Hamilton woman's traditional Tongan handicrafts in high demand overseas
Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air
A young Tongan woman has turned a traditional Tongan handicraft into a thriving business fusing tradition with innovation - and is now sharing how she does it.
Kasanita Katene, of Hamilton, started making traditional Tongan necklaces - known as heilala kahoa - three years ago shortly after her wedding.
“My husband’s Māori and on my wedding day, I was wearing a heilala kahoa,” she said.
“It was just sitting around at home. Then I thought to make him one because he doesn’t have one.”
Katene says she tried contacting Tongan creators for guidance on making heilala necklaces, but was unsuccessful as most were not willing to share their skills.
From that day, the 25-year-old started experimenting with clay and began watching YouTube videos to figure out how to make the tiny clay flowers she uses in her necklaces.
She also officially started her necklace-making business - Heilala Creations.
Sharing her skills with the next generation
“I promised myself from then on when I find out how to make heilala necklaces myself, I would share it because I know there are a lot of people my age that would love to learn” she says.
Three years later, that promise is still being kept.
It has taken her two years to finally perfect the method of making the perfect heilala necklace.
With now over 100,000 likes on TikTok, over 400,000 followers on Instagram and over 12,000 followers on Facebook, Katene’s business is thriving.
Her business now gets five to 10 orders a week from Australia to as far as the US, the United Kingdom and Abu Dhabi. Katene usually makes the necklaces herself.
She says most of her clientele are from the United States.
“There was one lady who wanted a necklace with every colour of the rainbow but I had to turn [her] down because I cannot sit there with different types of clay and make different coloured heilala.”
Along with running her business, Katene works as a full-time caregiver and sometimes takes her craft to work and completes her creations during her breaks.
Apart from selling necklaces, Heilala Creations also sells do-it-yourself heilala kits. She has also started selling heilala candles that are infused with oils imported from Tonga.
“I sent my first batch of candles to my mum. She’s my biggest judge and she was testing out all of them and told me to keep sending more. I didn’t realise that she was giving them out to her friends when I should’ve already been approved.”
Katene is proud of her Tongan roots and hails from the villages of Falaleu, Koloa, Leimatu’a and Ha’ano.
She credits her mother for her talent for craft because their mother always dressed she and her siblings with the finest of Tongan handicrafts as children.
“We were looking like prized horses when it came to Fakamē (White Sunday) and all those special occasions.”
Despite being her biggest critic, Katene says her mum is also her biggest supporter. She has kept every necklace Katene has made for her since the beginning of her heilala journey - a reminder of how far she has come in her business.
She offers some encouragement to anyone else starting to their creative journey.
“It doesn’t matter how paku (burnt) or hipa (crooked) or faikehe (odd) the kahoa (necklace) looks. It was made by you, so it’s a special kahoa (necklace).”
Moving forward, Katene hopes to run a heilala-necklace-making class in Hamilton in the near future.
Hero image: Kasanita Katene is the owner of traditional Tongan necklace business Heilala Creations. Photo / Supplied