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A King's Ransom: Even Royalty Can't Pay the Rent in San Francisco These Days 

Wednesday, Jul 2 2014

Most San Franciscans' knowledge of the nation called Tonga begins and ends with the fact that there's a nation called Tonga.

But there's so much more to know. Its official language: Tongan. The ethnicity of 97 percent of its inhabitants: Tongan. Its currency is the pa'anga (valued at 54 cents to the dollar) and its capital is Nuku'alofa (vile puns about how this city is named after a place called Ku'alofa are discouraged).

Tonga is in the South Pacific, south of Fiji, north of New Zealand, and east of New Caledonia — where the French still insist on detonating the occasional bombe nucléaire. It remains the only monarchy in all Oceania: King Tupou V died in 2012 and was succeeded by his brother, Prince Tupouto'a Lavaka, who rechristened himself Tupou VI and appointed Lord Siale'ataonga Tu'ivakano prime minister.

All of this is relevant in today's San Francisco. Because Tonga just became the first monarchy priced out of town.

On June 19, a fete of the sort Burlingame has never before witnessed was held in a mirrored, cube-like office tower, a stone's throw from the It's-It factory and tantalizingly close to the Benihana: The Tongan consulate consecrated its new domicile along Old Bayshore Highway, after spending 26 years in the heart of San Francisco.

Official Tongan releases disseminated a number of reasons why this move makes sense. The new consulate is closer to the government-owned Tongan residence, "Tauakipulu," in Hillsborough. A "more centrally located" South Bay site, per the official storyline, somehow better serves the 57,000 Tongans scattered throughout the United States. Asked how this can be so, acting consul general Sela Tukia notes that Burlingame is, certainly, a repository of free parking. Well, fair enough — though your humble narrator has discovered that preying on motorists who idle atop the railroad tracks is something of a law-enforcement cottage industry in that town. You could feed a lot of meters for the cost of just one citation.

But, in reality, this is all about the pa'angas.

For decades, Tonga's consular needs were handled out of space within the Tiffany & Co. Building on 360 Post St., overlooking Union Square. This has long been a swank section of town, anyway (that building is after all named for everyone's favorite purveyor of $43,000 diamond tennis bracelets and aggressively turquoise boxes), but, of late, San Francisco's real estate market has ascended into maniacal, parodic, full-on banana-farm territory. The Tongans have noticed this. And they're checking out.

"You know, these prices in the city are increasing quite rapidly," says Tukia. "We have had some new, prestigious neighbors moving into our neighborhood and driving the cost up."

Moving to Burlingame, she says, has led to a "substantial" reduction in rent. Prestigious neighbors at the new spot include a table tennis club, a massage parlor, an El Torito, and, appropriately enough, a Tongan radio outfit.

So, let no one say Tonga is not a frugal monarchy. It also appears to be a trendsetter; Tukia cannot think of any other monarchies that have left town due to economic considerations.

Every day, San Francisco crosses new cost thresholds. Realtors fire off glossy mailers boasting of damn-near seven-digit sale prices for dumpy stucco homes, and major companies surrender kings' ransoms for office towers and high-rise suites.

But there are some ransoms a king won't pay.

While there is no place in this city for Tonga, we do retain The Tonga Room. Not that long ago, this didn't appear likely. Four years back, developers' plans to disassemble this shrine to the questionable taste of The Greatest Generation sparked Planning Department and Historic Preservation Commission battles.

You're not going to believe this, but ours is a city with an appreciation for kitsch: A city planner with an advanced degree opined that The Tonga Room — home of a floating bandstand, indoor rain, and thatched everything — constituted a "historical resource" which "represents a rare remaining example of a distinct phase of post-World War II popular culture, and includes a substantial number of distinctive characteristics." But, in reality, this is all about the pa'angas.

The Tonga Room's new proprietors boast they've "rekindled the excitement of its unique and time-honored décor to recapture the glory of one of the nation's first tiki palaces." If you're excited by fuchsia and orange tribal wall coverings, good news: "Tribal wall coverings in fuchsia and orange add excitement throughout the lounge and restaurant."

The price tag for all this excitement, rekindled or otherwise: $1 million (1.85 million pa'angas).

In this city, ersatz Tonga has outlasted the real thing. But that's how things work here. Any number of constituencies priced out of San Francisco are celebrated with historical districts and nostalgic businesses catering to those who took their place.

It seems an actual Tongan district, however, is percolating along Old Bayshore Highway. Perhaps that makes sense: A pa'anga stretches further down there.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" is a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly, which he has written for since 2007. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers... more


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