Auckland: The Pacific comes to Auckland

By Tapu Misa

As Auckland merges to create a supercity, the Herald looks back at how Auckland has changed over the years. Click here to view the full series.

Performers from the Tuvalu Village at the Pasifika 2009 festival. Photo / Richard Robinson
Performers from the Tuvalu Village at the Pasifika 2009 festival. Photo / Richard Robinson

Auckland has always been a Pacific city. But it didn't know it until large numbers of Pacific people started arriving here after World War II and turned it into the Polynesian capital of the world.

The migration of the LeLaulu family from the village of Papauta, Samoa, to Auckland, New Zealand, was not typical.

The matriarch of the family, Iliganoa, did not pull her husband and four children across the Pacific ocean for economic reasons, as so many thousands of other islanders were beginning to do just after World War II.

Migrating here, and away from the Samoan custom of parcelling out children to relatives, was simply the only way she could keep her family together.

The beautiful and determined Iliganoa, as her first born son Lelei likes to tell it, had married a dashing young immigration officer from Apia, LeLaulu Nonu Tuisamoa, despite her father threatening to shoot him, right up to the wedding day.

They had four children in quick succession, but under the informal adoption customs, Iliganoa kept only Lelei, while the other three children were adopted out Samoan style to close relatives - some, unfortunately,living not so close to Papauta.

Taking her children back in Samoa would have been traumatic for all concerned, so Iliganoa hatched a cunning plan: she would move her family to New Zealand.

She came to Auckland, and lined up a job cooking and cleaning and looking after the two children of a Remuera family.

The job came with room and board, which enabled her, in 1951, to return to Samoa and drag her eldest on to a DC3 for the circuitous flight from Apia to Whenuapai via Suva and Norfolk Island.

He was duly enrolled in Remuera Primary School, where there was only one other Samoan boy to disturb the elegant decorum of the suburb.
Stage two of Iliganoa's plan saw the arrival of her parents, with her second-born son in tow. This involved the renting of a house in inner city Newton, so they could all stay together.

"The original plan was to bring all four of her children to Auckland then lure her husband across the moana," recalls Lelei. "But this was adjusted when my father just turned up, and stayed. In short order, my sisters turned up in their FOB [fresh off the boat] glory in the company of relatives.

"A house was quickly bought at number 1 South St, Newton, and Iliganoa finally had all her four children and husband in her own house.

"Persuading her beloved aiga to not only return her children, but also to arrange for their passage to a strange country, far, far, away should be studied by diplomat trainers."

The place they came to

There were just 2200 Pacific islanders in the country in 1945. Maori hadn't yet migrated to the cities, and a de facto "white New Zealand" immigration policy that favoured British immigrants ensured that Auckland and the rest of the country continued to look like an outpost of Britain.

Pacific people had been travelling to New Zealand and occasionally settling here since the early 19th century, but they remained largely invisible. Most married into Pakeha and Maori families and were absorbed into those communities.

It was the post-war migration wave, which began in earnest in the 1950s and intensified in the 1960s and 1970s that finally gave Auckland its Pacific face.

The country needed workers for its burgeoning industry and service sectors, and there were too many dirty jobs a self-respecting British immigrant or Kiwi wasn't prepared to do.

Inevitably, the search for labour was extended to New Zealand's Pacific "territories": the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau - whose inhabitants were New Zealand citizens with automatic rights of entry - and Western Samoa, which had been under New Zealand administration since 1914.

It was a marriage of convenience. With few opportunities at home and education the preserve of the high-ranking or well-off afakasi (half-caste) families who could afford to travel to New Zealand, many islanders in search of good jobs and good schools for themselves and their children had little choice but to emigrate.

Though some were attracted by the excitement and freedom promised by a modern Palagi society, which they had glimpsed in the magazines and movies that found their way to the islands, many migrated out of necessity and duty to families at home, who they either supported with remittances (which soon outstripped foreign aid) or funded to join them in New Zealand.

In that way, entire families and sometimes even villages in the case of Niue, moved to New Zealand, most of them settling in Auckland.
From 3600 Pacific people here in 1951, to nearly 94,000 in 1981, to 175,000 in 1991, to 266,000 at the 2006 Census, the Pacific came to Auckland.

