A guided tour of the future for young New Caledonians
GILBERT Thong smiles and tells us he is an ‘‘island boy’’ as he prepares to take a group of children aboard P&O’s Pacific Jewel, anchored off Mare in New Caledonia’s Loyalty Islands. The irony of this statement is reflected in his sparkling, crease-rimmed eyes. The 80-year-old has earned the respectful moniker of ‘‘old man’’ among the indigenous Kanak people. He has come and gone through the years, shuttling between the Pacific, SouthEast Asia and the US, rubbing shoulders with royalty and celebrities as he worked in the fields of tourism and entertainment. But now he has returned to live in the place of his birth. ‘‘When I arrive in New Caledonia I always see space,’’ he says. ‘‘I can breathe.’’
But something else has brought Thong back to these islands, which rise lush and mountainous from turquoise seas — the desire to sow the seeds of prosperity for the next generation. Heis a partner in a shipping agency with the youthful Elodie Jaunay — ‘‘the best professional in New Caledonia’’, Thong says — and runs programs designed to prepare local children for a bright future. ‘‘I want them to dream of security.’’
And so here he is, rounding up youngsters for today’s excursion. Pacific Jewel and its sister ship Pacific Pearl are the first cruise vessels to call at Mare, and Thong is
CATHERINE MARSHALL hoping this traffic will encourage a visitor-friendly culture on the island, which until now has missed out on the tourism dollars flowing to other New Caledonian communities. The children line up behind Thong and climb excitedly into a tender; as they motor towards the ship, Thong is thinking, I imagine, of his own childhood, and the privilege that set him up for a good life.
His was one of only three Vietnamese families to arrive in New Caledonia as independent migrants in the early 20th century; 6000 indentured labourers from Vietnam came at the same time. ‘‘They were like slaves, and in 1945 they were freed,’’ Thong says. ‘‘Our family was completely different. My father was a professional printer, he used silver and gold leaf on books. I was the lucky one; I went to school with a chauffeur.’’
It is the children of Mare, perhaps, who are imagining a privileged life as the tender returns to shore several hours later. Thong has shown them around the ship, explaining the value of tourism, the importance of details such as keeping things neat and dressing smartly and decorating the space with fresh flowers. He has taken them to one of the ship’s restaurants for a buffet lunch, and afterwards they have sung for the passengers.
‘‘The children were impressed by the size of the pool and the height of the ship,’’ Thong reports. ‘‘And from there, they could see the island.’’
Thong has given these children an alternative perspective, one that could change the way they view their future and that of their island. He hopes he has shared with them some of his experience. ‘‘I’ve never liked money, and you have to love money to be rich. But I’m a millionaire in experience.’’
Gilbert Thong on Mare in New Caledonia