At first glance, Vava’u’s tropical island landscape felt familiar to a Malaysian like me. The island is forested, green not just with palm trees but also actual trees. In fact, my host’s Airbnb had a deck flanked by large trees that looked out towards the bay – invisible, as we sat there at the dining table on my first real evening in Tonga.

The deck’s electric lighting lit up one of the trees, where huge bunches of bananas were hanging on its various branches, right out in the open. I pondered them curiously. It wasn’t because the bananas themselves were unusual. Malaysia, of course, also has a wide range of banana varieties. It’s just that we don’t typically hang them all out after harvest, from a tree, at the forest edge. It wouldn’t stay there very long, what with the monkeys and all.

But Tonga’s jungles are safe. There are no poisonous snakes in it, and no predators (of humans, anyway). The spiders were large, but harmless (although a centipede did come into my cabin!). There were no foxes, civets, squirrels, monkeys. And that’s why you can just hang fruit out like this, and nothing happens to it.

An inauspicious start in Tonga

One of my great regrets from this trip was being unable to arouse any interest in the welcome kava* that my host organised. Sometime during my transit in Sydney, probably in the absolutely cramped hostel where I lost my GoToob bottle, I caught the flu. I had hoped it was just a cold, and that I could fight it off quickly, but the rough layover at Fua’amotu airport did not help.

In the post-Covid19 era, those hostel conditions now seem like death traps. Indeed, when travel opens up again, I’d definitely spring for a better class of digs. As it was, my first full day in Vava’u was just self-care, and I still suffered a blocked nose for days after. Fortunately, I travel with a decent med kit. And it was some consolation when I found out dive centres weren’t open in Vava’u in the off season. I mean, I couldn’t dive anyway.

Perhaps sensing that I was most of the way asleep, Paea did not insist on the kava ceremony, and enjoyed it with some friends who came over instead.


Cuisine similarities between Malaysia and Tonga

We did a grocery stop on the way to the Airbnb from the airport. But I was too ill to pay too much attention, other than notice that the supermarket next to the local produce market was run by Chinese immigrants. Feeling far less curious than usual, I picked up some basic processed foods, which thankfully was not too difficult since there were a lot of Indonesian goods there, so they were conveniently labelled halal.

While at the Airbnb, Paea indicated a cluster of plants growing by the path opposite the main house, and told me I could pick its shoots and cook them as vegetables. I recognised them, of course. They were tapioca shoots, or as we call them in Malay, pucuk ubi. And since they were there, and getting more groceries felt too exhausting to contemplate, I ended up eating more tapioca shoots than I’d ever done before!

That wasn’t the extent of familiar things though, between Tonga and Malaysia. One of my host’s close friends, Iloa, came over while I was eating a rice-based meal. I knew it was a rice-based meal, even though I don’t remember it, because I remember he remarked that I ate with my hands. Just like a Tongan. And I gestured to the pot where Paea had some bananas boiled in coconut milk. “We have that too,” I told him. “We call it pengat.”

A Baha’i in Christian Tonga

Although Tonga is devoutly Christian, my host’s living area did not have any Christian-related items. I would not have noted it, except that it wasn’t completely without signs of religion. There was a quote or poem that felt faintly Muslim, but I knew it wasn’t, in a similar way as how Khalil Gibran poetry comes across to me. And there was a photo of a clearly significant building that was not an old building, but the architecture was reminiscent of one of the South Asian religions. I couldn’t land on one, though. Was it a Sikh temple? Jain?

Turns out that it was the most prominent Baha’i temple. Ah, that’s right. Baha’i. So that was the day I learned that Paea was Baha’i. He grew up Christian, of course, like everyone else in Tonga. But when he was in school in New Zealand, he converted to Baha’ism at 18.

For a moment I thought about mentioning my primary school classmate who is Baha’i. The second Baha’i person I met was a coursemate in university (funnily enough, the two of them eventually married each other!). Suburban Malaysia is pretty diverse, you see. (Or at least, back in the 80s.) But he didn’t seem like he wanted to talk about it, so I dropped the subject.

But he did tell me his fifth wife is Baha’i as well, whom he met in New Zealand. They married in Rarotonga; I guess that’s why they were going to celebrate their anniversary there. I felt a bit bad for keeping him in Tonga. He seemed like he would have preferred to be with her, and maybe a little miffed that she went ahead without him.


