From The Bar ~ The Tongan Wars

Another segment of a project The Rise and Fall of a Saloon In The Latter Part off The Twentieth Century. These excerpts are not chronological. In fact very little logic prevails…


 From CIA World Fact Book:

The archipelago of “The Friendly Islands” was united into a Polynesian kingdom in 1845. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1875 and a British protectorate in 1900. Tonga acquired its independence in 1970 and became a member of the Commonwealth of Nations. It remains the only monarchy in the Pacific.  It’s king is named Taufa’ahau

It is in the Oceania, archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, about two-thirds of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand

Tonga, a small, open, South Pacific island economy, has a narrow export base in agricultural goods. Squash, coconuts, bananas, and vanilla beans are the main crops, and agricultural exports make up two-thirds of total exports. The country must import a high proportion of its food, mainly from New Zealand. Tourism is the second largest source of hard currency earnings following remittances. The country remains dependent on external aid and remittances from Tongan communities overseas to offset its trade deficit. The government is emphasizing the development of the private sector, especially the encouragement of investment, and is committing increased funds for health and education. Tonga has a reasonably sound basic infrastructure and well-developed social services. High unemployment among the young, a continuing upturn in inflation, pressures for democratic reform, and rising civil service expenditures are major issues facing the government.

The “High unemployment among the young” mentioned above tends to make many Tongans go elsewhere in the world leaving the balmy South Pacific for the hostile colder climes of the US and Europe.
They are a robust, healthy people and, like any ethnic group, tend to cluster in communities for linguistic and cultural comfort.
They are good, hard, workers and usually can be found it heavy labor jobs such as construction and gardening.
In Tongan culture, fighting among the males is looked at differently than European based cultures.  A good fight is considered just that and grudges are seldom carried as baggage.  If it is possible to deem it so, they are good natured fighters and while they don’t deliberately look for a fight they tend to be fearless and definitely will not turn away from a bout particularly when it’s another Tongan making the challenge.  Even so, they are generally good humored, friendly people.

Some of them, male and female, are quite large.

T.O. had a friend who was in the demolition/deconstruction business who used Tongan men almost exclusively on his work crews.  Because he hired so many of them and paid them well and fairly the Tongan community held T.O.’s friend in high esteem. This was reinforced by the man’s frequent trips to the island kingdom.
T.O.’s friend talked him into going with him on one of these jaunts and T.O. was charmed by what he saw.
Polynesian cultures are mesmerizing to outsiders because of their apparently languid lifestyle, easy laughter and haunting music.
T.O.’s friend was treated like a visiting prince because the islanders knew and appreciated that he hired many of their sons.  T.O. saw that the Tongans seemed to revere their monarch and most of all they loved to party.
And drink…
T.O. later said they drank as if it was their national pastime.

When T.O. got back to the states he Had A Plan.

He was put in contact with one of the local Tongan men who had a band.
T.O. declared that rather than try to attract a fickle, unappreciative, middle class American audience he declared he would book this guy’s band on weekends and bring in this untapped goldmine of island guzzlers and make a mint.
I had my doubts and expressed them.
“You tried that with the Hawaiians, and while it was finally starting to pay off it still didn’t do what you had hoped.” This was in reference to a previous deviation from standard saloon fare,  It involved the local Hawaiian community and, while pleasant, did not really do as well as he had hoped.   (See ‘Aloha Way’ in another section)

