Contemporary Tongans often have strong ties to overseas lands. They may have been migrant workers in New Zealand, or have lived and traveled in New Zealand, Australia, or the United States. Many Tongans now live overseas, in a Tongan diaspora, and send home remittances to family members (often aged) who prefer to remain in Tonga. Tongans themselves often have to operate in two different contexts, which they often call anga fakatonga, the traditional Tongan way, and anga fakapālangi, the Western way. A culturally adept Tongan learns both sets of rules and when to switch between them.
Any description of Tongan culture that limits itself to what Tongans see as anga fakatonga would give a seriously distorted view of what people actually do, in Tonga, or in diaspora, because accommodations are so often made to anga fakapālangi. The following account tries to give both the idealized and the on-the-ground versions of Tongan culture.
Theoretically, a girl received suitors at a faikava, or kava-drinking gathering. She presided over the bowl, made the kava, and handed out the cups. The suitors sat in a circle around the bowl, chatting, bragging, arguing, and showing off for the demure young lady. All was done under the eye of the elders, thus protecting the maiden from any unseemly advances.
In practice, a young man would attempt to get the demure young maiden to meet him on the beach, at night, where she might be persuaded to be maiden no longer. Any resulting pregnancy seems not to have weighed too heavily on the woman, or her child. As long as she could name a father, the child would have relatives on both sides, and the woman would of course be supported by her family, and particularly by her brothers, or classificatory brothers.
There was less tolerance of sexual mistakes on the part of high-born women, who were expected to "demonstrate" their virginity by bleeding heavily on their wedding night. The groom's aunts would display the stained barkcloth (or later, sheet), after bathing the bride to inspect her for cuts that might have been inflicted to draw blood. It is said that grooms might show their love and concern for non-bleeding brides by cutting themselves and smearing their own blood on the barkcloth or sheet.
The virginity of the bride was the guarantee for the paternity of a high-ranking child. Another way in which high-society marriages differed from those of commoners is that marriages with close kin were allowed, rather than forbidden. Rather than allow their bloodlines to be contaminated with the blood of commoners, the houeiki married among themselves.
After marriage, informal divorce seems to have been common and easy. An unhappy wife had only to return to her brother, who was obligated to support her. Adultery was known, as it is in every human society, but was a perilous venture, especially if the cuckolded husband was a renowned warrior.
In common with many other Polynesian societies, ancient Tonga also made room for the male homosexual, the mahū. These men wore female clothing, took on female roles, and had casual sexual liaisons with other men. There seems to have been no stigma attached to sex with a mahū.
Related, yet different was the mānaia, the male beauty. When a boy at young age turned out to be very handsome, he would be barred from heavy work, instead he would be pampered, his skin rubbed with oils, his hair meticulously taken care of, and so on. The idea was that in this way he would grow up to such a beauty that he would be irresistible to chief's daughters. Then a child of high rank would be born into the family, elevating the status of all.
With the waning of missionary influence, urban youngsters are now experimenting with dances and dating, the later Western imports. Mahūs are now known as "fakaleiti" and are celebrated in the Miss Galaxy Pageant, which claims princess Lupepauu, granddaughter of the king as its patron.
There is said to be some prostitution in urban areas now, particularly areas with frequent Western visitors (Nukualofa, Neiafu). Sex education is discouraged by the church; encouraged (with limited success) by the Ministry of Health. There are a few cases of AIDS in the kingdom, but Tonga's relative isolation has prevented the disease from becoming the scourge that it has been in other countries.
In the modern context, the king remains in this position and has the final executive power of government. The high chiefs are now limited to 33 titles and called nobles (nopele), but some nobles carry more than one title. They are still estate holders, and as such have some influence, but they are not the government (although many of them are high ranking civil servants). The lower chiefs have disappeared (and the word fototehina now means 'brothers'). The matāpule have also largely disappeared except those who keep the protocol and serve as official spokesmen for the king and nobles. And also the royal undertaker, Lauaki. Tax collection is a task for the central government only. Slavery is abolished, since the emancipation of 1875, and all other people are just the 'commoners'.
