The West |

Tonga Tabu

by Jeffrey Vallance

“I solemnly swear before God that I will be truly loyal to His Majesty King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV the rightful King of Tonga.” --Oath of the Tongan Legislative Assembly INTERNATIONAL DATELINE While sipping tropical drinks with tiny umbrellas poolside at the International Dateline Hotel in the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga, I reflected on my peculiar circumstances. I was there as Professor with nine Swedish students from the Arctic Circle on an expedition to this quintessential tropical destination. Fifteen years earlier to the day I was lounging at that very same pool, after just having had a royal audience with His Majesty King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV of Tonga. EXPEDITION: POLARCTIC Early in 2000, students from Umeå Konsthögskolan started getting restless about their approaching annual field trip. (Swedish graduate students get one international trip as part of their education.) By a succession of meetings they elected to go to Polynesia, and since I had been to the islands on several expeditions, I was asked which islands were the most fascinating. For swimming and snorkeling I suggested the outer islands of Fiji, and for culture I recommended Tonga, renowned for its traditional rituals and for the production of tapa cloth and wood carvings. The period of October/November was chosen, as the subarctic would then be getting cold and dark (they call it ‘Black Fall’), while it would be glorious springtime in Polynesia. In my past research expeditions, I had set up a logic of traveling to extremes--going back and forth between scorching sand and glacial ice. This system is somehow stuck on autopilot, as my headquarters are now based in the freaking North Pole! Swedes in the frozen north dream of traveling to tropical island destinations (frequently ending up in the Canary Islands). As soon as it starts snowing, one can be assured of seeing TV commercials popping up, sponsored by travel agencies, with Scandinavian types swimming in tropical lagoons near white sandy beaches with overhanging palm trees. GOLGOTHA ISLAND On our school expedition, we first arrived in Nadi, Fiji (a kind of Tijuana of the Pacific) and planned our immediate escape to the outer islands. We chose to go to Kuata Island, in the Yasawa Group. We all squeezed into a tiny overcrowded boat. It was raining so hard that our captain could barely see out the cockpit windows. Waves were crashing all around, almost engulfing the little boat. I could hear the Gilligan’s Island theme song running through my head: “The weather started getting rough. The tiny ship was tossed....” Halfway out on our two-hour voyage, I spied what I thought was a mysterious rock in the mist-shrouded sea. When we got closer, we saw it was a ship similar to ours crammed with three times as many Fijians on board. Besides the overly full cabin, about a dozen people clutching umbrellas were sitting on top of the craft, and a live goat was fastened to the bow like an ominous masthead. The phantom ship had run out of gas. Our captain siphoned out a portion of petrol and, in between swells, handed it over to the derelict boat. After seeing the condition of the other vessel, I felt ecstatic about ours as we sailed onward to the Yasawa Archipelago. Upon approaching Kuata, I could see that it was a low island except for a monolithic boulder that dominated the verdant landscape. The rock had the classic stereotypic look from childhood pirate stories: it was Skull Island. It looked flawlessly like a huge grimacing cranium. “They all came to the place called Golgotha, which means Place of the Skull.” (Matthew 27:33) Kuata is an uninhabited island at the southern tip of the expansive Yasawa Group. The island’s bungalows had just been open a few months, but because of ongoing political troubles associated with the failed Fijian Coup d'état (masterminded by rebel leader George Speight, a former insurance salesman), there had not been many visitors. On Kuata there were no phones or electricity, and the drinking water was brought in by an incredibly long hose from a neighboring isle. The rooms consisted of a group of Fijian bure (huts) with thatched palm roofs, bamboo walls, and sand floors. The maze-like thatchwork made it a perfect nest for giant hairy wolf spiders, mammoth flying cockroaches, rats, mice, and geckos. At night there was so much scurrying about by who knows what that hardly anyone got any sleep. I quickly developed a special affection for the colossal spiders, as in the dead of night I observed one devouring an immense cockroach. At chow time we dined in a cave, and the food was excellent--a deliciously odd combination of Fijian, western, and East Indian cuisine. The cavern was designated to serve only as the mess hall, but one by one almost all of the students ended up sleeping inside, since they believed less creepy crawlers lurked about there. The only other guest on Golgotha Island was Carl Pizzie, an English actor who recently starred in the film Jesus (along with Gary Oldman as Pontius