Using traditional tools, Pasifika stonemasons are showing skill, endeavour as walls go up all over Auckland.

The new house up the road was ready to move into and the beginnings of a front lawn were visible over a rickety picket fence less than waist-high.

The next day, the fence was gone, and the verge was covered with piles of sand and lumps of stone, football-size and bigger. A concrete mixer crouched near the kerb, awaiting instructions.

Slowly a wall grew where the fence had been. More than 2m high, it was made of large chunks of the basalt we call bluestone, the building blocks of early Auckland that form the big churches in Symonds St and the grim walls of the original Mt Eden prison.

For what seemed like weeks, I was riding or walking past the crew of strapping Pacific lads putting it up. They always threw me a cheerful smile as I passed and I made a point of throwing one right back.


I was struck by the absence of high-tech equipment. Apart from that mixer, their tools seemed limited to hammers, chisels and trowels. No doubt there was string and plumb bobs, too. One of the stonemason slaves working on the Great Pyramids would have fitted right in.

If their work was slow, it was painstaking. The bits of stone were picked and rotated so as to slot like jigsaw pieces into the available spaces. Occasionally, a chisel was deployed to shear a shard off an inconveniently angled face, but mostly the blocks belonged where they ended up and only a thin slap of mortar was needed to fill the gaps.

My admiration for their work was mixed with an ambivalence about the very idea of a wall. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," wrote poet Robert Frost. In the poem Mending Wall, he depicts his surly neighbour as justifying its existence by saying "Good fences make good neighbours", but he is not so sure: "Before I built a wall," he wrote, "I'd ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out".

A century later, high fences and walls with keypad-controlled gates seem to be going up everywhere, not just in our neighbourhood but all over the city and Frost's question is still a good one. But I'm picking it doesn't keep Lemeki Tagi awake at night.

With his crew of six, Tagi, who says everyone calls him Mack, builds and repairs walls all over the city. He's had jobs in Oamaru and Fiji as well.

I came across him when trying in vain to track down the team that did the wall up the road. It turns out that Tagi's company, All Stone and Rock, is one of many owned, operated and staffed by Pacific people.

"I wouldn't have a clue how many," he says. "I see a lot of them working everywhere. I would say about 80 per cent of the businesses are Pacific-owned."

Tagi, the son of a Tongan mother and a Samoan father, laughs when I suggest he will always be on the right side in an argument. "I have to sit in the middle and keep the peace," he says, before adding in an undertone that the Tongans are the best workers.


He cannot explain the Pasifika domination of the business - the islands do not, after all, have a long tradition of stonemasonry.

"They love to work outside, I suppose. Indians like to drive taxis and Tongans like the physical work."

When I meet Tagi, he is working with his son Hani and a couple of others, replacing a cracked concrete wall alongside a driveway in Kingsland so that it matches the streetfront wall almost as old as that Robert Frost poem.

"It's not complicated," he says, "It's quite hard to get it just right, but our people learn very easy if you show them how to do it, not if you tell them."

Success breeds success in this business. Tagi says he has had a lot of workers who "come in and learn the trade and then they take off and start something for themselves".

It doesn't lead to bad blood, he says. "It's no problem so long as they do it properly. Sometimes I am called in to fix work someone else has done and I can't believe what a bad job they have done. It makes all of us look bad.

"It's like any job, really. You keep the client happy and you'll never run out of business."