As of the 2010 census there were 57,183 Tongans living in the US, making them the fourth largest Pacific Islander group after Hawaiians, Samoans, and Chamorros. 22,893 Tongans then lived in California, with 6,489 calling the Inland Empire, Orange, or Los Angeles County home. In Los Angeles, the communities of Carson, Hawthorne, Long Beach, and Lennox are where most local Tongans are found, although there are few obvious signs of their presence and no enclave official or otherwise.
The Kingdom of Tonga (Puleʻanga Fakatuʻi ʻo Tonga) is an archipelago comprised of 169 islands, 36 of which are inhabited. It has a population roughly 103,000 people, the majority of whom live on the main island, Tongatapu. The capital and largest city, Nuku’alofa, is home to about 25,000 Tongans.
The ancestors of modern Tongans are believed to have arrived on the archipelago between 1500 and 1000 BCE. The Tuʻi Tonga Empire arose around 950 CE and reached its largest expanse around between 1200 and 1500. The first Europeans to visit the islands were Dutch explorers Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire, who passed through in 1616. James Cook visited Tonga several times in the 1770s and referred to them as the “Friendly Isles” — before meeting his untimely end at the hands of Hawaiians.
The first Christian missionaries arrived in 1797 and today Christianity continues to play a major role in the lives of most Tongans. The Free Wesleyan Church of Tonga is the state church and 90% of Tongans practice a form of Christianity. Tonga was unified by Taufa’ahau, who converted to Methodism and took the title King George Tupou I in 1845. The independent Tonga became a British Protectorate during World War II. Full independence was only restored in 1970.
Significant numbers of Tongans began arriving to the US around the same time although by 1980 there were only 6,200 counted Tongan-Americans. The Mormon church played a huge role in encouraging Tongan immigration and in the 1980s, Tongan immigration rose 184%. Most settled in the South Bay, South Los Angeles, and Harbor areas where many found work as caregivers or employees at Los Angeles International Airport.
TONGAN CULTURE IN LOS ANGELES
Most Tongans observe Christian observances and additionally, the traditional New Year’s Day (“Ta’u Fo’ou”), the first communion-like “Faka Me,” and on 4 June, Tonga Emancipation Day. There are few official public displays of Tongan culture in Los Angeles, although the Aquarium of the Pacific’s annual Pacific Islander Festival promotes the culture of all Pacific Islanders, including Tongans.
Traditionally, Tongans are organized around large family clans known as “kainga,” and that tightly-knit tribalism is evident in several Tongan organizations, most visibly in Tongan churches, which locally include Free Church of Tonga (with congregations in Century Palms and Riverside), Lennox Tongan United Methodist Church (in Lennox), Free Wesleyan Church Tonga (Inglewood), and formerly, North Hollywood‘s Los Angeles Tongan Seventh-Day Adventist Church.
A south side Inglewood neighborhood bordering Lennox is claimed by the mostly Tongan gang, the Tonga Crips, whose founders were formerly Raymond Avenue Crips and whose members refer to the neighborhood as “Inglewatts.” In 1989, a Tongan Crip Gang click formed in the capital of Mormonism, Salt Lake City.
Less questionable organizations serving the Tongan community include the Tongan Community Service Center, founded in Hawthorne in 1988, the Saturday Tongan Education Program, founded by Pomona College’s Asian American Resource Center, and the Tongan American Youth Foundation.
Prominent local Tongans include Ofa Tulikihihifo, the all-time leading basketball scorer for California State University, Northridge and the LAFD’s first Tongan firefighter, and former NFLer Chris Ma’umalanga, who organized the Tonga High School Conference at California State University, Dominguez Hills to help combat high dropout rates in the community.
I suppose it should come as no surprise that local Tongan music makers include the Inglewood Crips, the members of which include Tongan Crips. The highest profile Tongan-American musical group were Minnesota’s family act The Jets, initially comprised of the eight eldest siblings in a family of nineteen(!) Traditional Tongan music is closely tied to dance, especially the formal lakalaka. Other genres of music and dance include siva kakala, kailao, ma’ulu’ulu, me’etu’upaki, and tau’olunga.
Traditionally, Tongans cooked a midday meal in earthen ovens and then ate leftovers at night and the next morning. Meals usually consisted of bananas, breadfruit, coconuts, fish, taro, yams, and raw shellfish. Pigs were eaten on special occasions. A popular beverage is kava, a drink with sedative, anesthetic, euphoriant, and entheogenic properties.
Post-contact culinary inventions include ‘otai (a drink made from coconut and watermelon), topai (boiled doughboys served with syrup and coconut milk), and hopi (home brew made from water, sugar, yeast, and fruit). Highly processed, super caloric, un-nutritious imports like white bread, soda, mutton flaps, crackers, corned beef, and Spam are also popular and not coincidentally, 90% of Tongans are currently overweight, with 58% classified as obese, making it one of the most obesity-plagued cultures on earth.
A search for Tongan restaurants in Los Angeles usually yields Tonga Hut, a wonderful if not-even-remotely-Tongan tiki bar in the San Fernando Valley. Lennox’s El Zorro Market has a dedicated Tongan section, featuring kapa pulu (canned corned beef), kapa ika (canned fish), kapa niu (coconut milk), sipi (lamb), kumala (sweet potato), rice noodles, and ma pakupaku (breakfast crackers). Someone, it seems, needs to open a Tongan restaurant!
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, Boom: A Journal of California, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Click here to offer financial support and thank you!