Here we look back at when Joanna Wane went to meet him in 2009.

Steve Askin and Wayne Tuapawa, during filming of the 1990 TV campaign, created to be a 'visual metaphor' for New Zealand.

In 1990, on the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the bond between two young boys – a Maori and a Pakeha – became a symbol of the kind of country we wanted New Zealand to be. Over the years, Joanna Wane had often wondered what happened to Stevie and Peewee. So she decided to find out.

The pier at Tolaga Bay stretches out into the ocean like a highway to nowhere. One false step and you could fall right off the edge of the world.

Railway tracks inset into the concrete once carried goods to ships that linked the East Cape to greater spoils, but the 660m pier is just a curiosity now, gathered into the soft curve of the bay with its towering chalk-faced cliffs.

The sea greens and deepens as you head out along the pier, but for several long minutes the end never seems to get any closer and it’s as if you’re walking and walking without actually moving at all. Stuck in paradise, going nowhere – like Tolaga Bay.

In this tale of two boys, here is where the story of one of them begins. A sickly brat, says Effie Tuapawa of her grandson, whose parents struggled to cope with him on top of the four children they already had. So he came to live with her when he was six months old and she’d got fed up with them banging on her door in the middle of the night with a wailing baby.

“He was always crying, crying, but as soon as he came here he wasn’t tangitangi [grizzly] with me,” she says, all the love right there in her rough words and cracked voice as she sits out front of the house she’s lived in for more than 40 years. Wrapped in long slacks, socks and woolly slippers despite the fierce sun, she’s 80 this year and feels the cold in her bones. “He went everywhere with me, eh? Stuck to me like glue.”

His parents named him Wayne but everyone calls him Peewee, after one of Effie’s sons who died at 29 – the same age her grandson is now. And when director Lee Tamahori went scouting for a young Maori kid to star alongside a blond, blue-eyed boy from Ruatoria in a TV campaign designed to be a “visual metaphor for New Zealand”, Peewee was one of a dozen he chose to audition. “He had a handsome face and this unbelievable smile – a classic example of beautiful young Maoridom,” says Tamahori. “We’d already nailed Stevie [Askin] so when the two boys clicked, I thought, ‘Man, this’ll do me.’” 

Arsons, abductions, confrontations with armed police… in the late eighties Ruatoria burned as more than 60 buildings, including the courthouse and police station, were torched in a long-running dispute over land between Pakeha property owners and a group of Rastafarians who’d swapped Bibles for firebombs.

The shooting of Rasta leader Chris Campbell by farmer Luke Donnelly (later acquitted of murder on the grounds of self-defence) was yet to come. But it’s no wonder people thought Paul Askin was mad when the Baptist pastor and his wife decided to move there from the genteel plains of Canterbury to raise their four children in a more multicultural environment.

“We shifted in August 1988, right at the height of all the Rastafarian mayhem,” re-calls Askin, who taught at the local high school. “People thought we were irresponsible. Or crazy. But I had a feeling there was another story behind the news and we found a neat community of people with some wonderful folk.”

A liberal philosophy didn’t protect his children from being threatened and hassled when they first arrived – whiteys coming in as foreigners to the town – but life settled down after the family shifted from the school house to a rented station on the out-skirts of Ruatoria, and they ended up staying for six years before moving south to Gisborne.

Askin reckons all his kids remember their years on the coast warmly and are better Kiwis for it. “Growing up in a place like that, where you’re very much in a minority, is a wonderful thing. You get a broader picture of New Zealand when you see it through some other eyes and a deeper understanding of what this nation really is. We’re not a little piece of England that got lost in the South Pacific.”

When Tamahori turned up with a production crew, Once Were Warriors, his feature film debut, was yet to come, too. But he already had mana as an award-winning commercials director for Flying Fish Productions – known for drawing out natural performances from acting talent – and as a local Maori boy made good. His father, Philip, was born up the coast (although there’s nothing but a road now where the old township used to be).

It was 1989, the year before New Zealand would mark the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Even the Governor-General at the time, Sir Paul Reeves, had to be told what a “sesquicentennial” was. But as the country approached what was already promising to be a divisive year, the aim behind the Government-appointed New Zealand 1990 Commission’s TV campaign to create a spirit of goodwill and unity appealed to Askin, whose 10-year-old son Steve was one of the few blond boys in town.

“I liked the message, that the treaty was a partnership and about trying to honour both sides. Some people felt it glossed over the realities. But having Lee – he’s a local boy, a Maori man with some links to the community – he wasn’t going to be part of some Uncle Tom kind of thing.”

Steve Askin serving as a commercial helicopter pilot in North Canterbury. Photo/ Guy Frederick -North & South archive

He won’t name the town, but Reeves was visiting Southland as Governor-General when one of the local mayors told him his community didn’t have any social problems “because we have no Maori here”. Reeves explodes with laughter. “I wanted to say, ‘Well, one has come to town!’”

