May 15, 2021

Maori News & Indigenous Views

Rotorua’s Aunty Bea (Daily Post)

7 min read

Simply the Best is the theme song of her alter ego, Tina Tuna. The song’s words apply equally to Tina Tuna’s creator, the woman known universally as “Aunty Bea”. In this Our People special, Jill Nicholas talks to everyone’s favourite aunty as she marks her golden jubilee in teaching and uncovers a life that has enriched Rotorua and generations of its residents.


SHOULD per chance there be anyone who doesn’t know the identity of this woman we call “Aunty” with such familiarity they’ve either not lived long locally or their living’s been done under a stone.

Aunty Bea’s such an integral part of this place and its people few know her as anything else. Even her own kids, mokopuna (grandchildren) and great moko call her Aunty Bea.

For those not in the know, she’s officially Beatrice Tui Yates. But that Tina Tuna name’s synonymous with her too. It’s one that she’s melded her persona into for the sole purpose of benefiting the huge amount of entertaining and fundraising work she ploughs into the community that she’s embraced for a lifetime.

A giver of herself, that’s Aunty Bea, a woman who oozes personality from every pore.

This month she officially became a “golden girl” of the education system, marking 50 teaching years.


It’s a milestone she’s ambivalent about but thinks it’s as good a time as any to slow down a bit – although she won’t be buzzing off entirely. She’ll be back part-time at Lakes High next year doing what she euphemistically calls “helping out”. When it comes to helping, this woman simply can’t stop herself.

For the last umpteen years, she’s “given kids a feed so they’ll have some kai in their puku before school”, doing the cooking and serving in her awhi (cherishing) room at Lakes High.

Aunty Bea’s not been a “chalk and blackboard”-type teacher. Much of her career’s been spent on the profession’s taha Maori side. She became Rotorua’s first itinerant teacher of Maori in 1977.

Twenty years on, she began to run that awhi room of hers; a place that’s become a sanctuary for students from across the cultural and ethnic spectrum.

“All the kids know it’s a place they can come to for a cuddle or if they feel sick or lonely.” It’s there she’s nurtured those with special needs, honing their skills in art, drama, music, te reo (Maori language). There’s never been space for loneliness in Aunty Bea’s life – she’s crammed it with more activities than most can comprehend.

Sport, cultural superstar and roving ambassador, author, songwriter, Maori warden, community volunteer many times over, one-time political candidate, Aunty Bea’s done the lot, which poses the problem: where do we start to do justice to this human dynamo others have described as a ‘living legend’? They have not exaggerated.

Aunty Bea’s self-analysis is very different. “I am,” she insists, “just a silly old woman from Owhata, via Mourea.”

If she wants to think that, fine, but we’re not going to let her get away with such nonsense. The pressure’s on to talk about herself staring from that best place of all, the beginning.

The baby of a whanau of seven, she did her growing up in Mourea and its “very Maori” environment. “I got a huge shock when I went to [Rotorua] high school seeing all those white kids. It was a dramatic change for me. I thought I was the cat’s whiskers having dinner with Pakeha friends.”

Teachers’ Training College in Auckland was another eye-opener. While studying there, she acquired her first taste of performing cabaret-style. Entrepreneur Benny Levin recruited her for his troupe, The Spotlighters.

“Scary for a kid from the sticks, but it taught me confidence.”

Returning home, Rotokawa School was her first posting and one that lasted 20 years. “It was two decades full of fun. I had this little bubble car. The kids used to pinch it at lunchtime and go down for a bath [Rotokawa hot pool]. My bloody mother fell out of it once by the airport. The people going past thought it was a crack-up.”

It was at Rotokawa she initiated the first of the countless kapa haka groups she’s led, performing Hinemoa and Tutanekai as an operetta on a makeshift outdoor stage. It was that performance that launched her stage career.

It’s not been one confined to cultural content. The Operatic Society snapped her up. “I wanted to be a chorus girl but got the lead in Thirteen Daughters.”