The wordly power described above can be called status. A Tongan obtains his status from his father (or sometimes uncle, but always through the male line). He inherits his (noble or matāpule) title from his father. The crownprince will succeed his father. Land ownership is only inherited through the father.
However, status as such does not place you in society; this is based on rank. A Tongan obtains his rank from his mother, and that determines his place in the social order. Within the family the rank of women is higher than that of men. Likewise the elder sister of a king, if he has one, has a higher blood rank the king himself. This was the so called Tamahā, holy child, in pre-European times.
In practice high rank and high status always go together because no high ranking woman would ever marry a commoner, and no chief would ever marry a low ranking woman. In fact when prince Alaivahamamao eloped with the daughter of a low chiefess Tuimala, he was stripped from his royal status and had to flee to Hawaii. Children from that marriage, grandchildren of the king, would have obtained no significant rank. Albeit later, after a divorce, Alai was reconciled with his father and married princess Alaileula from Sāmoa. He did not however become prince again and died in 2004 with only the noble title Māatu.)
Rank and status are fixed from birth. There is no way in Tongan society to climb up in rank. A low ranking chief will always remain the lesser of a high ranking chief, even though his lands may be bigger and richer and so forth. But he can try to marry a high ranking woman, for instance if she is interested in his rich lands, and so increase the rank of his children. Status on the other hand, although usually fixed too, can have some vertical movement. The second son of a noble, normally not in line for his father's title, may get it after all if his older brother dies prematurely. In addition to this sometimes, but very rarely, the king may elevate some person to high status.
Even more striking was the situation with Tāufaāhau, the later king George Tupou I. He was born in a chiefly family of lower rank, not belonging to the houeiki. As such he never could attend at the chiefly kava ceremonies as the equal of the high chiefs. By consequence he avoided them. Even after the battle of Velata when he had defeated the Tui Tonga and had become the most powerful man of the whole archipelago, he still remained a person of inferior rank. But then he had the power to take Lupepauu, who had been the wife of the Tui Tonga and hence the highest ranking woman at that time as wife. Thus, paradoxically, his children were born into a higher 'status' than he had. Presently his descendants, the current royal family, are the highest ranking Tongans of all.
Once a Tongan has obtained a hereditary title, be it noble or matāpule, he will be named with that title and no longer with his baptised name. Such titles are usually for life, but the holder can be stripped of it when convicted of a serious crime, and he will then return to his original name. Some titles are equal to the family name, others are not. For example when somewhere in history they were given away to another family if the original holder died without sons. In former times a woman could hold such a title, but nowadays only men. To distinguish successive holders of the same title, it is permisseable to add the original name between parenthesis. For example: Fielakepa (Siosaia Aleamotua). No further prefixes such as The, Mr. or Sir are needed in addressing, although in writing often Hon (Honourable) is used. Tongans are still overawed by those of higher rank.
At this moment most prisons in Tonga still abide with the old laissez-faire attitude. Usually having no fences, no iron bars and so forth, that makes it very easy for the inmates to escape. For sure with this will have to change rather sooner than later with these hardened criminals from America, but for the moment the jailors can trust on the goodwill of the inmates. Some are glad to be in prison, not to be bothered by demanding family members. There is no social stigma on being in prison (although that may change now too), but then of course it also does not serve as a deterrent against crimes.
More troublesome are the young offenders, schoolboys who want to have money to show off, and are apprehended in burglaries. As there are no juvenile prisons, they are to be locked up in the main prisons together with the hardened criminals. For a while it was tried to confine them on Tau, a small island offshore Tongatapu but that was not ideal either.
In the 1990s Chinese immigration caused resentment among the native Tongan population (especially those from Hong Kong, who bought a Tongan passport to get away before the Beijing takeover). Much violent crime nowadays is directed against these Chinese.
