Why writer Damon Salesa says Auckland’s future is Pacific

Photography Adrian Malloch

Auckland’s Pacific City

Auckland isn’t a Pacific city, says writer Damon Salesa – instead, there’s a Pacific city in Auckland that “most other people do their best to avoid”. Here, he talks about his new book, the city’s demographic segregation, the marvellous energy of Tongan rugby league fans, and how Pakeha dominance is already looking like a thing of the past.

Somewhere along the way to Ōtāhuhu from the central city you pass from one Auckland into another – different coloured faces, different kinds of shops, different kinds of houses.

It can feel harsh to call this change a form of segregation, but Damon Salesa is not afraid to say it. His new book, a short but penetratingly astute and well-written polemic titled Island Time, describes a city whose ethno-economic partitions give the lie to its self-styled image as a “Pacific capital”. The first person of Pacific Island descent to become a Rhodes scholar to Oxford, now an associate professor at Auckland University, Salesa has seen the future and says it’s right under our noses, if only we cared to look. At a quiet café next to a boarded-up video store, we sat down to discuss his thesis that the Pacific is coming, ready or not.

FINLAY MACDONALD: So here we are, in “Little Tonga”, Ōtāhuhu, which was recently ground zero of the Rugby League World Cup celebrations. What did you make of the Tongan fans and what went on here?
DAMON SALESA: It was one of the great moments in New Zealand sport. Right here where we are. It was a kind of marvellous energy – of people really filled with love and pride for a team that had totally over-achieved compared to what people expected, and yet all they’d done was achieve what their supporters expected. I think there’s a real deeper moral to that story – that the expectations of the Pacific communities were far higher than others’ expectations, and that when given the resources and opportunity, they produced this magnificent spectacle and outcome. And actually without the Tongan rugby league team, frankly the Rugby League World Cup would have gone by without anyone really knowing or caring.

When the fans took over central Auckland to celebrate and protest, it really underscored a point you make in the book, about the unofficial racial segregation of the city. It was so unusual to see, so novel, that it was newsworthy in itself.
It’s interesting isn’t it, because many visitors, when they come to Auckland from outside, they consider central Auckland to be quite Asian. and for many south Aucklanders the central city is quite a foreign place for all sorts of other reasons. And to have a migration into the city, to see something rival the Santa parade, that’s been organised in a few hours on social media, shows what community power and community organisation really looks like. Part of me wishes that our community could do that for other things as well. But the capacity there is pretty powerful, and that’s one of the lessons that should be learned from that.

How do you compare the city now, in terms of that segregation, with the one you grew up in?
I think I lived through the putting in place of that segregation. When I grew up in Glen Innes, there were still Pakeha kids at our school, but by the time I got to the higher levels of primary school and intermediate school, that had already begun to change. I think it’s worth remembering how rapidly it came into place in Auckland, because it reminds you how rapidly it could potentially be transformed. There was a time when poverty was ethnically diverse in Auckland. Now, although there are plenty of poor Asian and Pakeha folks, the concentrations are Pacific and Māori. So that particular alchemy of poverty and ethnicity is something that really concerns me. There’d be no problem if Pacific people were concentrating in Mission Bay in multi-million dollar homes, and I wouldn’t have been inspired to write this book. That would be a matter of choice. I believe Pacific people want to live in Mission Bay, and fish and roll their boats into the water.

That would be newsworthy too I suspect.
It would indeed, and I picked Mission Bay because, of course, Mission Bay was built for the Pacific – the mission was the mission to the Pacific. And so that’s one of those emblematic places that connects Auckland to the Pacific, but at the same time erases it.

As you say, those divides weren’t always as clear as they are now.
In New Zealand, diversity has become what it has in the States. It’s a public policy and consumable item. So nowadays the really affluent schools want some diversity because they need to sell that to the people who are actually fee-paying. Because those parents realise that if they send their kids to all-white schools, they will actually be missing out on something. So those parents, just like at Harvard and Yale, are in favour of a manageable level of safe diversity. And a lot of that has transferred into public policy.

But that’s not the real thing, is what you’re saying?
No, it’s not the real thing. And it’s not that intense ferment that you get from true mixtures and diversity which can’t be controlled but which produces true innovation, like you see in south Auckland.

So what is the net effect of this form of geographical ethnic segregation in everyday terms?
They seem like quite minor things, but for instance there is no Bunnings between Mt Roskill and Manukau City. Those kinds of ordinary differences in people’s lives, so if you want to buy something you end up having to go further or pay more. At the same time the city is talking about “super diversity” which, as you know, doesn’t apply at all. Auckland is not a super diverse city if you take a measure like ethnic proportions across the city. What we have is not a Pacific city that is Auckland, but a Pacific city in Auckland that Pacific people live in, and most other people do their best to avoid. That is the living truth of Auckland and everyone knows it at some level.