…and these guys ain’t Hawaiians.”
“Meaning what?” T.O. said.
“Look.  I just read a long article in The Chronicle about the Tongan culture and one of the things the article mentioned was that the men enjoy fighting and thought it of no consequence.”
T.O. responded “I know these people. All we need to do is put flowers on the table and they’ll be as mild and friendly as lambs.”
“T.O., you’re not serious!   Flowers on the tables are going to make people into pacifists? “
“Sure!  And I’ll get a picture of their king and put it up.  They won’t disrespect a bar that has a picture of their king hanging in there.”
“T.O., these are human beings that were raised in a different culture.  This does not make them simpletons and, while they may like flowers and their king, you know damn well Tongans have a reputation for liking to fight and now you want to bring them in here in large numbers?”
“I think you’re a racist to be making comments like that.”
“’S’cuse me?  Racist?  Not hardly.  You and I both know that That Other Place has had several brawls requiring multiple police cars involving Tongans.”
“They didn’t handle them right.  They didn’t put flowers on the tables.”
“T.O., you can’t “handle” an ethnic group.  You just can’t do it.  People are just too independent. And jars of flowers ain’t gonna mean a thing”

But T.O. would not be swayed.  He dismissed my objections as words from one who did not know what he was talking about.  After all, he, T.O., had been to the islands and therefore he knew all there was to know about Tongans.  Their pugnaciousness is a myth…racist gossip.
“You realize, of course, that you’re going to lose your American clientele.”
“So what?  The way these Tongan’s drink it won’t matter.”

And so the die was cast…

T.O. was very excited about the band.  It was a Tongan band and they played Reggae music which didn’t particularly excite me because I thought Reggae was largely like Delta Blues in that it was repetitious and boring.  Neither Blues bands or Reggae bands seemed to work well at The Bar.  Besides, reggae is Jamaican in origin.  These guys were Tongans.

T.O. said he was particularly impressed with the guy who ran the band, a guy named Lopeti.  He was a bit older, maybe in his late forties.  T.O. was impressed because even though he was not particularly good looking, he always had women around him which meant he must be some kind of stud or at least someone with Tongan Mojo.
T.O. pulled out all the stops.  Brought in extra chairs, ordered extra beer, insisted on having three waitresses and three bartenders in anticipation of the grand opening of his path to riches.

Friday night came.

At eight o’clock there were five people in the place beside the crew, mostly members of the Dice Players watching to see what came of this New Idea of T.O.’s.

Nine o’clock came and the band wandered in and started to set up.  I got his first look at the legendary Lopeti.

This is the charismatic Tongan?  He was a short, dumpy, plain looking guy with all the charm of a potato.

At nine-thirty the band started playing.  More like warming up because there were no customers of Island descent present.

Ten o’clock.  Several of the guys from the Dice Playing group left.  They didn’t like Reggae either.
Ten thirty.  The band took a break.

At ten forty five some cars drove slowly through the parking lot.

And then it happened.

Around 11:00 they came from nowhere and they came like the Mongol hordes sweeping across Asia.
All the women seemed to be gum-chewers with stock in Wrigley’s…  All the men seemed to be six and a half feet tall.  Some of the women were seemingly six feet tall themselves and most of the ladies had the bunned hairstyle often seen in island people.  All were in good humor.  They had come to party.

They were demanding as children.  They ran shams on the bartenders and waitresses ordering rounds and pointing across the room saying “Get you money from he.  He be buyin dese’a.”

They did not tip.

It was pandemonium.  They drifted in and out of the club going to their cars.
The waitresses on duty required all of my persuasiveness to stay the night but they assured me they would not work another night like that.

One of my ex-waitresses was tending bar that first night…    She was a nice looking girl with long, thick blonde hair.  She was standing by the side door around 12:30, taking a break…  The night was warm so the side door was open to let in air.  There was a heavy chain at upper thigh level to discourage people sneaking in at the side door.
Suddenly, my bartender found herself grabbed by the hair from behind at the side door and dragged over the door chain and out into the parking lot by one of the mumu wearing Amazons.  It was only through the intervention of several of the Tongan men that kept the bartender from getting beaten by this giantess.

I learned a new thing about Tongan women.  One of the men told me that some Tongan women did not like ‘blonde girlies’ because some of their men were fascinated by American blondes and the island women felt threatened by them.
‘Great!  Most of my crew is blonde!’ thought I…

There were only two fights that night and both were short ones outside in the parking lot.

