Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Here comes the ocean

I blogged about my favourite Lou Reed song back in June, after the great man had received a new liver, and had proclaimed himself 'bigger and stronger than ever'. Now he's dead, and another link with the cultural revolutions of the 1960s is lost.

This song might have been born in a New York basement, but it has the grandeur and grace of the Pacific Ocean, or Te Moana a Tonga, in its bones. So long Lou.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, October 28, 2013

The dangers of tattooing

Roald Dahl's 'Skin' tells the story of an elderly tramp named Drioli, who once ran a successful tattoo parlour frequented by a young and unknown painter named Chaim Soutine. One night, after the two men had shared a few drinks, Soutine had made a painting on Drioli's back, and then tattooed over the painting, preserving its lines and colours.

After happening upon a gallery and realising that his old friend has become a famous and very collectable painter, Drioli shows off the masterpiece on his back to a couple of patrons of the arts. One of them murders Drioli, removes the skin from the poor man's back, and flogs a previously-unknown Soutine to an enthusiastic auction house.

Dahl's typically unpleasant story ought to be a warning to my wife, who has just had a pattern designed by the Tongan artist Visesio Siasau tattooed on her back. Visesio held his first exhibition only four years ago, but he's early scoring some prestigious gigs in galleries far from Tonga, as well as shaking up his fellow Friendly Islanders with sculptures and tapa that manage, with their mixtures of Christian, pagan, and coruscatingly commercial imagery, to look both vastly old and radically new.
Visesio's portraits of a money-loving Jesus, an ancient shaman-king of Tonga, and a mysterious plant that seems to offer its cultivators both sugarcane and kava may have inspired acts of vandalism by members of his family, but they went down a treat last week in Shanghai, where he represented Tonga at an international art expo.

Was my wife wise to allow Visesio to make art on her back, given his steadily rising reputation and the sinister lesson that Roald Dahl offers in 'Skin'?
Cerian is not the first palangi to get tattooed in Tonga. George Vason arrived in 1797 with the original group of missionaries to bother the country, but quickly 'went native', chucking away his Bible, taking a wife or three, and charging through local wars. Vason was soon covered in tattoos, as his Tongan hosts marvelled at the contrast between his pale British skin and their blue ink.

Last week I met a charming old Italian gent who lives beside a lake-like stretch of Tongatapu's lagoon and paints large pop art canvases. In between serving me excellent coffee and discoursing on Italian Futurism, my host explained that he spent years travelling the Pacific acquiring tattoos. He rolled up his shirt and showed off the coiled and spiralled lines that the artists of various islands had left on his torso and his upper arms. The tattoos had faded and lost some of their edges, so that they looked curiously like the varicose veins that decorate the bodies of most people of his age.

On the small of his back, though, my host boasted a tattoo which had retained some of its original shape. It showed not some esoteric Polynesia pattern but that venerable icon of Western culture, Mickey Mouse.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Tongan democrats claim the America's Cup

When that venerable provocateur Jacques Derrida claimed that 'there is no insurance against the risk of writing', he was referring to the way that even the most apparently transparent text can be interpreted in strange and various ways. Jonathan Swift designed Gulliver's Travels as a sophisticated satire of eighteenth century travel writing; the book became a classic of children's literature. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four was aimed as much at capitalism as at Soviet Stalinism, but it soon became an 'anti-communist' classic, and a treasured weapon in the ideological arsenal of American Cold Warriors.

It is not only texts that can be interpreted in unexpected ways. Back in June I blogged about the way that, in the Pacific at least, John Rambo has become, despite the best intentions of his sweaty, nightmarish progenitor Sylvester Stallone, an anti-imperialist hero.

Now the America's Cup, that expensive and tedious regatta held by the richest and most unpleasant citizens of the First World, has become an inspiration to Tonga's pro-democracy movement:

'Aisake responded that the Bill was his own making, and it was his contribution to Tonga's democratization process. He likened his sudden push for more democracy for Tonga to the America's Cup yacht race, where against the odds, the USA won after implementing a few fundamental changes.

The America's Cup comparison according to the Minister of Internal Affairs, Lord Vaea, was out of sync with Tonga's political reform. The Chairman of the Whole House Committee Hon. Sunia Fili, pleaded with members to leave the America's Cup Yacht race...

