Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Looking for the horizon

I'll be spending one of the first days of the New Year on the Hauraki Plains, helping Brett Cross, who has developed an interest in the region's contribution to aviation and maritime history, search farm drains and peat swamps for the bones of World War Two corsairs and nineteenth century schooners. If Brett and I can con a geiger counter from a handy nuclear scientist, then we might even test a couple of acres of soil near Ngatea for the dose of radiation that the landing gear of a flying saucer supposedly left in 1969.

I will probably spend some of my day with Brett staring west, at the Hakarimata and Hapuakohe Ranges, which together stand like a wall between the plains and the Waikato River.

Like so many New Zealanders, I was raised amidst hills and valleys and trees, and sometimes feel lost and a little dizzy on a bare plain. In the same way that a disoriented yachtie might search a horizon for a familiar reef or star, I have to check the unease that flat barren country gives me by looking into the distance for hills or, better still, mountains. The Hakarimata-Hapuakohes only rise a few hundred metres, and are covered in regrowth forest and scrub, but set beside the yellowing dairy farms, gravel pits, and peat swamps of the Waikato they seem massive and primordially green.

I took this photo of the Hakarimatas from Gordonton Road, which flows southwest from State Highway One below the sacred maunga of Taupiri, past a dairy farmers' golf course and the ancient marae of Hukanui, into the bleak new northern suburbs of Hamilton. About this time last year, Gordonton Road began to lose traffic to the new four lane expressway Steve Joyce built between Hamilton and Taupiri township. Where Gordonton Road is adorned with bends and dips and rises, Joyce's expressway is determinedly flat and straight.

Without their shoals of commuters and daytrippers, Gordonton and nearby roads sometimes have the melancholy tranquility of estuaries at low tide.

If you're driving through the Waikato this holiday season, you might enjoy avoiding Steve Joyce's four lanes and giving the old roads your custom.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

It's 'Akilisi!

This is my favourite photograph of 'Akilisi Pohiva, the long-time leader of Tonga's Democratic Party who has just become Prime Minister of Polynesia's only continuously independent nation.

At Tonga's recent election, 'Akilisi's party won ten of the seventeen seats on the general roll; the others went to independents. The remaining nine seats in parliament are allotted to nobles, and most commentators expected the nobles to unite with independent MPs and form a government that excluded 'Akilisi. There was a precedent for this sort of manoeuvre: at Tonga's 2010 general election the Democratic Party won twelve of the seventeen seats available to commoners, but was defeated when the noble MP Lord Tu'ivakano fumbled together an anti-'Akilisi coalition.

The 2010 general election was the first to be held under constitutional changes that allowed for commoners to elect a majority of MPs. These changes were won after decades of protest by commoners against the privileges of Tonga's royal family and its nobles. In 2005 public sector workers staged an epic strike against the status quo, and twenty thousand people - a fifth of the country's entire population - marched through the streets of Nuku'alofa to demand democracy. In 2006 another pro-democracy demonstration turned into a riot, and scores of capital's shops were looted and burned.

In 2010, many Tongans saw Tu'ivakano's power grab as a betrayal of the spirit of Tonga's revised constitution, and a defeat for the pro-democracy movement. Tu'ivakano's government was widely criticised as corrupt and inefficient, and several of its members fell from power amidst scandals.

In the lead-up to Tonga's recent election, 'Akilisi insisted that his party needed to win all seventeen of the seats available to commoners, in order to forestall any new manoeuvres by the nobles. After the Democratic Party fell far short of its goal many of its supporters looked forward gloomily to another term in opposition.

When parliament convened yesterday, though, five MPs outside the Democratic Party sided with 'Akilisi, so that he had enough votes to form a government.

It is not clear what sort of policies Tonga's new government will pursue. Ever since he lost his state sector job in the 1980s for criticising Tonga's establisment, 'Akilisi has been preoccupied with the struggle to democratise his country. He has spoken and written ceaselessly about the structure of the country's parliament, the necessity of a free press, and the importance of depoliticising the judicial system, but has had less to say about state budgets and trade patterns. The Democratic Party has never produced a detailed plan for Tonga's small and troubled economy.

As the Tu'ivakano regime grew close to China, 'Akilisi made an alliance with the Australian and New Zealand governments, who are competing with Beijing for influence in the tropical Pacific. Now that 'Akilisi has taken power, his friends in Wellington and Canberra, as well as their friends in the Pacific offices of the International Monetary Fund, will be encouraging him to 'reform' the Tonga economy by privatising state-owned assets and making land and labour easier for foreign investors to acquire.

During the 1980s and '90s, democratic governments that replaced dictatorships in many parts of the Third World were persuaded to pursue the same sort of neo-liberal policies, to the detriment of their peoples. It would be a tragedy if Tongans gained democracy, only to lose their land and their way of life.

The example of several radical governments elected over the last decade in Latin America suggests that it is possible to reject the advice of the IMF without rejecting economic development. Back in June I tried to argue that Tonga could, like Venezuela and Bolivia in recent years, find ways of combining twenty-first century technology and trade links with traditional forms of social organisation and land ownership. Some commentators, both inside and outside Tonga, have regarded this sort of argument as romantic. My friend and former colleague Maikolo Horowitz, for example, believes that 'Akilisi has no choice but to implement free market reforms in Tonga, and to open the country to foreign investment (Maikolo explained his thinking during this interview with me).

For now, 'Akilisi's supporters are celebrating his election, and the latest steps in the long march of the pro-democracy movement. At the Seleka Club, the headquarters of Nuku'alofa's political and artistic avant-garde, the kava will be flowing, and the music will be blasting.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Pleasing a reviewer

Over the years I've had a few reviews of my work. Some of the reviews have appeared in journals, others on websites, and still others in newspapers. Some have been positive, and some have been negative. But no response to my work has been quite like the review I got tonight from Aneirin.

I'd been struggling for a couple of hours to get my son to bed, and I knew his insomnia was my fault. I'd disrupted his sleep pattern earlier in the day by letting him nap in the car, and ramped up his blood sugar levels by feeding him a couple of ice creams. We'd turned the lights off in his bedroom, lain down, and calmed down - I get more agitated than him, in these situations - when he demanded that I tell him a story.

I improvised a rather trite and formulaic tale of a bear that goes wandering in the woods, gets lost, and then encounters, as evening shadows are growing, a huge lulu (that's the word for owl that Aneirin learned in Tonga last year) with bright yellow eyes. At first the bear is afraid, but the lulu quickly explains that it wants to be his friend, and offers to fly him home. The bear climbs on the owl's back, and the two of them rise high above the trees, so that they can see stars, and a moon as big and yellow as the owl's eyes.

When a little blue house - blue is Aneirin's favourite colour at the moment - appears in the grassland beyond the forest, the bear recognises his home, and the owl expertly descends, landing in the sandpit outside the front door (bears, I explained to Aneirin, adore sandpits as much as he does). The bear's mother and father open the door anxiously, and chastise him for getting lost. They smile, though, when the bear explains how he got home, and the owl is invited inside, where a dinner of pizza and honey - what else do hungry bears eat? - has just been pulled from the oven.

