New Caledonia: France in the Pacific

On Friday, I flew Air Vanuatu from Port Vila to Noumea, capital of the French Overseas Territory of New Caledonia (NC).  It was a smalish plane – about 80% full. Most of the passengers were French of NC dropping by Vanuatu for a short trip. Views from the flight over NC was spectacular. Reef and islands, followed by mountains that rose quickly and almost vertically from the coast and then slope gently down to the southern coastal plains with its rivers, mud flats and mangrove swamps. 

Noumea’s Tontouta International Airport, like many of the Pacific’s airports, was first built by the Americans during WWII. As the premier airport for the French overseas territory of New Caledonia, the French had invested huge sums to turn this into a huge, modern structure of steel and glass, albeit with French style and taste of aesthetics. Clearing immigration and customs was easy. Unlike clearing immigration at many third world countries, I have never been subject to difficult questions (or any at all) at the airports of French overseas territories, even including those in remote corners where Singapore visitors are scarce.  And I’m glad the ATM here at worked (unlike those in Vanuatu)!  The tourist info counter people and airport post office were also friendly and helpful.  Vive La France!

The only problem here is cost.  Everything in French territories, whether in South America, Africa/Indian Ocean or here in the Pacific, is expensive. The British are done with their empire and are less keen in over-splurging on their remaining colonies (mostly tiny islands in the Caribbean and the Atlantic).  Hence prices in British colonies which have third world economies would resemble third world prices.  But France believes that the tricolour of the Republic still flies round the world. 

Living standards and salaries of French territories are pegged to those of Metro France, no matter the state of development of local economies. As such, you pay French prices in all French territories and colonies.  That is also why, the state of productive economy in these places remain as backward as ever.  Who wants to set up factories in these French territories if costs are European standards but productivity aren’t?  If the inhabitants are unemployed, they receive French unemployment benefits anyway.  Some say these are ploys to keep the colonies happy, such that they would stay French and stay where they are, instead of moving to Metro France.  In any case, the local population is small and the cost of such subsidies not prohibitive to the average French taxpayer.  Even then, there is some degree of local agitation for independence, in places such as New Caledonia and French Polynesia, though the bulk of the local population is probably more happy to stay French than to opt for an uncertain future as independent states.

Tontouta Airport is 45km from Noumea.  A taxi ride to town would have cost S$150 (XPF 11000).  Even a tourist shuttle bus costs S$45 (XPF 3000).  On the advice of the tourist office, I took a bus which costs S$4.5 (XPF 300) instead for the hour ride.  The evidence of French investment is everywhere, from the modern coach to the impressive motorway.  The ride was pleasant, passing through a green landscape flanked by brown mountain slopes to the east.  Even the climate was pleasantly temperate, closer to Brisbane’s moderate cool than Port Moresby’s tropical humidity.

New Caledonia is a huge island – the third largest archipelago in the South Pacific (after New Zealand and New Guinea), and around it is a lagoon that the locals say is the world’s largest, itself formed by one of the largest reef systems in the world after Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.  The lagoon and the reef system have been proclaimed an UNESCO World Heritage Site.  New Caledonia has a surface area of 18,000 sq km but only 300,000 inhabitants.  That’s 26 times the size of Singapore but only the population of Tampines.  45% of the inhabitants are the indigenous Melanesians (who are of black complexion similar to the people of Vanautu, PNG and Solomons) who speak 24 languages and are collectively known as Kanaks.  35% are French-Europeans and the remaining include 20,000 Wallisians and Futunans (who are essentially Polynesians and look somewhat like Malays and Javanese) and many Chinese and Vietnamese.  More importantly, it produces 25% of the world’s nickel, which may be why many Frenchmen and businesses are loathed to giving the territory up.

Have I mentioned the huge CFP Franc banknotes?  What a blast from history! They look exactly like the old franc banknotes with oil paintings on them.  These carry scenes of everyday life and symbols in New Caledonia and French Polynesia.  The CFP Franc, which is used in New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Wallis and Futuna, is pegged to the euro.

Noumea is a city with a reputation that exceeds its size of merely 100,000 inhabitants.  It was once a remote colonial outpost which gained prominence as HQ of US forces in the South Pacific during WWII.  Since then, it has become a major port of call for luxury yachts in the Pacific and a place known for fine French dining.  I got off the bus at the northern corner of the city centre.  The streets are clean but the architecture not outstanding.  With plain squarish concrete blocks and uniform grid like patterns for its roads, Noumea looks like a regional offshoot of the 1960s and 1970s French urban utilitarian style that one sees in Fort de France (Martinique), St Denis (Reunion) and the outer suburbs of Paris. 

