“It’s a cosmic irony that the longest, most grueling nonstop in the United States ends in the sweetest arrival of all,” Jocelyn Fujii, Hawaiian native and New York Times writer, wrote in a recent edition of its 36 Hours travel book series. Travelers will inhale the smell of “tuberose and plumeria” in the Hawaiian air, and find countless ethnic restaurants to satiate their taste buds, numerous accomplished art galleries to dazzle the eyes, and “hula dancers at sunset” to nostalgically transport tourists to the past. Such activities represent only a germ of the promise that one discovers in the nation’s most distant state, she pointed out.
Despite the fact that Honolulu and Hawaii date back centuries, most Americans know the city for Pearl Harbor, beaches—notably those on the North Shore and in Waikiki—surfing, tiki drinks such as Mai Tais and Blue Hawaiians, and luaus. Fans of network television might claim to watch the current iteration of Hawaii-Five O meanwhile their more benighted hipster counterparts will proudly attest to only watching the original series.
Many of us will admit to watching reruns of the 1972 Brady Bunch season opener. Greg discovers a cursed tiki statue at his Dad’s construction site, which predictably results in near disaster by the third episode of the three-episode arc. I will only touch upon Mad Men’s Season 6 opener where creator Matthew Weiner utilizes Honolulu’s mythical properties to comment on the shallowness of mid-century America. Don visits the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu; part business trip and vacation. He attends a luau where a hotel executive denigrates native cuisine; serves as witness to a soldier’s beach front wedding just before the latter ships off for Vietnam; and later alienates his Royal Hawaiian Hotel clients with an ad campaign for their company that appears to equate vacationing in Honolulu with suicide. “History is erased and blocked out with electric-blue cocktails,” Molly Lambert wrote in her cogent review. Hawaii isn’t a place with its own past and culture but instead a setting through which we discover the truth about ourselves. It would seem that these pop culture depictions of the 50th state fail to bring us any closer to grasping the complexity of Hawaii and Honolulu’s cultural, economic, and political importance over the past centuries.
Yet, perhaps these examples implicitly point to underlying issues regarding our knowledge of Hawaii, and Honolulu more specifically. Could Greg’s discovery of the cursed tiki statue, for example, be some sort of metaphorical comment on the unrelenting urban and economic development that has reshaped Hawaii in an Americanized image, thereby negating its longer history? Or is it just another Saidian Orientalist refraction of reality? Did Don Draper’s dreamlike walk through his Honolulu vacation represent his and the state’s own alienation from American society? I’ll leave that for readers to determine. Ultimately, Lambert’s larger point about historical erasure seems loudly evident. Tragically many Americans only know Honolulu through the lens of package vacation deals; the city equated with the number of days one spends lazing on the beach imbibing mixed drinks with umbrellas. Obviously there is so much more.
Europeans first made contact with Hawaii via Captain James Cooke in 1778. Cooke may not have meant to open the door to disease, which wiped out nearly 90 percent of the native population, nor intended for Americans to usurp the island during the late nineteenth century, but both occurred as a result of his encounter. About three decades after Cooke’s arrival, King Kamehameha unified the islands, utilizing his knowledge European weaponry and iron-making and deploying each in his own violent unification of Hawaii. Europeans and the U.S. would take greater interest in the archipelago due to its burgeoning sandalwood trade from which the King profited. Americans helped introduce Hawaiian sandalwood to the international market.
Kamehameha and other Hawaiian elites grasped the idea of scarcity in capitalism quickly; the sandalwood futures market in Hawaii traded briskly. Honolulu as a port gained importance. Whaling would prove lucrative for the city particularly in the mid 1800s when demand for whale oil was high, whale stocks full, and petroleum not yet a resource. International demand brought sailors and ships to the archipelago and especially its urban center. Honolulu gained official status as the capital of the kingdom in 1850 around the same time sugar took whaling’s place in the local economy; after petroleum was discovered and whale stocks had collapsed. Though Maui would become the chief sugar producer among the eight Hawaiian Islands, Honolulu, situated on the coast of Oahu, would serve as the kingdom’s business center. Soon white haoles came to dominate much of the economy. Nineteenth century historian and advisor to Kamehameha III Davida Malo recognized the danger haoles represented for Hawaii’s continued independence. “The ships of the white men have come … they know our people are few in number and living in a small country; they will eat us up, such has always been the case with large countries, the small ones have been gobbled up.”
Economics further influenced Honolulu. Undoubtedly lucrative, sugar reshaped Hawaiian society in nearly every manner. The crop had a halting start in the archipelago, but by 1866 fortunes had turned and Hawaii had achieved its first “positive balance of payments,” notes James L. Haley in Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii. U.S. economic interference and corporate consolidation of the land eventually followed. Yet, even on the eve of Pearl Harbor, it remained a colonial territory rather than the tourist paradise it is today.
