April/May 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 2
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Iwilei, as Maugham knew it, is gone, replaced by an unlovely complex of cargo storage sheds and docking equipment. As a matter of fact, a lot of Honolulu where real life goes on is a jumble of buildings—hula supply shops next to tattoo parlors, karate schools, dim sum parlors—all heaped together in an incoherent whole, picturesque to some viewers, tacky to others. The jumble is much as it was in 1916, when that disillusioned traveler Maugham described it: “Shacks stand cheek by jowl with stone mansions, dilapidated frame houses standing next door to smart stores with plate glass windows.” When it comes to city planning, there has never been enough space in Honolulu to separate the elite from the humble. Nevertheless, Honolulu has its share of distinguished architecture, most notably those buildings created during the 1920s and ’30s. This was the era of Charles W. Dickey, Hart Wood, Julia Morgan, and Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. Charles Dickey is credited with the popularization of the predominant style, California Spanish Colonial/Mission at its core, modified with Hawaiian elements: protective eaves to take advantage of trade winds, that most pleasant of Hawaiian-inspired architectural features the lanai , green-tiled roofs, and the double-pitched hipped roof that became known as the Dickey roof, although he didn’t actually invent it. Many buildings included a touch of the Orient, so fitting to Hawaii’s population mix. Some of the most striking ones in this mode are the Honolulu Academy of Arts (1927), 900 South Beretania Street, designed by Bertram Goodhue and this writer’s choice for the most beautiful building in Honolulu; the Alexander and Baldwin Building (1929), 822 Bishop Street, a unique blend of Asian and Western architecture designed by Charles Dickey and Hart Wood; the Richards Street YWCA (1927), 1040 Richards Street, the work of Julia Morgan, one of America’s foremost female architects and the designer of William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon, and the Honolulu Hale (1929), at the corner of South King and Punchbowl Streets, a Spanish Colonial Revival gem highlighted by Hawaiian motifs, designed by a team of architects including Charles Dickey and Hart Wood.
These proud old buildings led to the development of a modern-times territorial architectural style now in evidence all over the islands. Endless replayings of the nostalgia motif in twenty-first-century Hawaiian architecture draws the ire of some architects who see the entire island turning into some kind of territorial theme park, and indeed there is some reason to question the integrity of trying to re-create the honest but expensive buildings of the past with modern stucco poured over Styrofoam underpinnings.
Gradually, as one comes to know Honolulu, a sense of place for each district begins to emerge. Hawaiians take pride in their individual neighborhoods, each with a distinctive spirit and history. The Manoa district near the University of Hawaii, for example, delights visitors with its vintage cottages nestled in exuberant plantings, the dramatic green ridges of the Koolau mountains serving as a backdrop. The decorative elements of the cottages and sometimes the whole houses often came from mail-order catalogues of the twenties and thirties. One had only to choose a miniature Tudor, a little Mediterranean villa, or a French Norman cottage, and shortly an appropriate kit would arrive by ship. It is best, though, not to fall too much in love with these seemingly modest little charmers. Their price tags are likely to hover in the million-dollar range.
The true luxury homes of the past cluster in the Kahala/Diamond Head area. One of the most spectacular is the island paradise of the heiress Doris Duke, now open to all as Hawaii’s newest museum. Duke visited Hawaii on the last leg of her honeymoon in 1935 and was instantly attracted to its beauty. She purchased five acres near Diamond Head, built a retreat she called Shangri La, and over a period of nearly six decades filled it with one of the most important collections of Islamic art in the United States, some 3,500 objects: flower-strewn tiles, lacy marble windows, fragments of rooms purchased from Middle Eastern estates. Her most significant acquisition is an immense lusterware mihrab, a prayer niche, from a thirteenth-century Iranian tomb. The estate also has an incomparable view of the Pacific and of Diamond Head. Duke died in 1993 without heirs, leaving most of her estate to charity. Once the inevitable legal wranglings over the will were eventually settled, one of the bequests led to the creation of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. The foundation transformed the property into a public facility. Knowledgeable docents escort small groups through the treasures. When they speak of Duke, they veil some of the messier aspects of the life she led: her imperious personality, her bad taste in husbands, her sad final years when a flower child she took in proved less than innocent. The tours must be booked in advance, but anyone can clamber over the rocks to a lovely swimming area at the base of the estate and enjoy the same spectacular expanse of sea, turquoise shading to indigo, that Duke so loved. In Hawaii the beach-front belongs to the public, and not even Doris Duke could buy exclusive rights.
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.
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.
One of the most enduring features of From Here to Eternity is Jones’s easy familiarity not only with military life but with the smells and sights of pre-war Hawaii. He knew about the hillside houses perched high above the city (Lorene lives there), that secret beach cove (Karen and Warden make love there), but most intimately of all, he knew Chinatown, with its noodle shops, brothels disguised as hotels, and “always and eternally everywhere, pervading everything like Fate, the smells of rotting meat and dead wilted vegetables from the open-fronted grocery stores with their folding lattice (like an old-fashioned wall phone you pulled out to use) drawn across and locked, keeping you out and not keeping in the smells that we will forever remember as the attar of Hawaii.”
Chinatown is still very much a part of Hawaii’s culture. It’s cleaner, perhaps, but on Saturday mornings when all the meat and vegetable stands are crowded with shoppers, the “attar of Hawaii” lives on. Late at night, despite the city planners, 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. He might just be the most memorable character in postwar American fiction. Neil Abercrombie, a U.S. congressman from Hawaii, thinks so. From Prewitt, the congressman once said in a speech, “I learned about the meaning of integrity, honesty, and above all, what it takes to be human.”
After the Pearl Harbor attack, barbed wire went up in front of the Moana, the Royal Hawaiian, and the Halekulani. Camouflage paint shrouded Aloha Tower. Doris Duke’s recently installed mirhab was hastily taken down and put in storage. Suddenly the Nisei sons of Japanese plantation workers went off to war, distinguished themselves in battle, and came home with a new pride and new aspirations. Statehood for Hawaii was not to come for 14 years after World War II ended, but when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, an era ended.