I dragged my trollied luggage past the pretty city-heart square, Place des Cocotiers, and then climbed 100 steps up a hill slope not far from the square’s northeast corner, to arrive at Noumea’s Youth Hostel.  After spending a bomb on air fares, I am reluctant to shell out over US$100 for simple lodging in the far southern suburbs of Noumea.  The youth hostel provides simple no-frills rooms for US$40 and that is where I would stay the next few days.  Internet here costs US$2 per hour compared to US$10 in town.  The only downside is the tiring climb uphill but 100 steps are manageable and that brings you right to the centre of town.

After settling down, I walked around the rather quiet downtown – yes, quiet even on a weekday – can’t imagine what it would be like over the weekend.  I have to remind myself that this is a country with a population about that of Tampines but many times larger than Singapore.  Noumea thrives on tourism, specifically higher end tourism, either of French, Australian or Japanese tourists.  The tourism board prints lots of brochures in multiple languages, and there are signboards on the brief history of various historical building in French, English and Japanese.  There is a wide range of tourist merchandise available but they are all fairly expensive.  The average souvenir t-shirt costs US$20.

Next to the main city square is Chinatown, where shops appeared to be mainly run by Vietnamese, many of whom are of Chinese descent.  Few if any are from Mainland Chinese, in contrast to the huge Mainland China diaspora seen across the rest of the Pacific.  Most of the Vietnamese came in the 1970s and 1980s as “Boat People” refugees and were settled in this French possession.  Thirty years on, many of these Vietnamese have become relatively French-assimilated in their lifestyle, and I’ve seen them speaking French instead of Vietnamese with each other.  Those of Chinese-Vietnamese descent have largely also forsaken their Chinese, which explains why there are very few Chinese language signboards in this Chinatown.  Neither is there any pavilions or Chinese gateway as well.

Many of the shops in Chinatown sell everyday items such as apparel and groceries; there are also cafes or eateries that sell the NC version of Vietnamese-Chinese food, i.e., with Vietnamese springroll and all.  I went to a restaurant that appears to be popular, Oriental Express, and managed to find the manageress and another staff that could speak Mandarin (the other staff were mainly Melanesian/Kanak) and had a plate of wonderful seafood noodle.  Fresh prawns and scallops included… about US$15. 

I dropped by the post office’s philatelic bureau and a nice chat with the pretty lady of Vietnamese descent running the office.  Bought some postcards of NC and stamps of Wallis and Futuna too.  I also visited the US War Memorial nearby.  Hundreds of thousands of US troops had passed through Noumea during WWII, on their way to fight the Japanese in Solomons and PNG.  The presence of such huge numbers of US troops had a tremendous impact on the South Pacific.  Whereas the islanders of the region had only come across the occasional European merchant and colonial administrator, the WWII brought such large numbers of US troops comparable to their native population. For the first time, the locals also saw such large numbers of air planes, aircraft carriers and battleships, tanks, and heavy military equipment of any kind.  The sudden appearance of such military and industrial might, together with new income bestowed on the islanders for various support services gave rise to the cargo cult that exists even today in several remote communities in PNG and Vanatu, whereby the locals believe that An American soldier (usually black) would return one day bringing more “cargo” (i.e., equipment and food) and untold wealth to the islands again.

The Americans also brought their own food, and for the first time, introduced canned food to the local population.  What the Americans saw as combat rations, the Islanders came to regard as high cuisine and acquired a taste for them.  Just step into any island supermarket, you will find canned beef, fish, vegetables and what have you.  In fact, at a gallery at Tibahoou the next day, I would come across a sculpture of a cow made from discarded corned beef cans made from New Zealand.

Stumbled onto a tourism fair at the Maritime Terminal Building.  Many NC hotels and local governments were there to promote their business or region.  Over the next few days, I would witness a few cultural performances there and take some nice pictures.  I had contemplated visiting the Isle of Pines whose beaches that New Caledonians raved so much about; but decided by the end of the day it wasn’t worth spending about US$100 to get there and back, and then another US$30 to 90 on transport on the island (provided I can find it).  Plus the risk that I could find meals if no reservation was made in advance, as the guidebook had warned.  I would be visiting many Pacific beaches in the next one month or so that I need not spend so much to see the Isle of Pines. The problem of travelling in New Caledonia is that everything is very costly and public transport to many places outside Noumea is either non-existent or very infrequent.  Again, the issue of lack of economies of scale to everything on this island.