As Team New Zealand learned last month, there is no insurance against the risk of sailing.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Hooning on Radio Tonga

I blogged earlier this year about Maikolo Horowitz's part-time job as a DJ for Tonga's public radio network. Maikolo's monthly classical music show, which is sponsored by the Vava'u Aacademy and by a couple of Nuku'alofa's more upmarket Italian restaurants, normally features the serene sounds of eighteenth and nineteenth century masters like Haydn and Chopin.

In the instalment which will be broadcast tomorrow (Wednesday) night, though, I storm Radio Tonga's studio and force Maikolo to spin discs by several contemporary composers. Dr Horowitz grumbles about the alleged dissonance of my offerings, and the show ends with me being escorted from the premises by burly security guards.

During the recording session for tomorrow night's show I dedicated John Adams' 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine' to the teenagers who hoon up and down Nuku'alofa's waterfront Vuna Road on Friday and Saturday nights in cars that manage to be both souped up and semi-derelict. It occurs to me now, though, that the finer meanings of  'hoon', a word which apparently has its origins in that incomprehensible dialect known as Kiwi vernacular English, might be lost on a Tongan audience. I hope that they can enjoy the music, even if their host is talking nonsense.

You can hear Maikolo and me from 8.30 pm Tonga time on Radio Tonga One, which streams online here.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Lines written in Nuku'alofa, beside the grave of Ulysses

Your vaka is a wheelbarrow
lying hull-up
at the back of the 'api,
between the warm corpses
of the umu pit
and the causarina's
broken nails.

Your barrow's blown-out tyres hang
sadly, like skins of the bananas
the bats suck clean.

Every year your craft slips
a millimetre deeper
into the coral soil,
soil which resembles
broken bone.

In a century the hull will be full
and you will begin your last journey,
carrying your load of bones home
to Hades, sinking
as bravely as you sailed.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Drinking ta'e for Eleanor Catton

I spent last night at a Nuku'alofa kava house known popularly as 'the Toilet Club', where patrons drink from a plastic bucket fitted with a toilet lid, and announce their readiness for another round by ringing a bell and shouting 'Pass the ta'e!' or 'Let there be ta'e!' (ta'e is the Tongan word for shit). Rammstein blasts from the speakers of the Toilet Club, and a Tongan flag adorned with a satirical swastika flutters in the breeze that blows in from Fanga'uta lagoon, a body of water which doubles as the Toilet Club's toilet.

The Toilet Club is the hangout for some of Nuku'alofa's most innovative young artists, who often doodle and scribble and splash paint until five in the morning, and so it seemed an appropriate place for me to toast Eleanor Catton, the young New Zealand literary innovator who has just won the Man Booker Prize for an eight hundred page novel composed according to rigorous and esoteric formal principles.

Catton's win is good news for every writer, in New Zealand and elsewhere, who has been browbeaten by the sort of philistine reviewers and editors who believe that a linear narrative, an unpretentious vocabulary, and a realistic view of the world are essential for literary success, and who think of readers as simple-minded creatures who will abandon a novel or poem or essay if it strays into thickets of linguistics and intellectual difficulty. Toilers like Bill Direen, who was scolded for not being friendly enough to readers by a particularly philistine reviewer, and Richard Taylor, who once got a letter of rejection from an editor who urged him to 'Write the way everyday people speak', ought to be chuffed at the success of Catton's big and difficult book.

The Toilet Club is located in Havelu, a poor suburb which seems to have become the locus for much of Nuku'alofa's creative energy. A couple of weeks ago I posted about the visit that Richard Von Sturmer and I made to the home-cum-studio of Visesio Siasau, the visionary Tongan artist who was preparing a series of massive and provocative tapa cloths for an exhibition in China. Visesio flew to Beijing on Monday, but before he left he was forced to show his wares to a panel made up of three members of Tonga's cabinet, which is dominated by nobles more interested in feasting and making real estate deals than in avant-garde art. I bought Visesio some drinks to help him recover from that ordeal. Let's be thankful that Eleanor Catton's novel didn't have to pass under the eyes of John Key before it went abroad!

Footnote: I have no idea why the formatting of this blog has changed, so that many headings are suddenly rendered in an ugly shade of blue, and the titles of posts are dwarfed by the dates on which the posts were made, and comments are, for some readers at least, impossible to make. Blogging is hard enough in Tonga without vandalism from I'll sort all these technical problems out when I come back to New Zealand in December, and in the meantime will try to limp on.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, October 04, 2013

Fiji, democracy, and superpower politics: a conversation with Maikolo Horowitz

[The ‘Atenisi Institute’s Maikolo Horowitz recently visited Fiji and New Caledonia to file reports on the political situation there for an American radio network. When Maikolo got back to Tonga I talked with him about his experiences in Fiji, and about his analysis of superpower politics in the Pacific.]

