Hawaii’s expatriate Tongan community reacted with shock and sorrow Sunday to news of the death of King George Tupou V.
Tupou, who championed a more democratic system of government in the Pacific island nation, died Sunday in a Hong Kong hospital, the Tongan prime minister said. He was 63.
"This is a big shock for all Tongan people," said Honolulu resident Kauasi Mataele, founder of KT Mataele Contractors and a relative of the king. "He was very young. There were a lot of people who felt he was going to move Tongan customs in a different way."
At First United Methodist Church of Honolulu on Beretania Street, a congregation of about three dozen people, most of them first- or second-generation immigrants from Tonga, honored the fallen king at the start of their 5 p.m. Sunday service.
Tina Matangi, who came to Hawaii from Tonga in 1998, said that while many Tongans move abroad for better economic opportunities, most retain great affection for the ruling family.
"It’s very sad," Matangi said. "He was a good guy and he really loved the people. We’ll all remember him."
Prime Minister Lord Siale‘ataonga Tu‘ivakano gave a brief address announcing that the king had died at 3 p.m. Sunday, Pesi Fonua, publisher of the Tongan news website Matangi Tonga, told The Associated Press. No cause of death was given.
The prime minister said the heir to the throne, Crown Prince Tupouto‘a Lavaka, was at the king’s side when he died at the Hong Kong hospital.
The prime minister declared that the royal family and entire nation were in mourning, ending his address with a Tongan expression meaning "The sun has set," according to Fonua.
The king had a liver transplant last year and suffered other health problems, according to Tongan media reports.
Tupou had reigned over the island nation of 106,000 since September 2006, after the death of his father, King Taufa‘ahau Tupou IV.
Tupou, who studied at King’s College in Auckland, New Zealand, and in Britain, is credited with championing a more open system of government, advocating technological improvements and introducing a more open economy in the kingdom.
He will be remembered by many for his throwback fashion choices — which included wearing, at times, a top hat and even a monocle.
Fonua said the king gave up most of his executive powers when he ascended the throne, accepting the need for a more democratic system. Fonua said the king also championed technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet, and made some enemies among conservative Tongans for his efforts to make the economy more market-driven.
Mataele said he last saw Tupou at a family dinner during the monarch’s final visit to Hawaii last year.
"He was very popular with the Tongan people," Mataele said. "He was a very kind guy."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.