The King and I
I first met the King in the 1960s in the days when his grandmother Queen Salote III was alive. It was at the opening of the Tungi Arcade in Taufa'ahau Road. He was not long returned from Sandhurst and he would not let me leave until we had finished a bottle of whiskey together. The next day he went surfing. I stayed in bed.
The last time we met was in the Nuku'alofa Club in the late 1990s. I was drinking with Karl Riechelmann when he arrived and walked over. Karl greeted him and asked if he remembered me. He looked at me for a second or so and then said "Walsh."
Yes, he remembered me, and much later when he'd driven me out for a very late dinner at this country home, we talked of how things had been back in the 1960s. He told me of the girl he had wanted to marry and of his family's objection to the match. And of how his father, then Prince Tungi and Prime Minister, had opposed a move to have me deported. This was news to me. What for, I asked. For teaching communism to your students at Tonga High School, he replied, to which I responded Nonsense! Who said such things? You'd be surprised, he said. People you thought were your friends. I could only surmise it was an expat envious of our teacher salaries, but I never found out.
"My father stopped it. He told them, 'We need people like Walsh. He helps our students to think.'"
I can think of no greater compliment.
I have ambivalent feelings about royalty but I made an exception of the Tongan royal family. Queen Salote was reputed to know every family in the Kingdom and was truly loved by her people. Her funeral was one of the most impressive and most moving events I have attended. Her son and grandson were less obviously accessible to the general public. Both could be classed as eccentric —a privilege of royalty— but both were wise enough to bring about changes that better equipped Tonga to survive in peace in the modern world. In this they continued the tradition of King George Tupou I whose diplomacy maintained Tongan independence when England, France, Germany and America were building their Pacific empires.
I think I detected a touch of loneliness and sadness in the King but he was a kind and feeling man, as the following story well tells. It stands in itself as a tribute to the man inside the king.
The King and Tae
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
The late King George Tupou V visiting Tae Kami still dressed in his coronation attire in 2008. MATT Wilson, public affairs consultant and writer, attended the coronation of the late King George Tupou V in 2008. The King died suddenly at the weekend plunging the Kingdom into mourning. Mr Wilson recounts here how during the Coronation celebrations, the King presented at the Royal Palace the first awards in a new national honours system. Then the King abandoned the official program:
Still in military greatcoat with sash, decorations and white gloves, His Majesty asked to be driven to a house on Sipu Street. This was the residence of Taholo and Sina Kami, and their daughters Joy, Mia and Tae. What happened there became a defining moment.
The mystique of royalty dissolved to be replaced by the King's innate humanity. This was the monarch, as he had never been seen before in public ù kindly, compassionate, emotional and full of tenderness.
Fifteen-year-old Tae was dying from a disfiguring cancer that had spread from her face to her lungs and spine. The entire kingdom had adopted this suffering child of Nuku'alofa. She had become the beloved daughter of all Tongans. They followed Tae's valiant battle with the disease as it was reported in the media.
Through her personal website, Tae recounted her experience, her thoughts, her pain and her faith. She was sorry she was a burden to her family and wanted to be a better daughter. She also felt she was fulfilling God's will and purpose through the mystery of His ways. She therefore thought her cancer was a blessing and could not wait to go to heaven to be with her Saviour, Jesus Christ.
People came in large numbers to visit Tae; many were awed and humbled by her courage, and wisdom beyond her years, and the trust she placed in her Lord. They were inspired by the prayers and blessings she offered for them.
Tae wrote a song, Walk On, Walk Strong, and recorded it accompanying herself on guitar. It became an anthem, and an inspiration.
King George had closely followed Tae's story. They had been scheduled to meet in May when he held a charity concert for Tonga's Child Cancer Foundation. (It raised $20,000 to meet the medical and additional needs of Tae and other sufferers.) Tae wanted very much to be present to sing her composition as a tribute to her Monarch. She was about to leave for the concert with her parents, when she was hit by severe pain. She could not attend.
His Majesty, meanwhile, looked for Tae at the function. Someone whispered to him that she was not there. In her absence, King George listened to the CD of Walk On, Walk Strong.
Just before his coronation, King George decided to include Tae in his honours list. It was unprecedented for someone so young to be recognised in this way. To the King, Tae exemplified the best traits of the Tongan character. She was a beacon for the kingdom, a rallying point for the community of love, and Christian strength and belief. She richly deserved a royal accolade ù and there was not much time.
When he arrived at her home from the Palace investiture Tae was waiting. She lay, pale and frail, in a reclining chair in the lounge, surrounded by giant teddy bears. Her eyes shone when the King entered the room. Smiling, he went straight to Tae and kissed her on the forehead. Beside her was a new computer, a gift from the Monarch. She expressed her gratitude.
Sitting in a chair close to her, King George told Tae she had been very brave. He wanted to give her a medal in recognition of this. He had intended to present it to her at the Coronation the next day but knew she might not be able to make it if she was not feeling well. He had therefore brought the award to her.
Tae said it was an honour to have the King in her home.
The Monarch took from a side table a red presentation box containing the medal. He rose from his chair and handed it to her. The child looked at it and said: "Thank you so much."
"Not at all, darling," he replied softly, with a slight catch in his voice. "I wish you a pleasant day and hope you have a rest."
Tae murmured a response and again thanked His Majesty. She said she was very grateful he had visited, for she knew just how busy he was.
"Not at all," said the King. "This house is on my way home and I passed anyway, so I thought I would drop in."
Tae again thanked King George for his gift of the medal, saying it was an honour to receive it. She said she would like to sing for him.
Strumming her guitar with slender fingers, Tae expressed her farewell with a rendition of Walk On, Walk Strong. Sina, her mother, supported Tae with a loving arm around her shoulders.
Her daughter's voice was weak, but her aura was bright.
The King's struggle with his emotions was written on his face. He wiped his eyes with his handkerchief. A tear trickled down his right cheek.
As she sang the last verse, with its final call to Walk On, Walk Strong, Tae's voice gathered strength and she looked directly at the King, with a smile. The exhortation was for him.
King George said the song was beautiful and thanked Tae for singing it for him. It was probably time, he said, for Tae to have her lunch and a rest.
Tae, her voice low, described her performance as a gift to the King for his coronation. The King said this was the nicest gift anyone had ever given him.
He kissed her again on the forehead. "Goodbye my dear," he said. "I'll call around to see you again."
Tae offered him congratulations and wished him all the best.
Later Tae said she was a little embarrassed because the King had been kept waiting while she tuned her guitar. "It was a very special visit," she said. "His Majesty was very patient. Eventually I got the tuning right. All went well."
Tae Kami passed away at home at 11.40pm on August 16.
The King was told the next day while he was at Vava'u. He announced to close family and friends accompanying him that his friend Tae had died. She had been a person of courage and honour.
Tae's funeral service took place at the Centenary Church where King George had been crowned. Three thousand mourners attended.
* Footnote: The King himself was diagnosed with cancer last year. Tae's parents, Taholo and Sina Kami, who live in Suva, sent him a message of support. They said the King's visit to Tae meant so much to her and to them. They quoted from the lyrics of Tae's song Walk On Walk Strong: "the storm won't last too long, walk on, walk strong; when everything seems wrong, hold on, walk on". The King deeply appreciated their sentiments.
Matt Wilson, who met Tae, is now chairman of the WOWS committee for child cancer relief. It is named for Walk On Walk Strong.