Getting down to business

By Aileen Wilson.

Back in the early 1970s there was only a handful of New Zealanders in Vila and being from New Zealand we tended to congregate with them. We got to know Des Elliott and Shirley, his wife. They had started Hideaway, created the Hideaway Island Resort and it was lovely. We used to go there for lunch on a Sunday. Often bus-loads of passengers from visiting cruise ships would come out to Hideaway to snorkel and water-ski. Shirley and Des decided to set up a tourist shop at Hideaway and Peter nominated me to run it. This is long before he had even discussed the idea with me.

One day he said, ‘I’ve got a job for you’.

And I said, Oh and what’s that? I’m not working at the ANZ bank. (I had worked for the ANZ years earlier in New Zealand which had computers, not the clunky old mechanical accounting machines still in use in Vila.)

Peter said, ‘No, no, no. But you know you can sew’.

Up until then I had done all of my sewing and also all of the sewing and knitting for our daughter.

‘Well, you’re going to sew bikinis and sell them in a gift shop at Hideaway’.

I told him that I didn’t even have a pattern and you can’t get patterns here.

He said, ‘Never mind, Shirley’s mother used to sew for somebody in Fiji and she’ll draft patterns up for you and help you’.

So that’s how I started. I bought fabrics from a salesman from Fiji and just got on with it. I said that I’d have to have a place that had more power than the Mele fâre we were living in, so we moved into a flat in town and from then on I sewed and sewed.

I had two New Hebridean girls sewing at the flat and my aunt and mother would come up to Vila from New Zealand for a holiday and help me sew and then work in the shop at Hideaway when the cruise ships were in. Later on two expat girls also helped me to sew and there was a group of expat girls, including Vivienne Barrett, Trish Mackintosh, Georgie Walker and Jan Cooper, who were very willing to help at Hideaway when a big cruise ship was in port. We used to sell touristy things – towels and spoons and rulers and that kind of stuff– as well as the things we were sewing such as bikinis, kaftans and pareos. Sometimes all the goods in my shop would be sold out in half-an-hour and Peter would have to go back into town to load the truck with cartons and bring another lot of stock out.

When the Himalaya, the Canberra, the Achille Lauro or the Fair Star or Fair Sky were in port more than 200 people would come over to Hideaway and they’d have a lovely barbeque lunch and then they’d swim or snorkel, sunbathe and shop.

Peter and Des introduced squash to the New Hebrides and they built the first squash court on Hideaway. The Squash Club had about 120 members and they used to come over to play a game and some would stay the weekend, others would stay the night. There were bungalows where people could stay.

After about eight years of this, Hideaway Island changed hands. I didn’t particularly get on with one of the new directors so I gave notice, left the Island and we concentrated on our three other businesses – Peter’s building business and our two businesses in town; Pete’s Burgers and Pierre’s Bijoux.

When we first came to the New Hebrides, Peter was a partner in a building business and he still had this business. He built some houses and did renovations, mainly domestic houses. I did all of the book-keeping and typing for his building business.

In the mid-1970s Peter set up a hamburger bar – Pete’s Burgers. It was opposite the Post Office; just off the main street; facing the sea wall; where ANZ Bank is today. The menu was chicken and chips, fish and chips, burgers, milkshakes and ice-creams. It was open from about 6:00 o’clock in the morning until sometime after midnight. We had a roster of staff working it but, of course, we still had to be available should the staff need us when the shop was open. We were often called to the shop after midnight when Cooky’s Bar closed and the drunks used to come down and abuse the girls working in the shop.

In the meantime Peter thought he needed something else to do and so he started Pierre’s Bijoux. It was a duty-free shop selling watches and other jewellery located beside Pete’s Burgers in the main street. We had been approached by people from Sydney to sell Citizen watches. If we didn’t sell a couple of hundred watches in a day – when there was a large cruise ship in – it was a bad day and sometimes the customers would be five deep and you’d have to keep an eye on the stock of course.

After Independence we sold Pete’s Burgers and the jewellery business. Our friends, Roger and Lois Ovens had come down from Honiara to live and Roger and Peter went into partnership in the building business. They then acquired the former Burns Philp hardware store at Tebakor that they ran and built up into the Wilco hardware business and then later sold.

When we were running the four businesses it was go, go, go. We were flat out, but we still had a fantastic social life, absolutely fabulous. When we first came to the New Hebrides, if you wanted a good night out, you went to the Tahiti Nui. It was a nightclub owned by Felix Tehei, down towards Malapoa Point at the old Yacht Club. It had live bands. Everybody used to go and what a ball we had. And then another Frenchman came on the scene by the name of Clement Martinez and he bought the Houstalet, but he also had a nightclub called the Privée. And that was in town going towards le Lagon. It was a great place. Good disc jockey, good music.

We were lucky to be there in some of the good times.

Copyright Aileen Wilson 2016 All rights reserved