At two o’clock they poured out of the place as if it was on fire.

And left evidence of a sort that T.O. hadn’t figured on.

He hadn’t taken into consideration that most of the Tongans worked for wages that were something less than what Americans were paid.  They were blue collar people.  They worked in construction and heavy labor jobs which sometimes paid well but they were often paid at the same scale as the illegal Latin populace, which is to say not nearly the wage American workers tend to expect.  They had the same cost of living expenses other people had which was high in CA and that meant they didn’t have a whole lot of leisure money.

Still, they loved to laugh and loved to party so what they would do was follow their homey band wherever it was booked and load up on beer and booze at their favorite liquor store.  Then they would either smuggle it into the bar or drink it in their many trips to their cars in the parking lot.  This way they could avoid paying the relatively high bar prices.

After the last stragglers had left I had our lobby dustpan out and was gathering some of the debris.

I was sweeping up beer cans (obviously from outside since The Bar only sold bottled beer), miniature liquor bottles such as dispensed on airlines and small half pints of cheap but powerful alcohol, things like Ever Clear and fortified wine.
A lot of them.  Not just a few, but a lot of them.  Enough to fill two very large plastic garbage cans.
This was something that took some planning and forethought.  This was a modus operandi.

Needless to say, since they ‘brought their own,’ the register hadn’t done much business, certainly not enough to warrant paying a band but the band needed paying anyway.

And it was only Friday.

Saturday was still to come… I needed to get a new crew since my Friday girls were in shock.


Saturday dawned and it was, of course, a new day.

I got on the phone and lined up two more victims for cocktail duty.  The hair-pulled bartender opted out, not wanting a repeat of being hauled around by her hair, so it fell to T.O. to staff the bar.

T.O. tried to put a good face on it, claiming it was just a fluke.  Now that the Tongan community knew for sure the band would be here on weekends word would spread and they would flock in earlier and spend more money.
The crew and I had our doubts but there wasn’t much we could do about it since it wasn’t our names on the business license.

So with a crew that felt much like the Texans at the Alamo we awaited sundown’s fast approach.

It became immediately obvious that the Friday event was more portent than fluke.
Once again the early hours of the night consisted of an almost empty bar.

A few people, “regulars,” stopped by but it was evident that the former ambiance of the bar was gone and it its place was an anticipation that was closer to dread than optimism.   These wandering souls did not tarry.  They went to The Other Place looking for a Tongan free setting which was more to their liking.

Once again the hours between eight and eleven were situations where the band and the staff outnumbered the patrons two to one.

And, once again, at eleven, in they came.  More than on Friday and a bit more aggressive.  More of the round robin attempts to not pay for drinks.  The doorman was pressured to let in large, intimidating, young males with questionable I.D.’s.  Theree were a few more fights than the night before but somehow they were kept outside.

I discovered that I had a problem that I had no solution for when one of my cocktail waitresses came outside for a break.  Visibly shaking due to fear and adrenaline and close to tears, she told me “If it was anyone else but you I’d drop this tray and run.”
Needless to say she said she could not work another night like this.

I was officially out of crew.

We got through it somehow with the same end result…smuggled empty beer cans and liquor bottles of all sizes emptied in the bar and even more in the parking lot.  Crummy tips and a register tape that read like there had only been about a third of the patrons that actually had shown up.  Truth be told, the register may have made it almost worth while but the smuggled empties were a mockery and quite frankly a danger to the license.  It is illegal in California to bring in your own alcohol in a Saloon.

The next morning I tracked T.O. down and told him that we had an emergency.  There was no waitress crew.  “I ain’t about to feed women into that grinder.  You can’t pay them enough.  If you want waitresses we need to make the Tongans provide their own.”
T.O. called Lopeti the bandleader for a meeting.  I made my case about the waitress situation and asked Lopeti if the Tongan community might be able to provide two women to work weekends.  I told him that there was no other option.
Well, I found that I had asked the right guy.

