Yvonne Chung: Expert South Pacific Guide | Mother | Grandmother | Tahitian
Coco: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Before we start, I want to ask you about your haku lei?
I bought it at the handicraft exhibit. People that made it are from the Austral Islands. The French Polynesian Island are made of 5 groups. We are in Tahiti, in the Society Island. To the north we have the Tuamotu, which are all atolls. To the north we have the Marquesas Islands. The east we have the Gambiers Islands and to the south we have the Austral Islands. The Austral Island are already in the temperate climate. They almost don’t have any coconut trees. Austral Island are the most south. In Rapa Iti, where I found my haku (head lei) they have apples, peaches and strawberries, so the vegetation is very different. They are so isolated. That is one thing I admire in Polynesia, people are so resourceful. They will figure out some solution. Maybe because they are so isolated, they have to figure it out by themselves. The lady that sold this to me told me that this lei was made out of lilikoi leaves that were dried.
Tell me about your necklace.
Oh this is a precious one. I bought it about 20 years ago in the Marquesas Island. They are Maco Shark (Tiger shark) teeth. They are now illegal. At that time I bought it for a really high price for $400. I said to myself. You might not find another one. They were selling pendants for $60-$70 and here we have many teeth, I never counted, but many. Everyone thought I was crazy. But now I am really glad I bought it because you can’t get it anymore. I can’t leave the country with it because it’s illegal. I love it.
Well It’s so beautiful!
Actually, there is something I want to tell you. Last year, something strange or I should say interesting, happened. I had an interview at the market for Tara Expeditions. Tara, the boat, was owned by the first New Zealand skipper that won the America’s cup, Pier Blake. He was very into protecting Mother Nature. He happened to be murdered in an expedition in the Amazon. After his death a group of people interested in protecting Mother Nature as well, bought the boat. Last year they were traveling throughout the world ending up in French Polynesia in July and August. They wanted to visit the remote islands, the Tuamotus, and the Marquesas. The filmmakers with this group met me and asked to interview me. During the interview I noticed someone watching me. I was wondering, what does he want, why is he watching me? When there was a break he came up to me and asked to make a portrait of me. I was like, “Huh? Really?” He was here for the Graphic Arts Festival and he had a paint a portrait on a wall in Papeete. I told him “You should look for someone younger and prettier, I am a Grandma.” He said “No, I would like to paint you.” I told him it would not be possible, I was going to Maui to be with my family. He said it was not a problem. “I will take photographs of you and then I will make a portrait of you from the image.” I said “Ok, do what you want.” I didn’t really pay too much attention. So he took my picture, As time went by, I forgot about it until someone called me and asked me, “did you see your portrait?” I said, “Portrait, where?” She said, “Here, in town, a huge mural!” I was like “Wow.”
So the artist is Australian, and he is wonderful. He did Abaragine portraits and Indonesian portraits. Absolutely beautiful. I was in shock. I found out later that the portrait of me was on the side of a building that was on land my parents used to live on. Life is funny. So my first pictures of my childhood were taken in this house and now it just so happens this big portrait is there of me.
When will the Tara Interview be coming out?
The interview for Tara Expeditions will be coming out in June, so I guess I will be on TV.
My sister just called me and said, “I think you portrait is in a French Magazine called Geo.” They have a special issue for French Polynesia and they are featuring the Graphic Arts Festival. So here I am under the spotlight again, without wanting to be.
Can you tell us about your childhood?
I had a wonderful childhood.
Did you grow up in Tahiti?
I grew up in Papeete, I was born in Papeete. My parents were born in Papeete. On my Mother’s side, my Grandma was born in Tahiti and my Grandpa was born in China. On my Mother’s side I am a 4th generation Tahitian, on my Father’s side I am 3rd generation. My Grandparents that came from China came here around 1920. My father was born in 1922.
Are you pure Chinese?
Yes. People say I can’t be pure Chinese. They think I am part Tahitian, but actually when you see the portrait of my Father he looks part Tahitian. Some how, he blended in.
Did he come to work in the plantation fields?
No, the plantation fields were from 1865-1867. It was at the time of the American civil war. The world was running out of cotton. It was an English plant. They decided to make a coffee, cotton and sugarcane plantation on this land. The plantation was located where the golf course is now. Now there is one part of the land that people are still planting sugarcane. On Sundays you can go and have a nice glass of sugarcane juice at the market and they also make rum. It’s the Rum called Tamure Rum de Tahiti, you can find it at the grocery store.
