Anton Matthews in front of his restaurant Fush in Christchurch. (Photo supplied)

Siena Yates, who’s at the starting line of her reo journey, has been getting some advice and inspiration from some of the winners of last year’s Ngā Tohu Reo awards run by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission). 

Here she’s talking to Anton Matthews about raising reo Māori-speaking children and having a bilingual business — and how one led to the other.

(Te reo Māori version available here.)


When we think of people revitalising te reo Māori, most of us think of prominent figures with large platforms or nationally-regarded wānanga. We probably don’t think of our local fish and chip shop.

Yet Anton Matthews’ story is well known in reo circles. He’s the man who showed how a fish and chip restaurant in Wigram, Christchurch, could do its bit to help normalise and spread te reo Māori.

Anton runs Fush, with his wife, Jess, and his sister, Māia. It’s one of the few restaurants in New Zealand that offers a bilingual customer service experience, including a menu in both te reo and English.

The Matthews have been serving up te reo to their customers since 2018 — a move Anton admits wasn’t without some initial nervousness. “We were really scared when we did it, to be honest. I was worried that people would stop coming because of the underlying bigotry and racist whakaaro that we know is out there.”

But the response from customers was so enthusiastic that Anton, Jess and Māia decided to host a beginners reo-Māori class at the restaurant. Free. They were blown away when about 3,000 people showed interest.

“Our community was like: ‘Wow, we’re really keen to jump on this waka — can we?’ I didn’t think anyone was interested. Especially not in Christchurch. Then the national media got hold of it — because everyone was surprised that it was happening here — and that’s when it really started to gain momentum.”

There was so much interest they moved the class to an auditorium at Christchurch Boys’ High, Anton’s old school. Hundreds turned up, eager to learn. More wānanga followed, and, eventually, a 10-stop tour of the South Island where Anton ran two-hour crash courses in te reo Māori. “They were in some of the most non-Māori towns you can imagine — and the turnouts were amazing.”

Anton was born in Christchurch and describes his childhood as “very loving. The house was always warm and there was always food in the pantry”. His Māori whakapapa (Te Rarawa, Te Aupōuri) comes through his dad, Hector, who’s the director of Māori and Pacific Health at Christchurch DHB. His mum, Heather, is Pākehā. She’s a kaiako in a bilingual unit.

Both Anton’s parents learned to speak Māori as adults, so knew only too well how hard it is to learn a new language later in life. And although they spoke as much reo as they could to their children — Anton, Māia, and younger brother Connor — they also knew it wasn’t going to be enough. To become fluent, their tamariki needed to be immersed in te reo Māori.

So they made the “very brave, very bold decision” to put Anton and his siblings in kōhanga reo and kura kaupapa. Back in 1995, says Anton, that was “pretty unusual for Ōtautahi  — and they did it against the recommendation of a lot of people, both Māori and Pākehā”.

“But they were steadfast and they backed themselves and stuck to their guns. I’m very grateful because that enabled me to learn a whole bunch of things that I took for granted growing up — te reo, tangihanga, pōwhiri, karakia in the morning, just being bought up in tikanga Māori. Looking back, I realise how lucky I was to have been given those opportunities.”

But some of that good work was undone when Anton hit high school. At Christchurch Boys’ High, he says, “I kind of had to leave my Māoritanga at the door and learn to be someone else.”

It wasn’t until Anton went to university, where he studied te reo Māori and Indigenous studies, that he realised he’d lost a lot of the reo he’d learned in his younger years. Ever since then, he’s been working to get that back.

That’s partly why he does what he does now, to keep the reo at the forefront of his everyday life. The rest he does for people like me — people who didn’t have the privilege of being sent to kōhanga and kura like he did.

“The responsibility on the shoulders of someone who came through kura kaupapa is to go: All right, you’re lucky to have this. The question now is, what are you gonna do with it? Now you’re having kids, now you’ve got a bit of a profile, now you’re an adult and you’ve got some influence.