Cultural compatibility in marriage

So yeah, you read right. He said fifth wife. Now, it’s not as far out as it sounds, since he’s an older man, and I already learned in French Polynesia that the Polynesians seem to be more relaxed about divorce than continental peoples. He raised kids from his first marriage in New Zealand. Then he married a few more times after.

I hope this one works out, because he finally seemed to have found someone who didn’t mind living in Polynesia and didn’t mind Polynesian culture. As a partly Anglicised Malaysian, I understand. Even if you’ve adopted some western ways, and are halfway westernised, you’d still want a spouse who does not think your ancestral culture is lesser and expect the assimilation to only be one-way.

Not that there aren’t many Southeast Asians who are ok with that, mind you. But that’s a topic for a different article.

Expats in Tonga don’t seem to stay married

So I wondered about the tourism businesses at the Neiafu waterfront. At least some of them seemed to be western-owned. Given how remote Tonga is, and how traditional the culture still is, surely they must be westerners who have gone native.

Paea smirked, and said that the foreigners who moved to Tonga don’t last very long. It’s true that the dive centres and whale tour businesses are set up by outsiders. But, he said, they last five years, tops. And then they sell up and leave.

I was flabbergasted. Surely the whale tourism is very lucrative. Life seemed like it would be pleasant in a Polynesian island. If you fell in love with it enough to set up a business in the first place, what was the problem? And the reason (at least according to my host), would never have occurred to me.

“Divorce,” he said easily, like it was obvious. The tourism businesses receive visitors from all over the world. Either the woman falls for a tourist and leaves the business behind, or the man has an affair with a local woman on the side, and the marriage breaks up. “They never think it would happen,” he said.

I was mystified. Indeed, I would never have guessed it would be such a stress on a marriage to relocate here.

Orange sunset in Tonga across a bay

The Tongan economy

Tonga is a monarchy, and seems to be proud of managing to stay independent throughout the Age of Exploration, when many Polynesian nations became colonised by western countries. Most Tongans are farmers or fishermen, living quite close to the land. There aren’t any taxes in Tonga unless you export (for example, kava and vanilla). This isn’t uncommon in monarchies, but I haven’t really thought deeply enough about why that is.

Nowadays (well, maybe not nowadays nowadays, but global pandemic aside), tourism is the major source of revenue from overseas. But that’s not the only foreign investment that comes in.

Paea told me that a lot of infrastructure in Tonga, like roads, hospitals and schools, depend on foreign aid. “We’d probably still be riding horses otherwise,” he quipped. And a lot of it seemed to come not just from regional neighbours like Australia and New Zealand, but also China, the USA, and Japan**. Indeed, in the village of Vaimalo, where we were, there was a USAid sign about a project related to upgrading the village water supply.

My host reckoned that what with all the travel nowadays, the rich countries invest to bring third world countries closer to civilisation, so that there wouldn’t be the spread of diseases. There’s a kind of ennui to recollect this in 2021, now that we’ve all seen how underfunded (or unequally funded) healthcare is around the world.

Fish traps on an overwater cabin's deck

Tonga’s Polynesian whalers

Before humpback whale tourism took off, they used to be hunted, said my host. This wasn’t even very long ago, it was within his own lifetime. The whales come right into the bay in the winter season (the Tongans I met use the season terms ‘winter’ and ‘summer’ like westerners, even though there is no winter in Tonga). 

The eye is a delicacy, he went on. People fought over them! Paea had seven siblings, six brothers and a sister. The boys used to go get hunks of whale meat after a kill, which they hung up on trees. “The flies don’t go to the whale meat, because it is too strong,” he explained. Today, there are still two whaling families in Vava’u itself.

He seemed amused by his guests, most of whom had come for the whale tourism. He seemed perplexed, as he recalled them telling him of how life changing the experience was, to swim with humpback whales. Even at $400 per head, one couple went 8 times!

I don’t know, I’d personally consider it pretty life changing myself, to be honest. But then, my culture does not have a prior relationship with whales. And to be fair, Tongan whaling was probably never in danger of collapsing whale populations, since they didn’t send massive fleets all over the whole world’s oceans to hunt down as many as possible.