"That's really good story Dad" Aneirin announced, after I'd finished improvising. He closed his eyes and began a smooth descent into sleep. I'd never been more relieved and pleased by a review.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas cheer at the Mall of America

This photograph was taken yesterday during an anti-police protest in Minneapolis' massive Mall of America; it reminded me of the 1976 sci fi movie Logan's Run, which is set in an underground city whose beautiful young inhabitants are encouraged to party and shop, and then party and shop some more - and threatened with violence if they are imaginative enough to question the logic behind their apparently blissful lifestyle.
The Mall of America's sinister text message to protesters underlines an argument that sociologist Mike Davis has made about the anti-democratic nature of privately owned shopping precincts. 
In City of Quartz, his classic study of life in Los Angeles, Davis notes the difference between a publicly owned city space, like a park or a square, where citizens are often free to meet and discuss ideas, distribute materials like leaflets and pamphlets, and hold protest rallies, and a privately owned mall, where anybody who upsets the owner can be eased out the door by security guards. 
A shopping mall offers the illusion of public space. As long as visitors to the mall keep buying toys and soft drinks and movie tickets, then the illusion is maintained. When visitors to a mall want to behave like citizens rather than consumers, though, they soon discover the true nature of their environment. 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Three holiday shots

[Continuing the series begun last week...]
Onehunga: the Milburn Carrier, which moves to Westport, is the last of the fleet of large ships that once cut the Manukau harbour. The metal sheets of the Milburn's hull are neurons that help the ship remember, on behalf of all its sunken or scrapped comrades, that journey through the harbour heads - waves striking waves on the bar, the salt haze spreading, dense as smoke, black rocks rearing suddenly, like harpooned whales - 
Ngatea: peat-haze like mustard gas over the Hauraki Plains. Dogs sap a ducksniper's hide. Gorsepods misfire.
Huntly: chimneys make a tundra in the sky, while in the heat haze of Generating Unit 5 faces ripple and disintegrate.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

'Rise up against Islam': Kiwibloggers react to the Sydney siege

[In the aftermath of the siege and shootout at Lindt cafe, thousands of Australians have taken to the streets and to the internet with messages of tolerance. The slogan 'I'll ride with you' has been widely used by Aussies who don't believe that their country's Muslim community should be punished for the actions of Man Haron Monis. Leaders of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities have come together to preach peace. 
Here in New Zealand, though, some observers have had a very different reaction to the tragedy in Sydney. On a number of right-wing blogs, commenters have made Man Haron Monis into a representative of all Muslims, and have demanded the collective punishment of Australasia's Muslim community. 
Here are some excerpts from a long and depressing argument I had in a comments thread at Kiwiblog, the very popular site run by National Party pollster David Farrar, during the Sydney siege. The anti-Muslim ranters at Kiwiblog included David Garrett, a former member of parliament for the Act Party. Garrett is no longer an active member of Act, but his opinions about Muslims are shared by Stephen Berry, who got one of the party's top list spots in this year's elections.
tranquil wrote:
I would love to see the Australian people rise up against Islam as a result of this incident (but it probably won’t happen). I am fed up with Western people being on the receiving end of such savages and barbarians. I would love to see the tables turned and *Muslims* suffer for once. At least the Buddhists in Burma have the right idea in how they are dealing with the Muslims there.
Would the jihadists who read this blog and downtick the comments please tell us who you are so we can put some bullets in you. Else Eff off to Syria and become martyrs. If it’s just lefty pinko liberal types, please eff off to Syria to go and talk nicely to them. David, Can you track who downticks what? This information could be useful in sanitizing New Zealand from Jihadists…
Little by little, the notion of stopping and reversing Islamic immigration will gain traction. Actions such as these in Sydney will prompt people to question the standard liberal ideology of the belief in tolerance or non-discrimination. Ask a white blood cell about “tolerance” when it comes across a pathogen in the human body.
Scott wrote:
I’ve noticed the 'stopping and reversing of Islamic immigration' being proposed by people on the right, but these folks never explain how it would be done. It seems to me that such a policy would be impossible to implement without the creation of something akin to a police state here. 
Stopping new immigration is easy. Reversing the trend will involve discrimination. Reclassify Islam as a political belief system. Identify the most virulent strain of Islam (as they are not all the same) and revoke the citizenships of members of that group. Pick one group at a time. Work through the process politely and professionally. Review progress. Proceed on to the next group if required. 
Scott wrote:
You want to 'reclassify Islam as a political belief system'. How do you define this system? Is anyone who self-identifies as a Muslim a Muslim? Would you deport members of the Ahmaddiya faith from New Zealand? They first arrived in numbers in the ’70s, have their own prophet and idiosyncratic beliefs, and are detested by jihadis because their liberalism and ecumenism. Indeed, the Ahmaddiya have often been the target for Al Qaeda attacks. Sectarian Middle Eastern governments persecute the Ahmaddiya, accusing them of apostasy. You'd be sending some of these people to their deaths. 
Religious communities which use the Koran and uphold Mohammed as a prophet but do not consider themselves Muslims would also presumably have to dealt with. The Baha’i community reveres Mohammed, but also regards the Torah and the New Testament as part of the word of God. Presumably our Baha’i Kiwis would have to reform their theology, and part company with their Korans, if they wanted to stay in their homes... 
The policy you're proposing would require the constant monitoring of immigrant populations, to ensure that Muslims hadn’t slipped into the country by pretending to have another or no religion. Muslim New Zealanders who’d renounced their faith so as to remain in the country would have to watched, in case they showed the same backsliding ways as English recusants in the Elizabethan era. Many Muslims would go underground rather than convert or leave the country; their safehouses would have to be raided and emptied. A branch of the police would have to be organised to sniff out and destroy samizdat editions of the Koran.
What would you do with the Kiwi Muslims who lack dual citizenship? What about our Maori Muslims? Perhaps you think some cash-strapped nation could be persuaded to accept some of the Muslims we expel as refugees, in the same way that Nauru and the Papua New Guinea have accepted asylum seekers spurned by Australia? 
waikatosinger wrote:
We don’t need to keep out all Muslims. It is probably enough to ensure we don’t import a large enough number from one place that they can become a community. That is easily achievable by simply setting very small immigration quotas for Muslim countries.
Scott wrote:
The first significant group of Muslim migrants to New Zealand came from Fiji, which is not a Muslim majority country. More recently, many Muslims have arrived from India, which is not a Muslim majority country. 
In many places it is difficult to determine the demographic relationship between Muslims and other groups. Are Muslims a majority in Albania, where fifty years of Stalinist rule left most people with little relationship to religion? What about Bosnia, where being Muslim is often a matter of culture rather than going to a mosque? And in many Third World nations it is difficult to get reliable data on the relationship between different religious communities.
Odakyu-sen wrote:
I agree that facing off against “Islam the monolith” will not work. You have to clearly break down “Islam” into the various sects and deal with each one individually. The different sects are, as you point out, not all the same. Like I said: discriminate. Use common sense. Take the initiative.
Scott wrote: 
But no matter how much you subdivide the Muslim community – whether you decide to deport everyone who calls themselves a Muslim or just X or Y branch of the religion – you are going to face the same logistical problems. Let’s say you decide to pick on Sunni Islam, and leave alone Shi’a and other branches of the faith. You still have the problem of constantly monitoring the New Zealand population for Sunni texts, for secret prayer meetings, for signs of evangelising. You still have to hunt underground Sunni believers through safehouses and encrypted internet sites. You still have to maintain a constant watch for ‘self-converts’ – and since there’s nothing so glamorous as a banned ideology you’ll get a stream of these. You still have to maintain prisons where suspected Sunni are held and interrogated, and deportation camps where the condemned await exile.
And you can’t do all these things without creating a police state.
waikatosinger wrote: 

