- 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
The distinguished buildings of the 1920s led to the development of a modern-times territorial architectural style now in evidence all over the islands.
Ethnicity is so blended across the city that few areas have any overwhelming majority. In all neighborhoods, one sees faces of the descendants of immigrant workers brought to Hawaii for the backbreaking stoop labor of the plantation: Japanese, Okinawans, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Portuguese, now all intermixed in a happy blend labeled, in the patois of the island, “local.” The plantation way of life that generated this mix is now dead and is little lamented by those who worked in the fields.
Out in Waipahu, in southern Oahu, on a site that once was a true plantation village, is a unique museum that recreates the plantation experience for visitors. Plantation Village, a living-history museum and ethnobotanical garden, has some 30 plantation houses, some reconstructed, some hauled from other locations, furnished with personal artifacts and period furniture donated by former workers. The mementos on display are as cruel as the overseer’s whip and as touching as a bassinet fashioned of rice bags. Each house is dedicated to the legacy of a particular ethnic group. As the docents explain, that mix is not authentic. Plantation managers favored segregated camps, fearing that the various ethnic groups, which were often paid on different scales and given different privileges, would develop dangerous animosities. The segregation strategy didn’t work. Workers circumvented the language barriers by inventing a pidgin, a language (and it is truly that, with rules of its own) that lingers on in everyday life in Hawaii today. In the end ethnic alliances were what led to strikes for better pay and working conditions, strikes so successful that in the late twentieth century planters were forced to move to other countries where labor costs were lower.
One of the Plantation Village docents, Dietrix Duhaylongsod, a handsome Hawaiian-Filipino, is himself a descendant of plantation workers from the Visayan region of the Philippines. His English is impeccable, but he likes to show off his pidgin too. When he finished our tour, he had an important lesson to impart. In the end, he said, the multi-cultural workers learned somehow to put aside their prejudices and get along together. The getting along has endured in Hawaii, and the racial harmony of the islands is a model for the world. This, Duhaylongsod concluded, is the lasting gift of the plantation system.
Late at night in Chinatown little has changed. So have a bowl of won ton soup at Wo Fat (it’s still there) and drink a toast to Private Prewitt.
Many may know Hawaii’s post—World War II years only because of a young enlisted man who wrote a powerful novel about military life and about the underside of Hawaiian society in the years just before the war. James Jones was stationed at Schofield Barracks, in central Oahu. Jones’s book From Here to Eternity is fiction and must be taken as such, but it is an accurate reflection of much that he lived through. When he arrived at Schofield—he was 18—it was the largest, prettiest, and, he said, meanest base in America. He described the surroundings: “the foothills, rolling higher in that juicy green that has never starved for water. … And then, fulfilling all the rising promise, the black peaks of the Waianae Ridge, biting a sky that echoed the fatigues, and cut only by the deep V of Kolekole Pass that was like a whore’s evening dress, promising things on the other side.” The base was constructed in “quad” units, and thanks partly to their notoriety through Jones’s work, they’re included on lists of historic sites. The quads he knew are outwardly little changed today. He lived in D quad, now called Fleek quad after a Medal of Honor Vietnam War hero. The infamous stockade where his characters Prewitt and Maggio were interned remains, though now it’s a center for the provost marshal. The library where Jones knew every book on the shelves is now the Tropic Lightning Military Museum. “A steady stream of visitors comes here,” says the director, Linda Hee, “asking about the book or the movie.” The museum has photos of Jones and a few folders of memorabilia. A copy of his service record is there. In the box labeled “career interests” he wrote “writer of fiction,” but he could scarcely have dreamed of the fame he was eventually to achieve.
Jones was in a chow line on Pearl Harbor morning, and by the afternoon his unit had been deployed to Makapuu Point, on the eastern tip of Oahu, ready to defend the shore when the anticipated Japanese invasion came. The men manned pillboxes chiseled out of the rocks only days earlier. He used this memory extensively in another novel, The Pistol . Today the pillboxes are hard to see from the main road at Makapuu but remain clearly visible at the end of a trail above the road.