The places they made their own

Auckland's first Pacific community was not in south Auckland but in the now high-end inner city suburbs of Ponsonby, Newton and Grey Lynn, as well as Freemans Bay and Parnell.

These were less salubrious places in the 1950s, the locus of cheap rental housing, much of it consisting of run-down old villas and workers' cottages with no hot water or inside toilet.

(The first all-Samoan rugby team played for the Parnell Rugby Club, and when that closed down in the mid-sixties the team was turned down by four clubs before finding a home in Ponsonby, where, a few years later, it won its division two years running.)

That first settler community was, by all accounts, a remarkably cohesive and productive one.

Some of its most dynamic members were to be found at Newton PIC (the Pacific Islanders Congregational Church, later the Pacific Islanders Presbyterian Church).

Among them were the indomitable watersiders (whose jobs allowed them plenty of time for community mobilisation) LeLaulu Nonu Tuisamoa and Jim Yandall (who arrived from Samoa on the ship Matua in 1946, and whose daughters formed the nationally popular singing group The Yandall Sisters); Rev Leuatea Sio (who came in 1951 to train as a teacher and was persuaded instead to go into the ministry, where he earned the community's deep respect and affection as "the father of Pacific communities"); and Rev Robert Challis, an "honorary Pacific islander" who had worked as a missionary in the Pacific before being asked to set up the PIC church with the help of Cook Islands minister Rev Tariu Teaia (who went on to found the Wellington PIC church).

Many churches played a key role in helping new migrants settle into life in New Zealand, but few seemed to approach the task with as much vigour and commitment as Newton PIC. Founded in 1947 in Edinburgh St, Newton, just off the now "red-light" part of Karangahape Rd, it was the country's first ethnic Pacific church, and gathered together Cook Islanders, Niueans and Samoans. (Tongans tended to be Methodists or Catholics and were fewer in number then, as were Fijians. The majority of Tokelauans settled in Wellington.)

Aware of how ill-equipped and unprepared some migrants were, and how lonely and isolating life could be without support, LeLaulu, Yandall and the two church ministers took the initiative of meeting the new arrivals from the Pacific as they came off the banana boats at the wharves or the flying boats at Hobsonville, on the off-chance they had no one to meet them, and needed help with transport, a job or somewhere to stay.

Most new migrants needed help unravelling the complexities of life in Auckland - but at least the jobs were plentiful and, with overtime, and a second or third job, many made enough to send money home, to pay for other relatives to join them, and even to save for deposits on their first homes, with the help of state incentives.

With advice from the old hands, and the kind of pastoral care that extended to crawling under old houses to check for borer infestations in properties that church members wanted to buy, many of Newton PIC's parishioners became homeowners in Parnell, Ponsonby and Grey Lynn.

Lelei LeLaulu recalls how his father bought properties around the inner city area and set up relatives in them until they were on their feet. Later, the family's 8-bedroom home in Herne Bay became the staging platform for the establishment of a dynamic and productive Samoan diaspora. Dozens of family members got their start there.

"My father would not let any of his relatives out of our house unless they had a deposit on a property. He often received their wages to ensure on-time payments and remittances.

"And he worked his aiga hard. There was always a new house to build or an older one to expand. Freezing workers would doff their butcher aprons, bus to Newton, Ponsonby and Grey Lynn, to don their carpenter's belts and work late into the evenings and weekends - I don't think I knew any relatives who rented their house."

When large numbers of Pacific island families started moving out south to Otara and Mangere, or west to Henderson and Te Atatu, the LeLaulus and other stalwarts of the PIC church were among those who resisted the urge to join the exodus from the city.

The good schools were in town, says LeLaulu, a former journalist and broadcaster who now works as a development entrepreneur in several regions around the world. He went to Auckland Grammar and then Auckland University (where he was editor of Craccum).

"It may be coincidental," he muses, "but it seems the strip joints came to Karangahape Rd about the time many islanders were moved from central Auckland by the motorway construction, or lured to the suburbs and the promise of new houses as The Great Gentrification got into high gear."

It was testament to the strength of that first settler community that when Newton PIC outgrew its old church, it was able to build a new 1000-seater church building that could accommodate more than double its congregation and had the distinction of being the only church that was fully paid for when it was consecrated.