And the big point you make in the book is that this acts to conceal a future that has already happened, demographically. How will this future manifest itself?
Obviously part of the future is written in the present and the young. And we know what the young look like in Auckland. They’re Māori, they’re Pacific, and they’re Asian. That accounts for nearly three-quarters of our youth. If we look to them and see the lives they lead and things they do and value, and where they live, it looks very different to the current Auckland that we value and inhabit… This is not about trying to predict the future, it’s about looking at what is already happening.

Do you think it is being observed, analysed, taken as seriously as it needs to be?
I think New Zealand is scrambling to deal with this change. Because it’s radical in a way we can’t comprehend. No one has lived through a change like this.

And it was kind of unplanned, wasn’t it?
It wasn’t planned by the government, but if you look for instance at Pacific people, this was part of their plan. One of the Pacific plans for the future has always been that the future is about your children. And so the key investment strategy of Pacific people was to have big beautiful families who look after their parents and uncles and aunties, and value each other, and grow. I think what we’re seeing now though is that, if you imagine that this future has already happened, and it’s radically different, and you look at government and the commercial sector – how differently are they doing things? Well, they’re not really doing things differently to how they were 20 years ago, even though the world has radically changed since then. You think about the diversity in our government and private sectors, and it doesn’t look anything like the ordinary diversity of who we are right now.

This chimes with an idea you play with in the book, where you use a metaphor of the protected “viewshafts” to and from Auckland’s volcanic cones, to describe how the city’s different communities need to be able to see each other better. How do you encourage that?
I think this is no longer about what Remuera or Takapuna can do for south Auckland. If you don’t get down with Pacific, Asian and Māori Auckland you simply won’t understand the world you live in. The premium now is not for Pacific and Māori people to learn about them, the premium works the other way. And in fact the businesses that have got this are the ones that really boomed. Everything from clothing stores that face Māori and Pacific kids to aged-care places which are now very Pacific friendly. Even a bit I’m not particularly fond of, the property investors who’ve moved with incredible speed into south Auckland – all those people kind of got the picture.

What, that Ōtara was a better investment than Remuera?
Yeah, so when I would say that, people would look at me and think I’d gone nuts. But then you’ve got property investor insider mags telling people, presumably in Remuera, to put their money into Ōtara, then all of a sudden the shift happens.

But one of the problems you point out in the book is that property ownership is very low in Pacific communities. In a city that increasingly looks like it can’t afford itself, that will be a big obstacle won’t it?
I think so. I think the housing story is fundamental to understanding the Pacific story. Because that was the dream – to come to New Zealand and have this piece of New Zealand to which you belonged and belonged to you. And there were two generations of Pacific people for whom that was almost within reach. Pacific home ownership peaked in the 80s and 90s, and nearly half of Pacific people owned their own homes. And then it falls away until it’s well under 20 percent now for Auckland. And that means people don’t have these kinds of roots and connections. It also means that in New Zealand you’re operating at this huge disadvantage. You cannot build the wealth, you cannot enrich your children and family in the way you could if you owned even the most modest home in the most humble suburb.

It’s not simply a crisis in home ownership though, is it? It’s about housing full stop.
I do scoff when people talk about a housing crisis, because Pacific people experienced that at the beginning of the 1990s when home ownership started dropping drastically. And what we have now is a true housing crisis, which Pacific people are at the forefront of – which is having nowhere at all to live, nowhere to rent, no shelter. That is what the real housing crisis looks like. It’s not whether or not Tiffany and Ashley can buy a house in the right suburb, it’s about whether you have a roof over your head at all.

And yet you say in the book that overall Pacific people are living life well. Your optimism is encouraging.
Well, if you ask Pacific people, and there are surveys, they rate themselves at the very top end of life satisfaction. And that’s because Pacific people understand how to live life well. That actually means, when it’s done well, big families, lots of connections between church and family, and home and work, everything is quite vibrant, then people experience life very well. They see all kinds of opportunity, they adjust and innovate, and I guess that is really the theme of the book – we can build Pacific innovations that allow good quality of life, good relationships and love, in a place that might be incredibly constrained. And that’s pretty amazing when you look at it – you wouldn’t expect this story.

Island Time is published by Bridget Williams Books as part of the BWB Texts series.