Familiar village scenes to a Malaysian

Before long, I needed more provisions. So I was perfectly happy when Paea offered to drive me to the waterfront***, knowing I’d be able to pay more attention to the market this time. Vava’u roads were paved, albeit potholed in parts. Along the way, we passed fields of kape and pineapple. Near the main town of Neiafu, the land cleared up, and I could see pigs and chickens rooting around, free ranging.

Passing by a school, I was surprised to see that Tongan schoolchildren dressed in white and sky blue uniforms, just like Malaysian secondary school uniforms. The girls wore a blue pinafore, the same as one of our girls’ school uniform options. It’s the boys’ uniform that was different; the boys wore a sky blue pareo with their shirt.

Cultural dress in Tonga vs Malaysia

I’ve seen the pareo worn traditionally in French Polynesia. But there, it was generally only worn by women. In Tonga, however, I saw the men wear it more. At Tongatapu airport, for example, the airport officials seemed to wear it as office wear. I thought this was interesting. This is basically what it would look like if Malaysian men were to wear the kain pelikat as office wear instead of casual wear.

But Tongan formalwear is yet another kind of familiar/not-familiar. Once in a while, I saw Tongan villagers walking to a party or event. Invariably, they would be wearing a kind of cummerbund made of woven palm fronds. It sort of looked like a short Malay sampin. Nor was this an ‘older generation’ thing. Even young Tongans incorporate this item of formal clothing at events, including the ones with fashionably dyed hair and heavy metal T-shirts.

Although both men and women wore this item, the women sometimes wore theirs long and high, whereas the men’s were more usually knee length. Sometimes I also saw the women wear something else instead. These looked like it was woven more finely with a grasslike leaf, so that it almost looked like lace. I later learned that the first one is called a ta’avala, and the second one is a kiekie.

To Malaysian eyes, it looked as though the Tongans were wearing mats, because the weaving style is almost always used in housewares for us. It made me wonder if we ever used it for clothing, or whether cloth arrived from the continental lands early enough that we never did. In fact, Malaysia’s Mah Meri aborigines wore bark clothing and grass skirts traditionally, but did not weave pandanus for clothing despite their skilful pandanus creations.

A pair of local Tongan women wearing traditional woven aprons walking down a dusty street in Vava'u

Tongan culture around death – surprising but familiar

Despite taking almost no photos of Tongans in traditional wear, I remember these details in no small part from observing an event while having a late lunch after shopping. A large Tongan family – I’d almost call it a clan, really – was there. I remembered it because they were celebrating a wedding as well as mourning a death.

It was not a combination I’m used to. But it seemed quite normal there. The family wore t-shirts with the deceased’s image on them, wishing love upon his passing.

Another time, we were out for pizza. Driving past at night, the local graveyard drew my attention, because that’s when the blinking lights turned on. You see, the graves in Vava’u are often decorated with plastic flowers, and some are hung with fairy lights.

Now, this isn’t the first time I felt a graveyard resemblance in Polynesia. As for the blinking lights? Well, my father’s side of the family are Singaporean Malays, and let’s just say I can imagine this trend catching on there – although as far as I know it hasn’t yet!

Religious and social custom in Vava’u vs Malaysia

Tongans are also very religious. I was woken on Sunday morning at 4:30 am by the drum beats from the church. Tum.Tum. Tum.Tum. Tum-tatum, Tam-tatum … Then choral singing emanated from the various churches as they began their Sunday services, one by one. 

It was not unlike the traditional drum that preceded the call to prayer in Malay villages. If you live within earshot of multiple mosques, you’d get a similar staggered melody effect for the Islamic adhan.

Although not the dominant Christian denomination in Tonga, there is a significant Mormon presence in Vava’u. The eastern part of the island is overwhelmingly Mormon, which I learned on my island tour. As my guide Iloa was also Baha’i, I could tour the island that day. Otherwise this is not possible in Tonga, since no work happens on Sundays.

Like the Rapa Nui, people in Tonga also set food to cook in earth ovens while they are out to church. By the time they come home, the food would be ready and they’d have a feast together.

Although we don’t have this method of cooking in Malaysia, some of the neighbourly culture is familiar. For example, neighbours in Tonga also drop in unannounced for some gossip, which is like the Malay custom of bertandang. We also share the custom of giving your neighbour some of the feast you made, which should ideally be the best part.