“Are you going to sit there and do nothing with it? Or are you going to actually get out there in the community and start sharing some of the knowledge that you were lucky to have received when you were younger?”

To the rest of us, it looks like that mahi started with Fush and the free reo classes.

But it really started when Anton and Jess had their first child, Te Ariā Aroha.

Anton was just 23 at the time, and, like many others, he made the decision to speak only Māori to his kids — “from the day my child’s born until they get their driver’s license, which is 16. Because, by that time, you’ll have said most things under the sun to that child. Good times, bad times, sad times, awkward subjects, and everything in between.”

Back then, Jess couldn’t speak te reo, but, with Anton’s help, she joined him on his mission, learning along the way. She’s now a confident speaker. Anton too, had to do more learning, mostly to find words he’d never had to use before — “like how to say, ‘wipe your bum’.”

“The online Māori dictionary got a lot of use back then! Still does today. E kore e mutu tēnei mea te ako — learning is always constant.” They also picked up a lot just by listening to Māori-speaking friends and whānau, as well as listening to other parents talking to their children.

The trouble, though, was that, outside of their home, everything in their kids’ world was in English. Supermarkets, restaurants, TV and radio. So, for the first five years, “it was like talking to a brick wall”. They’d speak to the kids in Māori, and the kids would respond in English.

It wasn’t until the Te Ariā Aroha and Mana Ariki went to kura that they began to embrace te reo. But still, it was heartbreaking to realise that, at just three or four years old, they were already self-conscious about using their language outside kura and home.

Anton and Jess wanted to extend their kids’ comfort zone — which, in Christchurch, was a bit of an ask. That’s when they came up with the idea of turning Fush into a bilingual restaurant.

“It was so that my kids would see that it’s normal to speak Māori, and to make them feel comfortable to be themselves. It really didn’t sit well with me that, outside our home, my kids would feel like they’d have to leave that part of themselves at the door and be somebody else. To put on a mask. I didn’t want that for my kids ‘cos I’d already experienced that at high school, and it’s pretty shit.”

Now, about 90 per cent of what Te Ariā Aroha and Mana Ariki say to Anton is in Māori. And the new addition to the whānau, Kōtuhu Rerenga Tahi, who was born last month, will soon join them on that path.

The older kids have also had the chance to be with their father on his lectures and tour, where they’ve witnessed hundreds queueing up to learn “basic stuff they can do in their sleep”.

“I don’t think you can overestimate what that does for a kid and their identity, what kind of confidence and pride that instils. They’re proud. You can tell in the way they carry themselves that they’re confident in who they are, confident that they know that they can speak te reo wherever they go, and it’s just part of who they are. And that’s really all I ever wanted for them.”

Everyone I’ve talked to about te reo Māori has said that normalising the language is one of the keys to its revitalisation. They talk about how great it would be to see the reo used in shops and businesses around the country.

Until recently, I’d never really believed it could make that much of a difference. But Fush is proof that it works. The more accessible te reo Māori is, and the more we can explore it in familiar, comfortable situations, the more likely we’ll be to use it.

Anton’s next goal is to convince more businesses to follow Fush’s example. Fush has shown that te reo can be good for business. The demand is out there, he says, but the supply falls short.

“We want other businesses — particularly Māori businesses — to see the value in embracing te reo Māori. If they do, they’ll capture the business of many, many people like me, because straight away that gets our attention and we’ll want to support you.”

He’s talking about banks, supermarkets, even sites like E-Tangata. “When I read it, it looks like it was written for an audience like me. That’s what I want, something that looks like it was designed with me in mind.”

Anton Matthews’ restaurant Fush won the business award, sponsored by New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, at the 2019 Ngā Tohu Reo Māori awards run by Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori. This series has been made possible with funding from Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori.

Siena Yates (Te Rarawa, Te Aupouri, and Ngāti Kuri) is an Auckland-based journalist who has worked for Stuff and the New Zealand Herald. She who was born in Morrinsville and grew up in Te Puke in the Bay of Plenty.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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