There is something undeniably charming about the Honolulu Airport’s late 1950s/early 1960s aesthetic. I’m not sure about smelling “tuberose and plumeria” upon arrival as one writer promised, but that might be because I don’t actually know what either of those scents smell like. I do know that the airport’s baggage claim area has distressingly low ceilings for anyone taller than six foot two.
I’ll be baldly honest; I had never been to Hawaii and I was wary. Sure, I enjoyed the three part Brady Bunch episode in the 1970s, Hawaii Five-O, Magnum P.I. and movies like North Shore and Blue Crush, but all as ironic entertainment. Actually spending nearly two weeks on the islands that nearly killed the Bradys and launched Tom Selleck’s career seemed daunting in my aging hipsterdom. Well as usual, I was wrong.
For this travelogue I’ve focused only on my three days and two nights in Honolulu, the “crossroads of the pacific” as Edward Beechert’s book’s subtitle announces. We stayed in Waikiki, at a “hip” hotel. How hip you ask? Like 1950s teddy boy hip. For example, on our last day, the hotel’s pool area hosted the Miss Waikiki Beauty Pageant. In regard to the latter, let me tell you haven’t lived until you’ve instructed those working the event on the proper mechanics of the black and tan, and then watched them shotgun their frothy drinks in an orgy of bad decision making. Gross, but I digress.
During the mid 1800s, Honolulu really came into its own as the whaling industry declined and the sugar industry ascended. If one believes historian Gavan Daws, the city’s expansion occurred rather haphazardly. “Civil carelessness gave the ground plan of the town its shape, and the skyline, seen against the inland mountain ranges was ragged,” he wrote fifty years ago in the Journal of Pacific History. “By the 60s the era of thatch and adobe was coming to an end. More and more Honolulu was emerging as a town of wood and stone.” Design was less than innovative, argued Daws, and too many of the architects and builders in the city were “average men, with average imaginations, and frontiermen’s tastes.” Admittedly, one can take some of Daws’s observations with a grain of salt. He often gives too much of a pass to the American missionaries who settled in Honolulu and the other islands in the 1820s and seems to echo some of their fairly racist opinions regarding Native Hawaiians.
Regardless of Daws’ ideological biases, the city boomed. The consumer demand generated by the California Gold Rush denuded the city of produce and goods, which led to inflation that exceeded the purchasing power of locals. “Well, I will tell you something of how we live – or, rather, how we don’t. We have not bought a bunch of bananas in many months,” missionary Samuel Castle wrote to a friend at the time, “much of the time we have neither Irish nor sweet potatoes … Almost every species of fruit is beyond our means.” As whaling and sugar intersected in their cycle of decline and ascension, America’s economy beckoned. Honolulu stood unrivaled among Pacific ports. The commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet wrote that in fact Honolulu was “more important than ever.” California’s statehood simply cemented the relationship. Americans began decamping for the Golden State, a “wave of immigration” that promised to reach Honolulu—making the islands “the West Indies of the Pacific Coast,” as one editor wrote. In the early part of the twentieth century, California architects like C.W. Dickey and Julia Morgan contributed to local design with a number of buildings that can’t help but remind observers of Progressive-era Southern California. Even today, driving around Honolulu, it evokes a certain SoCal atmosphere but with a Polynesian tinge. Considering much of its development occurred in the post-World War II period, military spending shaped large parts of Oahu, for better and worse. One wonders how much its housing and economic development resembled or paralleled California’s.
California serves as only one influence on the city. Sugar production brought Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and Filipino workers to labor on the islands. Between the native population, the newly arriving haoles, and the sugar cane workers, Hawaii’s demographics transformed into a multicultural stew. Honolulu’s Chinatown, burned entirely to the ground in 1900, stands as just one testament to the globalizing nature of nineteenth century commodities, capital and labor. The neighborhood’s architecture, much of it built after the fire, has a distinct early- twentieth-century feel; more recently constructed buildings – to borrow from the ubiquitous HGTV series House Hunters – have a mid-century modern aesthetic. Dive bars, up and coming restaurants like the Pig and the Lady, and sprouting boutique stores mark Chinatown as perhaps the local gentrifying neighborhood. Of course, our taxi driver cautioned us one evening against venturing out into its streets, noting that there were “a lot of homeless there” and it wasn’t the kind of place you wanted to stay “after dark.” Needless to say, when the sun went down we wallowed in its narrow alleyways and imbibed on mai-tais at the dingiest of watering holes, taxi drivers be damned!