The next Friday went a little better.  The bartending crew had learned to ask for money up front before they dispensed drinks and the two Tongan women who came in to cocktail wasted no time in putting the boisterous revelers in their place in no uncertain terms.  They “Straightened them out like a piece of wire!” in a manner of speaking.  One of the girls was petite and very pretty.  She brooked no nonsense from her countrymen and was so brusque with one man who towered over her he asked her “Hey!  What kinda Tongan are you?”

By now the bartending crew knew to expect that the Saturday crowd would be descending like avenging hordes at eleven p.m. and they were not disappointed.

Having Tongan waitresses meant that things were not so chaotic on the floor but a new ring in the circus cropped up.

There was a major brawl in the parking lot that involved about twenty men of varying ages.  The doorman and I were taken totally by surprise.  We could discern no cause for the donnybrook but it didn’t matter.  The fight started with little of the posturing and argument that usually preceded a ‘regular’ bar fight involving common drunks.  The fighting just exploded.  A patrol car happened to be passing by and shortly there appeared several police cars and the combatants were soon aligned kneeling in the parking lot.
One of the officers questioned the wisdom of catering to the group but didn’t make much of a point about it.  Police departments have no love for Saloons.  After dark a large part of their business involves alcohol related problems.  We were reminded that if a Saloon had too many trouble calls the City would apply pressure via license suspensions.
There was no recrimination to The Bar by the police this time since a complaint had not been issued from the bar.
I.D.’s were checked and several of the combatants were taken away on outstanding warrants.

Inside the bar the revelry continued with seemingly no concern for the hapless men being ferried to jail.

Oddly one of the eight balls turned up missing from the pool tables.  It was later found, chipped and scratched, having been hurled across the main drag (a four lane highway) during that particular parking lot brawl.  Definitely an omen.  Whoever threw it should probably have pitched for the Dodgers but that would be a digression from our current tale and we’ll not go there.

It was the same net result as the previous Friday portended,  The register picked up some because of the Tongan waitresses keeping the customers honest but the tips were stingy and a vast amount of smuggled empties in the bar and in the parking lot still underscored money spent elsewhere.  Had the Tongans bought all of their booze and beer from The Bar T.O. would have been vindicated because the empties represented a goodly amount of money The Bar did not take in.

T.O. would not admit that he had made an error in judgment.  He insisted things would get better.  When I grumbled about the problems of dealing with the increasingly obstreptuous crowd he claimed, once again, that I was acting like a racist bigot.

He was still impressed that Lopeti, not a handsome man by any stretch of the imagination, was always seen with an entourage of between five to ten women around him at all times.  A studly tribute to his magnetism was how fast he had brought in the two women to waitress.  Obviously a concession to a better culture than that which they had emigrated to.

Meanwhile the rest of the business at The Bar suffered also.  Tiffany’s daytime crowd thinned out.  Lunches were still pretty good but her afternoon crowd dropped noticeably.  The Dice Cuppers and some of the hardcore regulars and loafers being the only dependable customers but they did not linger as long as they used to.  Everyone sensed a difference in the mood of the place.

The nighttime business, which had been on a decline anyway, went flat.

T.O. blamed it on disloyalty and castigated the regular customers for not supporting his place of business.

The weekend pattern went on for seven or eight weeks with little change.  There were more fights but they were small and brief and, thankfully, outside.

Lo, It came to pass that the Tongans decided to have a Sunday afternoon party.
Their version of a luau.
I disremember the occasion.  It might have been a birthday or it may have just been a party for the heck of having a party.
T.O. was ecstatic.  The Tongan gold mine was about to deliver!  A nice Sunday afternoon party… flowers on the tables… it would be great.
No waitresses could be lined up since American girls refused to work a Tongan house so I was to be pressed into service bussing tables for empties figuring rightly that the Tongans would not mind going to the bar.  It was, after all, their party.
No band was hired since the party was funded by the Tongans themselves and as earlier pointed out; they are not a wealthy community.  Besides, the band members wanted to be part of the party too.

