Shock, horror: Into Ōtāhuhu revelry with a toddler

11:38 am on 18 November 2017

By Leah Damm*

Opinion - On a good night, my three-year-old is usually in bed by 7pm and asleep by 8pm at the latest. Last Saturday though, we were super lenient.

Tongan rugby league fans have been loud and proud.

Tongan rugby league fans have been loud and proud. Photo: RNZ / Laura Tupou

In fact, about 8pm, I put her slippers on and we piled into the car. I had let her stay up with us to watch the league with her dad, who bounced around the house clapping his hands and pumping his fists when the final whistle blew.

Tonga had beaten New Zealand.

Tonga's Jason Taumalolo and Konrad Hurrell celebrate their win over the Kiwis.

Tonga's Jason Taumalolo and Konrad Hurrell celebrate their win over the Kiwis. Photo: PhotoSport

It was a stunning game. One that a sports journalist can probably do more justice in discussing. Me and my three-year-old? We just wanted to see the celebrations. We live in a cul-de-sac beside the Southern Motorway in Ōtāhuhu.

Yes, Ōtāhuhu - that place. That place you've probably heard of in the news recently, in South Auckland. Everyone knows South Auckland. It's that place where, according to a number of New Zealanders on Facebook, Pacific Islanders only come down from the trees when there's trouble to be made and brawls to be had.

Some of the comments about the celebrations following Mate Ma'a Tonga's win over New Zealand.

Some of the comments about the celebrations following Mate Ma'a Tonga's win over New Zealand. Photo: Supplied

"Deport them! Send them back!" the comments roared over on Facebook.

New Zealanders' comments on news articles about Pacific Islanders might be loaded with racism, but they really haven't evolved that much since the '70s (here's a riddle - where do islanders born in New Zealand get deported to, exactly?).

Ironically, it was only a few weeks ago that the topic of discussion going around the country was that if you're a Pacific Islander born in New Zealand you should be representing New Zealand in sport. "Defectors" and "turncoats", some Tongan players were called, after opting to represent their heritage instead of New Zealand.

"BEEP BEEP!" My daughter yelled out the open window. We had piled into the car to take a drive to witness the celebrations and maybe get a treat while we were out.

As we passed crowds and lines of cars beeping their horns, music blaring from sirens, my daughter clapped and squealed and waved at the floods of people that crowded Ōtāhuhu's main centre.

"SUPERMAN!" she yelled, pointing at all the people wearing their bright red Tongan flags like capes. She obviously felt rude that we were leaving the waving crowds behind because she called out, "Hi! Sorry guys, bye!", as we drove past them.

There were other kids out there too, entire families even. Old people. Nanas dancing, teenagers throwing their bodies around in elation, "MATE MA'A TONGA!", they crowed into the sky.

Tonga fans at Waikato Stadium.

Tonga fans at Waikato Stadium. Photo: RNZ / Laura Tupou

Sidewalks, roads and intersections - the whole suburb was abuzz with people and a sea of red flags. Police arrived quickly to help divert traffic and close off the Ōtāhuhu township entirely.

Complain all you want about people blocking the roads and being noisy, but send those complaints on to the planners who didn't adequately prepare for such eventualities.

We weren't complaining though. It was unequivocally amazing and spectacular to be witness to. Ōtāhuhu was alight with such emotion and joy and pride, there really was no escaping feeling so happy for this community.

By the time we got home a little before 9pm, we were still feeling the effects of the atmosphere. Happy, content, and proud to live here.

Now, I don't doubt that there are people who cross the line in these things. Plenty of people can't handle their alcohol and plenty of people get stupidly and unnecessarily rowdy at sports events.

But it seems like it's only certain types of fans that lead headlines and news coverage with a certain kind of 'violent - beware!' angle. And by a certain 'type' of sports fan, I mean the ones that people call "apes" while rugby fans that shut down Auckland city are just showing some good old kiwi patriotism.

Because a brawl in Ōtāhuhu will have the public warned not to come anywhere near our neighbourhood, but I don't think I've ever been warned away from Wellington during the Sevens, or Southland where people literally set stuff and sometimes even houses, on fire.

Earlier this year, Polyfest had record numbers in attendance and performers, establishing itself as an event that heralds leadership in Māori and Pacific youth, managed to score a lead spot in the 6 o'clock news. Except the coverage was of a brawl - the single incident related to the event - which happened down the road from Polyfest.

It seems to me that New Zealand wants the talents of Pacific people to help win rugby games, but are reluctant to have an honest conversation about biases in the media representations of Pacific people, and how these narratives give oxygen to people eager to call us violent thugs and "apes".

In the meantime, if there happen to be more celebrations in Ōtāhuhu this weekend (and I suspect there will be, win or lose), I am more than okay with hanging out in Ōtāhuhu with my three-year-old so she can wave to the revellers she calls Supermen.

* Leah Damm is a mum, Cook Islander, South Aucklander. She lives in Ōtāhuhu with her Samoan partner and their daughter, and has previously written for The Wireless and The Spinoff.

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