Later, some of those same PIC elders got themselves elected on to boards and councils (Jim Yandall was an Auckland city councillor).

In the 1970s, the politically active "NZ-borns" from that inner-city community continued the work of their elders with the formation of the Polynesian Panthers, which ran homework centres for school children, visited inmates at Auckland's Paremoremo prison, and actively supported Maori protests and causes.

The dawn raids

Despite the problems of adjustment, there was a sense of optimism and dynamism in the migrant communities. Auckland was seen as exotic and exciting, and most people seemed happy to be here.

There was church on Sundays, shopping and socialising on Karangahape "K" Rd on late-night Thursdays, when what seemed like Auckland's entire Pacific population converged on the popular shopping strip.

On Friday and Saturday nights there were dances at the Orange and Oriental Ballrooms in Newton to which even the most lowly factory worker was expected to turn up looking fashionably and stylishly attired. (And did.)

It seems innocent by today's standards. Alcohol wasn't sold in the ballrooms, drunkenness was frowned upon, and people were on their best behaviour.

University of Auckland anthropologist Dr Melanie Anae, who grew up in that first settler community, recalls that: "This was a time when work was aplenty, when the standard of education was high and evenly accessed, when the church was the focus for the spiritual and pastoral care of the growing numbers of Pacific Aucklanders."

The turning point was the economic downturn that began in 1973, and coincided with record levels of immigration from Britain and the Pacific. The Samoans and Tongans whose overstaying had been tolerated while labour was short were suddenly unwelcome as the job market contracted and anti-immigration feeling mounted. Their visibility made them convenient scapegoats for politicians who blamed them for overloading social services.

The controversial dawn raids on the homes of alleged overstayers that began in 1974, and the random stopping of Pacific people (many of whom were here legally) shattered the benign image of New Zealand that many Pacific Islanders had, and remains a bitter memory for many older immigrants.

A 1985-86 study showed that Pacific people comprised only a third of overstayers, but 86 per cent of all prosecutions for overstaying. People from the United States and Britain who also made up almost a third of those overstaying represented just 5 per cent of prosecutions.

The Tongans

The Tongans were late arrivals. They weren't encouraged to emigrate during the reign of Queen Salote, the grandmother of the present king.

Salote was most famous outside Tonga for charming the crowds and the international press at the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth by memorably riding through the streets of London in an open carriage despite the pouring rain, showing respect for the newly crowned British monarch and solidarity with the equally drenched spectators.

Having been educated in Auckland at the private Diocesan School for Girls, Queen Salote was well aware of the challenges Tongans would face in moving to Auckland.

She believed her subjects needed preparation before leaving the kingdom for the outside world, and until her death in 1965 the number of Tongans moving to New Zealand remained low, especially when compared to the Samoans.

For Tongans, a passport was regarded as a rare privilege rather than an automatic right. Some, like my husband who came to New Zealand in the mid-sixties as a scholarship student to study at Auckland Grammar and then Auckland University, were particularly well prepared.

He and his Tonga High School classmates had been taught in English by Kiwi teachers, had studied the New Zealand curriculum in preparation for sitting School Certificate (the forerunner to NCEA) and arrived in Auckland knowing more about their host country's history, industry and geography than most New Zealanders.

Their introduction to Auckland was more genteel than most of their fellow countrymen and women.

Living at a hostel on the leafy grounds of the Tongan royal family's residence in Epsom, next door to some of Auckland's wealthiest families (the Caugheys, of Smith and Caughey's were neighbours), worshipping alongside them at the local Methodist Church in Pah Rd, and rubbing shoulders with their sons and daughters at Auckland's best public schools, they assumed that everyone lived the same way.

"It didn't occur to us that we were living in a privileged part of Auckland," he recalls. "When we were finally invited to Tongan homes we realised that they lived in these old, run-down quaint little villas in the narrow streets of Grey Lynn and Ponsonby where the houses were all stuck together. It was different from what we saw in Epsom."

The contrast became more telling in the 1970s.

"In the 1970s when we saw the influx, it proved Queen Salote's concerns. The new migrants weren't prepared. When the labour market closed up it was the complete opposite of what we had seen when we first arrived.

"I remember seeing people here in Auckland who I hadn't seen for 10 or 15 years, looking for work, with no English and needing help in every sort of way."

- NZ Herald

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