Culture of Tonga

Tonga College students performing a traditional Kailao dance.

Tonga has been inhabited for perhaps 32 years, since settlement in late Lapita times. The culture of its inhabitants has surely changed greatly over this long time period. Before the arrival of European explorers in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the Tongans were in frequent contact with their nearest Oceanic neighbors, Fiji and Samoa. In the 19th century, with the arrival of Western traders and missionaries, Tongan culture changed dramatically. Some old beliefs and habits were thrown away and others adopted. Some accommodations made in the 19th century and early 20th century are now being challenged by changing Western civilization. Hence Tongan culture is far from a unified or monolithic affair, and Tongans themselves may differ strongly as to what it is "Tongan" to do, or not do.

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.


Traditionally, fishing and farming have accounted for the livelihood of a majority of Tongans. The main food crops include Sweet Potatoes, Bananas, Yucca, Taro and giant Taro to name a few. Cash crops include squash and pumpkins, which have in recent years replaced bananas and copra as the largest agricultural exports. Vanilla is another important cash crop.[1]


Men and women hold unique roles in Tongan society. A man usually holds the power and is considered the head of his household. However, a man has an obligation to care for his sister and her children. So in Tongan families ones maternal uncle or Fa'etangata, is considered lower in ranking because of his obligation to take care of the needs of his sister and her children. Contrastly in Tongan families your paternal aunt is the highest-ranking member and is referred to as mehekitanga or Fahu. Men hold power and women hold rank. In ancient Tonga one would inherit titles, land and people from their mother, after Christianity this was changed to mainly inheriting from ones father. Until recently it was Tapu (taboo) for any male that has passed puberty to be in the same room with his sister or girl cousins alone. This was done under the notion of respect or faka'apa'apa. The recent introduction of western ideas and culture has slowly made this taboo vary widely amongst Tongan families. At one time it was inappropriate for a brother and sister to even watch television together if the characters were to kiss or even flirt on screen. That is mostly laxed in the modern age, but you still have families that will separate the boys and girls when watching TV or movies. The notion of faka'apa'apa is still strong but the meaning of it is slowly changing especially amongst the youth of the Tongan diaspora. Other key members of Tongan kinship are the 'Ulumotu'a or the oldest male in ones extended family on your father's side, they are usually called upon to be in charge of funerals and other family events. They do not out rank a Fahu but they have power to direct events. Also noteworthy is all of your maternal aunts are called your mothers, likewise you paternal uncles are your fathers. Your cousins on either side are called your brothers or sisters. Similarly if you are female and your sisters children are called your children also because you are a mother to them. Same applies if you are a male and your brothers children will refer to you as a father.

Life passages

Male circumcision

In post-contact Tonga, newly pubescent males were kamu (tefe), or circumcised by cutting one slit in the foreskin, on the underside of the penis. This is a Christian practice of biblical context. Afterwards, the family held a feast for the new "man". Circumcision is still practiced, but it is now done informally. Sometimes it is done at home, with relatives present. More commonly a boy, or a group of boys, go to the hospital, where the operation is done under sanitary conditions.

First menstruation (Menarche)

In pre-contact Tonga, a girl's first menstruation was celebrated by a feast. This practice continued up until the mid-20th century, at which point it fell out of favor.


Contemporary funerals are large, well-attended occasions, even for Tongans who are not wealthy. Relatives gather, often travelling long distances to do so. Large amounts of food are contributed, then distributed to the crowds during and after the funeral. Funeral practices are a mix of introduced Christian rites and customs (such as a wake and a Christian burial), and older indigenous customs that survive from pre-contact times. For instance, mourners wear black (a Western custom) but also wrap mats (ta'ovala) around their waist. The type and size of the mat proclaim the mourner's relationship to the deceased.

Tongan families do not necessarily compete to put on the largest, grandest funeral possible, but they do strive to show respect for the deceased by doing all that is customary. This can put great strain on the resources of the immediate family and even the extended family. Sometimes the funeral is called a fakamasiva, an occasion that leads to poverty.

For an extended discussion, see Tongan funerals


Pre-contact Tonga

In pre-contact Tonga, female pre-marital chastity was the ideal, if not the norm.

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 actuality, young men and women who were attracted to each other would often meet privately, in the bush or on the beach. Sometimes the young women became pregnant as a result of these meetings. Marriage might or might not result. Even if it did not, paternity was generally announced (by the mother) and accepted (by the father). The child was usually welcomed by all relatives. The mother was not considered a "fallen woman" and could usually find a husband afterwards.

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 houʻeiki 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 transgender, fakafefine. 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 fakafefine.

Related, yet different was the notion of 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.