Maikolo: 2014 will be a fulcrum year in Pacific politics, with elections scheduled in Fiji and in New Caledonia. Fiji is supposed to emerge from military rule, and New Caledonian voters will be offered independence from Paris. I wanted to talk to some of the big political players in Noumea and Suva, and they were happy enough to chat, although some of the Fijians were – how can I put this? – looking over their shoulders. Journalists and lawyers gave me introductions and addresses, but didn’t want me to mention their names in my broadcasts.
Commodore Bainimarama claims to want to hand power to a democratically elected civilian government next year, but he is still running a dictatorship. And all of the significant political parties, not to mention the trade union movement, have criticised the constitution he recently unveiled. The document offers an amnesty to Bainimarama and everyone involved in his government, that it sets limits on freedom of speech, and that it makes many types of trade union activity illegal.
One day, on the streets of Suva, I watched as a peaceful protest against the constitution was dispersed. The protesters – there were a couple of hundred of them – had looked like they expected to be confronted with overwhelming state power, and they fled as soon as they were confronted by riot police armed with long batons and tear gas.
I talked with the head of the Methodist church, which used to be such a pillar of the Fijian establishment, and Mahendra Chaudhry, the leader of the Labour Party. The Methodist spoke venomously about Bainimarama, and repeatedly warned that the grassroots of his church might escape his control and seek an extra-parliamentary solution to the country’s problems. I was very impressed by Chaudhry – he’s an intellectual with considerable experience of trade union politics, and with his mixture of worldliness and erudition he reminded me of some of the great American left-wing leaders of the early twentieth century, like Norman Thomas or Eugene Debs. Chaudhry complained about the beating and jailing of Labour Party members. After experiencing the atmosphere on the streets of Suva, I didn’t find his allegations hard to believe.
Scott: After Chaudhry was ousted from the Prime Minister’s office by George Speight’s coup in 2000 even sympathetic commentators suggested that he had helped to bring about his fate by behaving in a high-handed manner. Did you find him arrogant?
Maikolo: Not at all. I think he is a very skilled communicator. He knew he was talking to an American radio audience, and he repeatedly used American anxieties about growing Chinese power to help justify his opposition to Bainimarama and to the new constitution. Bainimarama has grown close to China, accepting Chinese aid and trade as Fiji copes with Australian and New Zealand sanctions, and taking China’s side at the United Nations. Chaudhry criticised Bainimarama for the breakdown in Fiji’s traditionally good relations with Australasia and America, and promised to restore those relationships.
Scott: Chaudhry’s relations with Bainimarama haven’t always been so cool. He initially served in the government the commodore set up after his coup.
Maikolo: They’ve obviously fallen out. I would characterise Bainimarama as, in Marxist terms, a Bonapartist ruler – a ‘man on a white horse’, who rode in to save the nation in the midst of a crisis. Bainimarama may initially have had a degree of popular support, but he has grown increasingly isolated and authoritarian, and now seems to be opposed by a large majority of Fijians.
Scott: I think Bainimarama can be compared and contrasted with Hugo Chavez. Both men were able to enter politics through the military because of the way in which the armed forces had achieved a special status in their respective countries. In Venezuela the military was seen as the friend of the people and the guardian of democracy; in Fiji it was created as an outlet for indigenous males excluded from the modern economy, and was allowed to grow until it had become a state within the state –
Maikolo: But Bainimarama isn’t Chavez.
Scott: No. Chavez tried gaining power through a coup, but then got elected. After the old Venezuelan establishment and the Americans jumped on him, he built up a mass movement of the urban and rural poor as a counterweight, and found himself under pressure from this movement, until he ended up offering his supporters more and more radical reforms, like the nationalisation of businesses and the redistribution of land. Bainimarama faced opposition from the Methodist church and traditionally powerful indigenous Fijian chiefs, and began by trying to build an alliance against those opponents – besides Chaudhry’s Labour Party, he turned to Fiji’s Catholic and Muslim communities, which have traditionally been marginalised by the Methodists. But he fell out with many of his early allies, and doesn’t seem to have been willing or able to build a mass base. Bainimarama has increasingly stacked his government with members of the military.
Maikolo: Bainimarama has presented himself as the protector of Fiji’s Indians, who were undoubtedly discriminated against by the Qarase regime he overthrew, and as the enemy of the Great Council of Chiefs, the faux-traditional body set up by British colonisers late in the nineteenth century. But the Indo-Fijians I talked with, including of course Chaudhry, were very negative about Bainimarama, and Fijians in general regarded the chiefs as yesterday’s men.
Scott: While you were away yet another newspaper appeared here in Nuku’alofa. One of the first issues of the Tonga Daily News – the title is deceptive, as the paper has only been turning up once a week – included an interview with the Catholic Archbishop of Suva, Peter Chong, who argued that Bainimarama, for all his rhetoric about reforming Fiji, had retained the essence of the country’s old political system.
Chong said that Fijian politics have typically featured a clique of leaders who distribute largesse to a set of clients. In the pre-Bainimarama era, most of those leaders were members or close associates of the Great Council of Chiefs; today, they tend to come from the military. Chong characterised the Qarase regime as ‘corrupt and racist’, but insisted that Bainimarama had simply made the military, rather than the Great Council, into the ‘institution of patronage’.
Maikolo: And arguably Bainimarama himself has become a client of a foreign patron – China.
