Smitten by French Polynesian culture, Sonny Shwe and Fujiko Matsuda have launched their fashion business in Japan featuring a clothing line with vibrant Tahitian colors and the creation of ‘ori Tahiti dance costumes.
Her skin was still raw from the needle. Fujiko Matsuda explains with a smile, “I have wanted a tattoo this large for a long time. In Japan, people associate tattoos with gang membership. It is not part of our culture.” She is sitting in the bar of Le Méridien hotel in Punaauia. Her boyfriend Sonny Shwe is sitting next to her. His arms and legs are tattooed with a blend of Chinese and Polynesian motifs. The lovers smile at each other. As if to justify her decision, Fujiko adds after a slight pause, “Since we came here to Tahiti to compete, I decided that this was the right time to get a tattoo.” Both in their thirties, they came to take part in the ’ori Tahiti Nui dance competition with their group Nonosina Polynesia directed by Mevina Liufau. This is not their first time here in the fenua. Their history with French Polynesia started a long time ago.
In 2002, Sonny Shwe was a high school student. For several years, he practiced martial arts and was a drummer. One day, an athletic event took place at his school. He recalls, “There was a musical group playing a lot of unfamiliar instruments with a sound I had never heard before. I was intrigued.” The group’s leader invited him to come to a rehearsal. This was Sonny’s debut into the world of Tahitian dance. He adds, “Many people know me as a dancer, when in fact I started out as a drummer.” Bit by bit, he learned how to play the tö’ere and pahu drums. One day, the director of the troupe asked him if he knew how to dance. “Yes! Of course I know how to dance!” was Sonny’s reply. But he confessed with a laugh, “The truth was, I had never danced my entire life!” He adds, “Right away, this music and this dance spoke to me. It became something anchored inside me.” Sonny quickly became one of the best dancers of his generation. He has received awards from several competitions in the United States and French Polynesia.
Just one dream in mind – to become a fashion designer
After dreaming about coming to this paradise for a very long while, Sonny arrived in French Polynesia for the first time in 2006. He recalls, “I was thrilled to come here and meet people. It was magical!” He received his first award for dance, and more than ten years later, he still hasn’t gotten over the feeling. “I was excited to receive an award. I think that this award gave me credibility in the world of ’ori Tahiti,” he says while adjusting his cap.
After high school, Sonny Shwe had but one dream—to become a fashion designer. “I come from a working-class immigrant Chinese family to whom being a fashion designer is not a real job. They didn’t believe it was enough to make a living.” This recent high school graduate was broke and couldn’t afford the school of his dreams located in New York. Far from losing hope, he decided to work for a year to pay for his tuition. He explains, “During that year, I did odd jobs, which allowed me to continue dancing. We traveled to various competitions throughout the Pacific. That same year, I started to design clothing, and so evidently, I began making my own ’ori Tahiti costumes.” Sonny Shwe never attended a school for fashion design, but his career took off anyway.
In 2006, his mentor Mevina Liufau created Americanasia, a performance that merges Polynesian and American cultures. “I became very close friends with the troupe director. We came to Tahiti together. One day, he asked me to contribute to his project through creating costumes for this performance…It was an enormous challenge for me. There were more than 25 performers and each one required a different costume. I was only 19 years old!” exclaims Sonny excitedly. In 2010, his mentor left for Japan to open an ’ori Tahiti dance school: Tavake Tere Ata. The young designer joined him some time later. Both of them are working on several projects in Tokyo.
Thirty to Fifty costumes per month
As they worked together, the school grew larger. In 2014, Fujiko Matsuda was one of the new dance recruits. Shy and pretty, she was a ray of sunshine when Sonny saw her. “It was her first day at the school and I asked her out,” he says. “She didn’t speak English very well and I didn’t speak any Japanese at all, but something happened between us.” A few months later, Sonny Shwe decided to leave everything and move to Tokyo to be with Fujiko.
The designer is in much demand by other ’ori Tahiti dance schools. “At one time, I had so much work, I didn’t know which way to turn. One day while I was working, Fujiko walked into the studio and saw me sewing. I was having a hard time accomplishing what I was trying to do. She came next to me without uttering a word and helped me through placing the material differently on the machine. This helped me enormously! It was at that moment that I told myself it would be great to work together.”
In August 2016, the lovebirds launched their company, Ahu Tahiti. They specialized in the design of ’ori Tahiti costumes. Their common passion brought them together. They know that the best is still yet to come. “We couldn’t have expected anything more. For us, coming here is like returning to the source of many things. It is so good to be here. It is very beautiful and people are so warm. We love it here!” says Fujiko with a big smile.
Fujiko and Sonny make around thirty to fifty costumes per month. Their schedule is filled up until next spring. The couple has also started to offer classes over basic costume making techniques. Sonny feels as if he needs to pinch himself. He says, “We are still ambitious, though. We would like to have a fashion show to promote our company. Our clothing line will start up soon. It will be for Japanese people and totally inspired by Tahitian local styles.”
These designers have a new goal—to build a connection between Japan and Tahiti. To achieve this, they hope to unite different artists. “We would like to invite dancers of course, but also tattooists and fashion designers to Japan for our fashion show. This way, the Japanese will have the opportunity to see much more than superb beaches and dances,” declares the owner of Ahu Tahiti Clothing. “This event was initially scheduled for June 2017, but since so many people have expressed interest, we have decided to reschedule for a later date.” All proceeds from the event will be donated to a Tahitian charity.
Fujiko Matsuda traces her tattoo with her finger. It is still red. She smiles and looks at Sonny. Most of his tattoos were done here in Tahiti. Fujiko and Sonny have French Polynesia in their daily lives and in their hearts, but specifically on their skin. French Polynesia has left its deep mark.