- Historic Sites
Long before it became a state, Hawaii enchanted Americans with a vision of tropical ease, languid music, and a steady throb of sensuality. That life disappeared on December 7, 1941, but vivid traces of it remain.
April/May 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 2
I was a young Army wife, on my way to our new posting. Through some happy quirk, the Army sent us to Hawaii, on the ocean liner Lurline. We sighted Diamond Head, and long before we docked, the scent of flowers and ferns reached the ship. Very soon I knew I never wanted to leave, and, except for short trips, I haven’t. I acquired some book learning in Hawaiian history and language. My son married into a large and interesting Hawaiian family. When my daughter-in-law dances for family occasions, the grace of her hula will break your heart. In due time a Hawaiian grandson arrived, but he likes judo more than hula. For all that, I remain a haole in the islands, part of a tidal wave that washed over them, and, in a little more than a century after Captain Cook’s arrival, consumed the sovereignty of the Hawaiian nation.
At noon on an overcast August day in 1898 there was a ceremony at Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu. The Royal Hawaiian Band played the national anthem, “Hawaii Ponoi,” the Hawaiian flag was hauled down, and the band left. Then a U.S. military band played “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the American flag went up, and Hawaii was formally annexed as a territory of the United States. The deposed Queen Liliuokalani did not attend the ceremony, and neither did most native Hawaiians.
Long years of lobbying by Hawaii’s Caucasian businessmen, a brief American imperialistic flurry, and military exigencies brought about by the Spanish-American War led to this event. Americans were at first suspicious of this newly gained acquisition with its centuries-old Polynesian culture intermixed with Asian patterns brought by immigrant workers. But a strange vogue came along in the 1920s and 1930s, the Hawaiiana craze. Island tourist boards, steamship lines, sugar and pineapple advertising agencies, and the mainland motion-picture industry fueled the fantasy. Ceramic hula girls, surfer-boy figures, and tiki images flooded the shops. “Sweet Leilani,” popularized by Bing Crosby in the film Waikiki Wedding , ignited the Hawaiian-music fad. The sheet-music industry thrived with such favorites as “Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula” and “Poi, My Boy, Will Make a Man of You.” Everyone from Mickey Mouse to Shirley Temple went Hawaiian. Raising the standards of advertising art, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (now Dole Foods) commissioned Georgia O’Keeffe to promote pineapple and the islands, but most advertisements were romanticized images of hula maidens and moonlit surf.
“Sweet Leilani,” sung by Bing Crosby in Waikiki Wedding, ignited a long-lived musical fad, and everyone from Mickey Mouse to Shirley Temple went Hawaiian.
To accommodate American visitors, who started to arrive in increasing numbers, hotels sprang up. The Moana Hotel, a graceful four-story frame structure completed in 1901, was the first tourist hotel in Hawaii. Today, more than a century later, there is no more pleasurable way to experience bygone days in Waikiki than from the rocking chairs on the street-side lanai (veranda) of the hotel or from its oceanside terrace, shaded by a century-old banyan tree. The famous “Hawaii Calls” radio broadcasts, featuring the melodious voice of Webley Edwards, originated from under the banyan. Each broadcast began, “Listen for a moment to the sound of the surf kissing the warm sands of Waikiki…,” and here an engineer stationed at the shoreline would hold his mike out to the waves. For thousands this introduction conjured up an image of a Hawaii they wanted to see for themselves someday. Hawaii was calling, and they were coming.
Down Kalakaua Avenue a few blocks from the Moana is another venerable hotel, the famous Royal Hawaiian. The Royal, a flamingo pink Moorish fantasy, opened in 1927 and ushered in a more luxurious standard of resort tourism.
A short stroll farther brings visitors to the Halekulani, the third of the grand hotels of the Territory. Its much-loved low bungalows are now replaced by a modern structure, and about the only way to bring back the past here is to have a mai tai at the House Without a Key oceanside bar and imagine the ghost of Charlie Chan musing over his cases at the old Halekulani in a bar of the same name. Charlie’s creator, Earl Derr Biggers, was a devotee of the islands and of the picturesque bungalows that later became the Halekulani, and he caught much of the flavor of an interracial territorial Honolulu in the six Charlie Chan novels (which in turn spawned some 50 movies). As Biggers once put it in an interview, “Sinister and wicked Chinese were old stuff in mystery stories, but an amiable Chinese acting on the side of law and order had never been used up to that time.” Biggers modeled some of Chan’s exploits on those of a real-life Honolulu detective, Chang Apana, although Biggers did not actually meet Apana until after the first Chan novel, House Without a Key, was published. The Honolulu Police Museum has a few mementos of the real Charlie. Charlie Chan has fallen out of favor, and a current generation of Hawaiian-American writers called the Bamboo Ridge Boys, after the lively literary journal they publish, decry the perpetuation of the proverb-spouting, inscrutable Asian stereotype. To which Charlie might reply, “If no one had praised the donkey’s song, he would not still be singing.”