A guided tour of the fu­ture for young New Cale­do­nians

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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.’’

pocruises.com.au

Gil­bert Thong on Mare in New Cale­do­nia

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