I do believe in religious freedom. Don’t you?
Scott wrote:
I hope it’s clear that I’ve been trying to call the bluff of those who demand that Islam be banned from New Zealand. I think that by examining the logistics of any attempt to ban Islam we can show what a terrible move it would be. 
The only religion ever to be banned in New Zealand is indigenous. For fifty-five years, Maori were barred by law from worshipping their gods and consulting their tohunga...
The Tohunga Suppression Act was motivated by hysteria and punished a whole religious community for the alleged misdeeds of one of its members. It’s a part of our history which we should remember when we hear calls for the banning of Islam and the deportation of Muslims.
David Garrett wrote:
It appears to be an invariable rule: Let Muslims get to 2% of the population (2.5% in Australia apparently) and you get problems…let them get to 5% (as in the UK) and ghettoization and atrocities occur…It seems the jihadis in Australia aren’t waiting until they get to 5%…
As for the bullshit that banning further immigration from Islamic countries would mean we had a police state here, what a total and unmitigated load of crap…Very very simple: a change of policy to allow no immigration at all from specified countries…easy peasy…
Any country in the Middle East (even Israel, there are Arabs there too) plus any other country which is officially Islamic – such as Pakistan – and any whose citizens have been involved in terrorism… I don’t give a rats how many countries that is…Call it racist if you like – I really don’t care – but can anyone really argue that illiterate uneducated Somalis add anything to our society…except risk?? 
Scott wrote:
According to David Garrett, we should prevent a Muslim demographic bomb from exploding in New Zealand by banning migration ‘from any country in the Middle East’, plus any other country that is ‘officially Islamic’.
As someone pointed out upthread, though, many of the migrants that have arrived in New Zealand from Middle Eastern nations are not even Muslim, let alone supporters of groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda. Many of the Iraqis who live here, for instance, are members of religious minorities – Chaldeans, other Christians, Mendaens. Another big chunk of the Iraqi migrant population are Kurdish Muslims. These communities have arrived here because they have been displaced from their homes by Bush’s war and by the various religious fundamentalists that have taken power in its wake. It is hard to think of any New Zealanders who would be less inclined to raise the black flag of ISIS and Al Qaeda. 
The example of New Zealand's Iraqi community shows why bigoted generalisations shouldn’t be allowed to guide immigration policy.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, December 15, 2014

Teena Pulu Brown rattles Tonga's cage

[Vuna Road is only a dozen kilometres long, but it encompasses all of the contradictions of the Kingdom of Tonga. Vuna runs along the waterfront of Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital and only city, from the suburb of Sopu, where palangi diplomats and local businessmen have built large homes and walled compounds, past bars, restaurants, and a series of wharves and berms that double as marketplaces, to Patangata, a shantytown built on a sandspit by economic refugees from Tonga's outer islands. 
Commerce brings the different populations of the waterfront into contact. At improvised stalls set up on the sides of Vuna Road, fishermen and carpenters from Patangata sell fresh octopi and carved ika to Australasian diplomats and elderly Americans disgorged from cruise ships. On weekends, middle class Nuku'alofans park their SUVs and buy kava from relatives who have driven dented utes in from the countryside.

Recently, though, Tonga's government announced plans to regulate and segregate the entrepeneurs of Vuna Road. It told stallholders to stop trading from the grassy edges of the road, and instead conduct business from a new 'marketplace' that consists of a few hundred square metres of of crushed coral rock surrounded by wire fences. This hot and treeless space has been named 'the cage' by Nuku'alofans.  
In a paper that she gave at last week's Human Rights in the Pacific conference at Albany Massey University, Teena Pulu Brown, who is a senior lecturer in Maori and Indigenous Development at AUT University, made the 'cage' on Nuku'alofa's waterfront into a metaphor for Tongan society in the second decade of the twenty-first century. 

Brown delivered her paper with journalist Richard Papamatautau, who accompanied her on a recent visit to Tonga to observe the country's general elections. After putting Tonga into its regional context, Brown's paper describes the action, and sometimes the lack of action, during an electoral contest whose outcome remains uncertain. After I apologised to her for missing the conference, Brown was kind enough to send me a text of 'Who's who in the zoo?', and to let me publish it here. ]

