Our most misunderstood suburb

It was once the fastest growing suburb in the country. Auckland, short of housing after World War II, offered up green fields in south Auckland to people desperate for homes. It would become the suburb of Ōtara. It was supposed to be a salvation - instead it produced levels of poverty, crime and gang violence that shocked New Zealand. Sixty years on, Ōtara remains one of Auckland’s most deprived areas, but residents say the suburb has grown up and should be allowed at last to shake off its bad reputation.
Harrison Christian investigates.

Ōtara is that place where someone got murdered with a machete in the town centre, where gang members did wheelies on the main drag and there were more tinnie houses than dairies.

Ōtara, area code 274: the newspapers called it “Tin City,” a crime-ridden ghetto for street kids and glue-sniffers. The name was, and remains, a byword for social failure. "Let's not have a Remuera answer for the backstreet of Ōtara," said Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters in a recent interview about synthetic cannabis.

Stereotypes die hard in Auckland, even as the city changes.

We seldom hear about Ōtara the cultural capital of the Pacific, the centre of praise and worship, the suburb that built itself without any help. Ōtara, where migrants get their start in New Zealand and political pilgrims descend in an election year.

The history of the area includes decades of crime and social problems that made it the country’s most talked about place. It's a story about the boom and bust of south Auckland, the birth of a multicultural city, and the dangers of building a suburb without a plan - lessons for the new housing developments in Auckland.

Over several weeks, Stuff met leaders, kaumātua, business owners and everyday residents, discussing Ōtara’s past, present and future. This is the story of their suburb.


The face of Auckland changed with the arrival of thousands of Pacific migrants, invited to New Zealand to fill a labour shortage. Ōtara is one of the places they made their own, but with the new mix of cultures came painful mistakes.

Aupito William Sio remembers the night police banged on the door and his cousins took off, chased by dogs across a creek.

It was about 4 o’clock in the morning. When Sio’s parents answered the door their faces were lit up with torches and an officer with a police dog marched into the house.

Sio, aged 14, had heard murmurings at school about the dawn raids targeting illegal overstayers. He knew his father had been meeting with church leaders, discussing how to approach the government about the inhumane treatment of Pacific people.

It wasn't just the raids on their homes; it was the way people were stopped in the street, arrested and taken in for questioning. And then the church leaders would go down and negotiate their release. In some instances they found the person wasn’t an overstayer, or that they were Māori and not a Pacific person.

Sio didn't figure his own family would be raided next.

The night it happened, some of his cousins were sleeping in the garage, their work permits recently expired. Waking up to dogs barking and lights shining in the windows, they ran into farmland behind the property.

The police dogs gave chase, and one of his cousins was caught and deported back to Samoa. He later returned to New Zealand under a new work permit and fathered an All Black.

Sio, now the Minister for Pacific Peoples, says given what Ōtara residents went through in the raids in the 70s, it's a marvel where his suburb is at today.

Auckland is now the largest Pacific city in the world, with about 200,000 people identifying as Pasifika.

And with a Pasifika population of more than 70 per cent, no suburb epitomises that more than Ōtara. It’s everywhere you look: the Pacific nation flags hanging in the streets, the fresh taro in crates on the footpaths, and the Samoan banana panikeke, or pancakes, served from the food warmers at the takeaway shop.

Sio is especially proud of the facilities such as Te Puke o Tara, the Ōtara Music Arts centre, and the Saturday flea market, which are all the product of advocacy by school kids.

"Anyone who grew up in Ōtara, has grown up like a phoenix out of the ashes," he says.

I think people are really resilient, and despite the challenges of that sad and bitter and traumatised era, people grew from it, and learnt how to work together.

His relatives still talk about the dawn raids when they get together. It was even mentioned in the speeches at his father's recent 80th birthday celebration.

"A lot of the older cousins got up to wish my dad a happy birthday, and they reflected on what happened. But it wasn't in a sad way or a mean-spirited way, it was in a funny way. And I suppose that's how we've coped with it."

He says the raids were also a cultural affront in ways the authorities didn’t comprehend.

His family had come to New Zealand on the invitation of the government, to fill the vacancies in the post-war manufacturing boom. His father made bath tubs at Alex Harvey Industries in Mt Wellington. They started to put roots down, buying a house and bringing other relatives over.