The eighties were a volatile time in New Zealand, as economic upheaval fuelled social unrest. The Waitangi Tribunal was seen as a Maori grievance gravy train, private property owners feared a new land grab, and activist Eva Rickard talked of receiving hate mail and death threats.

When Prime Minister David Lange asked Reeves to become Governor-General, he warned him that it would mean he’d have to deal with the 1990 sesquicentennial. By Waitangi Day, of course, Lange had gone and it was on Geoffrey Palmer’s watch that a wet T-shirt thrown by a protester who’d broken through security narrowly missed the Queen.

Reeves considers the stirring speech given that day by the Anglican Bishop of Aotearoa, the Rt Rev Whakahuihui Vercoe – who spoke of Maori being marginalised as treaty partners – as one of the great sermons of the 20th century.

“In terms of Maori aspiration, one year the catch cry would be ‘The treaty is a fraud’; the next it was ‘Honour the treaty.’ So there was ambivalence there. But beyond those phrases was always a sense that the treaty itself had an integrity which we had to find.”

In mid-1989, race relations was one of the top three social issues concerning New Zealanders. The treaty was a divisive force which polarised public opinion, and early research showed the 1990 Commission’s initial push to have it recognised as the nation’s founding document had only intensified that divide. Less than half of those surveyed considered the treaty important, while research dating back to 1987 revealed only seven per cent of people had actually read it.

Wellington ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi was called in to come up with a rescue package. The new “Stevie and Peewee” campaign won crucial support from Reeves and the much-loved Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu, who both agreed to voice the ads as representatives of the Crown and Maori. (The scripts were the work of another young rising talent, Jill Brinsdon, who now runs her own brand-strategy company, Radiation, in Auckland.)

The first commercial was filmed over several days in glorious winter sunshine at Anaura Bay, just north of Tolaga, and captured what Reeves describes as the “challenging innocence” of children. There was no structured shot list, no wardrobe department, makeup artist or acting coach. Instead, Tamahori let the cameras roll as the two boys (Stevie the quieter one; Peewee a natural clown) simply did what Kiwi boys do – skipping stones into the water, splashing in the waves and feasting on mussels cooked on an open fire.

For Tamahori, a self-styled “mongrel”  with a Maori father and Pakeha mother, the images echoed his own childhood. “I’ve straddled both cultures and know the best and worst of both of them,” he says. “When I shot that commercial, I put all that aside and put myself in my own shoes as a young kid when we were white boys from Tawa going up for holidays with my Maori cousins in those very same places.

“Going eeling, building a fire on the sand – those are the kind of things we did. When you’re a Pakeha from Wellington, you have no idea how brilliant all that is for a young boy. And that’s the kind of spirit with which we entered into it.”

That commercial began screening nationwide in late 1989. By Waitangi Day 1990, public perceptions had largely reversed, with 60 per cent of New Zealanders considering the treaty to still have importance today and 72 per cent seeing it as a symbol of unity and national understanding.

As the year drew to a close, more than 30 per cent of people claimed to have read the original document’s 418 words (published in brochures and newspapers as part of a nationwide education campaign) and as a social concern, race relations had dropped out of the top six. But that opening of minds had first required a change of heart, and in the end that came down to something as pure and simple as two boys on a beach.

Steve Askin  in 2009. Photo/ Guy Frederick -North & South archive

 Tracking down Peewee was easy. “I’m his auntie,” said the woman who answered the very first phone number listed for “Tuapawa” in Tolaga Bay. “I’ll just go and get him.”

A few weeks later we’re eating crayfish mixed with mayonnaise on white bread for
lunch in the weathered house Effie Tuapawa shares with her daughter’s family – right next door to Peewee.

Almost 20 years on, the cheeky grin and friendly, open face look the same, but somewhere along the line Peewee stopped growing. “Steve’s probably taller than me now,” he laughs. “I used to tower over him back then.”

Apart from a month in Wellington, where he felt like a fish out of water, Peewee has spent his whole life in Tolaga Bay, working in the forestry industry until starting a building apprenticeship last year. Last January he married Jocelyn, who was a year ahead of him at the local area school, where she now works as a teacher aid. The couple have two little girls, Tapuhi, seven, and D’vante, four. 

Filming with Stevie was fun – “It was like I had known him for years” – even though the sea was freezing and he hated eating those mussels, which he pretended to chew then spat out onto the sand when no one was looking. (Stevie loved them and ate so many the supply ran out before filming finished and the crew had to dash into Tolaga Bay to buy some more.)

One of his aunties still calls him their movie star. But travelling to Auckland – where he and Stevie spent New Year’s Eve 1989 at a launch party on Bastion Point – and later to Wellington to film another ad was the real adventure for a country kid who’d never been on a plane or ridden on an escalator before.

