Suva, the capital of Fiji, was Keva’s home town. He grew up with his parents Captain Henry Low and Elizabeth Low, first on Toorak Rd and then Waimanu Rd close to Suva port. The youngest son of a big blended family with links across the Pacific, Keva was named after the MV Adi Keva, one of the ships skippered by Captain Low for the Pacific traders, Morris Hedstrom.
A Staff Serjeant in the Fiji Defence Force, Keva was a signalman based at Suva Point during WWII and recalled the HMNZS Leander and Achilles steaming into port in 1942 after Pearl Harbour was attacked. During the war years, the cosmopolitan capital hosted armed forces from New Zealand and the US which opened his eyes to life beyond the rigid colonial and racialised hierarchies of Fiji at that time. Henry and Elizabeth billeted many US soldiers during the war and the American Forces Radio Service, known as the Mosquito Network introduced Keva to the sound of American popular music. As a lock with the Fiji Coast Artillery Rugby team1, Keva played alongside and socialised with many New Zealanders serving in the Pacific.
In the picture below, Keva can be seen on the far left of the middle row. Learn more about the men in this picture.
Jack Fraser, an older brother, had already moved to New Zealand with his wife and children and after the war ended in 1945 Keva made plans to do the same. Following on from his duties as a signalman during the war, Keva gained an electrical apprenticeship under the New Zealand Pacific scholarship training scheme. Like many other trainees in a wide variety of occupations – doctors, dentists, tradespeople, nurses - from across the Pacific, he was able to travel to New Zealand to receive training and once that was completed it was intended that he would return to Fiji.
Travelling on the MV Matua in 1946, Keva arrived in Auckland as a 24-year-old. His memory of the journey was that it was overcrowded, and he slept on the floor of a cabin while two older kai vulagi2 men had the bunk beds. One of Keva’s lasting impressions of the journey was the moonlight on the water as the Matua came down the Rangitoto Channel into the Waitematā.
Mrs Violet Harvey’s boarding house at 34 Hepburn St in Freemans Bay was Keva’s first home in New Zealand. While in 1946 the Herald described the inner city suburb as “a rat-infested, overcrowded, unsanitary slum that endangered the health of Aucklanders”3, the reality was different. Initially drawn by work, cheap housing, public transport and proximity to the hubbub of the inner city4, a strong sense of community developed amongst the many Pacific immigrants and urbanised Māori living in Freemans Bay.
The neighbourhood was home to a former barracks on the corner of Fanshaw and Halsey St that became an important urban marae known as The Maori Community Centre. At the same time the Freemans Bay Residents Welfare Association was also formed to “combine socially for the cultural good of all people in the area. To unite as one, regardless of race, colour or creed, for the peaceful and fruitful existence of our residents”5. Under a slum clearance plan however, 137ha was to be cleared in 1951 and then in the 1970s the northern motorway would eventually slice the suburb in two.
In 1948, Keva married another young immigrant to New Zealand – Karen Kaai and their first home together was in what was once the US Soldier’s Camp at Victoria Park in Freemans Bay. Established in 1942 for US Marines and then later the US Army until 1944, the site held a total of 196 huts which, post war, became a transit camp that temporarily housed young married couples and their families. Keva, Karen and the first two of their six daughters Elizabeth and Stephanie, stayed at the camp until 1950 when they bought their first home in the new housing developments of Mt Roskill just along the road from brother Jack on O'Donnell Ave. Keva finished his electrical apprentice with Winstone Ltd and like many others on the scholarship training scheme, stayed on in New Zealand.
When the boat comes down
‘When the boat comes down’ is a poem (see below) by Melanie Rands and was first published in Scope Journal: Border Crossings: New Dialogues in Pacific Art & Design November 2012. The poem follows Keva Low’s journey from Suva to Auckland on the Matua, one of the ‘banana boats’ operated by the Union Steamship Company in the Pacific. Melanie is a visual artist and businesswoman of Hawaiian, Fijian and Scottish descent. She has a fine arts degree from Elam School of Fine Arts and completed her Master of Creative Writing at the University of Auckland in 2011. She spent many years researching and writing for ecostore, a company she founded with her partner Malcolm Rands in 1993. Recently Melanie has been chair of the Greenpeace Aotearoa board and is a past member and chair of the Pacific Advisory Group for Auckland Museum. Melanie appears on the TSMV Matua interactive in Tāmaki Herenga Waka.
when the boat comes down
a dadakulaci lies unconscious on the ground
4 nights of singing the horizon away
the banana boat swinging
16 knots into diesel sunsets
on her twin Armstrong-Sulzer 6 cylinder engines
Bob ‘Gin’ rocking her golden whiskey cabin
for 3 days straight
the night my father came
with 2000 tonnes of ripening cargo
her quota of islanders bursting
kai vulagi on the bunks & everyone else down below and
all their spirits rolled into one
the night my father came
with whales’ teeth and a turtle shell
on the Matua
all 355.2 feet of her round
and up the Rangitoto channel
when the boat comes down
to Mrs Harvey’s boarding house
on Hepburn Street in Freeman’s Bay
a gas stove and a double bed
in her refrigerated hold
1. The team won the Army Competition of 1943: played 12, won 10, lost nil, drew 2
2. Fijian word meaning white or European