Report by Pacific Media Centre
The gentrification of the New Zealand suburb of Ponsonby in Auckland over the past 20 years has seen the Pacific Island community’s presence overshadowed by new white, middleclass residents. Polynesian businesses disappeared in favour of cafes and boutique retail stores, but, reports Asia-Pacific Journalism, with the return of Polynesian stores to Ponsonby Central the Pacific vibe is back.
Report – by Emma Jones
Back in the 1970s, the Ponsonby grocery stores were stocked with taro, coconuts and breadfruit, the sounds of Polynesian music filled the air, and main road bustled with Pacific Island families shopping.
Today the main road of Ponsonby is lined with trendy cafes and restaurants, high end fashion boutiques and the latest music blaring form the bars. From the 1980s, the area and surrounding neighbourhoods have become populated by the white middle class squeezing out the Pacific community.
Jenny Carylon and Diana Morrow noted in their book, Urban Village, “From the 1980s Ponsonby’s multicultural and bohemian ambience had been considerably eroded as a result of gentrification, causing rising residential prices and shops catering to the white, affluent population.”
But some of Ponsonby’s Polynesian population refused to leave, and now Polynesian businesses are returning to Auckland’s trendiest suburb. Samoan-born Rasmus Pereira owns Shop Samoa selling Polynesian clothing and products, which he operates online and out of the Otara markets, but in the past week has trialled his business in a pop-up store at Ponsonby Central.
“There’s been a really good response from the Pacific Island people since we’ve been here, we’ve had a few elders coming in saying, ‘finally, we are seeing our Pacific Island people coming back to the area’.”
Pereira says that traditionally Pacific Islanders haven’t been as interested in owning businesses, and that only a small portion are successful.
“It’s a lost opportunity for our people, a lot of the Samoans around Ponsonby are either entertainers or artists and sport stars, not specifically businesses promoting Polynesian products.
Hopefully they will see that we’re trying to create a market in the mainstream and it will encourage others.”
He says that although they’ve had success in store with the local Pacific community, they have also found their products appeal to a wider market.
“It’s been going really well this week, it’s actually been mainly palagis coming in and ages range tends to be 50+. The launch in Ponsonby Central is about trying to crack the mainstream, we know to sustain the business long-term that we need to grow the customer base.”
The Pacific Island has a long history in the area, although not all Ponsonby customers seem to be aware of the heritage with Pereira’s wife Malu Luteru saying they have felt some people have questioned the place of the store in the area.
“Most people were generally friendly but we did get a few odd stares as if people were wondering what we were doing there or perhaps thinking that we shouldn’t be there, but like any business it takes time to build a new market.”
Testing the market
Kathy Johnson who distributes Mailelani Samoa, a collection of Samoan-made beauty products, is also trying out her store in Ponsonby Central to test a new market.
“I really felt this product deserved a chance in NZ, and especially as it’s a locally produced product that is totally natural. Our customers have been predominantly palagi, as the Samoans buy it when they go home – although it’s the same price here as it is there.”
Johnston, whose husband is Samoan, says she believes the Pacific Island culture can continue to thrive in and around Ponsonby.
“I think we have a great culture around this area, a lot of diversity and people are really accepting of cultures and embrace them. I think Samoan businesses should not be afraid to come in these areas, I do think that Pacific Islanders do stick a bit more to certain areas, particularly where there are a lot of Pacific people, but they shouldn’t be afraid to come into these other areas.”
Luteru agrees that there is a broader market for Polynesian products outside of South Auckland, “even though the majority of Pacific Islanders are based in South Auckland I think there are people, and not just Pacific Islanders, that appreciate Pacific Island Products, it brings something different and unique to the area.”
Pereira has enjoyed some recent exposure of his products with the All Blacks wearing his shirts during their recent test in against Manu Samoa in Samoa.
“We’ve been fortunate that they chose to wear our shirts, the brand exposure from that was amazing, we had the likes of Jerome Kaino snapchatting saying how proud he was to be wearing it. The All Blacks wearing the Samoan shirt showed a lot respect to our people.”
After the success of their week in Ponsonby Central, both Pereira and Johnston are already exploring opportunities to lease floor space again on the site. Johnston says they’ve sold more in the week than they expected to.
“It’s going well, but it’s hard getting the brand out there with such a small budget, and I have two small kids but it’s about getting out and about and trying new ideas like this.”
Pereira says he is heartened by the response so far, and wants to increase their product offering.
“We’re expanding into other Pacific Island products as well, and are looking for people who want us to drive their products – so we’ll be like the Pacific Island Amazon!”
Emma Jones is a student journalist on the Postgraduate Diploma in Journalism reporting on the Asia-Pacific journalism course at AUT University.