Post-contact Tonga

After the arrival of the Europeans, a Christian marriage took place before the traditional rites, or was inserted between them. Fakafefine kept a low profile. Commoners adopted the ideal of pre-marital virginity and the display of bloody bedclothing. Divorce theoretically became formal, and difficult, though this may have only slightly discouraged informal separations and subsequent common-law unions.

With the waning of missionary influence, urban youngsters are now experimenting with dances and dating, the later Western imports. Fakafefine are now known as "fakaleiti" and are celebrated in the Miss Galaxy Pageant, which claims princess Lupepauʻu, granddaughter of the king as its patron.

There is said to be some prostitution in urban areas now, particularly areas with frequent Western visitors (Nukuʻalofa and 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.

Rank and status

All Polynesian cultures are strongly stratified, ranging from somewhat less to even more. Tongan culture is no exception, and despite almost two centuries of western influence, it is, together with Samoa still the most stratified culture. In former times the king (tuʻi) with the royal family was on top. Below him were the high chiefs (houʻeiki), the estate holders and warlords. Below them the lower chiefs (fototehina). Below them the working chiefs (matāpule), in fact attendants to the chiefs to which they belonged, providing services to them, like fishing, tax collection, kavamixing, undertaking and protocol keeping. Below them the ordinary people (tuʻa). Below them, or maybe more or less on the same level, the slaves, prisoners of war (popula).

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 worldly 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 ʻAlaivahamamaʻo eloped with the daughter of a low chiefess Tuʻimala, 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, ʻAlai 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 Māʻatu.

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 Tāufaʻāhau, the later king George Tupou I. He was born in a chiefly family of lower rank, not belonging to the houʻeiki. 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 Tuʻi 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 Lupepauʻu, who had been the wife of the Tuʻi 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.

Rank and language

See also: Tongan language

Tongans make use of different Tongan words and expressions when addressing, referring to, or speaking in the presence of persons of different social standing. It is a serious social mistake to use the wrong word in the wrong context. Hence, on many formal occasions, hereditary orators, the matāpule, speak on behalf of commoners who might not know the correct language. They also conduct ceremonies on behalf of the king and nobles.

A few examples of such language follow. The monarch of Tonga does not have an arm, nima: he has a toʻokupu. This word is also used in translations of the Bible into Tongan: God has a toʻokupu. Commoners go, ʻalu; nobles meʻa; the king hāʻele. Some common words, such as afi, fire, are too vulgar to pronounce in front of exalted personages. Afi is changed to the more genteel maama, light. A common Tongan greeting is Malo e lelei, which might be translated, "Congratulations on your well-being." When addressing the monarch, this is changed to Malo e lakoifie.

List of words used by rank.
Commoners Chiefs & Nobles Royals English
putu me'afaka'eiki me'afaka'eiki funeral
fanau'i fa'ele'i fakahifo'i give birth
fiekaia fie'ilo halofia hungry
ā ofo taka awaken
mohe toka tōfā sleep
'ita tuputāmaki houhau angry
finemotu'a fefine ta'ahine woman
'ohoana 'unoho sinifu spouse


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 Aleamotuʻa). 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.

After the coronation of the king in 2008 it suddenly became the habit in Tonga to add 'lord' to the address, something that was absolutely not done before. Therefore, nowadays one would rather say for example: lord Tuʻivakanō (or even honourable lord Tuʻivakanō), (as meanwhile Fielakepa himself was promoted to baron). Cultural changes are now leading to the females of the Tongan race to be the hierarchy of the family. With the new take over of the King women now can inherit the land in her family before the eldest son. This has now been signed by the King of Tonga and the support from nobles has made this happen.


Violent crime is limited, but increasing, and public perception associates this with returns of ethnic Tongans who have been raised overseas. A few notable cases involve young men raised since infancy in the USA, whose family neglected to obtain citizenship for them and who were deported on involvement with the American justice system. At this moment crime increases faster than the police force and will remain a serious problem for the years to come. Increasing wealth has also increased the gap between the rich and the poor, leading to more and more burglaries.

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. This system may be required to change, adapting for the influx of foreign born/raised criminals who may treat such a system with contempt, alternatively a minimum/maximum security prison system may need to be developed placing escapists or repeat offenders into closed prisons, 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 youth 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 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.

There is however a rise in violence among Tongans that have left Tonga. On March 7, 1987, a 15-year-old was fatally shot in the Disneyland parking lot. The incident began as an early morning confrontation between rival Samoan and Tongan gang members before escalating into a brawl. Another participant was convicted of second-degree murder, but the conviction was subsequently overturned by a state appellate court.



