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by  Melenaite Taumoefolau

Famous All Blacks, creative artists, hip-hop and opera singers – the Tongan community has had a major impact in New Zealand since they began to arrive in numbers in the 1960s.


Who are the Tongans?

Tongans are the original inhabitants of the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific. According to archaeological and linguistic research, they are the descendants of people who left Fiji and other parts of Melanesia to settle West Polynesia, including Tonga, some 3,000 or more years ago.

In the beginning

Taking the form of a plover, the god Tangaloa ‘Atulongolongo descended from the sky onto an uninhabited island. The bird pecked a maggot growing in a creeper into three parts, and from these grew three men – the first Tongan men. Then the demigod Maui fetched women from Pulotu, the underworld, to be their wives. Their descendants multiplied and became the Tongan people.

Europeans and Tongan culture

The first European sighting of Tonga was made by the Dutch explorers Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire. James Cook, who named Tonga ‘the Friendly Islands’, stayed for three months in 1777. English Methodist missionaries arrived in the 1820s, devising the first Tongan written language and teaching Christian values and beliefs. From this time onwards the Tongan way, or anga faka-Tonga, evolved as a mixture of traditional beliefs and Christian values.

Important strands of anga faka-Tonga are faka‘apa‘apa (respect), talangofua (obedience), fakaongoongo (waiting and listening for instructions), and ‘ofa (reciprocal sharing and helping).

A word from Captain Cook

While in Tonga, Captain James Cook heard frequent use of the Tongan word tapu (prohibited), in connection with the sacredness of high-ranking people. He wrote the word in his journal as ‘taboo’. Since then, it has become part of the English language.

Early migrants

Although Tongans have travelled to New Zealand for over 100 years, there were very few arrivals before the 1940s. The late Queen Sālote, known throughout the world for her participation in Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, often visited New Zealand, and a few Tongans were brought over to look after her. She also brought some relatives and the children of chiefs to be educated. Some of these early visitors got married in New Zealand, and others found work.

People seeking work

In the 1960s more Tongans arrived on temporary permits to take up work opportunities. Some came to learn trades, and others were brought to study professions in tertiary institutions, such as teaching, nursing and medicine. After their permits expired, some returned to Tonga but many remained in New Zealand illegally. At the 1971 census there were a total of 1,273 Tongans in New Zealand.

In the early 1970s short-term contractual agreements between New Zealand and Tonga brought an influx of unskilled workers. Most came for economic reasons, in particular to help the family by sending remittances back home. Once again, some Tongans stayed on when their contracts ended.

From 1974, with a downturn in the economy, the government took a tougher stance on Pacific Islanders who had overstayed their visas. There were random street checks of Pacific people, and dramatic confrontations known as the ‘dawn raids’, by police seeking overstayers. Some Tongans moved on to Australia. In 1976 there was a tala‘ofa (amnesty), and many were granted permanent residence. By this time there were enough Tongans in New Zealand to conduct church get-togethers in the Tongan language.

Migration since 1975

Migration for economic reasons continued in the late 1970s and 1980s, and by 1986 the Tongan population in New Zealand had reached 13,600. In 1986–87 a temporary visa waiver was introduced for entry from Samoa, Tonga and Fiji, and many Tongans took advantage of it. Since then their community has become the fastest growing in New Zealand, largely because of a birth rate twice as high as the national average.

By 2013 Tongan people constituted the third-largest Pacific ethnic group in New Zealand – 60,336 people, or 20% of New Zealand’s Pacific population. 35,385 of these were born in New Zealand. The Pacific Access Category, an immigration quota started in 2002, enables 250 Tongans to be granted permanent residence each year.

Life in New Zealand

Where they settled

In 2013, 78% of Tongans were living in the Auckland region. The 1990s saw a shift from central to south Auckland, in part because inner-city rental houses were being sold and renovated, forcing tenants to find housing further out. The two areas of concentration were Ōtara and Māngere, which have some of the biggest Tongan churches. Tongans are likely to live close to their churches, which are their community centres.

Other notable concentrations were in the Auckland suburbs of Grey Lynn, Glen Innes, Ōtāhuhu, Onehunga, Mt Albert, Mt Roskill and Avondale, and in the Waitākere suburbs of New Lynn, Henderson and Massey. After Auckland, Wellington was the second most important area of settlement, with 4% of the Tongan population in 2013. 

Socio-economic issues

In 2013, Tongans’ median annual income was $15,300, compared to $28,500 for New Zealanders as a whole. Only 59% of working-age Tongans were employed. Like other Pacific Islanders, Tongans commonly worked in manufacturing, where jobs have declined.

In 2013 disparities in income, employment and living standards were apparent in household statistics:

  • Over 20% of households consisted of two or more families living together, compared to only 7% of New Zealand households.
  • 40% of Tongans lived as an extended family, compared to the total New Zealand figure of 12%.
  • 67% of Tongans lived in rental accommodation, compared to 33% nationally.
  • Only 15% owned the house they lived in, compared to 50% nationally.

Measures of success

Despite the grim situation suggested by the statistics, many Tongan people perceive their move to New Zealand as a significant achievement. Compared to those with no regular employment in Tonga, a person receiving a benefit or low wages in New Zealand is seen as relatively well off.

Last kingdom

Tonga is the sole surviving kingdom in the Pacific today. It is also the only Pacific nation that has never been colonised. Although Tonga is often described as a constitutional monarchy, in fact the monarch possesses considerable political power. In the 2000s a pro-democracy movement was trying to change the kingdom into a constitutional democracy.

Essential measures of success are the ability to contribute to the extended family, and fulfilling community obligations. Even when Tongans are highly educated or materially wealthy, if they do not help the family in paying for funerals, weddings and church donations, they are not regarded as successful. Showing respect for seniority, restrained behaviour in the face of need, and sexual propriety by Christian standards are considered equally important.