Mass emigration from the Pacific Islands was encouraged from the 50s. But in an economic downturn in the early 70s, Pacific people became convenient scapegoats for politicians, blamed for overloading social services. The raids began under Norman Kirk's Labour government and intensified under Rob Muldoon.

"From a Samoan perspective, you invite someone to come over to your house, and then you do this to them? Particularly when you're asking these people to help build New Zealand's economy. It was just rude - disgusting behaviour,” Sio laughs.

To the new families trying to make their way in Pālagi society, the dawn raids drew a line in the sand. It sent a message that they were not part of the New Zealand population, and Pacific parents of the time began to teach their children that they should keep to themselves, and not marry outside their race.

But the later generations didn't listen to them, Sio says. Pacific, Māori and Pākehā young people did not see colour like their parents did, and Pacific people are now increasingly mixed race, identifying with more than one ethnicity.

Ron Kite Senior is the only Pālagi left on his street.

Ōtara, where he has lived for more than 50 years, was once mostly Pākehā, with some Māori and a few people from the Pacific.

Kite is 90 now, but he's not going anywhere. His house is in great condition; it's being held together by about 100 coats of marine paint.

Despite his attachment to the area, living in Ōtara has had its moments. People have moved in who don’t know or respect the founding families.

Three years ago, Kite was bashed in a home invasion. A woman came in and demanded he drive her somewhere. When Kite refused, she hit him in the face with an iron bar. Since that incident, his family has installed metal bars on his back door.

There was also the time he woke to find a man lying half-naked on his back porch. The fella had got drunk and been robbed of his clothes and phone. Kite drove him back to Papatoetoe in his undies and singlet.

From his armchair, Kite has seen a lot of change unfold outside his window. The Ōtara creek, where you used to be able to catch fish, is now full of shopping baskets and trolleys. Once or twice a day, a fleet of Harley Davidsons roars down the street.

Ōtara began as a promised land for young families. Kite remembers how he and his wife, Waiheke Ngaromutu Heka, secured a spot in the brand new suburb in south Auckland.

After World War II, Auckland was desperately short of houses. Whole towns' worth of building materials had been funneled into defence. Overcrowding was rife, rentals were in poor condition, and there was an impossible wait-list for state housing.

In the late 1950s, government planners came up with a solution: a new community on the city fringes to take the overflow population.

They considered Ōtara an ideal location: a flat rural area, near the just-opened southern motorway and the booming industrial centres of Ōtāhuhu and Penrose.

Within 10 years, the number of homes in Ōtara ballooned to almost 4000 mostly state houses.

On paper, it was a slice of the suburban dream. The houses still smelled of fresh pine. A job in the neighbouring industrial hubs was guaranteed. All you had to do was move in.

Kite migrated from war-ravaged England in his early 20s; Heka hailed from Te Aupōuri in the Far North. Both of them knew poverty. In 1964, when they arrived at their five-bedroom Ōtara mansion, it felt like they were moving up in the world.

But in practice, the suburb felt more like a labour camp than a community. It lacked halls, kindergartens or parks. There were no shrubs or trees, because nothing had had time to grow. Instead, the streets were festooned with power lines.

Nevertheless, in the six years from 1961, Ōtara's population exploded, from just over 3000 to 20,000 - making it the fastest growing area in the country. Newspapers at the time called it the "instant community".

The mix of Māori, Pākehā and later, immigrants from the Pacific, felt like an idealistic social experiment, recalls Kite's daughter Rhonda Kite, who was 10 years old when they arrived.

Tongans and Samoans were once ancient rivals; now they lived over the fence from each other. Māori faced the cultural dislocation of moving from marae to city life, losing touch with their whakapapa and tribal communities.

Pākehā, meanwhile, had been used to Auckland looking like an outpost of Britain - up until the 1950s, Māori had remained in rural areas and the country's de facto immigration policy had favoured British immigrants.

"So it was like, 'OK, we've all got to get along’," says Rhonda.

"There was no long-term plan. It was, we need labour - let's ship them in from the islands, let's bring them down from the rural areas, build these houses, stick them in there and get them working."

Very quickly, Ōtara became labelled a ghetto - although in those early days it was a cheerful working-class neighbourhood, not dissimilar to a mining town.