Main article: Literature of Tonga

Modern poetry and short stories

The genre of short stories in Tonga is most associated with 'Epeli Hau'ofa, whose most popular collection of stories, Tales of the Tikong, was published in 1973. Konai Helu Thaman was one of the country's earliest published poets.[2]

Traditional women's crafts

In pre-contact Tonga, women did not do the cooking (cooking in an earth oven was hard, hot work, the province of men) or work in the fields. They raised children, gathered shellfish on the reef, and made koloa, barkcloth and mats, which were a traditional form of wealth exchanged at marriages and other ceremonial occasions. An industrious woman thus raised the social status of her household. Her family also slept soundly, on the piles of mats and barkcloth that were the traditional bedding. On sunny days, these were spread on the grass to air, which prolonged their life.

Among the typical koloa are:


Woven mats serve a variety of purposes, from the ordinary to the ceremonial. Many woven mats are passed down from generation to generation, acquiring greater status with the passage of time. It is in fact a collection of these mats in the palace that forms the true crown jewels of Tonga. These royal mats are displayed only on high state occasions such as the death of a member of the royal family or the coronation of a monarch.

Traditional men's crafts

Tongan war clubs like the one pictured above were presented as gifts to visiting Allied military personnel during World War II. They were also used for canoe paddles and for war dances, e.g. Me'etu'upaki.

Wood carving

Kali, circa 1850, from the LACMA collections

Before Western contact, many objects of daily use were made of carved wood: food bowls, head rests (kali), war clubs and spears, and cult images. Tongan craftsmen were skilled at inlaying pearl-shell and ivory in wood, and Tongan war clubs were treasured items in the neighboring archipelago of Fiji.


Tongan craftsman were also adept at building canoes. Many canoes for daily use were simple pōpaos, dug-out canoes, shaped from a single log with fire and adze and outfitted with a single outrigger. Due to a dearth of large trees suitable for building large war canoes, these canoes were often imported from Fiji.

Traditional architecture

The tradition Tongan fale consisted of a curved roof (branches lashed with sennit rope, or kafa, thatched with woven palm leaves) resting on pillars made of tree trunks. Woven screens filled in the area between the ground and the edge of the roof. The traditional design was extremely well adapted to surviving hurricanes. If the winds threatened to shred the walls and overturn the roof, the inhabitants could chop down the pillars, so that the roof fell directly onto the ground. Because the roof was curved, like a limpet shell, the wind tended to flow over it smoothly. The inhabitants could ride out the storm in relative safety.

There are a many surviving examples of Tongan stone architecture, notably the Haʻamonga ʻa Maui and mound tombs (langi) near Lapaha, Tongatapu. And so several on other islands. Archaeologists have dated them hundreds to a thousand years old.


Tongan males were often heavily tattooed. In Captain Cook's time only the Tuʻi Tonga (king) was not: because he was too high ranked for anybody to touch him. Later it became the habit that a young Tuʻi Tonga went to Samoa to be tattooed there.

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, tattoos shows one's strength. Tattoos also tell a story.

Domestication of Western arts and crafts

Western textile arts

Tonga has evolved its own version of Western-style clothing, consisting of a long tupenu, or sarong, for women, and a short tupenu for men. Women cover the tupenu with a kofu, or Western-style dress; men top the tupenu either with a T-shirt, a Western casual shirt, or on formal occasions, a dress shirt and a suit coat. Preachers in some Methodist sects still wear long frock coats, a style that has not been current in the West for more than a hundred years. These coats must be tailored locally.

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.

Nukuʻalofa, 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 Nukuʻalofa market.

Women who attend the Wesleyan Methodist girls' 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 tablecloths, 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.


A few Tongan village churches are decorated with freehand murals or decorations done in house paint, which may mix crosses, flowers, and traditional barkcloth motifs. The practice is uncommon and the execution is always crude.

Coral and tortoise-shell jewelry

In the 1970s there was a small factory near Nukuʻalofa that made simple jewelry from coral and tortoise-shell for sale to Western tourists. It is not clear if this factory is still operating. The government may have protected sea-turtles and corals (as has been done in most other countries) and ended this line of manufacture.

Music and dance

Main article: Music of Tonga

We know relatively little about the music of Tonga as it existed before Tonga was encountered 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, ʻotuhaka and meʻetuʻupaki.

Church music

Methodists were known for their extensive use of hymns in their emotional services. True to their tradition, the early missionaries introduced hymn-singing to their congregations. These early hymns—still sung today in some of the Methodist sects, such as the Free Church of Tonga and the Church of Tonga - have Tongan tunes and simple, short Tongan lyrics. There is a special Tongan music notation for these, and other, musics.