Who’s who in the zoo? Tonga election 2014
Movember was a hairy month.  It made “the poor state of men’s health due to lack of awareness” go from bad to worse (Movember New Zealand, 2014).  There was Tony Abott’s koala summit (Lavelle, 2014).  What was that all about?  The G20 countries acting for “two-thirds of the world’s population, 85 per cent of global gross domestic product and 75 per cent of global trade” landed in Brisbane to talk shop (G20 Australia, 2014a).  Pacific Island states stood for the one-third that didn’t get a look in, which was customary.  The Trans Pacific Partnership evaded the regional radar of Pacific Island governments.  No political head uttered it was about “investor rights not free trade,” of which they didn’t have any (Lennard, 2014).  But when Australia’s Prime Minister erased climate change from the G20 talk-fest because it stymied economic growth, and Pacific Island leaders said nientenichtsnadanichego to the European Union bankrolling climate funds, something, somewhere, was disconnected.
A few days after global trade stormed the global South, Will Ilolahia of Auckland got on Radio Australia.  The tide turned to Pacific Island politics.  A week off from 50,405 Tongan voters electing seventeen people’s representatives to parliament was an opportune time to wave a red flag at the Tongan state, Will thought (Matangi Tonga, 2014).  He was right and wrong, which was typical.  Will had gotten his protestor skills as a young Polynesian Panther of 1970s inner-city Auckland.  This was his urban Polynesia edge.  Different to community leaders his age, migrants who spoke English with a Dongan accent and socialised in Tonga not to rumble with authority, Will got in the state’s face. 
“Those of us who actually hold Tongan passports we’ve been quite concerned, and we raised it with some of the members, why can’t we be like other democracies [and] be able to vote because after all, a lot of us overseas Tongans provide Tonga with a significant amount of income in regard to remittances and other important things that we do for the Kingdom.  Areas of expertise by overseas Tongans should be taken into account but the hierarchy and administration is always done by the locals who, to be straight up, I don’t think they see past the island itself when we are becoming a global force.  Millions of dollars is remitted back to Tonga, more than what they earn in their exports” (Hill, 2014a).
‘Aminiasi Kefu, Tonga’s attorney general quashed any whiff of an overseas uprising.  “[We] just simply can’t afford to set-up voting from outside because it would have to cover Australia, Japan, France, the UK, the US, and the Tongans [are] basically everywhere.  That would just be a logistical nightmare and also, we need a lot of resources.” (Pulu, 2014).
Meanwhile in New Zealand, the colonial propaganda wars had resumed.  Whether 1840 Maori chiefs ceded sovereignty by signing a Treaty with the Queen of England was disputed.  John Key had an opinion.  New Zealand’s Prime Minister thought the colony was settled peacefully.  He was mistaken and shameless, which was characteristic.
“In my view New Zealand was one of the very few countries in the world that were settled peacefully.  Maori probably acknowledge that settlers brought with them a lot of skills and a lot of capital” (Stuff NZ, 2014; Waatea News, 2014).  He should have put it in context: Maori acknowledge settlers brought skills and capital they used against them.
In Nadi, Fiji, Pacific Island heads of government gathered to pivot and prostrate to China.  President Xi Jinping performed a declaration: “We feel a natural kinship with each other.”  “The vast Pacific Ocean links China, Fiji and other island countries and, indeed, our hearts close together” (Fox, 2014; China Embassy, 2014; Jinping, 2014).  Three days prior, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi repeated the rhetoric in Suva: “This is a region that is important to us.  There is a lot we can do for these nations” (Modi, 2014).
The world’s largest ocean was vital to Chinese, Indian, and Russian navies upgrading their Pacific fleets and dependent on open lines of communication and ports of access for deep penetration in the remote South, which was proving to be no longer a Western sphere of influence.  With “our hearts close together” in “a region that is important to us,” China, India, and Russia spun polished stories to get inside sea borders of South Pacific security (Jinping, 2014; Modi, 2014).
The Pacific Islands’ region had joined hands in an ancient circle dance.  They had returned home to the Austronesian family of languages of South East Asia, Madagascar, and Oceania, and were singing for Live Aid as the world’s 21st century dependent relatives. 
On November 27th 2014 the Tonga election intensified the country’s bipolar condition.  People were attached to, and cut off from, the region’s global-scape.  Many assumed “politics [was] not a priority for youth” (Tonga Daily News, 2014a).  High school youth had their faces blacked out in media as lean, mean, bare foot brawlers outrunning flabby cops who looked like contenders for a United Nations non-communicable disease list, not that there was a national register, but not that the Tongan state wouldn’t formulate a fat people’s file for funding.
“What are solutions for problems [like] committing suicide?”  Questions were put to parliamentary candidates at a youth event bankrolled by the United Nations Democracy Fund that attracted few young people.  The response was holey with an e implying worn and leaky, not the holy with a y suggesting divine and flawless.  “Youths nowadays should try to accept God, fully repent from sin and everything will be clearer.” (Tonga Daily News, 2014a).
How will Tonga solve youth unemployment?  “Youths are lazy because of their attitude.”  “Weaving mats and display it in stores will help to push youths [to] see that [it is] important.” (Tonga Daily News, 2014a).
With 8,175 new voters aged 21 to 35, the mentality that “youths are lazy” and need to “accept God [and] repent from sin” did zilch to elevate this voting bloc’s value by saying young people have rights to inclusion (Tonga Daily News, 2014a, 2014b).  Young people’s voice and visibility didn’t matter, and they showed it by not giving a rat’s ass. 
“Are you half caste?”  “My grandfather was European.  But I’m Tongan like you.”  “I can see you Palangi.  Are you half Tonga?  Are you sure?” inquired the cleaner with bucket and mop in hand.  She gazed at the exotic hybrid exiting my hotel room with money in pocket for overpriced coffee at a town café.  In town, I was fenced by one block of cafés and bars for foreigners who paid cash or credit for food and alcohol, but spared no coins on poor beggars pestering them for change.  In town, I didn’t have to play the hotel half cast watching Tongan women clean, cook, and serve white tourists in strained English, clumsy manners, and frayed uniforms stitched up with black cotton.  In town, I could pretend the cage wasn’t fragile. 
I asked my colleague Richard to do fieldwork for a co-authored article.  A journalism academic, he had been Radio New Zealand’s Pacific correspondent covering the 2010 vote, and state funerals of father and son monarchs, Tupou the fourth and George Tupou the fifth.  Richard knew how Tonga rolled out election pageantry brimming with brass parades and car-cades that could not conceal families with children manning road side stalls for twelve hour shifts.  He understood I was tied to political actors, drenched in the politicking, gagging to get breathing distance from the field.
While Richard was doing fieldwork, my job as an anthropologist, I thought I’d be a Facebook journalist back at the hotel.  I posted photographs with news captions.  “The Cage.  The outgoing Tu’ivakano government wants to capture street vendors selling vegetables, firewood, and seafood on Vuna Road in this cage and charge them a fee to sit in the hot sun, uncovered, without shelter or access to running water and an ablution block peddling their poor people’s goods.”
No one liked my investigative reporting.  I tried live commentary from the field.  “Top end of Vuna Road by the Palace was cordoned off last night when I was driving back from town and it’s still blocked this morning.  I was going to drive through the cones.  King Tupou the sixth is here at the Palace, which is why this part of the road was closed to the public.  Why?  Do the common people have ebola?” (Brown Pulu, 2014a). 
My Tongan Facebook friends with European ancestry liked the angle so I played it loud like a broken ukulele.  “Watched a rusted old truck from the Sopu end of Vuna Road drive around the barrier and straight through to town.  Go the commoners!  Half cast has more appeal.  I have an escape route out of Tongan commoner jail by motioning that the other half points to European ancestry.  Be jealous of me too!  I ain’t royal and I ain’t no goddam commoner with ebola.  I am mean.  I am speaking from my British and Dutch side.  Blame that part of my mixed-up racial, ethnic, and cultural background.” (Brown Pulu, 2014a).
I was uncoordinated piecing it together. Journalists Pesi Fonua and Kalafi Moala told New Zealand media the election was peaceful.  It wasn’t.  It was pensive.  Young people brooded that job chances were grim.  Families fretted that scrapping together an evening meal could worsen.  Many didn’t vote because it made no difference to them who was in government.
Back in New Zealand after election week, Ma’afu texted me.  Outgoing Minister for Lands and a high-ranking noble re-elected to parliament, I picked a fight with him in Tonga and came off second best.  His message beckoned me to bury the bush knife and relate.
“If the Nobles support Vaea, [I] am crossing the floor” (Ma’afu, 2014).  I nearly died.  Read the one-liner dazed: Ma’afu was “crossing the floor?”  Is he drunk?  I grappled to take in that this noble might actually cross the parliamentary floor to support the nomination from the people’s representatives for Tonga’s Prime Minister.  The noble Ma’afu was doing democracy.  Why was it hard for me to accept that?  What double standards I had.
Brown Pulu, T. (2014a). Facebook Post, Nuku’alofa, Tonga, November 29.
Brown Pulu, T. (2014b). Facebook Post, Auckland, New Zealand, December 1.
Callick, R. (2014). Fijian stopover as Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping charm Pacific. The              Australian, Melbourne, Australia, November 21.
China Embassy. (2014). Foreign Minister Wang Yi Talks about President Xi Jinping’s Attendance at the G20 Summit and Visits to Three Countries Including Australia.  Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Republic of South Africa, Pretoria,     South Africa, November 25.
Fox, L. (2014). Chinese president Xi Jinping signs five agreements with Fiji as part of China’s            Pacific engagement strategy. Australian Broadcasting Corporation: News, Melbourne, Australia, November 22.
Gulati, M. (2014). Modi in Fiji: An Agenda Beyond the Diaspora – Analysis. Eurasia Review:   News and Analysis, Madrid, Spain, November 20.
G20 Australia. (2014a). G20 Members. G20 Australia 2014, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Canberra, Australia.
G20 Australia. (2014b). G20 Leaders’ Communique, Brisbane Summit, 15-26 November         2014. G20 Australia 2014, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Canberra,        Australia, Pp. 1-5.
Hamid, M. (2014). Mohsin Hamid: why migration is a fundamental human right. The Guardian, London, United Kingdom, November 21.
Hill, B. (2014a). NZ Tongans want vote without flight home. Radio Australia: Pacific Beat,       Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Melbourne, Australia, November 20.
Hill, B. (2014b). NZ Tongans wield political influence behind the scenes. Radio Australia:        Pacific Beat, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Melbourne, Australia, November          21.
Jinping, X. (2014). Bright future for friendly cooperation with Pacific Islands, says H.E. Xi     Jinping. Matangi Tonga Online, Nuku’alofa, Tonga, November 20.
Kaniva Pacific. (2014). 9 Nobles vs 9 Democrats: 8 Independents decide which party to        form government. New Zealand Kaniva Pacific, Auckland, New Zealand, November  29.
Latu, K. (2014). Democratic Party promises shake-up of Ministries to promote growth and            development in the Kingdom. New Zealand Kaniva Pacific, Auckland, New Zealand,   November 24.
Lavelle, N. (2014). Cross Talk with Michael Hudson, John Weeks, and Colin Bradford: Koala Summit. Russia Today, Moscow, Russian Federation, September 19.
Lennard, N. (2014). Noam Chomsky: Trans-Pacific Partnership is a “neoliberal assault.”        Salon, San Francisco, United States, January 14.
Ma’afu. (2014). Text Conversation from Lord Ma’afu to Teena Brown Pulu, Ma’ufanga,        Tonga, December 2.
Matangi Tonga. (2014). Tongatapu holds highest number of new voters. Matangi Tonga        Online, Nuku’alofa, Tonga, September 29.
Modi, N. (2014). PM Blogs on his visit to Myanmar, Australia and Fiji. Narendra Modi, New  Delhi, India, November 21.
Mohan, C. R. (2014). Chinese Takeaway: Modi’s Indo-Pacific. The Indian Express: Opinion,        New Delhi, India, November 21.
Movember New Zealand. (2014). Men’s Health: The State of Men’s Health in New Zealand.  Movember New Zealand, Auckland, New Zealand.
Peterson, S. Et. Al. (2014). Low health-related quality of life in school-aged children in          Tonga, a lower-middle income country in the South Pacific. Global Health Action, 7:       1-10.
Pulu, J. (2014). NZ Tongans want to vote in the upcoming 2014 elections but can’t. Tagata  Pasifika, Television NZ, Auckland, New Zealand, November 21.
Raines, S. (2014a). Tonga’s ailing economy the key election battleground. Radio Australia:   Pacific Beat, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Melbourne, Australia, November          21.
Raines, S. (2014b). Youth vote and policy detail lacking from Tongan vote. Radio Australia:  Pacific Beat, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Melbourne, Australia, November          27.
Stuff NZ. (2014). NZ ‘settled peacefully’ – PM. Stuff NZ: Politics, Auckland, New Zealand,        November 20.
Su, R. (2014). John Key Says Britain Settled New Zealand ‘Peacefully’ Despite Tribunal          Report Findings. International Business Times: Australia, New York, United States,       November 21.
Tonga Daily News. (2014a). Politics Not a Priority for Youths. Tonga Daily News, Nuku’alofa, Tonga, November 19.
Tonga Daily News. (2014b). More Young People Register to Vote. Tonga Daily News, Nuku’alofa, Tonga, September 30.
Urban Island Review. (2014). Out From the Lion’s Den – Mr Clive Edwards. The What It Do:   Urban Island Review, Los Angeles, California, United States, November 20.
Waatea News. (2014). NZ settlement peaceful says John Key. Waatea News, Mangere,         Auckland, New Zealand, November 19.

