A quiet weekend in Suva has got Grubsheet thinking about the state of Fiji’s capital and the city where I was born at ten minutes to midnight far too many moons ago. The reflection stems in part from a couple of days in the company of a childhood friend who I grew up with in Fiji and who now lives in Papua New Guinea. We both recall a splendid city of razor-sharp manicured parks and gardens, airy timber tropical bungalows and stately public buildings worthy of the place billed at the time as the Crossroads of the Pacific. The bands played as the trans-Pacific passenger ships came and went, the Sunderland flying boats roared overhead into Laucala Bay and to our young eyes, no place was as magical as Suva. Especially if you lived somewhere else in Fiji and wandered around as a wide-eyed kai colo when your parents put on your “policeman” sandals and dragged you into town.
It’s become fashionable in certain circles to decry colonial rule and hold the British responsible for many of our national ills, especially the racial divide. But one thing is beyond argument. Suva was a much cleaner, more ordered and aesthetically pleasing place before Independence and it’s high time for a much bigger effort to recapture some of that grandeur. It’s not some form of neo-colonial kai valagi nostalgia on my part – as some of my critics are bound to portray it – but a simple belief that raising the tone of our capital will help raise the national tone and the spirits of all Fijians. A bit like a whole city putting on a clean shirt or skirt and hitting the hotspots – smiling and confident – with a bounce in its step.
Just as we need to be a lot more proud of ourselves as a nation for finally beginning to tackle some of our most entrenched problems and create a more equal society, we need to be a lot more proud of our capital. Suva deserves to set a civic standard not just for all Fijians but for our island neighbours. It deserves to be the best and most attractive city in the South Seas, not some pale imitation of its former self.
Its harbour – with the eye-catching Joske peak giving us a collective thumb’s up and Beqa looming beyond the reef – is certainly among the most dramatic in the Pacific. And is there a prettier sight in the whole world than when dusk draws its curtain on a perfect Suva Day? The point is that our capital has an unmatched canvass on which to paint a better picture and we should start doing it in earnest. Capitals like Noumea and Port Vila – which are outclassing Suva in Grubsheet’s view – do so with nothing like our natural advantages. And yet they have something we seem to struggle to achieve, a bit of old fashioned class. You don’t necessarily have to have money, although clearly the citizens of Noumea benefit from European largess. Poor cities are like poor women. With a touch of imagination and a bit of effort on top of what nature gave you, there’s nothing to stop you from looking your best.
In Suva’s case, improvements have already been made and the Suva City Council deserves credit, especially for its efforts to tart up Queen Elizabeth Drive. Grubsheet went for a stroll along the sea wall on Saturday and it’s in far better shape than it used to be. It was low tide yet it was still a pleasant walk. The old stench has gone, thanks to a concerted effort to clean up rubbish on the foreshore. The footpath is in great shape and now extends way beyond Veiuto. There are pleasant places to sit and all of the new covered picnic tables were happily occupied. And the seaside kiosk and bar in front of Suva Grammar School may not exactly scream French Riviera but at least you can stop for a drink.
All in all, a big improvement for which Suva’s Special Administrator and former Lord Mayor, Chandu Umaria, deserves to take a bow. But there’s lots more to do. Yes – I hear the collective cry – if only we had the money. The truth is we’re never going to have enough until the economy grows and a lot more ratepayers start coughing up a lot more loot. But perhaps in the meantime, we can start thinking of better ways to get the Council, the Government, the business community and civic organisations to form a stronger partnership to get things done. If a whole family can work together to spruce up a house, a whole city can work together to do the same. And as it happens, Suva already has an example of a poorer section of the city showing us the way.
Last Friday, something inspirational occurred when the Prime Minister opened the new Raiwaqa Rugby Club. It was a smallish event that went largely unnoticed by the media, which is a great shame. Because everyone in Fiji knows that Raiwaqa has had a sorry history. When low cost public housing was built there in colonial times, it was meant to be a model community but as the years progressed, it gradually degenerated into a slum. Raiwaqa became a byword for lawlessness, its young people caught in a vicious cycle of drinking, drugs, theft and violence. Yet now, it’s the young people of Raiwaqa who are leading this community back from the abyss and giving it a new sense of pride.
Commodore Bainimarama spent much of Friday at Raiwaqa celebrating its reversal of fortunes and revived sense of community spirit. More than two hundred new homes are being built which will house many hundreds more residents. And at the heart of the community is the new rugby club, which the PM launched on an ocean of kava and a jocular plea that it produce a Flying Fijian within five years. The function started at 9.00am and he was still there well into the afternoon. Because there can be few things more worthy of celebration than an entire community regaining a sense of purpose and hope.
