- 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
“When the ship moves slowly away,” wrote Somerset Maugham of boat day, “the streamers break softly, and it is like the breaking of human ties.”
The Waikiki hotel district is separated from downtown Honolulu by a drainage canal, the Ala Wai, and it is outside the world of the fantasy hotels that a real sense of the territorial past is to be recovered. One new development, the Aloha Tower Marketplace, incorporating the vintage Aloha Tower and a new marine passenger terminal, tries hard to evoke the tradition of old-time boat days when the whole town turned out for an aloha to the steamships. The partings of boat days touched even the ordinarily cynical Somerset Maugham, a tourist in the islands in 1916:
“When your ship leaves Honolulu they hang leis around your neck, garlands of sweet smelling flowers. The wharf is crowded and the band plays a melting Hawaiian tune. The people on board throw colored streamers to those standing below, and the side of the ship is gay with thin lines of paper, red and green and yellow and blue. When the ship moves slowly away the streamers break softly, and it is like the breaking of human ties. Men and women are joined together for a moment by a gaily colored strip of paper, and then life separates them and the paper is sundered, so easily, with a little sharp snap. For an hour the fragments trail down the hull, and then blow away.”
Boat days are no more, and modern visitors to the Aloha Tower complex must make do with a gorgeous 269-foot wrap-around mural reproduction of a boat-day scene of the 1930s. Famous personages of the past inhabit the mural: Hawaii’s Olympic hero surfer and consummate beach boy Duke Kahanamoku, the hula dancer Hilo Hattie, and Capt. William Matson, founder of the Matson steamship line.
From the observation deck of the Aloha Tower there is a panoramic view of the Honolulu waterfront and a once infamous district known as Iwilei. Looking for local color, Somerset Maugham went slumming there and wrote this in his notebook: “You go down side-streets by the harbour, in the darkness, across a rickety bridge, and you come to a road, all ruts and holes; a little farther … there is a certain stir, an air of expectant agitation; you turn down a narrow alley, either to the right or to the left, and find yourself in the district. … The pretty bungalows are divided into two lodgings; each is inhabited by a woman, and each consists of two rooms and a kitchenette.”
A prostitute named Sadie Thompson, Maugham was to find, lived in one of those bungalows. Shortly after Maugham’s Iwilei adventure, the police shut down the district. Sadie was out of business and sailed off to Samoa. As it turned out, Maugham was on board that ship too and suffered through her loud gramophone and late-night trysts. In Samoa, temporarily stranded by a storm, he found himself in the same boardinghouse as Sadie. There was a real-life hypocritical missionary staying in the boardinghouse too, although he seems not to have met the final grim end of Maugham’s character Davidson. Sadie’s adventures became Maugham’s most famous short story, “Rain.” The writer did not even bother to change her name: Passenger lists published in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser record a “Somerset Maugham” and a “Miss Thompson” departing Honolulu for Pago Pago on the Sonoma , December 4, 1916.