Scott: Bainimarama’s constitution is so controversial that any democratically elected government is likely to amend or abrogate it. Bainimarama overthrew an elected government, albeit a government elected with the help of gerrymandering and race-baiting, and he has used violence and rigorous censorship of the press to maintain his rule. If the amnesty he has given himself in the new constitution is revoked, then he might well face a long spell in prison. Bainimarama has an interest, then, in holding onto power. Dictators don’t always enjoy long and pleasant retirements.
Why, given his situation, hasn’t Bainimarama formed a political party to contest next year’s elections? With the muscle of the state on its side, and perhaps some residual support from enemies of the old order, such a party would presumably have a chance of helping to form the next government.
Maikolo: I asked Chaudhry a similar question. He told me that he thinks Bainimarama’s failure to form a party is a sign that the elections will not be held.
Scott: Australia and New Zealand reliably act as American proxies in the Pacific: is their dispute with Bainimarama, who has become such a close ally of China, another episode in the new Cold War that Washington and Beijing are waging in this part of the world?
Maikolo: American diplomats are careful not to talk about China as an enemy. There is no question, though, that the two superpowers are vying for influence in the Pacific. Fiji is, in Pacific terms, an important place – it dwarfs the Polynesian nations to its east like Tonga. The Australasian hostility to Bainimarama has opened the door for Chinese influence over his government. China is funding major pieces of infrastructure in Fiji like dams, and helping counter the effects of the Australasian economic sanctions.
An interesting parallel can be seen in Tonga, where an unpopular government, which was formed by the nobility against the will of the people, is surviving by going into debt with China. Chinese are e verywhere, raising buildings and running shops. Both Fiji and Tonga have traditionally been close allies of Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, and many Fijians and Tongans are distressed by the rising influence of China and the declining influence of the old allies. There is a great fear of China, which is seen as culturally alien and rapacious. Chaudhry is canny enough to play on this fear, and in Tonga the Democratic Party, which won the support of seventy percent of voters at the last election and should be in government, is also lining up behind the old allies and warning about China.
Scott: In the latest issue of Ko e Kelea Viliami Taufa, who generally seems to reflect the thinking of the Democratic Party, asks in apparent seriousness whether the Chinese annexation of Tonga is imminent. Taufa raises good questions about whether Tonga can afford more and more loans – or ‘gifts’, as the nobles now seem to call them – from China, but his anti-Beijing rhetoric seems almost hysterical, as well as potentially dangerous, given the series of anti-Chinese riots we’ve seen in the Pacific over the last decade.
I don’t understand the thought process which leads to the conclusion that America and its puppets Australia and New Zealand are benign powers, while China is a grave threat. We only have to look at the history of Anzac imperialism in the Pacific, from the disastrous New Zealand colonisation of Samoa to –
Maikolo: But that’s history, and probably not relevant to anyone in Tonga and Fiji. Don’t forget that Tonga was never really colonised.
Scott: Well, let’s consider the relative abilities of China and America to intervene in the twenty-first century Pacific. China has of course a burgeoning economy, and can throw money at small island nations in the hope of influencing them. But China’s economy is still smaller than that of America, and China still spends considerably less on aid to the Pacific than Australia, America’s key ally here.
China has little way of guaranteeing the loyalty of its newfound friends in the Pacific – we’ve seen, for instance, some island states switching their allegiance backwards and forwards between China and Taiwan, in search of the richest harvest of aid – whereas America and its allies have all sort of institutional resources available to discipline allies who go ‘astray’. We’ve seen Fiji suspended from the Pacific Forum, we’ve seen New Zealand using its constitutional powers over Niue’s foreign policy to twist the arm of that country when it got too friendly with China, we’ve seen the World Trade Organisation discipline Samoa when it attempted to put controls on food imports. And America and its allies can ultimately resort to violence against errant Pacific states, because, unlike China, they have a network of bases across the regions.
Of course China is growing more powerful, both economically and militarily, but a coalition of medium sized powers can thwart a new superpower which doesn’t have the global military and economic infrastructure the United States relies upon. China recently got into a dispute with Japan over some islands, and the whole of southeast Asia seemed to jump to Japan’s defence –
Maikolo: Because, like Pacific Islanders, they are terrified of China’s growing power!
Scott: I would have thought that the entry of a new superpower into the Pacific region would give small states additional options, when they seek crumbs from the table of the developed world and try to hold back nastier aspects of capitalist globalisation.
Maikolo: As you know we have a fundamental difference of opinions about the Pacific. You’re a romantic who reads Marx’s late writings and thinks that societies on the periphery of the global economy can bypass the stage of capitalist development and build something like socialism on the foundations of pre-capitalist modes of production, like the primitive modes of production that still exist in Tonga.
I’m a realist who agrees with Marx’s earlier statements that capitalism is an essential prerequisite for anything better. Tonga needs more capitalism not less. Bring on the Democratic Party and open up the economy, I say – but make sure that the new wealth is captured as tax revenue and benefits the wider population. If Chinese largesse is just delaying the inevitable by allowing a dysfunctional, moribund semi-capitalist economy to limp on, then Chinese largesse is a bad thing.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton] 