Xinhua. (2014). Xi visits Fiji for closer ties with Pacific island countries. Global Times, Xinhua, Beijing, China, November 21.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Three shots from the same war

Beneath the smooth lamplit tar of Highway One: the gravel voice of an old Waikato road, the bones of ambushed coaches

Beside Onehunga's main street the pressganged soldiers of the Orpheus await resurrection, remembering the rotten teeth of Plymouth pier, and skiff-sized breakers on the Manukau bar

At Rangiriri cemetery, wild imperial soldiers are parted from their booze and loot, and made to stand at last in silent respectful rows. Death is a drill sergeant.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Deep diving

Lava Portal from Public Films on Vimeo.

With the help of a superb editor named Eddie, Paul Janman and I have made a promotional clip for Lava Portal, one of the nine chapters of our movie about the secret history of Auckland's Great South Road and its environs.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

The rise of the Minimalist Party

We all know about minimalist art and minimalist music, but in the Kingdom of Tonga a minimalist style of politics seems to be thriving. 

The seven independent MPs voted into parliament in Tonga's recent general election have no common philosophy, no common policies, no manifesto, and no common name: that hasn't stopped them, though, from turning themselves into a de facto political party and conducting negotiations first with the Democratic Party of 'Akilisi Pohiva and then with the nobles who are allotted nine crucial seats in parliament by Tonga's revised constitution. 

Sadly, the post that I wrote in 2010 about Tonga's previous general election and its aftermath seems to describe many of the events of the last week. For the second election running, the Democratic Party has won a clear majority of the seats in Tonga's parliament elected by universal suffrage; once again, though, Pohiva and co look like being denied the right to form a government.

Last June, when a festival of political discussion was held in Nuku'alofa, I argued that Tongan democracy should interest us all. I wish it interested the kingdom's nobles and independent MPs. 

For updates and waspish commentary on the negotiations in Nuku'alofa, follow 'Atalanga-based scholar Teena Pulu Brown's twitter feed [Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, December 05, 2014

Te Puoho's weird war

[Over at Chris Trotter's blog, the debate that I started last week about the New Zealand Wars and the meaning of the Treaty of the Waitangi sputters on. Here's a comment I made about one of the most fascinating characters in our nineteenth century history.]
Charles claims that the Treaty of Waitangi was designed to subject Maori as well as Pakeha to the laws of Britain. He insists that the arrival of beneficent British law ended warfare between Maori in the South Island. But Te Wai Pounamu's last armed inter-iwi conflict - a bizarre and pathetic but very instructive affair - occurred in 1836 and '37, when the Treaty was not even a twinkle in Hobson's eye. 
The south's last armed conflict was provoked by Te Puoho, a rangatira from the Ngati Tama iwi, whose members had been driven from their traditional north Taranaki rohe to Port Nicholson by the Musket Wars. Te Puoho decided that the iwi should make a new and permanent home in the South Island. In a series of meetings with dubious relatives, he announced plans to lead an army the length of the island, storm the trading and whaling stations that Kai Tahu had established on the Fouveaux Strait, and put the members of that iwi to work as slaves. 
When more cautious members of Ngati Tama noted the huge size of Kai Tahu's territory, Te Puoho claimed that, by hitting the iwi's southern strongholds unexpectedly, he would 'skin the whole eel' in one stroke, and make resistance further north impractical. Kai Tahu would surrender, and Ngati Tama would be transformed from a small and landless iwi to the masters of most of Aotearoa. 
Te Puoho won less than a hundred men to his cause. He exhausted his little army by marching it down the South Island's West Coast and across the Southern Alps. Eventually Te Puoho and his warriors came across a small and almost empty Kai Tahu kainga: they stormed its pig pen, and pulled up and devoured some half-ripe kumara. While they were sleeping off their exhaustion in a hut near the conquered pigsty, Te Puoho and his comrades were ambushed and despatched by a much larger Kai Tahu war party.
The story of the 'war' of 1836 and '37, which the young Atholl Anderson told in his 1986 book Te Puoho's Last Raid,  reminds us of the changes that were occurring in New Zealand during the decade before the treaty of Waitangi was signed. 
Te Puoho was both an anachronism and an innovator. His faith in the musket made him a throwback to raiders of the 1820s, like the Nga Puhi chief Hongi Hika, who returned from visits to London and Sydney with an arsenal of guns that he quickly tested in the territories of his iwi's traditional enemies. 
By the 1830s other iwi had acquired guns, and what Chris Trotter calls 'a balance of terror' was achieved, as chiefs realised that new armed expeditions would likely be costly and futile. Kai Tahu were trading and interbreeding with the whalers and sealers of the Fouveaux Strait, and had accumulated muskets, money, and mana. It is not surprising that most of Te Puoho's relatives were reluctant to join his adventure. 
The fate of Te Puoho's invasion shows us how anachronistic and ineffectual inter-iwi warfare had become in New Zealand's main islands by the middle of the 1830s. 
In one way, though, Te Puoho was an innovator. During the halcyon days of the Musket Wars Hongi Hika had never attempted to hold onto the lands he attacked. Hongi and his warriors would float over the horizon on their waka, storm, loot, and burn a pa, and leave with prisoners, most of whom were considered floating kai rather than slave labourers. 
By contrast, Te Puoho wanted to conquer and administer the whole of Te Wai Pounamu. He would put Kai Tahu to work, grow food to barter or sell to Pakeha, and become rich. 
Although Te Puoho failed, his plan for Te Wai Pounamu was to some extent realised in the distant Chatham Islands, whose indigenous people lacked not only guns and any sort of military tradition. Some of Te Puoho's relatives joined with their fellow North Taranaki iwi Ngati Mutunga and invaded the Chathams in 1835. They killed hundreds of Moriori, and made the rest work as slaves on farms that supplied Pakeha towns like Port Nicholson, Sydney and even San Francisco with potatoes. 
The society that Ngati Tama and Ngati Mutunga established on the islands they called Wharekauri was unprecedented in New Zealand history. With its mixture of slavery and cash cropping, it resembled, on a small scale, Confederate America or Europe's slave colonies in the Caribbean. 
Only the confluence of a number of factors - the isolation and pacifism of the Moriori, the demand for food from Pakeha towns, the use of guns, which made large-scale coercion possible in a way that the traditional armoury of Maori war didn't - made Wharekauri possible. (Unfortunately, and for obvious reasons, conservative Pakeha have in recent decades tried to make Wharekauri into a symbol of pre-Treaty Maori society in general.)
Because the British Crown did not consider the Treaty a charter to interfere in Maori affairs, and had no interest in bringing British law to Maori society, the slave colony on the Chathams persisted into the 1860s. 
The story of Te Puoho shows why the Musket Wars were petering out in the 1830s, before the treaty of Waitangi was signed. And the story of the society Te Puoho's relatives established on the Chathams suggests that, even after the signing of the Treaty, Britain had no desire to impose its legal code on Maori chiefs, as long as those chiefs did not interfere with Pakeha colonists and British businesses. 