That stigma was put on us and stayed with us. I just had this sense that something was not right.

In 1965, Ōtara was more than 60 per cent Pākehā. Today, that number is just 13 per cent.

The suburb also has a growing Asian demographic - by 2038, Statistics NZ projects the Asian population in the Ōtara-Papatoetoe local board area will reach almost 50 per cent.

As more and more Māori and Pacific families arrived in the suburb in the 1960s, more Pākehā families were moving out, in a phenomenon known as "white flight".

By the 1980s, Ōtara had been nicknamed the "capital of Polynesia", but the jobs promised to immigrants in the nearby industrial areas were starting to dry up.

The Westfield and Southdown freezing works closed down, leaving many people, often members of the same extended family, out of work.

"We were put there for a reason, and then the reason was ripped away," says Rhonda Kite. "When the jobs went, so did a lot of self-esteem and empowerment."

Ron Kite is alone in the house these days. His living room is a time capsule of old memories. Clocks on the wall show the time in England, Abu Dhabi and Spain - his friends and family flung across the world. Rhonda now works as a chief executive in the United Arab Emirates.

The father and daughter are not sure what the future will bring for Ōtara. It could even turn into a posh area one day, Rhonda suggests, if their old haunt of Glen Innes is anything to go by.

The east Auckland suburb was once full of state houses, but a mass redevelopment in the past decade has lifted the median house price to over $1 million, pricing long-time residents out of the area.

The Glen Innes street the Kites lived on before they moved to Ōtara - Madeline Avenue - was renamed Mt Taylor Dr, its state housing flats torn down and replaced with million-dollar homes.

Charlie Brothers sells houses in south Auckland for Ray White. He knows the area so well, his colleagues call him "Mr Manukau".

Brothers says people are buying in Ōtara: not home buyers, who are put off by the area's bad reputation, but investors, who renovate the properties and flip them.

He believes it’s a portent for homes in Ōtara becoming increasingly sought after, the suburb joining the likes of Māngere East and Manurewa as buyers flock south of the city.

In between calls on his Bluetooth headset, Brothers gives us a tour of a three-bedroom weatherboard house on a 683 sqm property, fully renovated with a deck and a huge garage, for $649,000.

Look at this - how well has this property been done up? Would you live here? Hell yeah!

"But people don't want to come here, because it's Ōtara. People always go for Manurewa over Ōtara, and yet Ōtara is the closest to the city.”

Auckland University senior lecturer Bill McKay says Ōtara was a poorly planned suburb - a lesson for the new housing projects in Auckland.

Bill McKay, a senior lecturer at Auckland University and an expert on state housing, sees Ōtara as a cautionary tale, an example of what not to do when building a suburb.

"They were increasing the density and getting people to live cheek by jowl,” says McKay, “but not providing the amenities that need to go with increasing density.”

Crucially, state houses in Ōtara also didn’t acknowledge Māori or Pacific ways of living, as Housing NZ does in its guidelines today.

For example, Pacific people live as extended families, but a standard Kiwi house was neither large nor robust enough to withstand the pressures of that lifestyle. To this day, around four in 10 Pacific people live in crowded homes in New Zealand.

Māori, lacking marae, also lost their ability to come together in formal or ritual gatherings.

As a result of the limits of Pākehā-style housing, double garages across Ōtara were converted into rumpus rooms, sleep-outs and meeting houses.

You can still spot them around the area. Another method of creating extra space is to drape a tarpaulin over a carport.

The oversights in Ōtara’s early years would prove a costly mistake, leaving whole generations of young people with nowhere to gather except the street. It was a situation ready-made for disaster.




Gang brawls, rioting street kids and an infamous public killing. Ōtara used to be the poster-child suburb for crime and violence, but locals say it’s now the safest it has been in years.

“If you can survive in Ōtara,” says Gray Theodore, “Man, you can survive anywhere.”

The kaumātua, 84, has seen the suburb at rock bottom. When a young man was hacked to death with a machete in front of hundreds of shoppers at the town centre, Theodore was just across the road in his vicarage.

Before moving to Auckland, he worked on a farm in the Bay of Islands, building fences, driving tractors and rounding up cows.