Always sporty, she was a Rotorua A netball team member the year it won the national tournament. “It was wonderful.”

In 1962, she married Alby Yates. “He was a cheeky fellow, chasing the pants off me.” He retaliates that she was a “yuppie”. They had met at a Tama [Tamatekapua meeting house] dance where she was singing. Motherhood did not put the brakes on her teaching career, pausing only briefly to have three children.

When they were small, she started Sunday School classes in a Mourea billiard saloon. She confesses there were times when “the Lord’s lessons were delivered “when I was really hungover”.

By then she was a regular performer at the hugely popular Tudor Towers nightclub-cabaret. She refuses to elevate herself to the star status others have given her. “I was an okay backing artist with the ‘oohs and aahs’ for the band.”

The truth is she wasn’t in the background long before she had her own floor show. “It was a place of happiness. Sensible people used to come gracefully up the stairs. When they left, they tumbled down them.”

The conversation turns to that Tuna/Turner character born 30 years ago in a Big Apple wig shop. “We were in New York with a cultural group. My mate and I went into this shop. I tried on this frizzy one. The assistant said I looked like Tina Turner … neither of us has ever looked back.”

The Tuna part of the name was chosen because of Aunty Bea’s close whanau links to the Kaituna River.

Five hundred-plus shows on, Tina Tuna’s been the star turn at birthday parties, greeted conference delegates, jumped out of birthday cakes, sung to a race horse, opened fast-food outlets nationwide, launched a boat. That wasn’t all plain sailing. “I went to step on the deck, landed in the water but kept on singing.”

What truer tribute to her professionalism?

Ms Tuna’s most personally disappointing gig was being invited to be the pre-match entertainment at a Warriors v Parramatta Eels Hamilton game. “I love the Warriors but it was the Eels who hired me because Simply The Best is their song. I was so peed off.”

On the obverse side of her show-stopping moments is Aunty Bea’s 20-plus years of involvement with the Maori Wardens Association.

“It was the most humbling job. Maori wardens don’t have very much money but their hearts are made of gold. I learned so much from them. They gave me a true sense of pride.”

The latest in the string of books she’s written, One Day a Taniwha, was launched this year. Already it’s in iPad format. She began writing because she couldn’t find resources holding the essence of teaching te reo.

“I didn’t want kids going home saying, ‘Gee, that Aunty Bea’s boring’.”

She’s also dipped her big toe in the political waters. In 1993, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters needed a “name” to capture voters in the then Tarawera electorate. An emissary was dispatched to coerce her into becoming the party’s candidate.

“We had only three weeks to do it and I got 3000 votes. I thought there are some pretty silly people out there.”

Surely this woman who lives life in a whirl must be far too busy to fit in more? Not a bit of it. If Rotorua has an uncrowned charity queen it’s Aunty Bea.

Over recent years, she’s been most closely linked with the Te Whakapono Trust, the driving force in establishing Rotorua’s own dialysis unit, raising close to $1million in less than a year. Her work with the trust is non-stop. It’s helped upgrade the hospital’s chemotherapy suite, provided patients’ families with accommodation in the hospital grounds, secured a mobile ear clinic for the city’s children and assists stroke victims.

Aunty Bea’s pounded the streets collecting for the “Sallies”, the Cancer Society, the SPCA, Red Cross, RSA, St John, Scouts, Guides and Cubs. She’s performed on telethons, served on Maori trusts, marae and sporting committees and been a volunteer worker for the Te Ngae Police Community Centre.

Such massive community involvement hasn’t gone unrecognised. In 1993 she was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal.

“Albert reckons it stands for “quite silly mum.” He also reckons he’s the only person she can say no to.

In 2004, her work was saluted with a garden makeover by the Mucking In television programme.

“I was overjoyed. I don’t get much time to do the garden.”

Now who wouldn’t be surprised by that?

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