The Fakaletis Show

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Fri 14 Sep 2018 06:55

‘Faka’ - a suffix which, in Tongan, means ‘in the manner of’.

‘Letis’ - ‘Ladies’, an English word that has been adopted into Tongan and transcribed the Tongan way.

‘Fakaleti’ - a man ‘in the manner of’ a woman

Throughout Polynesia we have met men who live as women. Many work in bars and restaurants but others work in what would be considered male jobs such as gardening and pearl farming. Some look like men but grow their hair long and apply lipstick and eye liner, while others have boobs and wear skirts or dresses. Two of the most beautiful women we met, were in fact men, they look after their figure and somehow manage to grasp the essence of femininity. 

What has amazed us though, is how completely accepted these letis are in society, there is no stigma. Our friend Jackie of S/V Cachoeira worked as a gym teacher for a few years in Tahiti in the 2000s. He told us that some of the girls in his classes were boys and much to his consternation used either the boys or the girls changing room, depending on how they felt on the day. It didn’t seem to bother anyone so he got used to it.

We have read that if a mother has boys and not enough daughters to help around the house, she raises one of the boys as an honorary girl. According to Wikipedia this has never been the case, instead Polynesian men have always been able to choose their gender. In the past the letis became priests or roll played goddesses during ceremonies, today they make their own way in life. The European missionaries enacted laws aimed at suppressing this behaviour and despite Christianity’s ongoing importance in Tongan society, the prejudice against fakaletis hasn’t succeeded in taking hold.

It was Wednesday and bad weather had kept us in Neiafu. I had seen a sign advertising a Fakaletis Show at the Dancing Rooster restaurant and I was curious. We had no idea what to expect but decided to go along. Connor our friend from ‘Sea Casa’ came too.

The presenter introduced the show as ‘the grammar school girls’ evening in a crisp English accent, and we wondered how many people in the international audience understood the reference. It sounded ominous. The evening was a light hearted cabaret with the ‘girls’ dressed up in glamorous costumes miming their favourite tunes. Not all were beautiful and slender. One lass was very plump and looked like she’d had a hard paper round, she delighted in sitting on drunken men’s laps and Franco and Connor lived in fear, lest she select them. To tip, we were expected to stick a Tongan note on the dancer’s body. At the time we thought this was a little kinky but later found out it is the standard way to reward dancers in Tonga.

By ten o’clock, the dancers had run out of costumes and the spectators of two Tongan dollar notes, we all headed home for bed. It had been a fun night out!


The leti with a perfect English accent


We met this leti several times in town, her make up is exquisite!


Connor looking rather pleased at being chosen