On Saturday, I visited Noumea market which was located next to a pretty marina around 7:30am.  Busy with many shoppers; but the fish market wasn’t quite as exotic.  Though there were many huge colourful coral fishes (including the strange-looking unicorn fish that actually does have a horn on its head), they were all nicely stacked up in display panels, as you would expect to see in a supermarket in a developed country.  There were no exciting scenes of fish being brought on-shore and then laid out on stalls.  Lots of pastries and Vietnamese snacks on sale, together with fruits and vegetables; but nothing really photogenic.

I got onto a bus (XPF 210) to Tjibaou Cultural Centre, a fascinating museum and cultural centre devoted to Kanak and Melanesian culture in general.  The centre’s gallery provides a fantastic introduction into the culture and history of the Kanak people, including their magic, beliefs, customs and architecture, through artifacts as well as multimedia effect.  The garden is an educational experience too – with not only captions about the native species of New Caledonia but also the Kanak legends relating to them. 

There is also a group of traditional Kanak houses in the compound, with amazing traditional sculptures amidst all.  One of the latter depicted a legendary Kanak giant with an unusually long penis and his efforts to make love to a deity famous for her lovemaking.  In the rush to thrust himself into her, he not only cleared a volcano with his organ but broke an enormous reef in the sea.  That’s how a well-known pass in the reef around New Caledonia was created.  Eventually both made passionate love and jumped into the sea.

A lot of funding had obviously gone into this.  The French government has obviously tried to garner support from the Kanak people by supporting this impressive venture.  In fact, the architecture of the complex is a monument by itself.  The magnificent complex designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano (who also designed the renowned Pompidou Centre in Paris) was named after Jean-Marie Tjibaou, outstanding Kanak nationaist leader who led the Kanak struggle against French rule in the 1980s. 

In 1988, Tjibaou signed a historic peace agreement with the French Government and Lafleur, leader of the French anti-independence community in New Caledonia, which also provided for a referendum in 1998 over the issue of independence.  Tragically, Tjibaou and his deputy were assassinated in 1989 by a Kanak who felt that Tjibaou had conceded too much to the French and betrayed the independence cause.  A new agreement concluded in 1998 further postponed the referendum by 15 to 20 years so that the territory can experience a period of growth and development, as well as inter-ethnic reconciliation. 

The 15th year of this period of “growth and development” would be 2014.  Would a referendum be held then?  Will New Caledonia vote for independence or status quo as an autonomous entity within the French Republic?  Whereas in the 1980s, New Caledonia was a typical colonial society where the Europeans ran the place and Kanaks mere servants and manual workers.  Since then, Kanaks have become more well-off, although it is clear to me that they have to some extent remained the poorest in NC society. 

Nationalist feelings remain strong, as seen from the many Kanaks I saw wearing nationalist t-shirts and the demonstration I witnessed when I first walked past the central square.  Many souvenir shops also sell merchandise with the word Kanaky, the Kanak name for an independent New Caledonia.  But this might not mean much.  The French government has been smart in co-opting nationalist symbols and turning them into everyday, non-political symbols for New Caledonia.  I have seen the famous Kanak “big house” ceremonial spear everywhere, even on stamps and government buildings. 

The bigger question is, with the Cold War long past, would Kanaks prefer to enjoy the fruits of development and inclusion within a greater French state?  Looking at the not-so-pacific state of their neighbouring independent countries, this may be an attractive option.  I also doubt if the Europeans and Asians living in New Caledonia would like to upset the current good life in favour for an independent but potentially unstable Republic of Kanaky.

Lunch was once again at Oriental Express (wonderful prawn fried noodle) after which I visited The Museum of New Caledonia and its impressive exhibits on Kanak and Melanesian cultures, including many artifacts from Vanuatu and PNG.  Their collection is certainly more impressive and better-captioned than the ones I saw at the National Museums of these two countries. 

Sunday was an easy day spent reading and writing, plus a quick visit to the beaches of Anse Vata and then the tourism fair.  On Monday, I would be flying 3000km eastwards to another French overseas territory, Wallis and Futuna.  This is a little-known group of three main islands, Wallis, Futuna and Alofi, with a total surface area of 247 sq km and only 14,000 mostly Polynesian inhabitants.  The French exercised semi-direct rule over the three traditional kingdoms that existed here.  I will spend two nights here and then proceed to Fiji in transit to another tiny country, the Republic of Kiribati.

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