Napier is known as the Art Deco City, because the whole place was rebuilt in the 1930’s, when people thought Art Deco was neat because it reminded them of primitive savages and shiny new cars. They were looking for a cheerful sort of architecture, something to make them look to the future. That’s because on a bright sunny morning in 1931, their city disappeared.
The first thing that happened was that the ocean went away. Ruth Park, one of the survivors, was out in a rowboat with her dog at the time. "On a still hot morning, February 3, an extraordinary phenomenon occurred. The tide went out and didn't come in... The sea did not roll up like a scroll, like the sky in Revelations. It quietly withdrew.*"
Then the earthquake hit. It’s hard to imagine a 7.8 earthquake, even if you’ve lived through a few quiet tremors in your life. Since the Richter scale is logarithmic rather than linear, an increase of one point indicates a shaking increase of one thousand percent. The 1989 Loma-Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, for example, measured 7.0 on the Richter scale. It made the Bay Bridge collapse. And the 1931 earthquake in Napier was nearly ten times worse.
The Napier earthquake also happened more than half a century earlier, so the city wasn’t prepared with modern emergency procedures. The nurses’ home near the main public hospital collapsed, crushing much of the city’s medical staff. And when the first fires broke out, firefighters discovered that the earthquake had shattered the waterpipes. The hydrants were dry. Citizens who weren’t already buried in rubble ran from the ruined town. By nightfall, more than a hundred fires blazed. The city burned for thirty hours. Audrey McKelvie lived through the quake, and as she put it, “It wasn’t just a disaster. It was the death of a city.**”
But disasters make great tourist attractions, especially once the city’s been rebuilt and the people have had a chance to recover. Storefronts are painted in the colors of fruit-flavored sorbet, and the street names are laid out in charming mosaics. There’s a downtown bank that incorporates Maori spirals in its façade and ceiling, New Zealand’s own version of the noble savage design motif. Since the red and black rafter patterns in Maori meeting houses are heavily symbolic, depicting local geneaologies and wildlife sacred to the tribe, I had to wonder what the design on the bank’s ceiling represents. Old-time bank presidents? The sacred principle of compound interest?
The city’s done a great job encouraging Art Deco as a massive tourist attraction. There’s an annual Art Deco festival, the city’s been nominated for Unesco World Heritage status, and there’s even a McDeco McDonald’s in town. If a new business puts up a sign and it looks Deco enough, the city council kicks down a check for $500. If someone puts up a building in a contrasting design—Bauhaus, say, or Tudor Revival—it’s possible the city will burn it down. No one will admit to this, but I have my suspicions.
And yet, despite all the city’s best efforts, Art Deco is not Napier’s greatest treasure. The town center is nice enough—I like pink buildings as much as the next girl. But all that cheerful architecture pales in comparison to Napier’s true gem, the jewel in her crown. I refer, of course, to Opossum World.
Opossum World is a treasure-trove of knowledge. A combination storefront-museum, Opossum World educates its customers about the Brushtail Opossum, an Australian marsupial that was introduced to New Zealand in the nineteenth century, with devastating results. The Australian opossums loved New Zealand so much that they immediately started making babies and eating their way through the native bush. They’ve destroyed millions of native trees, from pohutukawa to rata, and they’ve endangered several species of native birds: kokako, kereru, and even the best-loved kiwi.
Luckily for New Zealand, the opossum also has a marvelously soft and snuggly coat, and when mixed with merino wool, it provides fur for sweaters that sell for hundreds of dollars each, as well as slippers, socks, and the indispensible Possum Peter Heater, which warms more crucial parts of the body. So killing possums not only protects the environment, it also results in a very profitable export trade.
I offer the above as background knowledge only. What makes Opossum World spectacular has nothing to do with sweaters and native birds. Really, it’s all about the displays.
Opossum World is quite likely the only place on earth where you can see a fully annotated exhibit of all the different ways to kill opossums. There’s the Timms Trap, in which “the opossum triggers the mechanism which compresses the arteries to the brain,” and the enticingly named “Gin Trap,” now sadly illegal. There’s the Victor Coil Spring, the Victor Soft Catch, and the good old-fashioned cage, as well as my favorite label, which reads simply: THIS OPOSSUM WAS KILLED BY CYANIDE.
And that’s not all. Where else, I challenge you, can you pay a dollar to shoot at already-dead opossums that someone’s tied to a tree? Or push a button and see five poorly-stuffed marsupials singing “On the Road Again,” perched cheerfully on the roof of a Morris Mini automobile?
There’s an exhaustive display on the possum lifecycle, showing opossums at each stage of their reproductive life, from kitten to crusty old age. It features a sort of explicit opossum porn, in which the female licks her belly so the tiny opossum fetus can wiggle, worm-like, from her birth canal to her pouch. These opossums, I should note, were killed and stuffed around the time of the Napier earthquake. They look like desiccated muppets from beyond the grave, their ears as crispy as potato chips. It was unspeakable. It was marvelous. I could not tear my eyes away.
And there, at the center of the case, lay the pièce de resistance, the cornerstone of the museum’s collection: a pickled opossum fetus in a jar. Skinny and translucent, it looked like a genetic experiment gone horribly wrong.
I tried to buy it as a souvenir. I begged the woman at the front desk to sell it to me. But she was immovable. She’d sell me a sweater or a sock, or even a Possum Peter Heater, but the pickled opossum fetus was not for sale.
That’s my only problem with Napier. It’s a charming town, but they just don’t understand what people want.
* Bob Brockie (ed.), The Penguin Eyewitness History of New Zealand. Auckland: Penguin Books Ltd., 2002. (pp. 158-9)
** Gaylene Preston, Survivors' Stories. Gaylene Preston Productions, 1998.