Ponsonby: rich, white, and snobbish. That is the exclusive Auckland suburb’s reputation, these days. You don’t have to look far to see people wearing designer clothing, sipping lattes, and planning their next European holiday.
It is a very different suburb to the place where brothers Rev. Mua Strickson-Pua and Sofi Ulugia-Pua grew up in the 1970s.
The brothers, who are of Samoan descent, shared stories from their childhood as they guided a party of walkers down Ponsonby Rd on Sunday. The tour was called The Pasifika Years and was part of Auckland Heritage Festival.
The Ponsonby they recalled had a village atmosphere. Everyone knew each other, and kids played ball games in the streets. It was a melting pot of immigrants and locals: Polynesians, Maori, Pakeha, Chinese and Indians.
It was the birthplace of Kiwi reggae music and the Rastafarian movement in New Zealand. A working-class suburb populated with bohemian artists, reforming prisoners, entrepreneurs and gang members.
“This place was colourful, it was hard case. Sofi and I loved growing up here, because we thought it was normal,” Strickson-Pua said.
Like many immigrants, the Puas’ parents came to New Zealand in search of a better life. The main goals of most Pacific families were to improve their economic situation and get a better education for their children.
“A betterment of their lives and their future,” Strickson-Pua said.
“Our mums, they thought it was an adventure, they thought it was great to come to this country because they were told this is the land of milk and honey.”
However, the 1970s were a time of economic downturn. Police made “dawn raids” on overstaying Pacific Island families – despite the largest group of overstayers at the time being from England.
Strickson-Pua said police would park up on the corner of Ponsonby Rd and Karangahape Rd and “brown people” walking to work would have to prove to police they were legally in New Zealand.
Many Pasifika migrants imagined they would eventually return to the Islands, but not many made it back.
“A lot of our mums and dads would talk about, ‘We’re going home’. Well, mum and dad are buried in Mangere cemetery. They didn’t get to go home.”
Like most Pasifika families, churchgoing was important to the Puas. On Sundays they attended the Pacific Island Church on Edinburgh Street – just around the corner from strip club “The Pink Pussycat”.
Ministers in those days took a hands-on approach to guiding their congregation. The Puas recalled one minister who was so big he was offered a contract as a professional wrestler. When a mother came to him concerned her husband was spending all their money at the pub, he went down to the local watering hole, found the man in question and asked him to come outside for a discussion.
The man and his two friends attacked the minister. An eyewitness told Strickson-Pua: “I’ve never seen three guys get dropped so fast – by a guy with a collar!”.
The reverend turned to the men on the floor and said, “Peace be with you,” before dragging the husband outside for marriage counselling.
As kids the Pua brothers attended the now-defunct Beresford Street School, an experience they recalled fondly. The school was a pilot for mixed race education, and attracted supportive and passionate teachers.
The teachers, mostly Pakeha, were “loving, they really pushed the boundaries on making it OK to be us,” Strickson-Pua said.
However, he was treated very differently when he went to high school at Mt Albert Grammar. There, Strickson-Pua said he was viewed as a “black bastard” and was expected to complete only one term before going off to work in a factory. His teachers were surprised when he went on to gain a university degree.
Ulugia-Pua remembered walking to school past a rest home on the corner of Crummer St and Ponsonby Rd. He was surprised to see the elderly living apart from their families.
“It blew me away, because in our Pacific community it’s about looking after your parents,” he said.
Sport was also an important part of Pasifika life in Ponsonby. Kids would play ball games out on Ponsonby Rd, a style of “village football” that saw them jumping fences and tearing through houses.
“Thirty kids would be charging through your house, your mother would be cooking and watching these children charge through your house and go out through the back, go through the other house, then go get the ball and chase it around, and when it was dinner time you came home,” Strickson-Pua said.
Rugby and rugby league provided more formalised activity, and Pasifika kids from Ponsonby and Grey Lynn made important contributions to New Zealand’s regional and national teams in both sports.
Strickson-Pua’s main sport was soccer. He played for a mostly Pasifika Ponsonby team called the “Uncivilised Savages”, who practised in Western Park.
However, he said the football pitch was also a “training ground for racism”. When he made it to the Auckland representative team, he was refused entry to a national after-function because they “didn’t expect a brown person”.
In Wellington, the family he billeted with didn’t give him a knife and fork to eat dinner with. When he asked why, the mother told him: “I wanted you to feel at home”.
They were eating steak.
The Rastafarian movement in New Zealand originated in 1970s Ponsonby. Ulugia-Pua recalled a house on Williamson Ave that was the movement’s base. They had a free concert on Fridays with free food and a “free smoke”. After the concerts, the Rastafarians would attempt to share their philosophy.
“It got a bit cloudy down there, and the air was a bit different,” Ulugia-Pua said.
The concerts were the birthplace of New Zealand reggae, with several bands including Herbs starting there.
The Rastafarians were far from the only organisation trying to change New Zealand’s social fabric. Ponsonby was also home to numerous other groups demanding social change including race rights groups like the Polynesian Panthers, unions, environmental and feminist groups. These issues provided inspiration for numerous artists living in the area. The Panthers’ headquarters were just two doors down from the police station.
There were also a number of gangs. The biggest Polynesian gang at the time was the King Cobras. However in many respects they were just part of the neighbourhood. Ulugia-Pua was friends with some members as a youth, and his mother would tell them to send him home in time for dinner.
There was a strong sense of community in 1970s Ponsonby. The Pua family dressed up in their Sunday best and went to sing to the poor “palagi” neighbours. They helped an elderly neighbour look after his very elderly mother, bringing over tea and biscuits.
“My mum also took time off to bathe the mum, and made sure we looked after them,” said Strickson-Pua.
The Puas recalled Ivan’s, a restaurant run by a Yugoslavian brother and sister, as somewhere that community spirit was strongly in evidence. The sister in particular was a neighbourhood “icon” who always got orders right without writing them down.
If a customer had too much to drink, she would refrain from kicking them out and instead call their family to come and get them.
“She would never kick them out, she knew her community. She would ring up their families to come pick up Dad,” Strickson-Pua said.
“She goes: we’re one family.”
She was tough on troublemakers, though, with even gang members avoiding fights there.
“She was like your meanest mum, in the nicest way.”
There are still elements of the old Ponsonby existing today – the Bhana Brothers’ grocery store was one example the Puas pointed out.
But in many respects the suburb has completely changed. Ponsonby Rd is now a fashionable strip of high fashion stores, bars, clubs and trendy eateries. The average house sells for $1,637,000. If you tried to play football on the street, chances are you’d be run down by a European-made SUV.
Perhaps the biggest change is that this former poor, ethnic melting pot is now mostly white. The 2013 census found Ponsonby East was 84.4 per cent European, and only 8.6 per cent Pasifika.
“I take my brown students here and I’ve got to tell you, my brown students, they feel really uncomfortable to walk through Ponsonby. My brown students feel threatened,” Strickson-Pua said.
“I love it, because my students tell me straight, they go, ‘Sir, this is Whitesville!'”.