Te Papa’s Pacific Cultures staff are blogging daily to mark the annual Tongan Language Week. The theme for this year is Fakakoloa ‘o Aotearoa ‘aki ‘etau Hiva Fakatonga – Enriching Aotearoa with Tongan Music. Today’s blog by Rachel Yates (Pacific Cultures curator), is inspired by Australian Tongan sisters’ Vika and Linda Bull’s “Grandpa’s song”.
Vika and Linda are a sister vocal duo who first came to prominence as backup vocalists for The Black Sorrows. Grandpa’s Song was recorded on their Princess Tabu Album that was released in 1997. This song tells of when Vika was five and her visiting grandfather from Tonga went to school to collect her. He was wearing a tupenu (also known as a wrap or lavalava, an article of clothing commonly worn by Tongans).
Vika, feeling embarrassed about his clothing and the reaction of her Australian classmates to his attire, ignored her grandfather and grumpily walked home ahead of him. This is a song of regret as Vika recalls the day she had shunned her grandfather for being distinctly Tongan.
I have chosen to highlight this song this week because it highlights themes of identity, pride and assimilation that many migrant communities can identify with. In New Zealand and in my experience, similar feelings of embarrassment of one’s culture have been voiced by Pacific populations. Many second and third generation Pacific Islanders (PI’s) will recall being told not to learn or speak their languages as it was seen as a disadvantage to ‘getting ahead’ in New Zealand society.
The items I would like to highlight from Te Papa’s Pacific Collection are in contrast to these feelings; they are associated with Tongan people but are also historical markers and identifiers of a growing Pacific Pride. New Zealand-Pacific Communities experienced a cultural renaissance throughout the 1990s and many PIs including Tongans, have and continue to contribute to New Zealand society in highly visible and significant ways.
This video game features Auckland born Tongan, Jonah Lomu who made his debut as a rugby player for the New Zealand All Blacks in June 1994 at age 19. By 1997, his try scoring feats and unstoppable play saw him well established as one of the most marketable faces in world sport. For many people in Pacific communities, Lomu was a relatable face of success, one of many Pacific Islanders coming to prominence in sport, music, academia and politics. For the All Blacks and international men’s rugby Lomu became the face of the game, symbolic of connection rather than difference.
To return to the tupenu, once associated by some (like Vika) as a symbol of difference and embarrassment, is featured in this last collection item in an opposite way. Here the tupenu and taovala (woven overskirt) have been incorporated into the dress uniform of WesleyCollege in Auckland, New Zealand (the college attended by Jonah Lomu). In this garment the tupenu is presented as a symbol of respect and pride in Tongan heritage and allows the wearer to express their cultural identity. Distinctly Tongan and yet New Zealand schoolboy at the same time.