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Jumping in the drink: Kiwi poets in Tonga

[It's a year tomorrow since I arrived back in Auckland after a stint teaching at Tonga's 'Atenisi Institute. My body may have spent 2014 in Niu Sila, but my mind has often gone back to the Friendly Islands. 

I've written about Tongan art for EyeContact and about Tongan marching bands for Landfall, and in the latest issue of Poetry New Zealand I have an essay about the visits that Murray Edmond and Richard von Sturmer made to 'Atenisi last year, the adventures they had in the seas and streets of Tonga, and the friendships they made around kava bowls. The first seven hundred or so words of 'Jumping in the Drink' turned up on this blog back in July; here are they are again, along with rest of the text.
In 1931, when he was twenty-six years old and had already published a couple of volumes of poetry, RAK Mason visited the Kingdom of Tonga on the Tofua, a steamship that connected Auckland with the ports of the tropical Pacific. 

Then as now, Tonga teemed with punake, or poets, whose works, which typically feature dance and music as well as lyrics, were performed around kava bowls and at events like weddings and festivals. Punake were part of the ornate culture that had developed over the three thousand years since humans had settled the Tongan archipelago. (1)
Although Mason enjoyed his short stay in Tonga - in letters home he described the kingdom as a 'delightful place', and reckoned that its people were 'the happiest' in the world - he does not seem to have sampled the local literary culture. (2)
It is fascinating to wonder what Mason might have made of his Tongan counterparts, had he encountered them at a kava circle or festival. Frustrated by his distance from the literary centres of Europe and by the indifference of his countrymen to his books, the young Auckland poet had often complained that he was trapped in a remote and philistine corner of the world - a 'perilous hostile place' at the 'friendless outer edge of space'. (3) 

In the late 1930s and the '40s, Mason's vision of the South Pacific as a remote, rawly new, and philistine region would be accepted and advertised by younger writers like Allen Curnow, Charles Brasch, and Monty Holcroft; by the 1950s it would be an orthodoxy. 

Might the history of New Zealand literature have been different, if Mason had been ushered into a kava shack on the shore of a Tongan lagoon, and found the work of the kingdom's esteemed caste of punake being performed there? Might the young poet's conviction that he lived in a remote and philistine corner of the world have melted, as he drank bowls of narcotics in the warm Tongan evening, and joined the clapping and foot-stomping that often accompanies kava songs? Might he have realised that a rich and highly valued literary culture could be found not just in faraway Europe, but in New Zealand's nearest neighbour? And might the punake of Tonga, rather than the Georgian poets of England or the verse propagandists of the Soviet Union, have become Mason's literary models? 
Tonga is a place that prompts this sort of counterfactual speculation. The only piece of the Pacific to avoid colonisation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it has evolved unusual and surprisingly robust economic and political systems. The kingdom's constitution bans the sale of land, and most of its people still work small farms land granted to them by the state. From the air even Tongatapu, the largest and by far the most populous island of the archipelago, resembles a forest of coconut, banana and mango trees. Palangi make up only a sliver of the Tongan population. 
A visit to Tonga can feel, then, like a journey into an alternative version of New Zealand history, where Polynesians were never robbed of their land and language, and where Wakefield never planted capitalism. 
In the 1950s some of Tonga's top students began to arrive at universities in Australia and New Zealand. The anthropologist and novelist 'Epeli Hau'ofa, the classicist and philosopher Futa Helu, and the poet and educationalist Konai Helu Thaman all began dialogues, in their texts and in their teaching, between Tongan and palangi cultures. 
In the 1960s Futa Helu returned to his homeland and founded the 'Atenisi, or Athens, Institute on the waterlogged outskirts of Nuku'alofa, Tonga's capital and only city. Helu's school soon attracted hundreds of students, and became a sort of borderland between Tonga and the rest of the world, where the gods, philosophers, and poets of Polynesia, Europe, and Asia were equally revered, and where scholars and students from New Zealand and many more distant nations were welcomed. 

In 2012 a feature-length documentary film about Futa Helu prompted new interest in 'Atenisi, and in 2013, when I worked at the school, I was able to get several New Zealand intellectuals, including the distinguished poets Murray Edmond and Richard von Sturmer, to visit. (4)

Edmond and von Sturmer spent a week each in Tonga. During his visit in June, Edmond mentored my Creative Writing students and members of 'Atenisi's performing arts group, gave a public lecture about the history and literature of his native Waikato, offered a workshop on drama writing and acting to sixty excited students from local high schools, and read his poem 'End Wall' on national television. 
When von Sturmer visited in September, most of 'Atenisi's students were away on a short-notice tour of America. Tonga's Baha'i community, though, organised a series of lectures and workshops where von Sturmer instructed their members in Zen Buddhism, meditation, and haiku writing. Von Sturmer also befriended members of Nuku'alofa's thriving visual arts scene, like the sculptor Visesio Siasau and the painter Tevita Latu. 

Siasau brought von Sturmer to his workshop, and showed off the crucified Tangaloas and hermaphroditic Virgin Marys he was sculpting from glass and painting on tapa; later he took his guest on a tour of the sites of Tongatapu's ancient pagan godhouses. 

A few days after he'd returned to the cold latitudes of New Zealand, Murray Edmond e mailed me a series of ten texts he had titled 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses'. With their loose lines connected by sound as much as sense, the 'Choruses' might have been a response to the musicality of Tongan poetry. 
When Richard von Sturmer arrived in Tonga, I showed him Edmond's 'Dream Choruses'. I joked that Tongan poets had traditionally engaged in verbal battles with one another - the senior court punake Fineasi Malukava, for instance, famously exchanged insults with a boastful young rival named Fakatava at the beginning of the twentieth century - and suggested that he and Murray might like to emulate that pattern. Richard is far too good-natured to engage in verbal duels, but I think that the precedent of the 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses' encouraged him to write poetry of his own during his time in Tonga. 
At a kava gathering held the night before his departure from the kingdom, von Sturmer read some of a series of poems he had recently written into his notebook, and had given the title 'Tonga'. Although they were constructed in the tight, Zen-inspired forms that von Sturmer has long favoured, the poems were full of images of Tongatapu – there were pigs and whales and coconuts and, of course, kava. 
I want to mention four themes that I find in Murray Edmond's 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses' and in Richard von Sturmer's 'Tonga'. 

