Island Time: how Pacific people and cultures are changing NZ

From the collecton The BWB series

Oamaru, the surprising hotspot of Pacific life in New Zealand

Right now in New Zealand, according to Damon Salesa, the largest proportion of Pacific people in any given population is not Auckland, but Oamaru.

Assoc. Prof. Damon Salesa

Assoc. Prof. Damon Salesa Photo: University of Auckland

One in four Oamaru residents are Pacific people – a substantially larger ratio than is so of Auckland and Wellington. So large, says Salesa, that one church parish in Oamaru has two Tongan congregations in it, and the rugby clubs have burgeoned with this influx from the North. Schools there have changed, and there’s a lively local Pacific community.

Salesa identifies this social change as another marker of Pacific peoples’ readiness to think creatively, and find a thoughtful solution to the cost of living in Auckland.

But why Oamaru in particular? Because there is a lot of horticultural work and a very large meatworks to provide employment for households whose pay is sometimes very close to the minimum wage.

The pay in Oamaru may be the same as in Auckland, but the cost of housing is very, very different. For $250 a week you can rent a three-bedroom home in Oamaru, whereas in Otara, he says, “you will not get change from $600 a week. The average price for a home in Auckland is over a million dollars. In Oamaru you can buy a nice home for $250,000.”

So a new Pacific future is under development, involving Pacific people pioneering living in different parts of the country.

Mangere market, Auckland

Mangere market, Auckland Photo: RNZ Pacific/Sara Vui-Talitu

The irony of Pacific families departing what is described as the world’s largest Polynesian city is not lost on Salesa. Indeed, he describes Aucklanders telling themselves that they live in a super-diverse city as believing in a fairytale.

“If you actually examine people’s lives, where they live in particular, this is not true.” In Auckland in the 2006 census there were 477 neighbourhoods (given the technical term of mesh blocks) which were predominantly Pacific.

By contrast, for 100,000 Asian people, there were only sixty predominantly Asian neighbourhoods. So Pacific people are far more likely to be living in neighbourhoods where they form a majority.

That means for most Pacific people there’s just a one in three chance of having a Pakeha or palagi neighbour. Reflecting on that figure, Salesa says “I hope you see that as astonishing.”

Pupils at South Auckland Middle School.

Pupils at South Auckland Middle School. Photo: RNZ / John Gerritsen

It’s not only neighbourhoods which are divided according to ethnicity, it’s also their schools, which he considers one of the most-segregated dimensions of New Zealand life. “A large high school I know very intimately has no Pakeha students at all. And you can drive a mere 16 km in the same city and find a school that has no Pacific students.”

When Salesa grew up protesting about apartheid-era South Africa, he recalls that we had a name for these kinds of institutions.


“But of course we don’t use it when we talk about ourselves.”

Auckland really isn’t the world’s largest Polynesian city, he concludes. It's just that within Auckland – to its south, far from better-off suburbs – there is a Polynesian city. And Polynesians live within it.

Fortunately, Salesa considers, creativity has always been part of Polynesian response to difficult circumstances. Dance and music have been transformational components of Pacific culture, and he points to community-level initiatives such as Southside Rise, a theatre production involving young Pacific performers.

And the Pacific creative economy is thriving.  

Island Time, by the comedy duo The Laughing Samoans, is an example of commercial success of talented young people creating performances which speak powerfully to their audiences and, in this case, also making them laugh a lot.

The film Three Wise Cousins is extremely popular with Pacific audiences, while others may not have even heard of it. What Salesa finds interesting about this movie is not just that it’s great entertainment, but that it’s introduced a new way of creating and financing films here.

Movie poster for Three Wise Cousins

Photo: Supplied

“Normally,” he says, “you make a short film, and then you write a script and then you find an executive producer and a director and slowly but surely you grow into the feature film market. And very few people make it.”

By contrast, the creator of Three Wise Cousins Stallone Ioasa ignored all those rules. He jobbed around, made enough money to buy his own film-quality camera, then wrote, directed, produced, and also acted in the film. And then having made it, he convinced one of the major cinemas in New Zealand to run it for a few nights and see if anyone would turn up.

The result? It sold out for weeks on end. And it’s now the tenth-largest grossing film ever made in New Zealand.

Ioasa’s follow-on film, financed by the first, is called Hibiscus & Ruthless, and it also marks the creation of a new pathway for developing an international profile for a very local production.

“Although Hibiscus & Ruthless has been out for months, they’re slowly taking it round the world, amongst diasporic Pacific communities.” And it's proving as popular with them as with its New Zealand audiences.

Hibiscus & Ruthless

Hibiscus & Ruthless Photo: Supplied

It doesn’t come as any surprise to Salesa, because of the ten top-grossing New Zealand films of all time, eight are either by or about Māori and Pacific people.

There are, he says, many other such stories in music, business, sport and technology, which hearten him when he considers the future of Pacific people in New Zealand. Despite past and present inequality, Pacific experience is reshaping this country today, and will only continue to do so in the future.

However, he suggests, it's the responsibility of all of us to pay attention to this change.

More reading

This talk is based on Damon Salesa's book Island Time published by BWB.

Three Wise Cousins Facebook page.

Hibiscus & Ruthless Facebook page.

In the talk, Salesa discusses the development of local competition for the high-cost international money transfer companies: Klick ex Pacific. It uses existing mobile phone infrastructure to deliver remittances to the Pacific at much lower cost than is so of firms like Western Union.

He also mentions two local Otahuhu firms with deep Pacific connections, the department store Big Bear, and the food service Pinati's

A report on Auckland's Pasifika Festival. And more!

For more about Pacific news, visit the RNZ Pacific page.

More about the speaker

Associate Professor Damon Salesa

BA, MA (First class Honours), University of Auckland; D.Phil, University of Oxford

Toeolesulusulu Damon Salesa is a prize-winning scholar who specialises in the study of colonialism, empire, government and race. With a particular interest in the Pacific Islands, he also works on education, economics and development in the Pacific region, as well as in New Zealand and Australia.

After studying at the University of Auckland, he completed his studies at Oxford University during his time there as a Rhodes Scholar.

Previously at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, he is currently Associate Professor of Pacific Studies at the University of Auckland’s Centre for Pacific Studies.

Bridget Williams Books caption

Photo: BWB

This session was recorded by RNZ in association with Bridget Williams Books