Among the typical koloa are:
There are a many surviving examples of Tongan stone architecture, notably the Haamonga a Maui and mound tombs (langi) near Lapaha, Tongatapu. And so several on other islands. Archaeologists have dated them hundreds to a thousand years old.
The practice of Tātatau disappeared under heavy missionary disapproval, but was never completely suppressed. It is still very common for men (less so, but still some for women), to be decorated with some small tattoos. Nevertheless it is more popular for youngsters nowadays, so there is a revival. Especially shoulders, wrists, ankles, legs, arms. Often a crest of the high school attended. Or the initials of one's name.
Tongan outfits are often assembled from used Western clothing (for the top) mixed with a length of cloth purchased locally for the tupenu. Used clothing can be found for sale at local markets, or can be purchased overseas and mailed home by relatives.
Some women have learned to sew and own sewing machines (often antique treadle machines). They do simple home-sewing of shirts, kofu, and school uniforms.
Nukualofa, the capital, supports several tailoring shops. They tailor tupenu and suitcoats for Tongan men, and matching tupenu and kofu for Tongan women. The women's outfits may be decorated with simple blockprint patterns on the hems.
There is also some local production of knit jerseys by Tongans operating imported sergers. They produce on speculation and sell at the Nukualofa market.
Women who attend the Wesleyan Methodist girl's school, Queen Sālote College, are taught several Western handicrafts, such as embroidery and crochet. They learn to make embroidered pillowcases and bed coverings or crocheted lace tableclothes, bedcovers, and lace trim. However, Western-style handicrafts such as these have not become widely popular outside the school setting. They require expensive imported materials that can only be purchased in major towns. Village women are much more likely to turn their efforts to weaving mats or beating barkcloth, which can be done with free local material.
We know relatively little about the 'music of Tonga' as it existed before Tonga was discovered by European explorers. Early visitors, such as Captain Cook and the invaluable William Mariner, note only the singing and drumming during traditional dance performances. We can assume the existence of the lali or slit-gong, and the nose flute, as these survived to later times. Traditional songs, passed down over the generations, are still sung at chiefly ceremonies. Some ancient dances are still performed, such as ula, otuhaka and meetuupaki.
The diet consisted mainly of taro, yams, bananas, coconuts, and fish baked in leaves; shellfish were usually served raw, as a relish. The liquid from the center of coconuts was commonly drunk, and the soft "spoon meat" of young coconuts much relished. Baked breadfruit was eaten in season. Pigs were killed and cooked only on special occasions, such as weddings, funerals, feasts honoring a visiting chief, and the like. Tongans also ate chickens.
Food could be stored by feeding it to pigs. Pre-contact Tongans also built elevated storehouses for yams. Yams would keep only a few months. Hence a household's main security was generous distribution of food to relatives and neighbors, who were thus put under an obligation to share in their turn.
Many new foods were introduced in the 19th and early 20th centuries, following Western contacts and settlements. The cassava plant was one such introduction; it is called manioke in Tongan. While it lacks the prestige of the yam, it is an easy plant to grow and a common crop. Introduced watermelons became popular. They were eaten either by themselves, or pulped and mixed with coconut milk, forming a popular drink called otai. Other fruits, such as oranges, lemons, and limes, became popular. Tongans also adopted onions, green onions, cabbage,carrots, tomatoes, and other common vegetables. In the last few decades, Tongan farmers with access to large tracts of land have engaged in commercial farming of pumpkins and other easily shipped vegetables as cash crops.
Tongans now consume large quantities of imported flour and sugar. One dish that uses both is topai, doughboys, flour and water worked into a paste and dropped into a kettle of boiling water, then served with a syrup of sugar and coconut milk. Topai are a common funeral food, being easily prepared for hundreds of mourners.
There are now bakeries in the larger cities. The most popular loaves are soft, white, and bland. There are also local soft drink bottlers, who make various local varieties of soda. A Tongan who might once have breakfasted on bits of cooked pork and yam from a hanging basket may now have white bread and soda for breakfast.