Tonga teems with churches. Theological dispute is incessant, and sects regularly split, as the losers of an argument about the nature of the trinity or the proper interpretation of a hymn declare their organisational independence and eternal righteousness. (5)
Both Murray Edmond and Richard von Sturmer were fascinated by Tonga's fractious religious life. The second of Edmond's 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses' records the visit that a young would-be church-builder made to an 'Atenisi kava gathering. As Edmond nodded neutrally, the young man, who claimed to have cracked a mathematical code hidden in the Bible, explained that Tongatapu had been the site of the garden of Eden, and that Tongans were god's chosen people. More confusingly, he insisted that Adam and Eve were both men, and had only been able to reproduce because of a miraculous improvisation by the Holy Ghost:
a mystery
claimed by history
Adam met Eve
Eve turned out
to be a man
if you'll drink
to that
you'll drink to
any thing
On a Sunday we drove Edmond to the village of Folaha, which sits on a peninsula in the Fanga'uta Lagoon, Tongatapu's warm, shallow, and very polluted inland sea. We had been invited to a service at the Folaha branch of the Church of Tonga, one of the kingdom's dozen or so Wesleyan sects. The church's black-suited priest delivered a long sermon at high volume from a high pulpit, giving particular emphasis to the nouns tevolo (devil), vale (fool), and Setani (Satan). 
Edmond decided we should recover from the sermon by moving on to Oholei Beach Resort, which has a bar built into a large cave and a special license that allows it to sell alcohol to palangi tourists and other degenerates on Sundays. We arrived to find a band playing loudly from a stage set up in the middle of the cave. Edmond, my wife and I were sipping beers and forgetting about god when the bandleader, who happened to be the owner of Oholei resort, silenced his musicians and began to preach. "I worship the lord in my own way" he told us. "Mine is the church of rock and roll." Oholei's owner spent the next hour singing old Wesleyan hymns, while his guitarist leaned on a wah wah pedal and his drummer played jazz rolls. 
Murray Edmond was delighted by the concert in the cave, which reminded him of the chaotic, competitive jams that poets and musicians held on New Zealand stages in the 1970s. The eighth of his 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses' honours Oholei's Sunday service:
Church of Jesus Christ of
Rock'n Roll save your soul
immortal Jelly Roll
Richard Von Sturmer's studies of Buddhism have taken him to Chinese cave-temples and American monasteries, but he is interested in all religious traditions, and shortly after arriving in Tonga he asked to be taken to a church. "I’d like to visit the most fire and brimstone of them all", he said, with the defiant look of a diner who has just insisted on ordering the hottest curry on a restaurant menu. When we ended up sitting through another loud peroration at another branch of the Church of Tonga, von Sturmer used his training in meditation to make the escape he described in this tanka:
when the long sermon begins
I go into the rafters
into the dusty
to hang out with the spiders

Big Mama's island
Writing from the Tofua, RAK Mason explained that Tongan ports were 'so difficult' they could only be entered 'by daylight'. Nuku'alofa's harbour is decorated by dozens of coral atolls and sandbars. Wrecked steamers and yachts lie on strips of coral; buoys and wooden crosses attempt to distinguish safe channels from sand. Maps produced by palaeoclimatologists show the ground where Nuku'alofa now stands covered by sea, and a medieval Tongan poet's description of the harbour mentions several islands that have since drowned. 
The little archipelago in Nuku'alofa harbour has been favoured by invaders, traders, and exiles. Pangaimotu, which sits only a couple of kilometres off the coast of Tongatapu, was a base for Cook and a refuge, nearly seven decades later, for Bishop Pompallier, whose Catholic faith and French allies were unpopular with the rulers of Tongatapu.  
Today the island is the home of Carl Emberson, a lean, brown-skinned Dane who was a favourite at the king of Tonga's card table in the 1960s. Carl and his wife Ana, who hails from the northern Niuan islands and is known throughout Tonga as Big Mama, run a sand-floored bar whose walls are covered with yacht flags, polaroids, erotic graffiti, and exotic banknotes left by generations of visitors. A few feet from this sanctuary, the hull of a wrecked ship rears out of Pangaimotu's warm, shallow lagoon. A couple of hundred feet in the other direction is the foundation mound of an ancient godhouse, where shaman-priests drank hallucinogenic kava and channeled voices from Pulotu, an island over the western horizon inhabited by spirits. (6)
With its lovely but sea-eaten coast and its reminders of a ruined past, Pangaimotu can both delight and discomfort visitors. Von Sturmer's writing has always been both grateful for and sadly aware of the transitory nature of earthly pleasures. For him, the fish that cruise Pangaimotu's lagoon have become part of the island, and will share its fate: 
undulating sunlight,
in the shallows
sand-coloured fish
by their shadows.
In the ‘Tongatapu Dream Choruses’, Murray Edmond makes a more jocular reference to aquatic adventures in Nuku'alofa's harbour:
when you're feeling full of beans
plunge in the brinnie
jump in the drink

The ruins of Nuku'alofa
Nuku'alofa is not an especially old place - it was only a minor settlement before the first modern ruler of Tonga, the Wesleyan warlord Taufa'ahau, chose a site for his capital in the middle of the nineteenth century - but it is full of ruins. Humidity and termites have rotted and collapsed scores of the city’s wooden buildings, while poor-quality concrete and self-taught architects have ensured the dereliction of many of its newer structures. The riot of November 2006 saw arsonists and looters add to Nuku'alofa's stock of ruins. 
Richard von Sturmer is a film maker and actor - he first visited Western Polynesia in the late '80s, when he co-starred in Martyn Sanderson's adaption of Albert Wendt's Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree - as well as a poet, and last September he spent hours wandering Nuku'alofa with a camera. His poems record visits to a couple of the city's ailing buildings. 
On Hala Mateialana (hala is the Tongan word for road), just east of the Nuku'alofa's central business district, von Sturmer discovered the half dozen termite-tormented cottages that serve as the city's public mortuary. In Tonga, the dead are usually prepared for burial at the home of family members. Inevitably, though, some of the dead are unable to find hospitality in a private home. Although it lacks the high-tech freezers of its New Zealand equivalents, the mortuary on Hala Mateialana provides a place where these people can await burial. After talking with the supervisor of the mortuary, von Sturmer was allowed to look around the site. Like the unstable archipelago of Nuku'alofa harbour, the warm bodies lying on termite-ridden wood make the poet fearful:
I don't want to end up
in the mortuary
on Hala Mateialona.
It would be lonely
with only the dogs
to bury my bones...
Already the silk coffin
is filled with yellow wasps. 
One of Nuku'alofa's more spectacular ruins is the Meseia (Messiah) Plaza, a sprawling concrete building in the city's central business district. The Plaza was opened in 1980 by the Tokaikolo Fellowship, a recently expelled faction of Tonga's state-endorsed Free Wesleyan Church. Tokaikolo's founder and first leader was Senituli Koloi, a thin, charismatic faith healer who held huge open air meetings in the Tongatapu countryside where he denounced modern medicine as an insult to God. Koloi urged his followers to prove their faith by fasting; he died the year the Meseia Plaza was opened, after refusing food for eighteen days. 
If Koloi was a Tongan Cathar, then his successor, the long-reigning, bloated Liufau Saulala, resembles one of the debauched Popes of the fourteenth century. Under Saulala's leadership, Tokaikolo has run up big debts and suffered big splits. The Meseia building was supposed to brim with shops and offices, but when Richard von Sturmer squeezed through a smashed window and explored its dim and dank interior the only occupants he discovered were lying in sleeping bags on the concrete floors of empty rooms. Von Sturmer eventually found his way to the Plaza's abandoned rooftop, which for a while housed a popular restaurant and nightclub: 
On the roof of
concrete beach umbrellas 
no one answers your prayers. 
Each umbrella 
has tumbled over
to become
an ancient satellite dish. 