Having large families is an indicator of success, as resources can be pooled to carry out family responsibilities. Those who send money to their family members in Tonga are highly regarded. In return for their remittances they receive gifts of mats and ngatu (bark cloth) – items of great value in Tongan culture – or Tongan food such as yams, taro and cassava. In the late 1990s remittances from Tongans overseas amounted to over $NZ90 million annually, a figure that far outweighed Tonga’s annual returns from tourism or agriculture.



Since the arrival of missionaries in Tonga, the Christian Church has been central to the identity and culture of Tongans. When they first came to New Zealand they held Tongan-language church gatherings in inner-city private homes. As increasing numbers arrived in the 1970s the Free Wesleyan Church in Tonga sent some ministers to lead these get-togethers. It was agreed that Tongans could conduct services in Methodist Church buildings, and observe the regulations and rules of the Methodist Church of New Zealand.

As the community grew in the 1980s and 1990s, Tongans built churches themselves, and some left the Methodist Church of New Zealand to run them. The major group was the Free Wesleyan Church, with a big building in Māngere.

In the 2000s, the acceptance by the Methodist Church of gay ministers caused hundreds of Tongans to break away and either start their own denomination or join an existing one, such as the Free Wesleyan.

Matters of gender

Tongan culture recognises only very strict gender roles. Girls are brought up to be submissive and to stay at home, whereas boys are reared to be independent and mobile. As adults, men have more political power, but women are ranked higher in the community. The terms fakaleitī (like a lady) and fakatangata (like a man) are the Tongan words for gay people. When they are not in sexual relationships, these people are usually ignored, but as sexual beings they can face discrimination within the community.


The young age of the Tongan population (the median in 2013 was 19.4 years, compared to 38 years for all New Zealanders) makes it vulnerable to the loss of language and culture. As the number of Tongans born in New Zealand increases, the number who still speak Tongan is slowly declining – from 63% in 1996 to 53% in 2013.

Many Tongans believe that without their language, people lose their identity; and that to develop anga faka-Tonga (the Tongan way) it is important that the language be a feature of children’s upbringing and socialisation. Such views explain why, since the 1980s, the community has set up preschools based on the Māori kōhanga reo (language nest) principle, to enable young Tongan children to use the language.

In 2004 a draft curriculum for Tongan language was produced for preschools and primary and secondary schools. Tongan language courses are taught at the University of Auckland.

Pacific Islands identity

An evolving ethnicity

Tonga is a dispersed community, and Tongan identities are evolving in response to the new environments. Three main types of Tongans have emerged. The first are those who have been raised in anga faka-Tonga (the Tongan way), and still maintain their language. The second are those who were born in New Zealand and have decreasing knowledge of the language and anga faka-Tonga. Interestingly, many New Zealand-born Tongans understand the language but cannot speak it. They acquire sufficient Tongan to incorporate values of anga faka-Tonga, but are not able to transmit the language to the next generation. However, very few have become wholly assimilated to a non-Tongan way of life. When people are asked to state their ethnicity, the vast majority call themselves Tongan.

The third type of Tongans are those who have identified themselves with all Pacific Islanders. When young Polynesians – including Tongans, Samoans and other Pacific Islanders – do not speak the same language, they tend to turn to a distinctive brand of English, often mixed with smatterings of their mother tongue. This provides the sense of community and solidarity that their own group does not give them. But in other aspects of their lives, they will switch to the traditional way, particularly in their churches and at community gatherings.

In its allocation of resources the government classification of Pacific Islanders also draws people towards this wider identity. Pacific Islanders emphasise their common history, especially the impact of the arrival of Europeans and the missionaries. This is reinforced by Tongan and other Pacific-oriented internet sites.

New forms of expression

Pacific Islanders with a broader ethnic identity in New Zealand call themselves PIs, Polys, or New Zealand-borns. They have developed new music, fashion, customs and ways of speaking. This distinctive identity is sometimes referred to as Pasifika Aotearoa.

Some young PIs are heavily influenced by Afro-American youth culture in their dress, slang, body language and music, especially hip hop and rhythm and blues. Rastafarianism is another significant influence, notable in young PIs’ dreadlocks and adapted reggae sounds. PIs in South Auckland are making cultural contributions through the Ōtara market and the Secondary Schools Cultural Festival.

Despite South Auckland’s reputation for social problems, lyrics by Pasifika Aotearoa music groups such as the OMC (Ōtara Millionaires’ Club) often praise areas of South Auckland with a strongly Pacific identity. The highly successful annual Pasifika Festival at Western Springs is contributing to the spectacle and strengthening of this identity.

For some New Zealand-borns, an understanding of custom serves as a stepping stone to new forms of expression. The operatic tenor Ben Makisi has moved from his knowledge of Tongan musical notation to explore European classical music. Tongan styles of sport, especially in netball and rugby, have influenced the games in New Zealand. All Black Jonah Lomu became a national icon. Tongan-born Filipe Tohi brings Tongan elements to his sculpture and lashing.

The new Pasifika Aotearoa identity has flourished and now includes a proliferating music culture, an eclectic fashion industry, and pan-Pacific churches.

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Tonga.

  • 1874 census: 7
  • 1921 census: 228
  • 1951 census: 608
  • 1976 census: 3,965
  • 2001 census: 18,054
  • 2006 census: 20,520
  • 2013 census: 22,413

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Tongan: 50,481 (2006); 60,336 (2013)

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Melenaite Taumoefolau, 'Tongans', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Melenaite Taumoefolau, i tāngia i te 8 o Pēpuere 2005, updated 25 o Māehe 2015