He wanted a house of his own, but the government's Town and Country Planning Act meant he was unable to build on his ancestral land.

So he came down to Auckland from the north, part of the "urban drift" of Māori invited to fill labour jobs in the city centres.

In 1966, aged in his 30s, Theodore bought an L-shaped home in Tyrone St and went to work as a machine operator.

He watched the town centre expand from a single dairy surrounded by farmland, to a thriving hub of department stores: Farmers, Rendells and Woolworths.

And then it seemed to contract again. Rendells and Farmers burned down, while other shops struggled and then closed.

These days the town centre is mostly a place to buy hot food: Young's Lunch Bar; Hot Bread Shop; Fill-Um-Tum. There are also dollar stores, island-style clothing outlets, and a transfer station where you can send money back to Samoa.

The area is smoke and alcohol-free. It has "ambassadors" walking around in red jackets who aid public safety - they're long-term beneficiaries who get paid under a partnership between Auckland Council and the Ministry of Social Development.

The town centre manager, a Sikh with a flowing grey beard named Rana Judge, has a colleague watching CCTV footage of the centre full-time, and communicating with the ambassadors via walkie talkie.

It’s a system that this year helped Ōtara earn the accolade of the safest town centre in south Auckland from the police.

Judge has got rid of the bikies and thieves. He’s now focussed on adding a bit of variety to the faded shopfronts. He thinks there are too many takeaway shops - a total of 16.

A lot of the premises are Chinese-owned, Judge explains. He wants to bring in an electronics store - perhaps a supermarket - but says it can be difficult to reach the shop owners in China and Hong Kong and help them choose a suitable retailer.

“A lot of Indians or Asians, they're buying properties here,” says Judge. “Because they know it's a little bit lower-priced than any other area, but it will be booming in the next four or five years.”

In previous decades, Ōtara's town centre sometimes resembled a warzone, its few brave shopkeepers hunkering down behind metal roller doors amid constant vandalism and robberies.

By the 1980s, the suburb had large numbers of homeless children who terrorised local businesses.

About 200 kids, aged 8 to 16, would gather at the town centre at night to drink, sniff glue and break into shops. There could be seven burglaries there in a single weekend.

In one early morning police raid, 25 kids were found squatting in a vacant house near the town centre.

The kids had run away, or been pushed out of their homes by overcrowding, or they were simply left unsupervised in the streets while their young parents worked double shifts.

In September 1983, police in riot gear were pelted with rocks, cans and bottles by 200 children for hours, after they tried to arrest a 15-year-old boy for shoplifting.

At night, the town centre became a dead zone where no one dared venture. In 1988, it reached a new low, when a young man was murdered at the Saturday flea market.

The broad daylight incident has haunted Ōtara ever since.

“Terrified crowd watched brutal gang knife attack,” was the headline in the Auckland Sun in May, 1988.

A stunned silence hung over the normally bustling Otara Town Centre after the brutal revenge killing of 21-year-old David Fuko.

On an autumn morning, Samoan Iupeli Pauga attacked a group of Tongans at the flea market with a machete. He was consumed with the need to get revenge after being injured in a fight with a Tongan.

Pauga fatally slashed Fuko, an uncle of future All Black Jonah Lomu, in the neck. He also nearly cut another young Tongan man’s arm off.

Media at the time painted the attack as the crescendo of racial tensions between Tongans and Samoans. But beneath that was the story of one young man’s psychological unraveling.

Nineteen days after the murder, when a psychiatrist visited Pauga in prison, he was still obsessed with violence towards Tongan people. He was diagnosed with a personality disorder.

The 22-year-old lacked work, language skills or education. He and his buddies were not equipped to do much other than drink and fight.

His victim, too, had failed to find a place for himself in New Zealand. Fuko had hoped to return home to Tonga the month after he died. He'd called his uncle weeks earlier to say he loved New Zealand but knew he could never "make it here".

The year of the murder, Theodore had just been appointed minister for the Ōtara Māori Anglican Church. He, his wife Gloria and their four kids moved into the vicarage across the road from the town centre.

Gloria came racing in one morning and said: "There's been a murder at the flea market”.

Theodore headed to the town centre, where he found throngs of shoppers gathered around Fuko's body. The police were there trying to keep order, but nobody was listening.