Similar words in Tongan and Malay

In French Polynesia, I was a little disappointed that we shared so few words. Tonga, on the other hand, seemed to have more overlap. I didn’t properly investigate this, but just offhand I could figure out a few similarities.

hilahalaroute (inexact match)
kike (but also seems to mean ‘untuk’)to (as in, ‘towards’ as well as intention),
fulupuluhgroup of ten in numbers, e.g. twenty, thirty, etc.
uofuludua puluhtwenty
nimangofululima puluhfifty

YouTube’s algorithm suggested this channel, which is pretty cool if you want to know more about the relatedness between the Austronesian languages.

A final way that Tonga felt familiar to a Malaysian

I couldn’t help but make comparisons between Tonga and French Polynesia. Not counting the Rapa Nui, with whom I spent little time, these were the first two Polynesian nations that I met, and I did so in succession. But while in French Polynesia I learned enough to empathise with their anti-colonial struggle, it was Tonga that felt more familiar to me.

It’s not any one thing that I can point to. It’s more in the echoes of the way Malaysia was colonised by the British. Although Tonga was never colonised, it somehow feels like it was. In the airport hotel on Tongatapu, and the town in Vava’u, in random periodicals and the speech of service industry staff, Tonga felt uncannily familiar.

There is a similar vibe in Malaysian towns and cities, a subtle bias towards seeing all things British as more civilised. Many of our independence activists despised this, seeing it as an intentional tactic to cause us to forget our own potential.

For you see, British colonisation was done subtly, through contracts that kept our kings nominally in charge when in reality, the British ‘Resident advisors’ had complete power. Thus for a long time, the general population kind of forgot we were even colonised. So it was surprising to me to feel this mirroring in Tonga, which had never been colonised. It raises some deep questions.

What makes cultural influence voluntary? Does all cultural assimilation come with a phase of prior-culture rejection? Does it make a difference whether the phase is driven by free will or insecurity? Are they both actually ok?

And how do you know which one is happening, when it’s happening in you?

Bleached coral outcrop in Tonga


* Actually, after returning home, I looked it up and now I’m not sure if kava is permissible to Muslims or not. There seem to be conflicting opinions. As far as I can tell, the scholars who are against don’t actually have experience of the root or Polynesian peoples. What I did observe though, is that the effect on the others at the table was not like alcohol. (I’ve never been around people who are high, so I can’t compare.) It didn’t seem to have a noticeable effect to me. Is the sedative effect maybe like a stronger version of chamomile tea?

** I’m not optimistic enough to believe the reason for the aid competition is merely the coincidental interest of multiple Pacific rim countries to uplift healthcare in a Pacific nation, rather than geopolitics. As my people would say, the stone’s hiding a prawn.

*** As in French Polynesia, all services are charged, even when phrased as an invitation. So it’s best to budget more cash than you think you need.

Carbon offsetting information to Tonga

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Vava’u via Sydney and Nuku’alofa produces carbon emissions of approximately 8,559 lbs CO2e. It costs about $43 to offset this.

Have you been surprised by unexpected ways another country is similar to yours?

8 Responses

  1. Margarida Vasconcelos says:

    What a very informative post, a great read. I didn’t know much about Tonga and truly enjoyed reading your post.

    • Teja says:

      Sometimes I do enjoy writing these slightly ‘gossipy’ posts (although I hope I always bring it together to a deeper point, rather than being gratuitously gossipy). :) After all, can you really give the flavour of a culture’s humanity without a little bit of gossip?

  2. Wendy says:

    Really interesting article about Tonga. I’ve never considered visiting this Island, but I do admit that the culture sounds fascinating. I didn’t know that there is a place in the world where you can swim with humpback whales either!

  3. Emese says:

    I find the cultural similarities and differences between people living in similar or very different environments fascinating. I enjoyed your take on Tonga; you also made me think about cultural influences and assimilation. Interesting subject… I like the way you included it into your post.

    • Teja says:

      Thank you :) Yes, that’s among my favourite fascinating things from travel. I instinctively react to it like a biologist, curious about what were the common elements that resulted in a similar cultural solution, or whether the two had a common origin. Specifically, visiting Polynesia as a Malay person has been more rewarding than would have occurred to me before I went to Rapa Nui.

  4. Madhu says:

    It’s always good to know people and their culture in every country and this post was a very interesting and informative one for me.

    • Teja says:

      I thought I wouldn’t be able to observe much given that I began the trip sort of ill. But turns out I still managed to get some thoughts provoked even then!

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