I was watching the funeral and mourning ritual of the late King Tupou IV from a distance and savoring all the traditional excesses and richness affordable only on a royal budget. The Ha’amo, pongipongi tapu, appointment of Lavaka to Crown Prince Tupouto’a, cutting of the royal hair by a Maori Princess and King Tupou V’s fashion statement have all been a perfect mix of mockery, excess and preserving tradition with no act of conservation. It was the Tongan version of the 18th century French overindulgence without the messy aftermath.
A tapestry of two hundred or more dead large pigs, and calves, kava plants, fine mats and tapa cloths adorning the field of Pangai were the gifts of the cake eaters (in this case, pig eaters) to the new King. This far away Kingdom is not only omnivorous but this lavish display of delicious waste and materialism is a relentless struggle to preserve tradition no matter the costs. The royal family welcomes the ritual while protecting their rightful claim to the dynasty by taking their imperial position seriously.
A town with no soul
We live in a world where our security is threatened, our planet is destroyed and our human vulnerability is an inconvenient truth. The majority of the population in Tonga responds to trends and fads with enthusiasm and narrow-mindedness. The streets of Nuku’alofa are swamped with 4W drives, SUVs and reconditioned Japanese cars and not to mention the dirty fuel that heavily pollutes the air. The exclusive preoccupation with trends encourages laziness and unhealthy lifestyles because people are driving instead of walking or riding bicycles. Nuku’alofa is no longer a town with a soul, planet friendly and the pedestrian oriented community that used to be in the 60s, 70s and 80s.
My family and I were on a grand tour of Europe (Bavaria, Salzburg, Venice, Lake Garda and Switzerland) last month. I am a huge advocate of being green, organic and minimalism. Seeing and experiencing different European countries and their lifestyles provided a whole new perspective and awareness of the living language of being green, eco-friendly and planet friendly.
The last time I was in Tonga was 2002 and already then, the traffic was congested and the streets were dirty and unsafe because of so many automobiles. During my 3 months visit to Tonga in 2002, I escaped a lot to Fafa Island because of its car-free and harmony with nature. On every visit I made to Tonga between 2001 and 2002, I ate at Friends Café everyday; why? Friends Café’s delicious, organic and sustainable dishes reclaim the wisdom of our bodies. Friends Café also supports local farmers and fishermen. The services were exemplary, environment was clean and inviting and the music selection was relaxing and serene. I used to sit at Friends Café for hours and hours.
Lifestyles of excess
Now, with the notion of bigger is better has blinded a lot of people to what it really means to be truly modern and how tradition works. With so many cars, 4WDs, SUVs, imported canned, preserved and not sustainable products in Tonga, quality and quantity no longer go hand in hand. Lack of understanding and appreciation of modernism and its true value has exacerbated the kingdom’s political, social and economic instability. The lifestyle of excess partly due to social pressure amplifies its negative effect on the health of individuals as well as the environment.
Tonga should not focus on political changes alone because being practical, planet and eco friendly can also restore balance and harmony to the community. Changes in politics, culture as well as urban design should reflect local tradition and character. Tongans living in Tonga and abroad must redefine tradition and culture and maintain not only what makes perfect sense but also a culture with sustained value. Being ethically conscious about how we live, what we eat, wear and do and the choices we make certainly helps improve our lifestyle, lower our anxiety and create a more tranquil environment.
On our European holiday, we spent more time in Switzerland, from St. Moritz, Zurich (German speaking Switzerland), Geneva, Lausanne and along Lake Geneva (French speaking Switzerland) and to Zermatt (Matterhorn). Switzerland was my most favorite destination and Salzburg was next. Switzerland is an international country where the old and the new exist in symbiosis. Swiss government welcomes diversity while maintaining traditional values. They accommodate automobiles and at the same time keeping pedestrian oriented cities and communities. Zermatt, one of the best of the Swiss Alps, is a car-free resort. One thing Tonga and Switzerland have in common - all shops, businesses and most restaurants are closed on Sunday. Maybe Tonga can adopt Switzerland’s perfect mixture between tradition and carefully nurtured progress.
I hope King George Tupou V will discourage his subjects from elaborate fanfare in an effort to get rid of poverty and improve the lifestyle and health of his subjects. Poverty is an issue I doubt very much the King wants to deal with in his troubled kingdom. He appears to be a King with a discipline and very much in favor of the new world. We must learn from what has gone before and be flexible and adaptable without being wasteful. Tradition and modernity should co-exist as best of friends.
Prince Charles of England won the National Building Museum’s Vincent Scully Prize in Washington, DC, in November 2005 for the “Champion of Traditional Urbanism”. Prince Charles has been championing traditional urbanism for 20 years now and he is undertaking the new development of a new settlement at Poundbury (edge of Dorchester in the south of England). Prince Charles seeks to “build places for people” and I am saying this in hope that Tonga’s newly appointed Crown Prince Tupouto’a or those in power can do something similar and noteworthy for the community.
All the hoopla about who cuts whose hair in the tradition of cutting the hair in the wake of a funeral is probably not as important as what they would do with the royal hair. How about donating their hair to make wigs for the cancer patients? Or maybe have an auction and donate the proceeds to their favorite cause and/or charity organizations (other than the royal family). It is not only about being green and eco-friendly but it is also about giving back to the community and doing something significant for humanity.
All practicality with no warmth or elegance is no way to live - whether you are King or not. King George Tupou V’s fashion choice for the funeral of his father maybe interpreted by most as snooty, upper crust and non-traditional given the occasion, but I give him credit for wearing vintage, recycled and reused clothes whether he was conscious about eco-fashion or not. I have not met the new King but from what I have read about him so far, he certainly retains a provocative sense of surprise.
The virtue of Tongan traditions is also its vice that cannot dislodge the deeply entrenched habits that lead Tongans into poverty, obesity, suffering from gout, high blood pressure, heart attacks, diabetes, promiscuity and unhealthy lifestyle. The transformation of a culture is often known to be slow and arduous and it requires material and financial supports as well as moral and renewed intellect.
In the case of Tonga, the famous maxim coined by Daniel Patrick Moynihan who was a New York senator seems appropriate: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.”
Mele Payne Lynch
mlpayne222 [at] aol [dot] com (mlpayne222aol.com)