Tongans mourn pair

Tongan Prince Tu’ipelehake and Princess Kaimana were on a mission to engage Tongan expatriates in dialogue about the tiny Pacific island’s political reform when they arrived in the Bay Area two days ago.

They were due to speak Thursday night at the First Tongan United Methodist Church, according to pastor Kalatini Ahio. The royals were seen as leaders by the local Tongan community.

“We had much respect for them,” he said.

Tonga’s prince and princess were in the Bay Area with the National Committee of the Kingdom of Tonga on Political Reform, “to give local Tongans an opportunity to discuss what they would like Tonga to be,” according to Eleni Ahi of the Tongan Interfaith Council.

“We Tongans are shockedby what’s happened,” Ahio said. “They were very much loved [and] very popular here.”

More than a hundred Tongans gathered at the church Thursday in a somber prayer service to say goodbye to the royal couple. Many wore traditional straw-mat skirts over their black suits and dresses and raised their voices in gospel-hued Tongan religious songs interspersed with prayers led by Ahio. Some wiped away tears, including Viliami Lolohea, the immigration representative who was traveling through America with the royal couple.

They also paid tribute to Vinisia Hefa, the couple’s driver. Hefa served as the prince and princess’ secretary in Tonga before moving to the Bay Area five years ago, according to her aunt, Tina Penisoni of East Palo Alto. When they came to visit, which they did once or twice a year, they called upon her to be a chauffeur.

“They were very nice people,” Penisoni said of Kaimana and Tu’ipelehake, to whom she is distantly related. “They like to behave like normal people, but we always treated them like royalty.”

Prince Tu’ipelehake was a member of Tonga’s Legislative Assembly. He and the princess were scheduled to return to Tonga on July 22, and he was planning to submit formal political reform proposals to the king in August.

The couple has close ties with the Peninsula. Princess Kaimana has family here, and Prince Tu’ipelehake’s uncle, King Tau’akipulu (who is observing his 88th birthday this week), owns a home in Hillsborough. Tongans make up a significant portion of the Bay Area’s Pacific Islander population. More than 28,000 Pacific Islanders live in the region, according to the United States Census Bureau.

During their trip, they were due to visit Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and Seattle — other communities with large Tongan populations.

Their deaths affected people around the world, who gathered on message boards like those at www.planettonga.com, to remember the prince and princess. Some called them “the most beloved and respected of the royal couples.”

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