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

There is no depression in Tonga

Apologies for the lack of posts here over the past week. Skyler, Aneirin, and I have been hosting the Kiwi auteur, write, actor and Zen Buddhist Richard Von Sturmer, who has escaped the cold spring weather and post-America's Cup recriminations of his homeland for the heat, quarried reefs, and overgrown monuments of Tongatapu.

Richard is hoping that, while he snorkels and drinks kava here in Tonga, one of his best-known works will be earning him money in New Zealand. Back in 1981 he and his mate Don McGlahlan wrote a sarcastic punk anthem called 'There Is No Depression in New Zealand' as a protest against the repressive government of Rob Muldoon. The song became a hit for McGlashlan's band Blam Blam Blam, and it still turns up on telly and the radio whenever God's Own Country is in a particularly mordant mood. As his countrymen mourn the failure of their Cup challenge, Richard is expecting more royalty cheques.

The other day we took Richard to Visesio Siasau's studio in Haveluloto, a village-cum-suburb-of-Nuku'alofa that sits beside a particularly polluted stretch of Fanga'uta lagoon. Visesio is living with his Catholic parents on a narrow street of crushed coral dominated by born-again Mormons whose contempt for alcohol is only matched by their appetite for kava. Twenty-five Mormons live in the husked vehicles and half-built cottage of the section beside the Siasau property.

One of Visesio's latest tapa cloths hung in the still air at the front his family home; with its portraits of a demented, debauched Tongan king and a Jesus branded with dollar signs, it might have been the banner of a besieged rebel. Visesio usually works in three dimensions, and a series of sculpted figures - a louche Virgin Mary, a gaudy Jesus, pagan Gods with painfully large erections - lay on a long table, waiting to be introduced to one another.

As we sat over coffee on his family's verandah, where more tapa cloths were drying, Visesio explained that he was working late into the night as he prepared for an upcoming exhibition in China, where he will have the difficult job of representing contemporary Tongan culture. He will have to present all of his China-bound work to a panel made up of three members of the Tongan Cabinet, a body not known for its appreciation of serious art.

Visesio was more worried, though, about the reaction of his mother to his new creations. "She came out late last night, saw what I was working on, and began to scratch at the tapa" he confessed, in a suddenly low voice. "She wanted to erase the images. My mother told me that she put me on a bike as a child, teaching me about the church, giving me rosary beads to fondle. Now she says I have fallen off the bike."

As Visesio spoke a woman with a shock of white hair limped onto the verndah, leaned slowly over, and carefully peeled a long sliver of paint off the concrete floor. When she had straightened up again, I told Mrs Siasau how highly I value her son's work, and what an honour it is for him to represent his country in China. "He has a lot of ideas" she replied, tapping the top of her forehead with a curled finger and grinning wryly. "A lot of ideas. Sometimes too many."

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]