The buck stops here

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 April, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 April, 2005, 12:00am

The look is pure Los Angeles, from the bandannas and baggy shorts to the baseball caps and booming ghetto blaster.

But the gaggle of teenage girls gossiping and listening to music on a street corner in an outlying Sydney suburb is not from the US, but Tonga, one of the dozen or more South Pacific nations scattered to Australia's east. There are as many Tongans living abroad - 110,000 - as there are in the country itself. Neighbouring Samoa has also exported thousands of people overseas, particularly to Australia and New Zealand.

For years, these diasporas have worked hard in their adoptive countries, forging new lives and sending large sums of cash to their relatives at home, as is the tradition in Pacific culture.

For parents or grandparents living in a tin-roofed hut on a remote coral atoll, these regular remittances were a lifeline.

But Tongans and Samoans living in Sydney and elsewhere are now questioning why they should send their hard-earned cash to the family back home. They may never have seen the palm-fringed islands of their homeland, and they are reluctant to stump up funds for relatives they have never met. It is a big worry for Tonga in particular, because it relies on remittances for 60 per cent of its national revenue. 'Remittances are about to dry up because the second generation no longer feels Tongan,' said Bruce Hill, a Pacific analyst with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 'There's a big Tongan population in California and Utah, and in the US, you just don't give away half your income. A big cultural change is happening.'

A prominent Tongan-American, Richard Woolfgram, says that Tongans regard their relatives overseas as wealthy, whereas by Australian or American standards, they are just managing to scrape along.

They are certainly not rich enough to send back large amounts of money to their homeland. 'The reality for many of us is that it's hard to provide for ourselves, let alone take care of someone else,' said Mr Woolfgram.

The Tongan royal family, one of the last absolutist monarchies in the world, tries to put a positive spin on the trend. Crown Prince Tupouto'a, 56, the British-educated heir to the throne, says that Tongans living abroad may baulk at sending remittances, but they are starting to invest in the archipelago, instead. That may be so, but many other expat Tongans are choosing to invest their money in their adopted homes in Sydney, Auckland or Salt Lake City, rather than the land of their forefathers.

Like the girls on the street corner with their boom box and Australian accents, they are dancing to an entirely different tune.