One of the most distinctive features of Tongan culture are fakaleiti, a modern continuation of an ancient Polynesian tradition, known as fa’afafine in Samoa and mahu or rae rae in French Polynesia.
The term fakaleiti is made up of the prefix faka- (in the manner of) and -leiti from the English word lady. Traditionally, if a Tongan woman had too many sons and not enough daughters she would need one of the sons to assist with ‘women’s work’ such as cooking and housecleaning. This child would then be brought up as a daughter. These days, becoming a fakaleiti can also be a lifestyle choice. There is little stigma attached to fakaleiti, and they mix easily with the rest of society, often being admired for their style.
On Tongatapu, the Tonga Leitis’ Association (TLA) is an active group – members prefer to call themselves simply leiti (ladies). The association sponsors several popular, well-attended events, including the international Miss Galaxy competition in July. On Vava'u, check out the fakaleiti show every Wednesday night at the Bounty Bar.