Pilot). Carl played the leader of the Biblical terrorist group, the Sikariori, in which Judas Iscariot was a card carrying member. “Then entered Satan into Judas surnamed Iscariot” (Luke 22:3). It made some kind of weird sense that we would meet a friend of Judas at the Place of the Skull. The reason we stayed on Kuata was the “excellent snorkeling area” located out on a reef about half an hour from shore. The reef had an abundance of parrot fish, eels, and electric-blue starfish. Numerous sharks and a lone turtle were also taking refuge near the reef. One Saturday, we were invited to a Kava Ceremony at Namara village on adjacent Wayasewa Island. A big deal was made of the fact that we were the first delegation from Kuata to visit the village. As Professor, I was chosen to be spokesman for our group. From then on I was known as Mista Professa. (Again I was reminded of Gilligan’s Island and the character “The Professor.”) A ritual Kava Ceremony was held, and afterward the villagers performed an ancient Fijian war dance, waving their spears and clubs, working hard at creating the most ferocious expressions possible. (The fact that they were once fearsome cannibals is now a profitable selling point for tourists.) After the Fijian dance, a member of our group, Mattias Olofsson, asked if he could dance for the village. After a few minutes, Mattias emerged in a colorful bright blue skirt as “Stor Stina,” an incredibly tall Saami (Lapp) woman who was toured around Europe in the 1800’s as a freak. (With his crossdressing, Mattias calls attention to the discriminatory treatment of the Saami, gays, and other minorities in Sweden.) Mattias danced his own interpretation of the shaman (nojd) Lapp dance, twirling like a Whirling Dervish until he reached an altered state and passed out. It was wonderful to see the Fijian dancers in full regalia sitting attentively in the audience. Our group was offering something from the culture we represented--we were no longer just voyeurs of the Other. REGAL ARRIVAL The day came when we were to leave the Yasawa group and catch our flight to Tonga. It was one hell of a stormy day! The wind was wailing like banshees, the rain falling in sheets, and the sea was awash with white foaming waves. The regular inner island boats were overcome by the surf, the tops of the cabins barely visible, bobbing above the maelstrom. It seemed for a while that we were not going to make it to Tonga, but we radioed the main island and ordered a costly modern-style boat to come and save us. The big shiny white ship arrived and we hurriedly jumped on board with all our belongings. (On Kuata I had adopted the habit of wearing a T-shirt and black boxer shorts as my daily attire--hoping that no one would notice that it was underwear.) I continued wearing the boxers on the emergency boat, as I did not want to get my long pants wet. I was planning to change at the Nadi airport before we boarded the airplane. But in all the hurry to board the boat, the zipper handle was torn from my luggage. I had the choice of opening my bag to retrieve my pants, with the bag then remaining open and the contents surely spilling out in transit, or keeping the bag secure and wearing the boxers on the plane. So as it happened, I made my triumphant return to Tonga in my underwear. TONGA FROZEN IN TIME Nothing much had changed in Tonga in the last decade and a half. I could have been in a time warp excepting one or two new buildings and the tattered, dreary remnants of Tonga’s massive millennium celebrations. I had become accustomed to Las Vegas, where every building over a few years old is routinely imploded. I was happy to see the same old photograph of the King hanging in its place at the International Dateline Hotel. However, I was sad to see the Royal Chapel (site of the Kingdom’s coronations), heavily damaged by the 1977 earthquake, now completely gone! Some of the fashions had changed in Tonga. Adolescent boys are now frequently seen lookin’ like they’re from South Central L.A. dressed in gangster-rap gear--the influence of rock videos. For eons, Tongans have adhered to the belief that fat was beautiful. Now, for the first time, the population is weight conscious and guilt-ridden about their bulk, due to the ever-increasing effect of the western media (Kate Moss go home). The King himself is on an exercise craze, and for Royal portraits is customarily photographed now in workout mode, either riding a bike or paddling a canoe (with a hoard of bodyguards in tow). I, on the other hand, had adopted Tonga’s view that fat was regal and splendorous, and had gained weight since my last visit. On my first expedition to Tonga I made a series of paintings on Tapa cloth, mostly portraits of the King. At the time, there was nothing comparable in the arts and crafts of Tonga. People were shocked that I was using the King’s image without royal permission. Now in souvenir shops I saw portraits of the King on tapa cloth that looked suspiciously similar to my style. One such artifact was procured as evidence. NOTEWORTHY KINGLY ACCOMPLISHMENTS The King of Tonga never tires in his quest to search