By Sera Tikotikovatu-Sefeti
It was a beautiful morning in the capital, a perfect day for a walk, and I’m heading off to one of Peter Sipeli’s guided walks of Suva. I thought I might be about to relive the tedium of my childhood history lessons, however, the two hours with Sipeli have made me question what I learned in high school.
“Too often when the history of Suva is told, it’s still from a colonial perspective; the people’s reflections are on the built environment, and I think it’s almost unfair,” Sipeli says.
“The story of Suva must also be about immigrants like my parents. I tell the story of my parents, my mother got here in 1953 from Samoa; she’s Samoan-Scottish, and my dad is from Lau, Vanuabalavu, and he came to Suva in the 1950s.”
We started the tour at the busy Suva bus station, where we sat and soaked up our familiar surroundings at a different pace.
“There’s more to the life of the city than the built colonial environment; the 50 landmarks don’t make up the true story of the city, and the reason I want to start here is that over 20,000 people use the bus station each day.
“The bus station was built in the late 1940s, at the same time that they were building the port, as they were rethinking Suva as the port of entry into the Pacific,” Sipeli said.
As I listened to him talk about the bus terminal, the bean carts, and the market, I reflected that the busyness of our daily routine means we often forget to sit and really see our surroundings. I soaked up the activity around me, old men and women pecking at their packets of bean, the guy that sells newspapers, the conversations that washed over us.
As we looked across to where Indian sweet stands are all lined up, Sipeli noted, “The transition from mobile bean carts to stationary sweet stations occurred due to laws prohibiting them from moving around in the 1990s.” My eyes grew wide as I took in that information.
“The power of these sweet stations is in the afternoons, when schoolchildren flock to these stands to buy their favourite snacks before boarding the bus to their final destination,” he said.
I hide my smirk because, when I was one of those schoolchildren 19 years ago, my friends and I would scrounge together every little coin we had, even looking on the ground hoping somebody dropped 10 cents, to meet our bean and tamarind fix for the afternoon.
Right next to the bean carts are food vendors, where women prepare dishes over kerosene stoves. I remember this place fondly, as growing up, my father used to bring me here after a full day of school shopping to eat. He couldn’t afford the chicken and chips, instead we had ‘sui’ and ‘suruwa’ from the market; it was affordable and delicious.
Suva market has changed over the years. While I learned during the tour that some vendors have been there for over 30 years, their stalls passed down from generation to generation, the second floor of the market caught me off guard. I haven’t been here for over 10 years, and what I used to remember as a place where grog sellers flocked, is now populated with spice sellers too.
I was excited because I enjoy cooking, but I sometimes find it difficult to get spices at affordable prices. This place is every cook’s heaven. We walked through, Sipeli stopping to chat with vendors, which gave me an opportunity to look through all the spices on offer and make a mental shopping list.
As we exited the market, Sipeli pointed out a building opposite the modern Tappoos complex, saying, “This was built in 1901; there was a public bar at the bottom and Hotel Metropole on top.”
I didn’t realise this was a landmark, and Sipeli’s comment about the lack of control over the upkeep of important historical buildings—this one has been painted bright red— made me ponder where the other landmarks are and whether they have been changed as well.
In this part of town, something else Sipeli said made me stop in my tracks.
Apparently, the Harbour Front Building used to be the home of Burns Phillip in the 1930s. Sipeli related that they made their money through ‘blackbirding’, enslaving people from other parts of the Pacific to work on Fiji plantations.
“They were stealing some people from Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, and they legitimised their business in the late 1800s when they began to buy fleets of boats and begin shipping merchants.”
Another story that pulled at my heart was Sipeli’s retelling of the history of Suva’s original indigenous inhabitants, and their move from the heart of the city to Suvavou village.
“Thurston Garden was named after the governor general; he was a botanist; they named the place after him and made that a glorious garden, but the true story is that that used to be the home of the indigenous people of Suva, who have occupied this space for 3000 years and were asked to move.”
There were many other noteworthy things Sipeli shared about my beautiful Suva. Just two more examples: Nabukalou Creek used to be so clean and clear that in 1875, when the big boats docked, passengers used to travel through it by canoe, drink the fresh water, catch prawns, and cook them over the fire by the creek.
Cumming Street, which was named after Scottish travel writer Constance Frederica Gordon-Cumming, (stayed in a boarding house on the street for four years in the late 1800s while she wrote two books) was one of Suva’s original tourism destinations. In the 1940s, when visiting infantrymen were looking for souvenirs, the Gujurati businessmen who had stores along Cumming Street produced small quantities of Fiji t-shirts they could take home.
Sipeli’s history tour stirred a whole range of emotions in me. Come prepared to be challenged and entertained, and to do a lot of walking. Carry your water bottle, sunglasses, hat, and a shopping bag, just in case you see a tempting purchase en-route. The tour was engaging and insightful, and by the end, you will view Suva and its people from a completely new perspective, one that will make you appreciate every detail that makes the capital different from the rest of Fiji’s cities and towns.
This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller, April-June 2023.