"I started writing 'tena koe' as a greeting and some people rang me and said I was culturally insensitive to them. However, hopefully they got over that."

Gisborne Mayor, Meng Foon is well known for his love of and command of te reo Māori, but not everyone always felt the same way.

"I am the only mayor that speaks fluent Māori from 2001 to 2018," he said. "From a New Zealand point of view, I'm fortunate that I do possess the reo and that I have an interest in te reo and able to participate in the Māori world. Especially when 50 per cent of our community are Māori. It would be nice to hear more reo speakers around the mutu, in terms of leadership."

Foon has been mayor for 18 years, much of his tenure virtually unopposed. But now, the much-loved mayor is preparing to retire from local body politics.


"I'm nearing 60, and I wouldn't mind actually just seeing if there's a couple more doors in my life. I've always dreamt that I will continue my role nationally."

On what that role might be, Foon is tight-lipped.

"I have some ambitions that will be revealed in due course."

Foon's Dad was born in Guangzhou, China, his Mum was from Hong Kong. His parents married in 1958 before migrating to Gisborne and becoming market gardeners.

Foon was born in New Zealand and spent much of his childhood working at his parents' vege store. The move to politics happening virtually by accident.

"One of my friends, Hemi Hikuwai, he was a policeman, I used to have cups of tea with him. One day he said 'look, why don't you join council and be a councillor' And I said 'what do you fullas do?' And he said 'well, lunch is good'.

"I said to my father that I wouldn't mind being the mayor one day. And he said, 'just keep working hard son'. So in 2001 I won the mayoral election and never looked back."

He's devoted two decades to working passionately for the region, but it hasn't all been plain sailing.

"When I first came into the office, within a month or two, a gang member comes into the office and wants to extort money from me. He eventually ended up in jail for that, he alleged I was selling tinnies and had a video clip. That proved to be untrue.

"I've enjoyed my time with the community, being with them, celebrating with them, milestones of 100-year birthdays, 90-year birthdays. My dearest uncle Api, he was a great mentor of mine, a great friend, of mine, he used to call me 'neph.' I call him 'uncle'."


Meng says one of his biggest achievements, was working with 'uncle' Apirana Mahuika in building the C Company Māori Battalion Memorial House in 2014, to honour soldiers of the Māori Battalion.

"It wasn't until around 2012, and we were going to all the Māori Battalion reunions and there were only six left. Uncle and I started the process. Fortunately the six that were alive, five of them came to the opening of the house. It would have been a travesty if we built the C Company house and none of the soldiers were left."

Come September, this extraordinary mayoralty will come to an end. Among the contenders for his role are Meredith Akuhata-Brown who is Māori and Rehette Stoltz, originally from South Africa. But Foon won't be drawn on which he favours.

"It doesn't matter whether the cat's black or white, as long as they can catch mice.

"There's only 200 Chinese people in Gisborne, but I am the mayor of this wonderful district. So I think it's about the quality of people, the actions and the deeds that person can do. I think it's about that, rather than ethnicity."

Made with funding from