Sunday dawned and preparations were made.  A barbecue rotisserie was rented and a whole pig bought and roasted.  About four o’clock about 75 to 100 people showed up.  They seemed to be in good spirits and even I thought it might be a better than usual gather of the Tongans.  I didn’t have to worry about my waitresses getting traumatized and the overall mood was congenial.  Most of them were out on the patio area enjoying the camaraderie of good food and drink on a beautiful summer day.  The patio area was an addition created by redwood fencing and Astroturf and was outside on the side of the building.  There were several picnic tables arrayed there and it was quite comfortable on a nice day.

One guy stood up…
He wasn’t particularly young nor was he old… probably in his late thirties…

“I feel like fighting.  Who wants to fight wid me?”

“I will!” laughed a younger man who stood and in very short order, swung at the older guy.  Next thing you know it was pandemonium as no one wanted to be left out of the social exercise of pummeling your fellow man.  Soon all the males joined in with joy and enthusiasm.

I was across the room at the bar with several other people just staying out of the way.  The fight started to move inside I saw some of the men going for the pool cues.  For some reason I became indignant at this.  Without hesitation I passed my walking stick to the off-duty Doorman (who had no interest in getting involved) and strode across the room.  I yanked the cue sticks from unresisting hands “Gimmie that!” I snarled as I gathered them all up and took them away from the brawl and headed back the bar.
As I stalked back to the bar, arms full of pool cues, I saw the Doorman and the bartenders looking at me saucer eyed  as if I’d walked out of  hell itself by some miracle because no one had laid a hand on me and no one even tried to hang onto a cue.
The police weren’t called.  You might say the fight was allowed to run itself out but it was more like it was over rather quickly.  The Bar was declared closed for the day and the victors and vanquished, looking sheepish, slunk away.  The women looked to be on the verge of tears, embarrassed that what had started as a lovely party had come to such a ruin.
The place needed closing.  It was a shambles.  It looked like a mini-tornado had run through one side of the building.
The gate to the patio and some of the redwood fencing got broken in the melee as well as two of the redwood picnic tables and several of the accompanying benches.

That Sunday marked the final curtain for the Tongan experiment.

It was only a day or two later when I brought T.O. a newspaper, one of the little local rags.  Someone had called me on the phone and told me to pick one up.  There was an article in the Police Blotter portion I needed to see.  I looked and in it was an article that said Lopeti, our Lopeti, he of the Reggae band and the entourage of females, had been taken down in a drug bust.   It seemed that he had been under surveillance for months because of his connection with the distribution and sale of large amounts of cocaine.
Cocaine, the drug of choice in that era.  It didn’t take rocket science to connect Lopeti’s “success” with women to his treating them to his stash.

But no Lopeti meant no Reggae band.  No Reggae band meant no Tongans.  Weekends now resembled the rest of the week.  We had become a neighborhood bar.

And the slow, painful, process of trying to regain the interest and patronage of the old customers and attract the new commenced…

We started the cycle of booking  rock and roll bands on weekends again.

But The Bar never really recovered.

In fact, its demise was coming…

3 thoughts on “From The Bar ~ The Tongan Wars”

  1. Wow. I did so love the place though, The dicers gave me character later in life which I don't see much anywhere these days. And I was the young'n! Mike; God bless his moronic ass and I'm glad he let me go when he did. The above would have never happenned on my watch (without me busting a couple bottles over some heads;) I'll never forget the Peanut Butter and Jelly Face Costume on Halloween.

    Bubu: he certainly was in pain. And I forgive him if only I could see him again.

  2. He scared the hell outta me most of the time…..but he was a man in a kind of pain none of us could have understood. I think I forgive him…….but only if I don't ever have to see him again.

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