The boys stayed in touch for a while but Ruatoria and Tolaga Bay were worlds apart and they lost contact after leaving school. The last Peewee heard was that Stevie had joined the Army. “One of the bros was back for a funeral and told me they were stationed together. Steve found out he was from Tolaga and asked if he knew me.”

Finding Stevie was a stroke of luck. The Askin family had eventually moved back to Canterbury and no one left at the school in Ruatoria remembered them. However, a search on the internet turned up an “S. Askin” who’d competed in a swim-run event in Auckland a few years back and seemed about the right age. The organisers still had his mobile number and suddenly there he was, on the other end of the line.

After two stints as a soldier, including tours of duty in Timor and the Middle East, and a trip to England (which he didn’t like any more than Peewee liked Wellington), he’s now flying helicopters for Way to Go Heliservices in Rangiora, where the airfield sits in wide, open space flanked by the Southern Alps.

“Would you like a brew?” he asks. It’s 8am and he’s spent the night on frost-watch at a local vineyard so he’s talking coffee, not beer, and we head outside with steaming mugs to talk in the sun.

Arms folded, boots crossed at the ankle, he’s friendly enough but guarded and watchful – the epitome of a laconic Southern man.

He doesn’t recall much about filming the commercials – “I can’t remember what I thought and felt a week ago” – and says he and Peewee were just normal kids. “But looking at that photo, yeah, there are some memories attached. If I was up that way I’d call in and say hello.”

Steve loved growing up on the coast as much as he now loves living near the mountains, steering clear of town and close to his family. He got married last January too, but doesn’t have children yet. Right now he’s got his eye on China, where the heli industry is in its infancy and there might be good opportunities in a few years’ time for a young man with the right attitude.

“I’ll stay here a few more years, learn the ropes, cement my marriage. Get that good,” he says. “I don’t like telling people I want to be a key player. But I aim pretty high.”

In a few years’ time, Peewee might be moving on from Tolaga Bay, too. It’s a tight community, he says. People look out for one another and keep the young ones in line. “Gisborne is different; they’re pretty stuck-up, those fellas. Not like Coasties.”

But for many it’s a choice between forestry and the dole. All his childhood mates except one have already gone – several of them to Australia – and his wife, Jocelyn, sees the chance of a better future for their daughters there. “Tolaga Bay isn’t really going anywhere,” she says. “And if it doesn’t work out, we can always come home.”

Later, Peewee walks me past the vege garden to the river that runs along the back of the house, where he takes his girls fishing. Jocelyn knows he won’t leave while Effie is still alive – “I love her hard” – and seeing the beauty of this place and the warmth of its people, it seems so wrong that he should have to.

When the 1990 Commission produced its first commemorative brochure, the only multicultural images of New Zealanders that could be found showed Maori either in traditional costume or eating burgers outside McDonald’s. The photograph finally used was part of a crowd shot taken at a rugby test match.

Almost two decades of change since then have seen a swathe of treaty settlements
and recognition of Maori as not just people with needs, but also with assets. (“The
fish!” says Sir Paul Reeves. “Just think of the fish!”) And despite a fierce but short-lived backlash in 2004 after former National leader Don Brash’s inflammatory Orewa speech, continuing debate over the treaty’s enduring meaning now has its roots in mainstream acceptance. A new book by former law professor Matthew Palmer – a Deputy Solicitor-General and son of Sir Geoffrey Palmer – calls for the treaty to be given binding status in law.

After witnessing the racial divisions endemic in the United States, Tamahori likes what he sees happening here. “Hone Harawira is in Parliament now – he and his mother, people wanted to burn them at the stake! And I’ve been astonished at how reasonable a politician he is; how the Maori Party has come to be something worth reckoning with, and has a sophistication of tone and style that’s something to be admired. When you get to the core of it, that’s what this country is about: judging people by their actions and behaviour, not on the colour of their skin.”

The bond between Stevie and Peewee became the enduring symbol of 1990, with the boys filming two more commercials that year. And although their lives have taken different paths, and despite the distance that separates them from mountain to sea, in many ways they’re still kindred spirits. Both remain as close to their families as they do to the land, and believe this is a country where everyone has the same chance to make a go of their lives – even if you have to leave paradise to do it.

“You make your own luck,” says Steve, giving a flick of his head towards a nut-brown hare loping across the frost-covered grass. “But I love living here. I’ll always come back.”

“I love it here,” says Peewee, and you can see in both their eyes the same light and spark of those boys who raced down the sand dunes together, living the moment as they wrote their own script.

“That’s why it’s so hard to leave. But New Zealand will always be in my heart, especially this place. I wish everywhere could be like Tolaga Bay. It’s just the way it should be.”             


The original article was published in the February 2009 issue of North & South.
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