At midday, there wasn't a young person in Ōtara, Theodore says. His own children had left.

"They'd taken all the buses and gone into town. They said, 'we want out’."

The attack cemented Ōtara in the public mind as an epicentre of crime.

"Ōtara has found itself on trial again," said an Auckland Star article in 1988, "after years of struggling to shed its image as a crime-ridden ghetto for street kids and glue-sniffers".

Thirty years later, Ōtara is still trying to shed that image. But the top cop for Counties Manukau East, Inspector Wendy Spiller, says in recent years crime in the area has dropped - especially violent crime.

In fact, Spiller says the bigger challenge for officers in the district isn’t the offenders, but being able to afford to live there.

"Police officers don't want to move out of the area because of the work they do. They want to leave because they can't afford to buy a house."

It’s true that Ōtara remains one of the more difficult areas of Auckland to police. One of the biggest issues now is vehicle crime, Spiller says, which typically involves young offenders.

“They can get into a car quicker than you and I can get the keys out of our pocket.”

Francis Leilua was only 15 when he was beamed onto national television as a spokesperson for the Stormtroopers gang.

The 1970 interview with Brian Edwards was intended as a gritty report from one of the country’s worst ghettos.

Edwards, in those days a ground-breaking TV personality with a new, aggressive approach to journalism, had bailed up a group of kids on the streets of Ōtara, and wanted to know why they were wearing swastikas.

Among the boys who responded evenly to the interrogation was the gang's sergeant-at-arms: a tall teenager with an afro called Francis.

He explained that he and his friends had started rallying together for protection. They were being picked on by adult gangs from other districts.

"That fulla's from Ōtara - bang!" said Francis. "So we got together. We started to make a big group, and we were ready for the blokes from the outside."

The uniform was a denim jacket. They painted these black, and then one of the boys who was good with a paint brush would go over them with the skull and crossbones detailing.

They had no idea what they were doing, reflects Leilua in his classroom at Ōtara's Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate. These days he's a teacher at the same school he attended as a Stormtrooper.

"We were just school kids. We'd all gather at someone's place, and the parents would say 'I don't want all you kids around here,’ so we'd move on, to someone else's garage."

Their use of Nazi insignia - swastikas and German steel helmets - amounted to adolescent mimicry of the shock tactics used by adult gangs.

The Hells Angels biker gang seemed to enjoy picking on the young people of Ōtara, roaring off the motorway and randomly jumping kids. The streets had become a gauntlet of beltings from the Angels and random stops by the police.

The bikies didn't like it when they heard Ōtara had formed a gang of its own. At a concert at the town centre in the early 1970s, residents caught wind there was going to be trouble.

It was a free outdoor music event, recalls Leilua. Parents and kids sat around the car park listening to local bands.

Sure enough, while the crowd was serenaded by a young man’s electric guitar, an awful sound rolled in from the distance like a cosmic belch.

Almost 100 bikes came in off the southern motorway. There were so many bikies, some didn't have a bike left to ride on, and came in a van instead.

The crowd peeled apart to let the visitors into the carpark, and then barricaded both entrances so they couldn't get out.

The Angels were pulled from their bikes. Their machines were rammed over and smashed.

Leilua says: "They’d come here to deal to us. They didn't realize the whole community was going to turn on them."

The Stormtroopers became officially recognised as a constructive force in the community, regularly approached to do work around the place.

After a few years they grew up and disbanded. A couple of contemporary gangs in New Zealand that use the name "Stormtroopers" are unrelated except by name.

Ōtara has remained fertile ground for gangs. The Tribesmen motorcycle gang emerged in the 80s, and its feeder youth street gang the Killer Beez followed in 2003.

Leilua reckons the Tribesmen were probably formed by the younger siblings of the Stormtroopers; kids who wanted to join them but never got the opportunity.

Gangs today, it's all about drugs and money isn't it? We never had either of those things.

The 66-year-old walks gingerly around his classroom on newly reconstructed knees. The walls are papered with positive mantras for his pupils: "Be inclusive like a FAMILY;" "Suffer NOW for TOMORROW's satisfaction".

Leilua reckons students now have more opportunities than they did in the 1970s. A lot of young people don't stay in Ōtara, moving elsewhere in Auckland or further afield.

