PCC chauffeur to the king and queen of Tonga

“When I was called to the Administration office, I thought I was in trouble,” said Livingston Pita Unga, a half-Tongan-Samoan man who normally oversees the PCC Warehouse.


Livingston Pita Unga, chauffeur to the King and Queen of Tonga during their visit to the Polynesian Cultural Center for the dedication of the newly renovated Tongan Village in June

 Instead, Unga was asked to chauffeur their majesties King Tupou VI and Queen Nanasipau’u of Tonga from Waikiki on June 10, remain as their driver throughout their stay in Laie, and return them to Waikiki on June 11. The king and queen were the honored guests for the blessing and grand opening of the newly renovated Tongan Village. (Visit from the King and Queen of Tonga)

“I never dreamed in my life that I would have an opportunity like this to be close to the king and have conversations with him. This was historical for me and my family,” Unga said; but still, he was very nervous.

“Honestly, I felt very uncomfortable, because I didn’t know how I would handle it,” said Unga, who was born in the northern Tongan island of Vava’u, but soon moved to American Samoa, and finally to Laie as a 13-year-old. “I felt it was a very heavy responsibility, that it should be a pure Tongan who knows the culture and language very well. I didn’t want to start a conversation, if it was inappropriate.”

So, typical of such Polynesian protocol situations, Unga asked some of the older Tongans for advice, and was told, “Don’t say anything. Wait until the king says something, and then respond.” He added he planned to remain silent all the way from Honolulu, a drive of at least an hour.

“It was not an easy task: I thought to myself, who am I to do this? There was also a lot of prayer and fasting on my part so that I could represent the Center very well.”

Unga recalled he was told he would drive the king from Waikiki, while protocol dictated the queen would ride in a separate vehicle. While he was waiting for the king to come out of the hotel, however, the queen came out first and sat in the car: “I couldn’t say to her, I’m sorry, but you’re supposed to be in the other car.”

“When the king came out, she asked him, ‘How are you coming?’ His majesty went around my car and entered on the passenger side. I thought, what is going on?” Finally, the king’s military guard also got in and they began the approximately one-hour drive to Laie.

“He called me by my first name. That broke the ice for me, and I began to feel more comfortable, and not so tense. As we got on the freeway, the king started asking me questions about Hawaii, and he shared some of his experiences here when he was the crown prince. It was clear that he had been to Hawaii many times for military training, and shared some of his experiences and the places he was familiar with,” Unga said.

“I felt they were a very humble couple. It was just like talking with friends. They didn’t make me feel that I had to be careful about what I was saying. I felt a very warm spirit from them.”

Following a rest at the Laie Courtyard, Unga picked the royal couple up again the afternoon of June 10 and brought them to the Center where a special welcoming and banquet awaited them in the Samoan Village.

When all of the official activities were finished the next day, Saturday, June 11, Unga drove the royal couple to Waikiki. “On the way back, when they told me how tender the steak was, that’s when I opened up and said that my wife — [Fifita Unga, PCC Vice President of Food and Beverage] — oversaw all the food preparation.”

At another point point during the return trip, the king said, “Pita, we want you to know that we really appreciate what you and all the Tongans outside of Tonga have done to contribute to building up your village.” He referred to a village hall that the Ungas had helped with.

“I have a different outlook on the king and queen now,” Unga continued. “These are people that Tongans normally can’t get too close to, because of the culture, but the way they presented themselves when they came here made me feel so proud.”

“This king and queen have a spirit that they want to acknowledge their people.” Pita illustrated this by pointing out when the king spoke in the Tongan Village, he asked his security man to lower the podium to let the people know “though I’m a king, I’m also a person who can relate to you. This king is truly for his people. He let us know he appreciates all of us, and didn’t put himself above every one. He wanted to acknowledge all the sacrifices the people had made to make it a memorable day.”


The King and Queen are all smiles as they wave to the many people who came to see them.

“They were also very open and friendly with all the guests,” Unga said, adding that as the royal couple left the evening show on Friday night, the king asked Pita to lower the window so he could acknowledge the guests.

“Looking back, we went through a lot of advance preparation to make sure that we weren’t trying to impress him, but that the Spirit would touch him,” said Unga, who felt the royal couple were touched. He added that when their youngest son, Prince Ata, recently became a Latter-day Saint, “that probably also played a role in their outlook and response to the PCC. Even though they are a king and a queen, I felt their spirit of gratitude. They also expressed how much fun they had.”


A side-note of royal satisfaction — and sorrow: On short notice, PCC President and CEO Alfred Grace also gave Unga and his wife another special assignment on Sunday, June 12, to visit the king’s talking chief, Tu’alau ’Inoke of Te’ekiu, Tongatapu, who took ill soon after the ceremonies at the PCC.


The Hon. Motu’apuaka Tu’alau ‘Inoke, the king’s talking chief

He had held the matāpule or chiefly title of Motu’apuaka since 1984, and in keeping with Tongan custom, spoke on behalf of the the king, who would normally not speak. It was the responsibility of the talking chief to deliver appropriate responses on the king’s behalf.

After the Ungas arrived at the hospital and determined that Motu’apuaka knew members of the Unga family in Hawaii from years before, the 68-year-old Tongan chief told them “the king was very pleased with the whole event” at the PCC.

“He said, normally when he acted as the spokesperson for the king, even though he had been doing this for many years, he would look at the king and base his responses on how pleased the king appeared with the various presentations and gifts,” Unga said.

“But after the PCC presented its gifts, Motu’apuaka said he glanced over at the king as usual, and said there was something different about the him: Throughout the dinner and the [evening] show the day before, the king was so happy,” Unga continued. “I was very impressed that he said the king was very pleased with everything.”

Unfortunately, Motu’apuaka, who had a history of heart ailments, died approximately a week later after continuing his journey to the US mainland.

Story and images by Mike Foley


Mike Foley, who has worked off-and-on

at the Polynesian Cultural Center since

1968,  has been a full-time freelance

writer and digital media specialist since

2002, and had a long career in marketing

communications and PR before that. He

learned to speak fluent Samoan as a

Mormon missionary before moving to Laie

in 1967 — still does, and he has traveled

extensively over the years throughout

Polynesia and other Pacific islands. Foley

is mostly retired now, but continues to

contribute to various PCC and other media.