the world for ways to benefit the people of Tonga. Some of his lifetime plans, schemes, and achievements include the following: In 1947, in a bold move to update Tongan orthography, His Royal Highness renamed the kingdom “Tonga,” previously spelled “Toga.” In 1951, as Crown Prince, he proposed importing elephants from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to be used in place of tractors. In 1959, the King announced the establishment of a whaling station in Tonga that would use more sophisticated hunting methods, such as throwing dynamite under the whale’s head. In 1963, Tonga made philatelic history by producing the first series of metal foil stamps and in 1969 issued a series of unconventionally shaped stamps of bananas, pineapples, and coconuts. In 1972, His Imperial Majesty squelched a crackpot scheme to make the completely underwater Minerva Reef (located in Tongan waters) into an independent nation--a sea city on stilts. Maurice C. Davis of Orange County was named President of the farcical Republic of Minerva and a commemorative coin was struck in Lancaster, California. Shrewdly, the King sailed out to the reef, piled up some coral, placed the Tongan flag on top, and officially claimed the territory for the Kingdom. In 1977, His Majesty met with Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya to secure a loan to upgrade the Tonga airport. Later in the year the King started a deal to export bats to Guam, as they are considered an epicurean delicacy there. In Tonga, bats are taboo--only members of the (Fale ‘Alo) Royal Family are allowed to eat them. In 1980, the Tongan Legislative Assembly introduced a bill allowing anyone with $10,000 to buy a Tongan passport. Listed among the passport recipients are the family and relatives of the late President Ferdinand Marcos. In the mid-1980’s, the His Most Sacred Majesty made a series of TV appearances on Praise the Lord on the Trinity Broadcasting Network of Orange County, California, run by televangelist Dr. Paul F. Crouch. In Los Angeles in 1986 the King was awarded the “International Golden Angel Award” by the Religion in Media Organization. “Let them give glory unto the Lord, and declare his praise in the islands.” (Isaiah 42:12.) In 1987, Tonga opened its first brewery in association with Pripps Brewery of Sweden, producing a fine alcoholic beverage known as Royal Beer. In 1989, His Magnificence looked into the possibility of storing crude oil in the active volcanic crater of Ninafo’ou (or Tin Can Island), the only home of an endangered flightless bird, the Polynesian scrub hen (Megapodius pritchardii), similar to the dodo bird of Mauritius Island. In 1990, the Crowned Head of State visited a garbage dump of old tires in Washington state. The plan was to burn the tires in Tonga as a means of producing power, until Greenpeace expressed alarm that the incinerators would emit a deadly mixture of toxic fumes and heavy metals into the Tongan air. In the same year, Tonga had its first beauty contest. The contestants were required to parade in swimsuits, but some of the old timers were not used to such displays of immodesty until one of the organizers, Professor Futa Helu, reminded them: “Such displays used to take place regularly in ancient Tonga, but only for the King with the contestants parading naked.” In 1991 in a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, His Majesty was baptized in the Jordan River near Nazareth. “And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in the Jordan.” (Mark 1:9.) Later the King concocted a plan to charge nuclear countries of the world to dump their radioactive waste into the Tonga Trench (a submarine gulch in the floor of the Pacific Ocean 850 miles in length, 50 miles wide, and 35,702 feet in depth). In the mid-1990’s, the King ingeniously registered several geostationary orbital satellite slots over Tonga that cover the entire Pacific area. As Tonga has no space program, the orbital slots were leased out by the quickly formed TongaSat company for multi-millions a year for the Kingdom. Tonga also launched into the internet with its own (ccTLD) country code Top Level Domain, registering websites with the handy In April 1997, Tonga filed a legal protest against Hankyu Express International Company (an Osaka based travel agency) for unauthorized use of a photo of the King in an advertising campaign. The King’s image was digitally superimposed, linking arms with the flamboyant star of the Takarzuka Revue, a controversial Japanese all-female cross-dressing theater group. In 2000, since Tonga is the closest nation to the international dateline, hence the first Kingdom to see the light of the new Millennium, Tonga threw the most massive of New Year’s parties. For the occasion the King came out with a chart-busting Millennial CD on which he plays a rockin’ guitar solo. Tonga’s national motto is “Where Time Begins.” PRIVATE SECRETARY TO H. M. A day before our audience with the King, an appointment was made with His Majesty’s Private Secretary ‘Eleni ‘Aho (‘aho means “shark” in Tongan). At the meeting I explained that I was with a group of Swedish