The streets are a lot safer since the days of the gang brawl at the town centre.

Ōtara has been through the pain of any new community, and I think it's levelled out now.

In the 2000s, the Killer Beez, modeled on the American-style street gangs, caused a moral panic not unlike the one sparked by the Stormtroopers decades earlier, although this one was more warranted.

Judged by a newspaper to be "New Zealand's fastest-growing gang," it was linked to savage bashings of couples on Auckland's North Shore, and a tinnie house shooting in Ōtara that saw one victim lose an eye.

The gang set up a recording studio and sold its music under the name Colourway Records. It produced a video for its track Put your colours on, featuring faces obscured by yellow bandannas and throwing the gang's raised middle finger sign. It claimed to offer young kids in south Auckland a way out of poverty.

In 2008, Killer Beez president Josh Masters appeared on Campbell Live in a somewhat more scripted interview than the one conducted by Brian Edwards on the streets of Ōtara in the ‘70s.

This time the questions weren't about swastikas, but about violent attacks on members of the public, and methamphetamine.

"We're against it. We hate it," Masters said of the drug.

Three months later, Masters and 43 other Killer Beez and Tribesmen affiliates were arrested in a covert drugs sting. Masters served a 10-year sentence for dealing P and money laundering. He was released from prison in July; many other Killer Beez members remain behind bars.

Masters’ 14 parole conditions include that he not associate with gang members. He’s understood to be living in an inner city suburb.

But the 40-year-old has kept his status as a local celebrity. He is active on social media, his posts attracting hundreds of supportive comments.

Soon after his release, he stopped for a selfie with one of his “fans” in Manukau’s Westfield shopping centre. He did not respond to interview requests.

Inspector Wendy Spiller says Masters is "not in this area," and won't comment further.

She says over the past several years, gang activity in Ōtara has declined.

"I'm not saying there is no gang activity there, because there is - but I do think that Ōtara itself is getting stronger as a community in that regard."



Residents will tell you Ōtara gets an unfair rap in the media. The suburb they’re proud of is a cultural capital, a stronghold of religious faith and a place of untapped potential.

Mormons and Muslims are giving away their scriptures within a few steps of each other. Followers of the Chinese spiritual practice Falun Gong have occupied the town centre with their tai chi-like movements, while an evangelist in a fluorescent rain suit preaches the gospel through a PA system in the car park.

Ōtara’s flea market is a tour of multicultural Auckland, a marketplace for vegetables and clothes and the world’s religions. There is Pacific fare and a growing Eastern presence, with around half of the stalls now Asian-owned.

A Chinese family from Mt Roskill unloads beans, ginger and eggplant out of their big red van; a Cook Islands Māori lady from Epsom shows off her array of 'ei katu (flower crowns) and coconut oils.

The market is widely-known as a place to mingle and buy cheap veggies - or if you live outside Auckland, as a well-worn destination for politicians on the campaign trail. A visit to the Ōtara market is almost a rite of passage for future leaders: Helen Clark in 1997; John Key in 2008; Jacinda Ardern in 2017.

Political analyst Bryce Edwards says the event is a crucial "home ground" for the Labour Party; a meeting place of low-income voters the party has historically appealed to. For decades, there was an expectation that Labour candidates, MPs and leaders would have a physical presence at the market.

But the flea market is even more valuable to politicians on the right, Edwards says, because it's such a good opportunity for them to be shown on TV or in the newspaper mixing with the masses.

A big part of modern campaigning is based not just on pitching your message to individuals at places like the market, but being seen to be doing so.

"For people like John Key, attending events like the Ōtara market was a very strong indicator to the rest of New Zealand that he was capable of mixing with people very different from himself.

If he didn't convey this sort of readiness to walk amongst poor people, then he might very well have been viewed simply as the Epsom resident worth $55 million.

Lotu Fuli's family don't lock the front door to their home, and haven't for years. Fuli often doesn't lock her car, either, when she parks at the town centre to duck into the shops.  

As crime in Ōtara has fallen, Fuli says, the public perception of the place has struggled to catch up. It's actually when she visits other areas like West Auckland that she feels unsafe, because she doesn't know the people out there.

At her office in Manukau's civic building, the chairwoman of the Ōtara-Papatoetoe local board says her hometown still hasn't lived down its reputation following the machete murder 30 years ago.