Sugar introduced immigration flows that previously had been minimal. Chinese, Portuguese, and Japanese workers flocked to the island. By 1884, the Chinese accounted for nearly one fourth of Hawaii’s population; around the same time, Honolulu’s Chinatown bulged to nearly 8,000 residents, “such a tightly packed warren of houses, shops, shacks, and lean-tos that a fire [in 1866] could not be extinguished before devastating most of it.” The sugar cane that drew Chinese labors and others to Honolulu would persist as a cash crop into the late 20th century, the ethnic diversity needed to harvest it continued as well; in 2010, over 50 percent of the city’s population was Asian (Japanese, Filipinos, and Chinese nearly half), 18 percent white, nine percent Native Hawaiian, five percent Latino, and just over one percent African American.
Honolulu’s multiculturalism has had national implications in producing two ground-breaking politicians. Patsy Mink, champion of Title IX, became the first woman of color and first Asian American woman elected to Congress in 1965; Barack Obama became the nation’s first black president in 2008. More recently, its federal courts challenged President Trump’s travel bans and forced a showdown that will occur during the Supreme Court’s 2017 October Term.
One should not overstate the economic forces that shaped Honolulu; other cultural influences worked in parallel and imposed political and financial costs. Beginning in the 1820s, missionaries brought Calvinism; other forms of Christianity followed, all of which had myriad affects on Hawaiian society. At the risk of oversimplifying, Christianity became the state religion; the children of missionaries came to dominate sugar and other industries and their parents influenced the kingdom’s politics. In an era of imperial intrigue, religion gave the U.S. a cultural and economic advantage over British and French competitors, which the Yankees fully exploited to annex the kingdom at the end of the nineteenth century.
Later when, pineapple and sugar began their long decline—today each is mostly gone from the archipelago’s economy—tourism and the military took their place. While the implications of a military presence seem obvious and would seem to highlight the imperial aspects of Honolulu’s past, as Beth Baily and David Farber noted in The First Strange Place, WWII ushered in a wave of black, white, Latino, and Asian Americans who encountered the multiracial island during the era of Jim Crow. A conservative institution, the military regularly produces situations that challenge that very conservatism; the racial logic of mainland America faced a direct assault in the multicultural tropical setting of Honolulu. Sexual and racial boundaries would be crossed, violated, reinforced, and rethought. During the Second World War, Honoluluans of “different backgrounds were brought together in a common cause. This contact—collision, even—of cultures led to struggle and contestation, and sometimes to negotiation, improved understanding, or change,” noted Bailey and Farber.
If the military presence, arguably problematic, demonstrates complexity, so too does tourism and one of Honolulu’s premier symbols of this tourism, its beaches. “The beach was historically a place where hoale and Hawaiian worlds collided,” writes historian Isaiah Helekunih Walker in Waves of Resistance. Culture was not unidirectional. On Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach, Hawaiian and haole relationships “were redefined and reconstituted … the ocean was not simply a place from which haole, on the decks of their ships, transposed their image of the islands onto Hawaiians.”
In the water that rolled onto its beaches, argues Walker, native Hawaiian surfers subverted hegemonies. “[I]n the early twentieth century Hawaiian surfers in Waikiki successfully combated elite haole annexationists, had sex with elite white women, ran lucrative beach concessions businesses, and beat up American and European soldiers, and dictated what haole could and could not do in the surf.” Figures like Olympic gold medalist and surfer guru Duke Kahanamoku carried the sport to California where its history and bloodlines were whitewashed, but ultimately exploded into international acclaim after WWII.
Honolulu played a central role throughout this history. Since the 1970s, there has been a resurgence in capturing Hawaii’s native past and pushing past staid narratives. We hope you see this reflected in the bibliography below and, if not, fill in our blind spots in the comments.
Jennifer Allen, Mālama Honua: Hōkūle’a, A Voyage Of Hope, (Ventura: Patagonia Books, 2017).
Noelani Arista, Histories of Unequal Measure: Euro-American Encounters with Hawaiian Governance and Law, 1796-1827. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017) (forthcoming)
Beth Bailey and David Farber, The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994) – Videri review
Edward D. Beechert, Honolulu: Crossroads of the Pacific, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991).
Robert Cabin, Restoring Paradise: Rethinking And Rebuilding Nature In Hawaii, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013).
Joyce Chinen, Kathleen Kane, and Ida Yoshinaga, eds., Women In Hawai’i: Sites, Identities, And Voices, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Department of Sociology, 1997).
Tom Coffman, Nation Within: The History of The American Occupation Of Hawai’i, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016) – Review by David “Keanu” Sai
Gavin Daws, Honolulu the First Century: The Story of Town to 1876, (Honolulu: Mutual Publishing Company, 2006).
Grove Day, Hawai’i and Its People, (Honolulu: Mutual Publishing Company, 1993).
Heather Diamond, American Aloha: Cultural Tourism And The Negotiation Of Tradition, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008) – Review via SJSU Scholarworks
Masayo Duus, Unlikely Liberators: The Men Of The 100th And 442nd, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006).