students who would like to wear national costumes and show examples of their artwork to the King. The secretary firmly said that everyone at the audience must wear strictly formal attire: women must wear long skirts--no pants allowed, and men must wear suits and ties. None of us had brought along anything approximating formal attire; we had our bags packed with beach wear. Mattias Olofsson wanted to wear his Saami dress to meet the King, so he showed a photo of himself in costume to the Secretary--she scrutinized it carefully, then enthusiastically approved the costume. A more difficult task would be to convince the Secretary to allow performance artist Frida Oliv to wear her Reindeer Girl costume, a cross between a Playboy Bunny outfit and Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It was made of dirty looking fur--low cut and micro mini with a furry bonnet with antlers attached--everything that was strictly taboo (against palace protocol). My challenge would be to come up with some plausible reason for her to wear the reindeer outfit. My anxiety over the dress code dilemma caused the students to worry about their own apparel. Suddenly we were taking it very seriously! (In my mind, I pictured Frida in the revealing reindeer suit prancing up to the Palace Guard and the whole audience being swiftly canceled.) I surmised that it would be best not to surprise the Palace Officials, so I instructed Frida to arrive at the Palace Office in her regular clothes but bring along the reindeer suit. I would somehow try to explain that we were from the Arctic where reindeer are common, and that the outfit could almost be considered a national costume. (I lost some sleep over the reindeer question.) I also asked the Secretary if the students could bring their cameras to take photos with the King. ‘Eleni sternly said, “Photography is strictly forbidden in the palace. Only one camera is allowed, and the photos must be taken by His Majesty’s aide.” The students were much disappointed, as they all wanted their own documentation. For the audience I was hoping to find a cheap used suit--but that turned out to be an impossible task in Tonga. I decided to wear the more readily available traditional Tongan costume, the ta’ovala, or waist mat, worn by men. The mats are woven out of pandanus fibers and worn over a vala (skirt) held together by a kafa (belt) of coconut fiber. The mat is donned as a symbol of respect to Their Majesties. No Tongan is considered properly dressed without one. When one local saw me in the ta’ovala, he said, “Hey man, you look like a Tongan noble.” (In truth, at a special Kava Ceremony, I had been given the title of “Honorary Noble” (hingoa nopele) by decree of the Tongan National Center.) For the students, I procured ta’ovalas for the boys and kiekies (women’s waist mats) for the girls. When we arrived wearing traditional mats, the palace officials were greatly impressed. Every taboo was lifted, and the students could bring their cameras. When I told them that Frida had brought along a costume (describing in detail how revealing it was), they responded enthusiastically and encouraged her to change immediately. MAJESTIC ROYAL AUDIENCE On October 31, 2000, we were ushered by the palace guard to the Royal Palace. Upon entering the audience chamber, I was struck by a heavy dose of deja vu. His Magnificence THE KING OF TONGA was sitting on his splendid carved wooden throne with the Tonga crest over his head, and the familiar old prints were hanging on the wall. I conveyed to the King that Governor (Landshövding) Georg Andersson of Västerbotten County, Sweden sends his personal greetings. I explained to H.M. that we were from the Academy of Fine Arts in Umeå, located close to Lapland, and we were in Tonga to study its marine life, archeological sites, and folklore, traditional ceremonies, and arts. Upon hearing we were from Sweden, His Majesty told us that he was reading a book about Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (Karl XIV Johan, 1763-1844), King of Sweden. (Bernadotte, a celebrated general and Marshal of France under Napoleon, was adopted by the ailing and aged, childless King Charles XIII, and in 1818 became King of Sweden and Norway. Although Frenchman Bernadotte converted to Lutheranism, he failed to learn the Swedish language.) The King went on to say that he owns a pair of Lapp reindeer fur moccasins and that he has tried reindeer meat, which he enjoyed very much. His Majesty even knew the obscure fact that in the late 1890’s, a colony of Saami reindeer herdsmen were brought to Alaska to teach Inuits how to breed domestic reindeer. The students were totally amazed at how much the King knew about Swedish history. One by one, each of the students went up to the King to present him with a gift or discuss a certain topic. First, Mattias Olofsson (in Saami drag) approached the King, explained his costume, and presented him the official gift from Konsthögskolan, a Saami kåsa (cup), hand-carved and exquisitely inlaid with engraved reindeer antler. Next to approach the throne was Stina Pettersson, the official bearer of the Swedish