The point is that if one of Suva’s poorest areas can improve its immediate environment, why can’t Suva as a whole do the same? Let’s make 2014 not only the target for restoring democracy but taking concrete steps to restore our capital, beginning with what Grubsheet regards as the city’s Golden Half Mile. One of the jewels of Suva – the Grand Pacific Hotel – reopens in 2014 bigger and better than before. Fanning out from there, to follow are just a few suggestions of improvements – some big, some small – that will add lustre to the revival of the GPH, the Golden Half Mile and beyond.
1/ The Chinese have an old saying: “To get rich, build roads first”. The Government gets this and has the Chinese, the Malaysians and New Zealanders all working on various national road projects. But the roads in central Suva badly need attention. Cakobau Road along the side of Thurston Gardens and the Fiji Museum on one side and Albert Park on the other used to be the venue for a famous billycart derby in the 1950s and 60s in which kids would race at breakneck speed down the hill. If they did it now, it would end in a disastrous pileup of blood and broken limbs. Because let’s face it. Cakobau Road has more craters in it than the moon. The same applies to Domain and Allardyce Roads. These were once among the most prestigious thoroughfares in Suva. Now they’re like bush tracks to Nadrau.
2/ The Suva City Council has announced that a number of trees along Queen Elizabeth Drive are to be removed for safety reasons after a Baka tree at the bottom of Cakobau Road fell down recently and damaged the Piccadilly Taxi stand and some cars. It says that it’s doing so on the advice of a tree expert at the University of the South Pacific. But this is an instance in which a second opinion ought to be sought before the felling proceeds. These trees have been a prized feature of Suva for many decades and their removal is bound to cause huge upset. If they are rotted beyond repair, there may well be no alternative. But if it’s merely a question of cost, then the decision ought to be revisited. Let’s start an “adopt a tree” movement in which business houses and individuals pay for the restoration, strengthening and maintenance of Suva’s old trees. There are signs up everywhere else. Why not small, discreet ones on the trees carrying the names of sponsors?
3/ Talking of signs, there are far too many of them in Suva. They have become an eyesore. We all know that there’s intense competition between Digicel and Vodafone. But their bright red advertising signs, billboards and shop fronts are a blight on the cityscape and totally out of control. Victoria Parade has more red on it than Moscow’s Red Square at the height of communism. Mobile phones are already a curse without the visual assault of the dueling telcos. The “Bonjour” gang at Total only compound the outrage. Painting the town red is strictly for Saturday nights.
4/ Albert Park is far too regal – the centre of our ceremonial state events – to have the yellow “Crest is Best” chicken sign on top of the tennis club. Whoever thought of this idea is a turkey. If the tennis club needs money, they should organise a tombola or raffle off some chickens. Can some benefactor come forward and offer to meet the funding shortfall and paint the roof dark green? Better still, can Crest Chicken pay for the makeover as an aesthetic gesture in the national interest? Having to stage the Fiji Day parade under “Crest is Best” is as cringe-worthy as the Fiji Miss World outfit. Yes, we know it was meant to be an owl but it looked dangerously like another Crest Chicken promotion.
5/ The restoration of the statues of Ratu Sukuna and Seru Cakobau in front of government buildings is a huge improvement. Can we now also start thinking about cleaning the complex itself so that it doesn’t look so mouldy? Don’t bother with the “New” Government Building because no-one can see it. But the grand old 1930s “palace” is a national landmark that badly needs a tart up and will set off the new GPH beautifully if the necessary funds can be raised.
6/ Suva’s “Big Ben” atop Government Buildings needs to work properly. Yes, tell the correct time and also chime like it used to, the deep bong ringing out over the city like Big Ben does in London. Someone seems to have got it going again but last time I looked, it was 25 minutes behind the real time and the famous chimes have been silenced. Punctuality is one of the great virtues and the key to success in life. We’ve all heard of “Fiji time” but there’s no reason for our most famous clock to keep it. Those civil servants need to be there on time and in real time.
These are just half a dozen ideas for Suva’s Golden Half Mile. Our readers will doubtless have many more and for the entire city. But let’s resolve to at least embark on a debate about how we can afford to put some fresh make-up on our grand old lady – the city we all love, in which many of us were born, and is the centre of national life. The old girl deserves it. And we’ll feel better for it too.
POSTSCRIPT 30/10: The clock atop Government Buildings has been fixed and is now showing the correct time. Let’s see if they can restore the chimes.