Why do Tongans find Jonah hard to stomach asks Netane Siuhengalu
The small familial procession sang softly as Jonah farewelled each person. He was ready to return to Sydney. As his family watched, Jonah boarded the small plane, excitement building as the prospect of his homecoming loomed.
With the small round window of the aircraft in sight, Jonah pulls his pants down and presses his bare rump against the glass as his cousins, aunts and uncles look on. Viewers across Australia and the world look on.
Actor Chris Lilley flaunts his personal portrayal in the face of the Tongan community.
Some laugh. Many don’t.
Prior to its release on ABC television and iView online, Jonah From Tonga drew both praise and condemnation. Tensions emerged as to whether this was clever satirical comment or degrading racial stereotyping. Was Lilley a genius of character acting or a misinformed racist? The issue is more complex than choosing one or the other.
Rosalyn Uaniva Havea is principal of the Tongan Language School based in the Sydney suburb of Beverly Hills. As a proponent of Tongan culture and tradition, she immediately made her voice heard to the ABC, Fairfax Media, News Corp, crikey.com.au, radio and social media.
“I was very insulted. I found it highly offensive,” she said. “I think the vulgarity of the language and the disrespect of the culture and our spirituality was clear.”
Havea recalls a scene from the first episode. Jonah and his younger brother Moses are playing during family prayers and their father begins shouting and swearing at them.
“We don’t do that!” Havea said. “It violates that taboo relationship within the family, the relationship with the father, because he’s the chief of the family, and the respect between brothers and sisters.”
From the opening sequence, filmed in Tonga, Havea points out significant flaws in the translation of the Tongan language. Jonah’s uncle retorts, “kuo u fiu au he tamasi’i”, which translates to “I’ve had enough of the boy”, but was subtitled to say, “he’s a f-ing idiot!”
“The language was taken and ‘bastardised’ to suit their way,” Havea said.
The ABC responded to Havea and proceeded to explain this was a satire. They were within their guidelines. Chris Lilley is a good actor.
While Havea conceded that Lilley was talented, the price of inaccurate representation was her concern.
“That is just a percentage of our people that are like that,” she said. “We do know that there is a problem there, but we’re handling it the best way we can. It’s not to be mocked or made fun of.”
Professor Helen Lee is the Head of La Trobe University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology. She has spent over 20 years researching Tongan society, focusing on the youth Diaspora and cultural identity.
“I think Tongans will feel even more marginalised and discriminated against than they already do,” she said. “I think the younger kids might think it’s funny and perhaps even imitate Jonah without realising what they’re doing.”
It is anticipated that the “largely inaccurate” representation will impede on public perceptions of Pacific Islanders.
“It will reinforce stereotypes that are already there of Tongan males being violent, Tongans not being good at school etc,” she said. “It certainly won’t improve perceptions of Tongan parents, with the father constantly swearing and threatening to hit Jonah.”
Professor Lee explained that Jonah’s sexual references aimed at his sister and swearing at his father are “extremely offensive” and taboo to Tongans.
“Anybody watching the show who does not know Tongan culture would not even realise how offensive this is, so why have it in the show? It can only be in there to offend Tongans!”
But Professor Lee acknowledged one positive effect.
“I think Tongans themselves have had a lot to say about the program,” she points out, “with all the young Tongans on Youtube showing the world how proud they are of their identity and refusing to accept the Jonah image.”
Tongan performance artist Latai Taumoepeau said the first problem she has with Chris Lilley is ‘blackface’. “Second to that are more complex arguments within myself about the satire itself, his choices, his processes, the consultants he approached.”
Taumoepeau agreed that satire should be risky and discomforting but she questioned whether targeting the Tongan community was really a risk or whether it was the safe choice.
“The first time we see a program where the central character is of Tongan heritage, why does it have to be a non-Tongan?” she questioned. “Is it because it’s not actually about Tongans? Also, why didn’t he go for more outspoken or riskier minority groups? Why didn’t he go for the indigenous Australians?”
Taumoepeau was clearly perplexed about a member of the dominant culture portraying a minority group.
“I wonder what it would have been like if it wasn’t him playing that.
“Maybe there might have been another level to how we might be able to perceive it. Right now we’re just really angry.”
As emotions simmered, Taumoepeau did commend the discourse within the community. Whether, anger, sadness or contemplation is the response to Jonah, many questions are raised concerning race relations and minority groups in Australia.
Having watched the series, it is possible to empathise with Jonah. His mum died when he was six. His love for his younger brother is tangible. But obvious obstacles make Lilley’s portrayal difficult to stomach.
After finding out I was Tongan, a university tutor jokingly asked, “Are you a rugby player?” I replied, “No” to which he asked, “Are you a bouncer?” Suppressed giggles rippled through the classroom.
Stereotypes will continue to be a widely perpetuated phenomenon. Often, a cause for ridicule; always, a cause for labelling.
Perhaps all we can do is swallow it.