State gifts. Stina, wearing a lovely kiekie, presented a personal gift from the Governor, the flag of Västerbotten, with its crest depicting a reindeer, the Wildman (symbol of Lapland), and a Nordic fish. Then Po Hagström, in a handsome black vala, brought up to the Tongan chieftain an oversized book with photographs of northern Sweden, mostly depicting snow shrouded landscapes. Po had bookmarked several photos that aptly represented the Västerbotten area. Janna Holmstedt, wearing a stylish and colorful combination Fijian/Indian sari and kiekie, demonstrated to the King how her art piece, a bright orange UFO helmet, fit over her head. His Majesty looked quite perplexed until Janna explained that it was a prop used in a film she was making. Janna also presented to the King a complicated tapa cloth diagram explaining her theory on the Polynesian astronomical calendar system, based on the ancient Tongan Stonehenge (Ha’amonga), a humongous stone arch built in the 12th century. Eva Linder has a club with a web page ( dedicated to Pärlplattor (literally translated “pearl plate”), a popular Scandinavian craft incorporating colored plastic beads to create intricate designs. Wearing her Pärlplatteklubben T-shirt and exquisite Tongan mat, Eva bestowed H.M. with examples of the craft especially made by members of the club as special gifts for the King. Next, Frida Oliv, dressed as Reindeer Girl, merrily pranced up to the King. (“...the prancing and pawing with each little hoof.”) The deer suit seemed to make His Majesty exceedingly happy. H.M. asked whether the costume was made of real fur, to which Frida (a strict vegetarian) exclaimed, “Certainly not! It is artificial.” Lars Nilsson, in full ta’ovala, explained to the King that he was studying computer technology. He asked the King about Tonga’s growing presence on the internet. For some unaccountable reason, His Majesty entirely sidestepped the question. Ylva Bergkvist Mazetti (who lived in California for five years, studying art at Santa Monica Community College) was an excellent conversationalist with the King. Ylva skillfully kept our dialog with the Royal Personage moving at a good pace. Mårten Åsberg, elected student group leader on account of his experience as an Alpine tour guide, served as ceremonial court photographer for our appointment with the King. SOAP-ON-A-ROPE Near the end of the royal audience, I asked the King if he remembered the last time we met, when I gave him the World’s Largest Swim Fins. His Majesty diplomatically answered, “Ah yes, I use swim fins in the pool to exercise. I have worn out several pairs.” I then pulled out a special gift for the King given to me by artist Cameron Jamie. It was a green tiki-shaped soap-on-a-rope with a “Tonga” brand trademark label on the back that Cameron found in a thrift store. I was almost too embarrassed to show it to His Majesty. The battered, decrepit soap was grubby and chipped. It felt like it was flocked, an effect caused by successive layers of dust adhering to the tacky surface. When Cameron first gave it to me, I thought, “He wants me to give this piece of donkey dung to the King?” I considered trying to wash the dirt off, but then it might look used. I even contemplated just abandoning the soap somewhere and lying to Cameron about giving it to the King. But on the day before the audience, in a flash of inspiration, I thought that all it needed was presentation. I went to downtown Nuku’alofa, found a nice gift box with white ribbons, and therein placed the soap-on-a-rope in a ziplock bag, like an artifact. I told the King that the soap-on-a-rope was from the 70’s and that it is now considered a “collectible”. To my astonishment, His Majesty seemed quite interested in the soap tiki. He sat up and leaned forward, broadly smiling while he closely inspected the inexplicable artifact. The King exclaimed, “I’ve heard about a cologne manufacturer using “Tonga” as a brand name. This is quite interesting indeed!” I was shocked by the positive reception the soap received from the Sovereign. It was so strange, I thought, that the King would be intrigued by the most pathetic gift. Then it dawned on me--this was an historic moment: American Polynesian pop culture confronts the Living Embodiment of Tiki. It was the moment for which I had lived my entire life! Growing up in southern California in the late 50’s tiki craze inspired me to travel the vast expanse of Polynesian islands in search of the origin of Tiki (Ti’i). Now it had come full circle: Tonga™ soap-on-a-rope meets the King of Polynesia. After the royal meeting, ‘Eleni ‘Aho said that the King must have enjoyed our company, as he extended our meeting from twenty minutes to over an hour. Following the audience, I took the students to the district of Mu’a to see the mystic site of the Tongan Pyramids, the ancient tombs (Langi) of the kings (Tu’i Tonga). I told my pupils of the archaic Tongan rite of tu’umama’o, an act of great humility, in which noblemen repeatedly evacuated their bowels on the tombs. Here at this holy place, we paid homage the sacred kings of yore. Long May Taufa’ahau Tupou IV Reign!