From his small New Lynn cake shop, Junior Niuafe Malupo makes and decorates showstopping marvels of colour and frosting for hordes of enthusiastic customers – and tens of thousands of online fans.
“She’s the one that taught me everything I know about baking, and she’s the strongest person I know.” Malupo is telling me this when I visit him at Niu Cakery, his 18-month-old business in New Lynn, where he creates his custom-made cakes. They are decorated to order and so full of joy that his stories of hard times seem almost impossibly discordant.
“There was a point [in my teens] where we went so broke we hit rock bottom and my friends came round to help out. They gave me money just to feed my brothers and my sister. It makes me emotional remembering that it got that bad – that I had to ask my friends for help.”
Things have changed. When we meet, Malupo, now 23, has just returned from a holiday in Melbourne – his first trip to Australia. He’s still getting over the rush of meeting new family members, taking in street art and exploring a new city with good friends. “I didn’t get to see much of the queer scene because the city’s so big and we had heaps on,” he says. “It was huge and flash – I loved it, but next time I go, I’ll have more time to explore.” Between his graphic print shirt, neatly trimmed beard and designer slacks, I tell him he could easily pass for a Melbournian hipster. He cracks up and assures me that it wasn’t all partying – he found fresh inspiration to pour into the cakes he’s fast becoming famous for.
Niu Cakery HQ is immaculately decorated, with framed photos of Malupo’s cakes on the walls. Some possess a uniquely Tongan twist: chocolate latticing like ngatu (Tongan tapa) layered over white icing; cupcakes loaded with edible flowers and fresh fruit; silver and hot-pink tiers covered in macarons; and occasionally, contemporary art by young Tongan artists. Recent creations include a New Zealand Warriors-themed cake (complete with the team logo as a cake topper); a hand-painted recreation of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’; a koru-inspired cake; and even a triplet of Moana cakes, each with a different character for three granddaughters who celebrated their birthdays together.
It’s a business that started at home, when Malupo dropped out of his hospitality management studies degree and turned inward to cope. Troubles at home intensified as his father struggled with addiction issues. “I was a really weird teenager,” he says. “My aunties would come around and I would lock myself in my room.” He began baking cakes to order for friends and family, using cake decorating skills that are largely self-taught, gleaned from countless YouTube tutorials, blogs and social media. He built his own social media following – including nearly 27,000 Instagram followers (@niuafe) – by posting pictures of his cakes. “It’s crazy because I was just jobless and making cakes at home in 2015 and I wasn’t even charging the right prices – I was doing it for the love of it pretty much!” he laughs.
These days, orders flood in every time he posts a picture of a freshly made cake. No control freaks here: his customers, an even mix of Palagi and Pasifika, are mostly happy to leave him to it. “Sometimes they give me a colour or a theme to work with,” Malupo says. “They trust me. It’s like a canvas and I can paint
whatever I want.”
His shop adjoins Miss Bon Bon, a cake decorating and equipment shop on New Lynn’s Sheridan Drive run by Becky McGill. Malupo was a dedicated customer of McGill’s for two years while he made his cakes at home. One day he came in to pick up a few supplies and McGill suggested he lease part of her shop from her. “She just said to me, ‘hey, I don’t need all this space’,” Malupo remembers, “and then she asked if I wanted to move in and start my own business. I didn’t know what to say. I remember jumping into the car and telling my mum and she just started crying like I’d won Lotto! I didn’t think it would be possible but my family and friends got behind me, and that’s how I got the money together to start this place. I now get to spend every day working with my mum. We go shopping together and do all the baking together. I’m the one who does the fillings and the decorating but my mum is an amazing force with all other parts of the business.”
Niu Cakery opened in March 2016. “I think I had the biggest breakdown the night before the opening,” says Malupo. “I was crying my ass off, cars were driving past and I was sobbing – like, oh my god if this is just the beginning and I can’t handle this, how the hell am I going to be in business? But I got through it. Everyone was there at the opening: my siblings, my aunties, my cousins, even my grandma – she’s my biggest fan, she was sitting in the corner of the shop handing out business cards! I consider myself to be really spiritual. I just prayed for everything to work out.”
In fact, spirituality – and cake baking – are intertwined strands that run in the family. Malupo’s maternal grandparents founded the Methodist church, Siasi O Tonga Houeiki, in the 1960s when they first moved to Auckland from Tonga. It began in their family home in Herne Bay before finding a permanent location on Sackville Street, Grey Lynn, where it remains today. “My mother and my aunties would be baking cakes day and night, so many, just to feed the congregation – that’s where it all began,” says Malupo. “Grandma taught them how to make different cakes and how to decorate them too. Those cakes are still around – the best ones are Grandma’s chocolate cakes filled with cream and desiccated coconut, they’re simple but so delicious. Whenever they have big church events now, Grandma will order like 100 cupcakes – that she doesn’t have to pay for, of course. She says the payment is God’s blessing and that this whole shop is a blessing, ha! I wouldn’t have it any other way, of course – she’s the queen of our family.”
In 2011, before his parents divorced and in a bid to support his father’s recovery, Malupo converted to Mormonism, along with his parents and five siblings. “We all wanted Dad to get better,” he says, “so we gave it 100 percent, but I was only active for the first year. I’ve always felt like being religious and being queer was a hard mix. The church is still really supportive of me and my business, but I always felt like they were just waiting for me to change. I had missionaries come over to try and ‘heal’ me. They just didn’t understand. I have my own relationship with God now and that’s all I need. My spiritual background started there in the church but it led to something even greater: I have faith in myself. My mum and my sister are still active Mormons and I really support that.”
Malupo came out to his mother aged 15. Since then, his two younger brothers have followed suit. “It was a bit hard for Mum at the time,” says Malupo. “I told her it was a blessing and she was just like ‘well, I love you all and if that’s how it’s going to be then that’s how it’s going to be’. And ever since then it’s just been great – even my two big brothers have been really supportive.”
Malupo’s father has now worked through his addiction issues. “I’ve forgiven him and acknowledge the positive changes he’s made,” says Malupo. “The great thing is seeing my mum loving life. You should see her now that she’s free – she’s a completely different woman, and knowing she’s happy means the world to me. I’m so excited to go back to Melbourne in the future, to travel more, and for Mum and I to just keep expanding the business.”
Late last year, members of the royal family of Tonga paid a surprise visit to Niu Cakery, and Malupo was asked to make the wedding cake for the daughter of the Princess of Tonga. It was the largest cake he’s ever made: six layers, each with a different flavour. He delivered the cake himself to the ceremony, held here in Auckland last summer. “I was amazed, it was a huge honour,” he says. “Usually with Tongan wedding cakes they give out layers to distinguished guests but this time they didn’t, they cut up the whole thing and gave it to the people. That was one of the proudest moments of my life, seeing everyone eating what I’d made and really enjoying it. I saw this one lady put her cake into a tissue and pack it away into her handbag just like my grandma would. I watched her wave down the bridesmaids so she could get some more. Everything came together in that moment.”