She says it’s now a place where you're more likely to run into churchgoers and youth groups than gang members. For better or worse, Ōtara is one of the country’s most Christian suburbs, second only, perhaps, to Māngere.

Every Sunday, the doors of the Ōtara Pacific Island Church (PIC) fill with elderly women wearing bold and colorful hats.

They arrive slowly, dressed in bright puletasi (dresses), some assisted by a crutch or younger relative. In the pews they form a canopy of flowers, ribbons, satin and flax.

The minister, standing at the podium in his finery, prays that the parish be kept safe, paying homage to its migrant roots: “We feel the cold so much. And sometimes we dreaded staying in this country; wanting to go home to our island nations, where the weather is so kind and warm.”

This is the first of the day’s rolling services in several different languages: English, Samoan, Cook Islands Māori and Niuean.

Missionaries converted many Pacific Islanders to Christianity in the 19th century. On arrival in New Zealand, migrants lost the close village bonds they were brought up with, and churches became their surrogate villages.

Fepulea’i Margie Apa says church was a focal point of daily life for her parents. Now she’s passing on the tradition to her daughter.

Apa is the chief executive of Counties Manukau District Health Board (DHB), but moonlights as a Sunday school teacher for the PIC.

She says for her parents’ generation, the church was an unofficial immigration and advocacy service, helping them to unravel the complexities of their new life.

For Pacific people and particularly as a migrant community, it's been a source of social support for each other, and a way of adjusting to a different way of living.

It’s also a meeting place for different Pacific cultures that don’t necessarily mix outside worship. Everything Margie knows about Niuean and Cook Island cultural practices, she learnt at PIC.

Her daughter Sapati Apa, 20, is also here every Sunday, and sings in the church band.

Sapati, whose name comes from the Samoan word for “sabbath,” says she grew up with the other young people in church. Her mother strongly encourages her to attend, but she’s happy to do so because it feels like a family.

"There's a lot of support we have here that we might not necessarily have in school or in our workplaces.”

There are generational differences. The church hats worn by the older ladies come from a New Testament concept of head coverings that hasn’t caught on with the young women.

Sapati’s band is also a relatively new development, as the congregation becomes more inclusive of young people.

Ōtara-Papatoetoe local board chair Lotu Fuli says in Ōtara, you're more likely to run into churchgoers than gang members.

When Fuli's family migrated to New Zealand from Samoa in the 1970s, they started off living in Mt Eden.

Her father had been a school principal, and her mother a teacher; in New Zealand they were factory workers and cleaners.

Fuli's mother would eventually become a New Zealand educator, but her father continued working in factories, sometimes holding down four jobs at a time.

As more houses went up in Ōtara, the suburb offered what looked like a great deal.

"Of course now that land in the city is worth millions," Fuli says. "We look at our old house in Mt Eden and that's a $3 million mansion now."

Back then, Auckland’s housing market wasn’t prohibitively expensive like it is today. You could work a couple of factory jobs and a cleaning job and still afford to buy a house. In 1976, the Fulis moved into what remains their family home in Ōtara.

Fuli’s father would come home from one job, have a meal, then jump on his 10-speed and pedal out to Fisher & Paykel in East Tāmaki.

By the early 2000s, Fuli had a good life working as an English teacher in Japan and South Korea. But she decided to stay and make a difference in her own country during a visit in 2010.

She had always seen Manukau as a bit of a thriving area, but she noticed empty car yards as she drove home from the airport.

Companies like Fisher & Paykel, which had been a cornerstone of her community growing up, were in dire straits. The appliances factory eventually closed in 2016. Nestle's recent decision to move confectionery manufacturing from Wiri to Levin is predicted to be another blow.

Earlier this year, Ōtara-Papatoetoe was ranked the most deprived part of Auckland in an ATEED prosperity index, given just 0.7 out of 10. That’s compared with Ōrākei at 9.8. Income levels in Ōtara were 22 per cent below the Auckland average.

Stella Muller, who runs a south Auckland-based creative marketing agency called Bright Sunday, says Ōtara is a cultural capital of the Pacific.

But one resident says the prosperity stats don’t tell the full story: that of a new generation of entrepreneurs with distinctly Pacific and Māori ways of doing business.

