Tonga & The Tropical Trouble

If I say ‘tropical island kingdom in the Pacific’, would you think of political riots, racial tension, corrupt authorities, roadside pollution, feudal rule, poverty, alcoholism and natural disasters? I’m guessing no.

Nonetheless, this is also part of the otherwise picture-perfect postcard that you get here in Tonga. It would be easy to write yet another envy-inducing traveller’s blog about how cute all the traditional costumes are, how friendly the people are, how white the sandy beaches are and how fresh the cheap coconuts taste.

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Even though the World Cup is on these days, local rugby matches draw more attention than any soccer game will ever do.


Of course, all of that is true and the weather is great too, but you know me; I can’t help but digging up the dirt and the quirk. So here we are – welcome to an alternative peak into the Kingdom of Tonga.

A Cash-Conscious Church

Tonga is the only Polynesian island nation that has never lost its sovereignty to a foreign power. In other words; they were never colonized. For that reason, it is probably also the best living example of uninterrupted Polynesian culture with all the feudalism and taboo that this entails.

That is not to say that new ideas and cultural traits haven’t been introduced. Take Christianity for instance. In the 1800’s Tonga started receiving missionaries of all sorts of Christian denominations; Mormons, 7th Day Adventists, Catholics, Wesleyans, Lutherans, you name it. In modern day Tonga this translates into a 99% Christian population.

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Even the smurfs have their own church in Tonga!


Yet, the Tongans didn’t so much get converted as they converted the church practices into a distinctively Tongan version. One example of that is the widespread practice of drinking the anaesthetic juice made from the roots of the Kava plant. In the Free Church of Tonga, the preacher and the congregation thus get moderately stoned together right before and immediately after church services.

Another uniquely Tongan church practice is the in-your-face money collection, which happens during service and ends with a public counting of the loot and a subsequent public reading from a list of givers and their contributions. Talk about peer-pressure.


Traditional Pressures

Where Westerners often feel pressure and expectation in their work-environments, Tongans feel their societal obligations most strongly within their families and churches. Tongans will apparently often take out expensive loans just to afford an ‘appropriate’ donation to the church and when a family member dies, the family absolutely must perform certain rites that are often cripplingly expensive.

To a Westerner who grew up in a society that values individualism over everything else, all of this seem like a nightmare. But for Tongans, this is the natural way of the world and even if one did complain, this would be culturally dismissed. Only actions that benefit the community are valued and like in many other so-called third-world countries, the people simply don’t have a strong sense of individuality.

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This live band gave me a sweet taste of the minor-key, slow-paced lovely Tongan music. The singer (second from right) is apparently the most famous in Tonga and often sings for the royals.

Riots & The Royals

In 2008, Forbes Magazine rated the Tongan Government to be world’s 6th most corrupt country. Whether that is true is always going to disputable, but the riot of 2006 certainly indicate that the population isn’t necessarily too impressed with its government. The riot was a pro-democratic movement’s frustrated response to the governments failure to deliver democratic reforms, and it ended up, sadly, in 6 people dying and a very large part of the city being looted and destroyed. Where is Gandhi when you need him?

Although Tonga is a constitutional monarchy, the parliament is largely dominated by the Royals and the Nobility. There have been major improvements, though, and the late King George Tupou V, in 2008, relinquished much of his power to the government.

Still, the Royals have been openly criticized for pocketing income from such public assets as geo-orbital satellite slots and the Monarch can apparently freely decide to give citizenship to anybody.

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A Chinese restaurant located right next to the swanky Chinese embassy. Note the large satellite dish in the embassy’s back yard. Probably not for watching TV…


The Red Business

This last fact has proven seriously controversial in the case of several Chinese businessmen receiving Tongan passports. This I heard from a local man and many Tongans have expressed to me their concern over the Chinese influence in the country. It is certainly not a secret that China is a big player in this tiny nation. Every second shop is run by a Chinese family and the Chinese embassy is one of the swankiest buildings in the capital.

We all know that China’s government loves to get in on poor countries’ resources, but in the case of Tonga I just couldn’t help thinking; “what’s in it for China?”. Tonga isn’t exactly known for it’s abundant natural resources (I mean, the whole country can fit in the city of Memphis), but apparently China is advancing its interests all over the pacific. Even at the local vegetable market I found that nearly half of the vendors were Chinese.

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A look at the local vegetable market will make anyone want to eat a salad.


In Mandarin, the symbol/word for ‘bargain’ and the word for ‘value’ is identical and anyone who has seen a Chinese businessperson in action will know that business is at the core of Chinese culture. I guess it would be easy to conclude that they are better businessmen than the Tongan (see below for the distinctly Tongan take on property) or that the Tongans are all lazy kava-drinkers who leave it to foreigners to do the work.

But a Tongan woman told me the other day, that this is not entirely the case. She said that Tongans are, in fact, hard workers, but that the Tongan idea of work revolves around actual physical labour like food-production, construction and handicrafts.

Business, as we know it from capitalism, is a very recent phenomenon here and although items of value have always been changing hands, often following strict rules and regulations, it has traditionally been within the frame of ceremonial gift-giving and most often it has been a reciprocal affair. In other words, business was, historically speaking, an instrument for preserving cohesiveness in the community and for ensuring peace between islands.


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This is the epitome of Tongan nightlife. There are only a handful of bars and judging from the staggering crowd, they have a lot of regulars.


A Critical Look At The Press And Myself

You might wonder why I am not telling you more about the great people I have been talking to, like I normally do. Nothing gives more cultural insight than personal stories from the natives themselves, I agree, but here’s the thing: Tonga does not have free press. You might also, fairly, ask me to to prove that.

