Good morning, class.
“Good MORNING, Mr. Taylor!”
Settle down quickly, please. I have a special treat for you today…
Hey, this is the first and last time I’m going to ask you to put that comic book away, Mr. Darrell. If I see it poking out from behind your history book again, it’s going right into my personal comic book collection––even though I already have that one; Batman beats Superman down wearing a pair of Kryptonite gloves.
Now, put it away until recess. Thank you.
All right, class. Today we have a very special treat. As you know, this is the day of the week that we reserve for show-and-tell. And I can already see that those of you whose turn it is this week eagerly await your chance to tell us about the items you’ve brought to share. As usual, I’m looking forward to seeing what you’ve brought.
Oh, Mr. Hardeep? Could you put that… Wow, that 1974 vintage Bandai Mechagodzilla figure back in your backpack until it’s your turn to show-and-tell? Thanks.
To start the session today, class, I thought we’d do something different. Our good friend Professor Paco has come by at my request to ‘show and tell’ us about a few of the very impressive items in his personal collection of artifacts from Melanesia.
Melanesia |me.ləˈni.zi.ə|(from Greek, meaning “black islands”): region extending from the western side of the eastern Pacific to the Arafura Sea, north and northeast of Australia. It consists of 2,000 islands with a total land area of about 386,000 square miles (one million square kilometers), and home to about 12 million people. These islands have been inhabited for tens of thousands of years.
Let’s give him our undivided attention, okay?
Thanks, Mr. Taylor. Good morning, class. It’s really great to see all of your radiant faces again. I’m gonna try my very best to make this short visit just as exciting as the last. To that end, I’m going to begin this lil’ presentation with a video clip from the movie King Kong.
[Low groans from several students]
Wait a minute, don’t declare mutiny on me yet. The clip isn’t from that 2005 Peter Jackson remake. I’ve heard that some, if not most of you, disliked that one just as much as I did. And for some of the same reasons: Non-black actors wearing blackface make-up in the 21st century? Yeah, pret-ty flip-pin’ lame.
No, this clip comes from the 1976 remake. In it, the character Dwan, played by actress Jessica Lange, has been kidnapped by Skull Islanders played by African-American actors and extras — like in the original — and whisked back to their high-walled village. Once there, she is sedated and dressed in the customary garb of a sacrificial Bride of Kong. And afterward, the dazed and confused offering from America is bound to the tribal altar.
Pretty cool, huh? But what I myself found most cool — on the geek tip — is the level of detail paid to Jessica Lange’s attire. Especially when factoring in how much of its significance would be utterly lost on unknowing audience members, including the once very young me. Despite that, the costume designer did their homework and brought to this film an under-appreciated level of authenticity to the costume. Before detailing exactly what I mean, though, let’s first look at this subject in a broader context.
The last time I was here, we talked briefly about the brothers and sisters of Papua New Guinea. As you’ll recall from that discussion, we learned the surprising fact that the Melanesians (literally “black islanders”) of Papua and the related islands of the South Pacific make up 80% percent of all Pacific Island peoples. And that the much better-known populations of Polynesia and Micronesia make up the remaining 20%. Right, class?
And who here can still manage to tell me the names of some of the island territories that make up this particular part of the globe?
“Papua New Guinea!”
“The Solomon Islands!”
“FREE WEST PAPUA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
Geniuses, I tell you. This classroom is a cluster of geniuses. You all should be doing this presentation. I’ll just go and sit quietly in the corner.
Drawing our attention now specifically to the island of Papua, we all know from a previous lesson that since 1969, West Papua has been struggling for independence from the oppressive grip of Indonesia, a neighboring country.
Well, in the fictional world of Kong, Skull Island is a make-believe landmass set in the Indian Ocean off the western coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. In addition to a geographic nearness to Papua and the rest of Melanesia to the east of Indonesia, there’s another intellectually sound reason for Skull Island’s placement in this part of the world.
Before he made the leap to science-fiction/fantasy films, Merian C. Cooper, the creator of the original King Kong (1933), served as a documentary filmmaker. During this period, he traveled to Ethiopia, the Andaman Islands of Southeast Asia, and the Melanesian islands of the South Pacific. And his exposure to the similar-looking peoples found in these disparate regions inspired and informed the look and the culture of Kong’s Skull Islanders.
A similar approach to the people of Skull Island was also taken in director Dino De Laurentiis’ 1976 King Kong remake. Aside from the people that were chosen to portray the islanders, the ethnicity of the fictional islanders is also made evident through the garments and the accouterments worn, which show a mix of Melanesian and African cultural elements.
With specific regard to the Melanesian influence, the crowning example is found in that crescent-shaped, mother of pearl oyster shell adornment that hangs from Jessica Lange’s neck during the “Bride of Kong” sequence.
The necklace worn in the film is very similar to the one that I’ve brought to the class for show-and-tell today.
In Papua New Guinea, or “PNG” for short, this very valuable form of tribal adornment is known as the kina (ki·nuh). Say the word with me, class.
Excellent! I think you’d all be promptly accepted as honorary Papuans.
In PNG, kina shells are worn both by men and women as a sign of wealth and status. The shells can be displayed by themselves or layered in multiples––which sometimes occurs when the wearer wants to show they’re living hella’ large.
Kina shells are used not only as displays of wealth but also as a kind of currency that can be used either toward the resolution of blood feuds or as part of PNG’s traditional bride-price ceremony.
Bride price, bride-wealth, or bride token, is money, property, or other form of wealth paid by a groom or his family to the woman or the family of the woman he will be married to or is just about to marry.
In the 1976 Kong film, the bride-price kina worn by Lange’s character Dwan represents, albeit to unappreciated effect, a legit ceremonial item from the marriage customs of PNG. Like the previous “brides,” one of whom was shown earlier in the film to have been adorned in a similar fashion, the gold-lip mother-of-pearl pendant shows her elevated status as a lavish offering to Skull Island’s big, bad, fear-inducing demigod.
In 1975, when it was introduced to replace the Australian dollar that had previously been used throughout the country, the paper currency of Papua New Guinea was also given the name kina, in observance of the island’s ancient shell tradition.
In addition to the kina necklace that I brought to show you, I’ve also brought in a beautiful 50 Kina banknote, which features on the reverse a portrait of a very great man who whom Melanesia and the rest of us lost recently: Sir Michael Somare, the first and former prime minister of Papua New Guinea.
[Oohs and ahhs from the students]
But this, unfortunately, will bring my show-and-tell presentation to a close; I know that you were totally enthralled and all. Before I go, though, I’m going to send both this and the kina necklace around the classroom so that everyone can get an up-close look.
And please make sure my lovely banknote doesn’t get lost in the sauce while it’s being passed around. As that well-known saying goes, kinas do not grow on trees.
Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, Japanese giant monster movies, hip-hop, comics, Kit Kats, and kung fu flicks.