I’ve seen bigger. On a hillside just outside of Otorohanga, New Zealand, sits an apple so large it can’t not rival that of Winchester, perhaps the size of a small house and the shade of candy apple red – or is that using the word in the definition? With a festive green leaf curling away from its stem and the words, “The Big Apple Cafe,” emblazoned on its juicy sides, you can’t help but stop.
But this apple serves another function, preparing you in a way for the dramatic visual display of icons and symbols soon to come in Otorohanga itself. As with Te Kuiti, I’d seen the town before from the viewing car of the Overlander train. We’d stopped there briefly where a sign on the platform read, “Otorohanga, New Zealand’s Kiwiana Town.” I’d found it somewhat of a grandiose claim. A tile mosaic on the station’s walls featured the national flag as well as a silver fern against a black background – an oft-debated contender to replace the former. What was this place, I wondered, this little town with such grand aspirations? I dog-eared it like you would an interesting passage you found while reading ahead in a novel, knowing I’d have to return.
Otorohanga embraces the national icons of New Zealand like a mother gathering her children into the folds of her green gingham apron. She takes them in and gives them a voice and somewhere to shine. A sign just outside town bears a Buzzy Bee – New Zealand’s most famous toy contentiously based on an earlier American prototype, much to the country’s chagrin – and, the town’s pride and joy, “Kiwiana Main Street Displays.”
From the very start of Maniapoto Street, visitors are greeted by a double-story wall bedecked in Kiwiana. There’s part of a globe in the bottom left corner, yet it’s positioned so that all you see is the vast blue of the south Pacific and the North Island of New Zealand. A red dot presumably marks the location of Otorohanga and from this spot blue lines shoot forth, bursting with paua shells and Kiwi shoe polish, gumboots and jandals, butterflies and Edmonds baking flour. It’s as if Otorohanga itself is the birthplace of everything Kiwiana – here is where it all began, it seems to say.
And if this triumphant presentation of national lore fails to strike you the first time, the symbols have been replicated down the entirety of Maniapoto Street. Hanging from each streetlight like medieval guild signs, they stretch down the street from start to finish, everything from sheep and ferns to an entire pavlova, topped appropriately with slices of kiwifruit, of course. Several of the icons have even been cut out of the sides of the town’s stainless steel trash cans.
And yet, this tribute to all things Kiwi left me unsatisfied, as if I’d skipped dinner and gone straight to dessert. It was all fluff and no depth. Why the butterfly? Why the jandals? Why the red-and-black checked Swanndri flannel shirt? There was no background to round out the superficial colors and cut-outs. I found the i-Site and asked a woman named Sue if she could shed any light on Otorohanga’s intriguing “Kiwiana Town” status.
“Well,” she said, obviously more accustomed to questions on parking or hotel recommendations. “I suppose it was a few women’s idea some years ago, you know, just a way to spruce up the town.” But she explained further that Otorohanga was home to the country’s first kiwi house, opened in 1971 as a place where the public could view their nocturnal national icon for the first time. Kiwis, you could say, have always been on their mind.
But I liked Sue. She wasn’t satisfied with her own lack of information and gave me books to read, one of which was NZ! NZ! In Praise of Kiwiana. In the preface, authors Stephen Barrett and Richard Wolfe write, “As the world grows smaller, national identities blur under an overlay of Western consumer culture” (9). The icons of Kiwiana, it seems, are a way of keeping the boundaries in place and the vision intact. Furthermore, they did exactly what I’d been hoping for – they gave the symbols’ stories, letting me in on the inside joke, if you will.
The monarch butterfly I’d always thought of as North American was a common presence in 1950s and 60s New Zealand, albeit as a painted wooden cut-out found on the side of a house facing the road.
Jandals, known elsewhere as flip-flops, come from ‘Japanese sandal’ and are a permanent fixture in the nation’s wardrobe. Like the butterfly, they, too, made their first appearance in the 1950s.
Kiwi shoe polish, perhaps most notably of all, is responsible for the nickname given to those from New Zealand. Kiwis, as soldiers in World War I came to be known, used the polish for their boots and the name just stuck.
It made me curious, then, about my own national icons, things we so often take for granted. The eagle, the stars and stripes, and a good old-fashioned baseball game, of course. And what about apple pie? The dish supposedly gained immortality in the phrase “Mom and apple pie,” recited by soldiers to journalists when asked why they’d gone to fight in World War II. And that’s when it started to hit me, this pattern of dates and time periods.
I turned to England, as one does when seeking solid answers and historical accuracy. A fascinating website devoted to the icons of English culture – a far greater number than those of Otorohanga – only confirmed my suspicions.
The classic red double-decker bus, known officially as a Routemaster? First introduced in the 1950s.
The beloved black cab, almost as symbolic as Big Ben? Dated back to 1948.
But what about the quintessential red phone box, setting of a million and one tourist photo-ops? Although the design was first conceived in the 1920s by Giles Gilbert Scott and perfected in 1936, did this not follow the First World War? The London Underground map was also first designed by Harry Beck in 1931 and the country’s supply of fish and chips, thank God, was never affected by wartime rations. Was there truly a connection between post-war nations and the emergence of their key national icons?
Before I released my hypothesis, however, I wanted final proof – one final example to secure my confidence. My mind went to Canada and its iconic maple leaf. I was disappointed at first to find the change from the Union flag to its modern counterpart didn’t occur until 1965; disappointed, that is, until I read further. The precursor to the Maple Leaf flag was the Canadian Red Ensign, featuring the Union Jack and the Canadian coat of arms on a red background, a design that dates back to the mid-1800s. In 1945, however, an Order-in-Council – a piece of legislation made formally in the name of the Queen – approved the use of the Red Ensign for “wherever place or occasion may make it desirable to fly a distinctive Canadian flag.”
I find it difficult to believe this is nothing more than a grand coincidence. Surely, the connection between the dates and the symbols speaks to a deeper psychological need. Perhaps in the face of such loss and worldwide devastation, the development of icons was in reality a reaffirmation of their nationhood. Perhaps people clung to things as simple as apple pie, a pair of flip-flops or even a bus to remember what was worth defending in the first place, to remind themselves not only of who they are but what it means to be a nation.
Maybe Otorohanga wasn’t so much a cliche as it was a history lesson after all.