Traditional music

Traditional music is preserved in the set pieces performed at royal and noble weddings and funerals, and in the song sung during the traditional ceremony of apology, the lou-ifi. Radio Tonga begins each day's broadcast with a recording from Honourable Veʻehala, a nobleman and celebrated virtuoso of the nose flute. This music is not popular music; it is a cherished heirloom, preserved by specialists and taught as needed for special occasions.


Women cooking topai for mourners.

In former times, there was only one main meal, a midday meal cooked in an earth oven. Villagers would rise, eat some leftover food from the previous day's meal, and set out to work in the fields, fishing, gathering shellfish, etc. The results of the morning's work would be cooked by the men, and served to the assembled household. The remnants would be placed in a basket suspended from a tree. This food is served as an end-of-the-day snack as well as the next day's breakfast. Food past its prime was given to the pigs.

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 cornbeef 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, such as tuna. 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.

Traditional Tongan dishes


See also: Kava culture

The drinking of kava by men at kava clubs is somewhat equal to drinking beers in the bar in western cultures. However formal kava drinking is an important and intrinsic part of Tonga culture.

Tongan cuisine and health

Tonga is notable for its high obesity rates with over 90% of the population being overweight. Consequently, many Tongan islanders have an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes and other obesity related diseases which place the nation's health service under considerable strain.[3] Much of this is related to the nation's cultural love of food and eating as well as the modern influx of cheap and high-fat content meat, with corned beef and lamb belly remaining firm favourites in Tongan cuisine. Despite being a highly obese population, there is little stigma attached to being overweight as one might find in many Western civilizations. Like a great number of South Pacific cultures, large bodies are often revered, though there is growing acknowledgment of the health risks involved.


Children dressed in their best for a church festival. The boys are wearing tupenu and ta'ovala.

Tongan men wear a tupenu, a cloth that is similar to a sarong, which is wrapped around the waist. It should be long enough to cover the knees or the shins of the legs. In daily life, any shirt (T-shirt, jersey, woven shirt) will do to top the tupenu. Usually shirts are used clothing imported from overseas. Some men will go shirtless working on their plantations, but by law they are not allowed to go shirtless in public.

On formal occasions a taʻovala, 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 a 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 taʻovala, 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 taʻovala 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.


France vs. Tonga at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
Main article: Sport in Tonga

Rugby union is the national sport in Tonga. The nation has a national rugby union team, which played in the 1987, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007 Rugby World Cup and the 2015 competitions. 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 (plays for the All Blacks) and Toutai Kefu (plays for Australian Wallaby).

Rugby league is a popular sport enjoyed by Tongans. Football has a following, while judo, surfing, volleyball, and cricket have gained popularity in recent years.


A church in Kolomotu'a, Tonga.

The king and the majority of the royal family are members of the Free Wesleyan Church (Methodist) which claims some 40,000 adherents in the country. There are four other Methodist denominations in the country, as well as a number of (much smaller) Pentecostal and Evangelicalist congregations. The Roman Catholic Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints each have a strong presence in the country as well. There is a small Seventh-day Adventist Church group, an Anglican church, and a few adherents of the Bahá'í Faith in Tonga. There are even some Tongan Muslims.

Tongans are ardent church goers. Methodist services usually follow 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 day for rest and worship; strict Sabbatarianism is enshrined in the constitution. No trade is allowed on Sunday, except essential services, after special approval by the minister of police. Lawbreakers risk a fine or imprisonment.

Public Holidays

Some Tongan holidays are based upon the Christian faith, which include Easter with its preceding Friday and following Monday and both Christmas days (but not Pentecost, Ascuncion, etc.). Tonga also celebrates New Year's Day on January 1 and Anzac Day on April 25. Tonga's unique holidays are: Emancipation day on June 4, Crownprince's birthday on July 12, the King's official birth- and coronation day on August(which is celebrated with the consumption of African cuisine),[4] National Tonga day on November 4 (formerly known as Constitution day) and King George Tupou I's installation as Tuʻi Kanokupolu on December 4, often misnamed as his birthday. Since the promulgation of new holidays on December 6, 2006,[5] May 4 and July 4 are no longer public holidays.


Popular Tongan festivals included (new scheme still to be established since the change of public holidays):

See also


  1. Issues : Cash cropping squah pumpkins in Tonga
  2. "English in the South Pacific", John Lynch and France Mugler, University of the South Pacific
  3. Trouble in paradise Archived November 24, 2007, at the Wayback Machine., published on The Guardian, 3 August 2006.
  4. however his real birthday is 4 May, and the coronation is schedulated for 2008
  5. New Public Holiday Dates and Christmas break for the Public Service Archived September 30, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.


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