Well, one has only to open up a local paper and read the editorials, full of praise for the King and the Government, to realize how pro-authority the media is around here. People’s views are scrutinized and judged, just like a Danish village where you keep your critical views on people to yourself because you have to see them everyday at the grocers.

I simply don’t want to jeopardize anyone’s social status in a society so small that everyone knows when who did what with who and where.

Now, let’s just take a small break from my pummelling criticism here. I am obviously of a somewhat anarchist bent and not exactly a snap-to-grid kind of guy. Yet, I am also a product of Western democracy (that much lauded illusion which implies that nothing else is good enough) and as such I often find myself uncritically regurgitating the so-called democratic “truths”.

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A night shop is often the only light available to guide you home.


We’re not exactly paying much attention to the needs of the little man back in Europe and its colonial offspring. So, if I come across as yet another indignant pro-democracy advocate, then please have me excused. I only mean to point out injustice and highlight cultural differences for the sake of making available information from which you, dear reader, can better make your own judgements. Nuff said, let’s put those critical glasses back on 🙂

Pragmatism Versus Ownership

Ownership of land is reserved for the Government, the Royals and the Nobility. The right to use land (i.e. living on and farming it) is a hereditary affair effectuated through the eldest son in a family. Land can therefore not be sold. It can, however, be given away as a present, and if the recipient chooses to reciprocate the gift, let’s say with a neat sum of cash, then that is perfectly fine.

My impression is that Tongans are generally a pragmatic people. There are plenty of rules as indicated by the fact that the English word ‘taboo’, in fact, is taken straight from Tongan. But even though there are cultural rules for nearly everything, the Tongans all know exactly how to break them. The consequence is also included in the rules; a perpetrator must apologize and the victim must show forgiveness. Whether it is honestly meant or not, is less important. In a small population, people need to be able to get along, regardless of how they feel about each other.

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Saturday is flea-market day in the capital Nuku’Alofa. Here you find anything from freshly caught squid to old tools and Chinese shoes. And cake!


Exclusive ownership and theft seem to be foreign concepts for a Tongan, who will not always ask before borrowing something, never mind giving it back. On an island where material possessions have traditionally only been of a perishable nature, everything needs to be used or shared instantly less it spoils.

The influx of non-perishable material goods doesn’t appear to have changed that approach much, much to the grievance of many a Westerner here. The question remains, though; who is better of – they who spend all their energy accumulating and protecting assets, or they who just let stuff pass through their hands and make use of what is available without worrying about who is the owner?

How To Run A Jail?

That said, theft is still a punishable offence and the many security guards on the streets of the capital tell their own story. I was told that most of them double as potential threats to the Chinese business owners, so it is perhaps no surprise that the security companies mostly cater to Chinese customers. If you do end up in jail, you are pretty much left to fend for yourself.

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This beautiful old house is obviously inspired by classic Australian houses. Proper timber is scarce around Tonga, so these planks were probably imported all the way from New Zealand or Australia.


That is to say; you better hope your family is still behind you, because there is no food provided in a Tongan prison. There is, however, a vegetable garden and there is also a market outlet for the surplus produce. On the upside, though, prisoners get to go home on weekends!

This is an interesting example of how a different approach might seem, with Western eyes, to be unjust, but let’s take a closer look at it: Where will crime be more perpetuated; in cells where inmates are cooped up with nothing to do but exchanging crime stories, or in a garden where inmates are forced to work together to produce their own food? And where will a sense of embarrassment and guilt be more likely to change criminal behaviour into community supporting behaviour; in a prison where visitors rarely come through the barred gates or in a prison where you get to go and participate in your family’s life on weekends, including going to church?

I don’t know the actual reasons for the Tongan prison policies, they may be financial or they may be psychology-based, but for what it’s worth, I think it shows how easy it is to pass judgement too quickly, and I am speaking for myself here. When I first heard about the prison-system I seriously laughed and thought “how stupid”. But thinking more about it, I have changed my mind.

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I like an old rusty boat to look at, but I sure hope my ferry is in better nick…


A Friendly Farewell

And with this bit of food for thought, I will leave you for now. As an endnote I will tell you this: Tonga is more than a troubled nation, fighting for a balance between capitalism and societal evolution, it is an absolutely lovely place to be. This place is called “Friendly Islands” for a reason and although some of the policies and traditions here disagree with my own values, I honestly think that the world has a lot to learn from the Tongan way of life and in my next post I will go more into the Tongan family life and it’s qualities.

When that will be, I really can’t tell. My next move is a 12-hour boat ride this evening, to a remote group of islands that got hit something severe by a disastrous cyclone in January. I will be doing some volunteer carpentry to help with the rebuilding of the island’s houses and hopefully learn a few local building techniques, but internet access will be very limited, I was told.

So, until then, take care and once again; thank you for reading!



3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. fehi
    Mar 17, 2015 @ 05:00:21

    The Australian styled home in Nuku’alofa is my home. My great grandfather built it in 1953. True the timber he imported from New Zealand. Rimu and Kauri.


  2. Damon Lolomanaia
    Feb 08, 2017 @ 20:47:51

    Perfection. Good to hear of your experience. I am going back to Eua Tonga to live off grid with my wife. I live in Australia at the moment but i want to go back to symple life.


    • cornelius
      Feb 10, 2017 @ 08:24:01

      Thank you for your comment, I am glad you liked my post! All the best to you and your wife in Eua Tonga, may it be everything you wish for 🙂


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