Tell us about your profession? What profession are you in?
Sometimes I get embarrassed when I have to write my resume. It looks like I am a veteran of the war.
I went to France after I graduated from high school. Someone thought I should go and study marketing. I had no interest in marketing. So after 2 years in marketing, I said, “definitely no”. So at that time, I wanted to get a position, work and start making money. I started as an executive secretary with knowledge of English and Spanish. (I studied Spanish more that 10 years. The Spanish didn’t stick but the English did.)
Eventually I came back from France and I worked for a Tahitian travel agency and an airline. I stayed at the airline for three years. After three years, Tahiti was too small for me, to boring, so I went back to France. I worked two years at an airline as a VIP hostess. Then my parents needed me to come back so I came back to Tahiti. I knew someone that was related to Marlon Brando. He told me, “There was a position and I think you would be perfect.” So I worked two years for Marlon Brando while he was developing his Atoll, Tetiaroa, and the first hotel. It was great but after a few years I realized I couldn’t work for Americans, they are to unpredictable. I loved him but one day it’s was green, the next day it’s red, and the next yellow. I am in a way quite rational. But he really liked me. He said, “you don’t understand”, he said, “the world is like a big theater, you put people in situations and you watch them.” I said “that is really cruel of you.” So after two years, I said no.
I went to the Museum of Tahiti. There was a position over there. And actually that is what I liked and really enjoyed. I worked at the Museum while I had Moehau and Kahaia, my first 2 daughters. Then their father wanted to move to Raiatea because of the surf. So we moved to Raiatea. We lived there for 2 years before I was offered a position as a substitute at the high school. I was a substitute teacher for 3 or 4 years until we moved to Bora Bora.
My husband had bought a fishing boat and was doing charters. Raiatea isn’t that good for tourism but Bora Bora is. The hotels in Bora Bora needed charter boats. So we were on the road again. In Bora Bora I worked for hotels, which was ok until I was asked to teach at the junior high school. There I started teaching english. At the same time I was asked to work at the travel agency. The Paul Gauguin cruise ship needed me to coordinate all the stops on all the islands. So I worked on the Paul Gauguin for two years. We went to Raiatea, Papeete, Bora Bora, Tahaa, Moorea.
My husband was not happy about me working this much, he wanted me to focus on him. I told him, “I have plans and if you’re not in my plans, sorry, chao”. So about 15 years ago I left and went back to Tahiti. Went to the university and studied Polynesia culture. I think the love for learning and teaching Polynesian culture came about when I was working at the Museum. I went to the University of Tahiti. They had special training for people that wanted to be a guide. We had classes about nature, classes about history, geography, of the South Pacific not just French Polynesia, sociology, archaeology and the culture. That was exactly what I wanted to do. From there I went guiding and things like that. I really, really enjoy it.
So at that point did you work for yourself?
I am a freelance guide.
What type of clients do you have an how do they find you?
Actually, they don’t find me. I work for a travel agency. When they have groups and when they have people that request specific needs the travel agencies call me. I am used to go to all the islands. I go to Marquesas Islands, Moorea, etc. Depending on the needs. Sometimes we have groups up to 200 persons. So they have to divide them into groups. If they need someone in Moorea or Bora Bora they will send me there. When I was working for the cruise ship there were other cruise ships that had the same needs. I would be on board the ships to Bora Bora, Raiatea, Fakarava, Rangiroa, Marqueses, where ever I was needed.
So it’s been about 15 years that you have been doing this?
What an exciting job. It’s always different.
It is always different. I say, “I am working a little bit ala carte”, you pick what you want.
How did you acquire this knowledge of Tahiti.
The classes at the University. Every time I went to class I realized I knew nothing. So I always found myself at the library reading and learning. And of course now you have the internet. Nowadays when I have a question I ask the internet.
It seems like all of your life experiences have been guiding you to this profession. The airlines, your studies, living in Raiatea, and Bora Bora. It all seems like it has lead you to this job.
We want to ask you a guide question. We have heard that there is a rock here called Pele’s rock. Do you know of it?