Swingman, whose real name is Siua Ongosia, was Tonga's first hip hop star. About a decade ago he began rapping in Tongan over beats and samples that were sometimes supplied by other members of the Ongosia family, like his brother Jimmy. Then, as now, Swingman's lyrics were held together by insistent rhymes, rather than by linear narrative or argument. Swingman can throw bizarre images at this audience, begin and break off anecdotes, boast about or bemoan his love life, and tell long jokes that appear to lack punchlines, but his ramblings are always contained within strict, hypnotic rhyme schemes.  After a period of success, when he was employed by the government to rap about the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and recorded a series of videos that became youtube hits, Swingman developed a reputation for odd behaviour. He was seen beside Nuku'alofa main drag, waving his arms about as if he were flying; he took the stage at a music festival in the countryside, but refused to open his mouth, preferring to entertain the audience with a series of enigmatic hand gestures. 
As his live appearances and new recordings dwindled, Swingman could often be found on Railway Road, which follows the route of an old tramline between downtown Nuku'alofa and the dirty lagoon on the city's southern fringe. Railway Road runs past the ruins of many buildings that were torched during the 2006 riot, as well as stores full of pirated DVDs, kava shacks, barber's shops, and the headquarters of the Fakaletti Association, which looks after the needs of Tonga's increasingly oppressed trans-sexual community. Railway Road is a popular site for drug sales; during the night fakaletti solicit from its burnt-out lots. 
The young people who gather on Railway Road are alienated from Tonga's traditional village-based life. Often, though, petty criminal convictions and a lack of cash mean they cannot leave Tonga. They spent their time getting stoned on marijuana grown in the Tongatapu bush, on crack cocaine pulled off ships from America, and on anti-psychotics stolen from Nuku'alofa's hospital. 
A kilometre or so from Railway Road, in a lagoonside kava shack, the painter Tevita Latu has founded the Seleka Club, where he mentors some of the Nuku'alofa's youth and teaches them the intricacies of drawing and collage. The Seleka Club is a determinedly rebellious institution - its name is an anagram of the Tongan word for shitting, its members drink kava from a toilet bowl, and its stereo blasts death metal and hip hop into the Nuku'alofa night - and it has provided a refuge for Swingman, and for some of the other casualties of Tongan society. If he is not on Railway Road or in prison, the rapper can often be found at the Seleka Club. (7) 
I was introduced to Swingman's music by 'Atenisi students Miko Tohi and ‘Alokoulu ‘Ulukivaiola, who have been shooting footage of the rapper for what they hope will develop into a documentary movie, as well as translating some of his lyrics into English. Both Tohi and 'Ulukivaiola consider Swingman a genius, and are depressed by the way that other, lesser rappers, like Junior Fakatava, a descendant of the boastful Fakatava who confronted Fineasi Malukava more than a century ago, have usurped his place in Tonga's music scene. (8) 
Not everyone shares Tohi and 'Ulukivaiola’s enthusiasm for Siua Ongosia. Many conservative Tongans believe that his strange music and drug-assisted antics symbolise the decadence of Nuku'alofan youth. 
In certain ways, though, Swingman can perhaps be considered a traditional Tongan poet. Like many previous punake, he relies on rhyme to hold together long, essentially unmetered lines, couples his words with music and dance moves, and duels verbally with his rivals. Even Swingman's interest in drugs is arguably traditional: in pre-Christian Tonga poets, as well as priests, would use hallucinogenic kava to receive inspiration from the spirits in Pulotu. 
Both Murray Edmond and Richard von Sturmer were fascinated by the stories they heard about Swingman, and excited by his work. Swingman makes an appearance at the end of the 'Tongatapu Dream Choruses':
dream Tongatapu
is a giant bell
swinging in
Pacific wind
Swingman walks
Streets at night
With its use of rhyme and half-rhyme to connect sometimes absurdly divergent thoughts, Edmond’s sequence reminds me of the Tongan rapper. 
When von Sturmer performed some of his Tongan poems at the kava gathering held to mark his last night in the kingdom, the audience was delighted by his surreal imagery. Tevita Latu, who was a part of Richard's audience, remarked that the images in the following lines could have come straight from Swingman: 
And the dogs are barking
in a forest
in a forest of bells
and I'm listening
with a green ear
an ear as large
as a taro leaf.

And a giant hand
takes off its glove
and strikes the land
with the full force
with the force
of a hurricane.

And tiny pigs fly past
with bats
between their teeth,
bats as ripe as figs
plopped into the mouth
of  a green hurricane. 
I like to think of the poems that Murray Edmond and Richard von Sturmer wrote in Tonga last year as belated correctives to the indifference that palangi New Zealand writers have shown towards their nearest neighbour. Edmond and von Sturmer have taken the opportunity that RAK Mason missed back in 1931. I hope others will follow them. 

(1)                        Eric Shumway’s essay ‘Ko E Kakalangilangi: The Eulogistic Function of the Tongan Poet’, which was published in the Journal of Pacific Studies in 1977, provides a detailed introduction to traditional Tongan-language poetry, but is influenced by its author’s very conservative politics. Wendy Pond’s essay ‘Wry Comment from the Outback: Songs of Protest from the Niua Islands, Tonga’, which was first published in the Journal of Oral Tradition in 1990, analyses several songs and dances created in the 1960s and ‘70s, and shows the political complaints that are half-hidden in their imagery and in their historical allusions. In 2012 Atuanui Books published On Tongan Poetry, a group of articles that Futa Helu wrote in the early 1980s about the various genres in which punake work.
(2)                        RAK Mason’s adventures in the tropical Pacific are described in Rachel Barrowman’s Mason: A Life, which was published by Victoria University Press in 2003, and in John Caselberg’s Poet Triumphant: the Life of Writings of RAK Mason, which was published by Steel Roberts in 2002.
(3)                        The phrases come from Mason’s ‘Sonnet of Brotherhood’, which he wrote seven years before his visit to Tonga.
(4)                        For information about Tongan Ark, which draws on its director Paul Janman’s experiences as a teacher at ‘Atenisi in the early noughties, visit this webpage.
(5)                        Anthropologists Ernest and Pearl Beaglehole, who visited Tonga at the end of the 1930s, decided that the country’s religious diversity was, paradoxically enough, a source of social cohesion. In their short book Pangai: a Village in Tonga, which was published by the Polynesian Society in 1941, they argue that the variety of churches allowed individual Tongans to express a sense of difference or register a protest without venturing into the largely proscribed realm of politics. The Beagleholes cite the example of a Tongan with eccentric but passionate theological views, who moved from one church to another as he tested the tolerance of fellow worshippers, and talk of men who felt disempowered by the kingdom’s Wesleyan establishment and so joined its Catholic community as a sort of protest. Not everyone agrees with the Beagleholes’ sanguine view of Tonga’s religious disunity. For Maikolo Horowitz, an American sociologist who taught at ‘Atenisi for many years, Tonga is the ‘Texas of the South Pacific’ because of the inability of its people to agree about theological, as well as secular, matters. Other scholars, like ‘Opeti Talia, note the ritualised brawling by students of schools run by Tonga’s rival churches. I blogged about the different analyses of Tonga’s religious disunity here.
(6)                        Niel Gunson, a missionary turned scholar of religious history at the Australian National University, has written repeatedly about Tonga’s ancient godhouses and the priests who performed inside them. In ‘A Note on Oceanic Shamanism’, which was published in the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 2009, Gunson summarises his findings and defends them from critics. Gunson’s excavation of Tonga’s pre-Christian religious history has greatly influenced some of the kingdom’s artists and intellectuals, including Sio Siasau.
(7)                        I have written about Tevita Latu and his extraordinary club here
(8)                        To give some idea of Swingman’s style, here are some lines from Ulukivaiola and Tohi’s the translation of  ‘Taahine Kaka’ (‘Cheating Girl’), a song that can be found on youtube:
“Aloha, Paula Zulu”
I am about to weep
Over my love for your flock of hair
I am half-caste
And I throw the discus
I often ride the bus and play music.
Lia it’s me Vili
My fan is broken
I’m begging you to make a family with me
Trust me, I’m getting wirier
Join with me for I have a tractor…
Someone show some love
Asisi is all alone
Bring her here to spank
Spank it until it’s bare
Even though I have no lover
I have soap
Brought from the shop
To wash away the smell.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]