Purchased prepared foods have also made great headway, even in remote villages. Canned corned beef is a great favorite. It is eaten straight from the can, or mixed with coconut milk and onions, wrapped in leaves, and baked in the earth oven. Tongans also eat canned fish. In villages or towns with refrigeration, cheap frozen "mutton flaps" imported from New Zealand are popular. Tongans also eat the common South Pacific "ship's biscuit", hard plain crackers once a shipboard staple. These crackers are called mā pakupaku.
Tongans no longer make an earth oven every day. Most daily cooking is done by women, who cook in battered pots over open fires in the village, in wood-burning stoves in some households, and on gas or electric ranges in some of the larger towns. The meal schedule has also changed, to more Westernized breakfast, light lunch, and heavy dinner. Tongans say that the old schedule is unworkable when household members have Western-style jobs, or attend schools at some distance from home; such family members cannot come home to eat, then have a doze after a heavy mid-day meal.
As well as drinking soda, Tongans now drink tea and coffee. Usually this is of the cheapest variety, and served with tinned condensed milk.
Some men drink alcohol. Sometimes this is imported Australian or New Zealand beer; more often it is home-brew, hopi, made with water, sugar or mashed fruit, and yeast. Imported drinks are sold only to Tongans who have liquor permits, which require a visit to a government office, and limit the amount of alcohol which can be purchased. There are no such formalities with hopi. Drinking is usually done secretively; a group of men gather and drink until they are drunk. Such gatherings sometimes result in drunken quarrels and assaults.
On formal occasions a taovala, a woven mat, is worn over the tupenu. It is wrapped around the waist and secured with a kafa rope. The tupenu may be smartly tailored and have a matching suit jacket. If a man cannot afford to have a suit tailored to fit him, he will buy a used Western jacket, or wear a threadbare jacket inherited from an older relative.
Women too wear a tupenu, but a long one which should reach to the ankles. They sometimes wear shorter tupenu for working in the house or picking shellfish on the reef. The tupenu is usually topped with a kofu, or dress. This may be sewn to order, or it may be an imported used dress. Sometimes women wear blouses or jerseys.
On formal occasions women too wear a taovala, or more often a kiekie, a string skirt attached to a waistband. It is lighter and cooler than a mat. Kiekie are made from many different materials, from the traditional (pandanus leaves, as used in mats) to the innovative (unspooled magnetic tape from tape cassettes).
Huge taovala are worn at funerals.
The largest Methodist church holds a yearly celebration for the women of the congregation. Churches hold special church services to which women wear white clothing. All the Methodist churches have adopted the Western custom of women wearing hats to church. Only women who have been admitted to the congregation can wear hats; those denied admittance (because they are still young, or because they are considered to be living immoral lives) are only "inquirers" and go hatless.
More and more Tongan men are abandoning the traditional tupenu for trousers, at least when it comes to working in the fields. Women can be innovative in terms of color and cut within the context of the traditional kofu/tupenu combination.
The national sport of Tonga is rugby union. The nation has a national rugby union team which played in the 1987, 1995, 1999 and 2003 Rugby World Cups. Though Tongans are passionate rugby followers, the small population base means that internationally, Tongan rugby continually struggles. Often, young talent emigrate to countries which offer greater prospects of individual success such as New Zealand and Australia. Some notable rugby union players of Tongan descent include Jonah Lomu (NZ All Black) and Toutai Kefu (Australian Wallaby).
Tongans are ardent church goers. Church service usually follows a call and response structure. Singing in the church is often done a cappella. Although church attends primarily to the spiritual needs of the population, it also functions as the primary social hub. As consequence people who go to a church of another denomination are absolutely not shunned.
Sunday in Tonga is celebrated as a strict sabbath, enshrined so in the constitution, and despite some voices to the opposite, the Sunday ban is not likely to be abolished soon. No trade is allowed on Sunday, except essential services, after special approval by the minister of police. Those that break the law risk a fine or imprisonment.