I don’t specifically know about Pele’s rock. But the village of Papenoo is the valley of Pele. They say that Pele left from Papenoo. But people from Bora Bora say Pele left from Bora Bora. I think it makes sense because from what I read the people that are in Papenoo valley came from Bora Bora. They say that at the beginning Gods were humans. Most of the Gods, Maui, Tafa’i and of course Pele they were real people. When they died they became deities, becoming Gods. Hilo is an example, the area on the big island of Hawaii. Hilo in Hawaii was a place named after the Tahitian Hiro, God of Thieves. He was a chief from Tahaa, his father was a chief from Bora Bora.
So it’s all interconnected the Hawaiian legends and Gods and the Tahitian?
Yes, you have Maui and Kahai, goddess of the sea etc. You have to kind of dig into the history to find the person and later you can find the relating deity.
We would like to ask you some personal questions. What’s your favorite past time?
I like my garden, and I like sewing. Those are my two big time hobbies. And now that I have the three little girls (granddaughters) I love to make them little things.
Is it customary for women to sew in Tahiti to make their clothes?
Where do you currently live?
Fa’a, above the airport.
Tell us about your house and building it.
I am actually quiet proud of my house. I had the land, and my ex-husband wasn’t interested in the land. I was given the land, so I am not going to be picky about it. He was not interested in it so when we separated, I kept the land.
The girls (my daughters) helped me a lot. I was also very lucky. My neighbor next door called me, (before I was living here), and said he needed 3 meters down at the lower end of your lot. He didn’t have enough to build his road. He asked if I would give the 3 meters up below and he would give me 3 meters at the top of the land. So I said yes and we met to sign the documents. When he saw that I was by myself he wanted to help me and offered to his help if I ever needed. He had all the heavy construction machines doing his build. The land at that time wasn’t that great, it was on a steep hill. When he cut into the mountain and removed soil on his land, he asked if i wanted him to fill my lot with the dirt. He did it all for me. When I needed a fence, and asked if he could suggest workers. He said buy me the materials and pay the workers and I will supervise. And that’s what he did. When I tell people how much I paid for certain parts of the project, they are shocked. His help save me a lot of money. He helped me through the entire project and I got me my house. It’s a small simple house with 2 simple rooms, living room and kitchen. But I am very happy and proud of my house.
Is there a person who is an inspiration for you?
Yes, my dad. When he passed away he was only 58. He had lung cancer. He is my inspiration. Every time I have a problem I feel him standing next to me saying, “It will be ok. You’re a smart chick, you will figure it out.” That gives me confidence that I can’t do wrong and to just go. He was ahead of his time. He didn’t get a chance to go to school. He didn’t finish high school. He came from a family with four brothers. When my grandparents left China they left one son and two daughters. When they came to Tahiti they had my two uncles, my dad and my aunt. My father was kind of the brain of the group. When he saw my younger uncle was smart, even though they were not rich, my father said we need to send him to school. So my uncle went to France to study engineering. My mom was also a person that help my father a lot. My father told me he learned English during the war by listening of the radio. For a man of his generation he spoke really good English.
My mom didn’t get to go to school. She did not finish elementary. They opened a shop but she didn’t speak English. So when tourist would come by she would have to get my father to translate. She decided she needed to learn English and now she is 90 and speaks pretty good English. People are really impressed by her. She went to classes and learned. Her English teacher is the owner of Restaurant Gauguin. Sometimes I take people there on tours and he always asked me about my mom. He says she knew nothing when she came to him. He was impressed by her.
What do you hope to perpetuate with your trade?
I have to say that I wish I would have young people interested in guiding and come and learn from me. I have had the agency send people to learn from me. I would like to encourage more young people to get interested in guiding and learning the culture.
What is your favorite thing about the Tahitian culture.
Whatever happens in your life, don’t forget to keep smiling. This is the way genuine Polynesians. I think that Polynesians are very resilient.
If you had a life message for others,what would it be.
I would say keep smiling. Sometimes problems can take you down. You can not control the downs in life. If you really want you can come up. You can choose to go up, up, up. When bad things happen, in a way, you have to go with the flow. If you fight, fight, you lose your energy. When you go with the flow at some point, things will change. Things will have to go back up.
Well Yvonne thank you very for spending this this time with us.
Yvonne Chung Interview : Expert French Polynesia and South Pacific Guide
Feb 18, 2017