Suzanne Falgout and Linda Nishigaya, Breaking The Silence: Lessons Of Democracy And Social Justice From The World War II Honouliuli Internment And POW Camp in Hawai’i, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i at Mānoa Department of Sociology, 2014).
Ben Finney, Sailing In The Wake Of The Ancestors: Reviving Polynesian Voyaging, (Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 2003) – Review in Asian Perspectives (via project muse)
Ben Finney, Voyage Of Rediscovery: A Cultural Odyssey Through Polynesia, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).
Lawrence A. Fuchs, Hawaii: A Social History, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984).
Clifford Gessler, Tropical Landfall: The Port of Honolulu, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran, and Company, 1943).
Ariel J. Gross, What Blood Won’t Tell: A History of Race on Trial in America, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).
Leilani Holmes, Ancestry of Experience: A Journey In To Hawaiian Ways Of Knowing, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2012) – Review Oral History Review
Robert Hommon, The Ancient Hawaiian State: Origins Of A Political Society, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013) – Review hawaiianhistory.org.
Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
Noelani Goodyear-Kaopua, Ikaikia Hussey, and Erin Wright, eds., A Nation Rising: Hawaiian Movements For Life, Land, and Sovereignty, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014) – Review JAH
Ralph S. Kuykendall and A. Grove Day, Hawaii: A History, From Polynesian Kingdom to American State, Revised edition, (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1976) .
Edward Joesting, Hawaii: An Uncommon History, (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1978).
Edward Joesting, Kaua’i: The Separate Kingdom, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1984).
Donald D. Johnson and Phyllis Turnball, The City and County of Honolulu: A Government Chronicle, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1991).
Amy Kaplan, The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of U.S. Culture, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005) – Short review in Foreign Affairs
Kehaulini Kauanui, Hawaiian Blood: Colonialism and the Politics of Sovereignty, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).
Gerald Kinro, A Cup Of Aloha: The Kona Coffee Epic, (Honolulu: University of HawaiI Press, 2003).
Rachel Laudan, The Food Of Paradise: Exploring Hawai’i’s Culinary Heritage, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1996) – Review in Isis
Queen Lili’uokalani, Hawai’i’s Story By Hawaii’s Queen Lili’uokalani, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2014)
John McDermott and Naleen Andrade, People And Cultures Of Hawai’i: The Evolution Of Culture And Ethnicity, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011).
James C. Mohr, The Plague and Fire: Battling Black Death and the 1900 Burning of Chinatown, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) – Review by Brian Ireland at Americansc.org.uk
Gary Okihiro, Island World: A History Of Hawai’i And The United States, (Berkeley: University Of California Press, 2008) – Review PHR (via jstor)
Michael M. Okihiro, A’ala: The Story of a Japanese Community in Hawaii, (Honolulu: Japanese Cultural Center, 2003) – Not really a review, but this article from the.honoluladvertiser.com provides some useful description on the book.
Koohan Paik and Jerry Mander, The Superferry Chronicles: Hawaii’s Uprising Against Commercialism and the Desecration of the Earth, (Honolulu: Koa Books, 2007).
Pi’ilani, The True Story Of Kaluaikoolau, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2001).
John P. Rosa, Local Story: The Massie/Kahahawai Case and the Culture of History, (Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2014).
Allan Seiden, The Hawaiian Monarchy, (Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 2005).
Julia Flynn Siler, Lost Kingdom: Hawaii’s Last Queen, the Sugar King, and America’s First Imperial Adventure, (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012) – NYT review
David Stanndard, Race, Rape and Clarence Darrow’s Spectacular Last Case, (New York: Penguin Books, 2006) – H-Net review
Ty Kāwika Tengan, Native Men Remade: Gender And Nation In Contemporary Hawai’i. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008) – Review Men and Masculinities (via Sage)
James Tayman, The Colony: The Harrowing True Story of the Exiles of Molokai, (New York: Scribner, 2007) – NYT article on the book’s supporters and critics
Haunani-Kay Trask, From A Native Daughter: Colonialism And Sovereignty In Hawai’i, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999).
Mark Twain, Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing it in the Sandwich Islands (Honolulu: Mutual Publishing, 1994) and Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1975)– NYT article on Twain in Hawaii
Isaiah Helekunihi Walker, Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth-Century Hawai’i, (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2011) – Hawaii Book Blog review
James Michener, Hawaii, (New York: Random House, 2002).
 Haoles, according to historian James Haley it means literally “without breath, unable to speak the language”, is general term for non-native residents of Hawaii, initially white missionaries occupied this status later it came to include plantation workers and others.
 James L. Haley, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014), 90.
 James L. Haley, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014), 48-49, 263.
 Beth Bailey and David Farber, The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii, (New York: Free Press, 1992), 18.
 Isaiah Helekunih Walker, Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth Century Hawaii, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011), 11.
 Walker, Waves of Resistance, 10.