The second floor of a commercial building in Ōtahuhu hosts an open-plan office that looks down on punters waiting for a tavern to open; in it, Stella Muller runs a creative marketing agency called Bright Sunday.

Muller has five employees, and a network of dozens of Māori and Pacific contractors. She’s proud that the agency is south Auckland-based, and that people in the city - everyone from bureaucrats to filmmakers - are turning to Bright Sunday for their campaigns.

While it's true that a lot of the agency’s work is communicating to a Māori or Pacific audience, Stella says her mission is about more than that.

I think our ideas are the untapped creativity that can give New Zealand an edge.

The 42-year-old says there’s a creative and economic explosion happening in south Auckland that’s gone relatively unnoticed.

For example, Ōtara residents Swannie and Terry Nelson last year developed the country's first phone app to help people pass their driver's licence tests. Ōtara-bred stylist Nora Swann, meanwhile, founded the Pacific Fusion Fashion Show.

"There's lots of enterprising stories that we know, but I think the biggest challenge we have is the visibility of our stories."

Muller lives in her parents' family home of almost 50 years in Ōtara, along with a couple of sisters, her Tongan husband and their six children.

She jokes that she was working in communications long before she got her degree at Manukau Institute of Technology. At the age of six, she was a translator for her parents and their bank teller.

When Muller was adopted within her extended family, she was the afakasi, or half-Pālangi child. Her parents thought she had "magical Pālangi powers," and took her to all their appointments.

It was "all or nothing" when her parents came to New Zealand hoping to provide a better education for their children. They did the hard yards so Muller and her siblings could reap the benefits. She reckons there’s much to be learnt from that kind of pioneering spirit.

Muller goes to a different, more liberal church than her parents. She tithes (gives a portion of her income to the church) and supports her parents to tithe at their church as well.

Critics have accused Pacific churches of draining the incomes of their worshippers. Muller says that’s a misunderstanding. It's only through tithing, she argues, that churches have been able to provide such high levels of pastoral care to migrants.

Our churches were the new villages - the social structure that supported our communities to get by, in times when there were no services for us.

Muller's father had only a primary school education, and worked in factories on arrival in New Zealand. Then he decided he wanted to be a businessman. In a move unusual among his peers, he used his life savings to buy a pool hall in Ōtara.

That was where Stella's entrepreneurial journey started. At the age of 16, she was helping her father run the pool hall; dealing with the council and the IRD and balancing the books.

Ōtara has remained a major portal for immigrants, and a testing ground for all their hopes and ambitions. Pacific people were once the newcomers in a majority Pālangi neighbourhood; now Asians are the new arrivals.

Muller thinks the suburb will remain a Pacific stronghold and a “capital of Polynesia”.

"Ōtara is going to be a place of increasing diversity, just as it was for my parents when it was predominantly Pākehā,” she says.

There are things Ōtara is missing out on. It would be a victory for residents to buy back the rundown shop fronts, so they can have more control over the town centre’s appearance and stem the overabundance of fried food.  

In the meantime, Muller says, there’s a new generation of Māori and Pacific leaders in the wings, who have grown up in the suburb and want better for it.

Just as Ōtara has come of age, locals can feel the rumblings of change again. Investors are moving in. The Asian population is growing rapidly. A regeneration project of the kind seen elsewhere in the city is thought of as inevitable.

Having grown out of decades of social problems, the suburb's greatest test of character may lie ahead.

Soon, Ōtara's troubled history will be just that - history - and home buyers won't think twice before moving there. The question becomes how its Polynesian identity will hold out against the rapid development sweeping Auckland.

Many residents came to Ōtara after their families were pushed out of the inner city suburbs as they became gentrified. The villas and cottages they left behind are now multimillion dollar homes.

Locals hope the city has learnt from other projects that displaced long-term residents, such as the Tāmaki regeneration in Glen Innes.

Ōtara's redevelopment, they say, should happen in a way that doesn't uproot families and villages, causing yet another exodus south of the city.

Reporter: Harrison Christian

Visuals: Chris McKeen, David White and Ross Giblin

Research: Lesley Longstaff

Design & layout: Aaron Wood

Editors: Blair Ensor and John Hartevelt