Obviously, the military occupies a notable place in the local economy, politics, and layout of Oahu. Manifest Destiny, to paraphrase Dave Chappelle, is a helluva a drug and the United States’s addiction to expansion led it to violate laws and human rights. American interlopers sought control of Pearl Harbor and through negotiations with the kingdom eventually leveraged it over the sugar trade in 1877. Imperialists like Alfred Thayer Mahan felt no guilt in deploying the strong-armed tactics required to secure the port. “In our infancy we bordered on the Atlantic only; our youth carried our boundary to the Gulf of Mexico; to-day maturity sees us upon the Pacific,” wrote Mahan in his famous The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783. “Have we no right or no call to progress farther in any direction?” One might answer the Captain’s question today with a studied Lebowskian, “Well, that’s just your opinion man”, but again, I digress.
Though it took many years for the U.S. military to dredge the harbor and clear it of coral, Hawaii, and more specifically Pearl Harbor’s, strategic military importance from the late 1800s thorough the current day only increased. It’s here that a visitor begins to think about the morality of Hawaii or, more precisely, the morality of America’s presence in the archipelago. Pearl Harbor stands as a sobering memorial to the Second World War and those who died in the December 7, 1941 attack on the military installation, yet quietly, almost like a whisper, one wonders about the kind of privations and death American imperialism in the Pacific caused in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
During the early twentieth century, Waikiki and Diamond Head emerged as popular tourist destinations for European and American visitors; tourism reshaped the city’s economy and depictions of its native populations. Postcards and stereoscopes of the early 1900s depicted the islands through sexualized images as a means of marketing Honolulu and other Hawaiian destinations to the broader white American public. Native women were Orientalized, presented as sensuous, accessible and sexual while native men were emasculated, portrayed as “insignificant, incapable, and disappearing,” as historians such as Jane Desmond, Ty Kawika Tengan, and Isaiah Helekunihi Walker argue.
Keep in mind, that for all the fun in the sun one discovers in the city, historians have found deeper meaning in recreational activities accessible on Honolulu’s beaches. Sure, today Waikiki is kitted out in corporate chain stores and restaurants, “a concentrated zone of souvenir dealers and luggage dragging hordes that feels like a cultural protectorate of the airport” noted one writer in a recent take on the famous tourist area. However, decades before the unrelenting development of the late twentieth century, during the 1920s the Waikiki Beachboys—native surfers who worked in tourism as guides, instructors, and entertainers, writes Walker—challenged racist norms and gendered hierarchies.
The battle between an organization of native surfers known as the Hui Nalu, from which the Waikiki boys later sprung, and their counterparts, the exclusively white Outrigger Canoe Club, worked at several levels. The two groups duked it out over who had greater athletic prowess on the beach, a means by which the Hui Nalu rejected the ethos of colonization. Through these contests, native Hawaiians refuted stereotypes regarding sexuality and masculinity while also benefitting financially through a thriving concessions business. “In ka po’ina nalu [the surf zone] they defied tourist portrayals of Hawaiian men as passive, nearly invisible Natives,” notes surfing historian Isaiah Helekmunihi Walker. “Rather than being exploited, victims of tourism, the Beachboys defied rather than bolstered common stigmas.” Native Hawaiians in Waikiki made money, established businesses, and, perhaps most notoriously considering American racial and sexual attitudes of the day, publicly romanced white women. “Through such interactions, Waikiki Beachboys violated social rules of an American society governed by anti-miscegenation laws and threatened haole hegemony by conquering endangered and privileged property,” writes Walker. “In many ways sexual encounters with white women in the surf became a mark of identity for these men …” Undoubtedly it was an imperfect exercise of agency, one that hinged on sexist notions of gender, but it reveals the Beachboys agency nonetheless. When wandering around Waikiki, it helps to remember that though it might be a tourist trap today, real meaning lies beneath the placid surface.
Though Hawaiian culture was subsumed by mainland America during and after World War II, in the 1970s a movement that became known as the Hawaiian Renaissance emerged and led to new forms of activism. Hawaiian historian George Kanahele explained its importance to audiences in the late 1970s, writing that “it has created a new kind of Hawaiian consciousness; it has inspired greater pride in being Hawaiian; it has led to bold and imaginative ways of reasserting our identity …” Native protests over the military bombing of Kaho’olawe eventually resulted in the curtailing and later ending of the island’s bombardment. The voyage of the Hōkūle’a which demonstrated that ancient Polynesian sailors had intended to reach the islands and not “accidently” stumbled upon them, reinvigorated Hawaiian pride in their historical roots. Polynesians it turns out, were top notch seaman capable of traversing the treacherous ocean and discovering the most isolated archipelago in the world. The rise of the Save Our Shores (SOS) organization which promoted environmentalism and native pride in the 1960s and 1970s, serves as the final example from these three snapshots of activism from the decade. “The Blacks, Chicanos, American Indians, and others have reasserted their rights and their roots,” Kanahele noted in 1977. “No doubt the Hawaiian cultural and political activism is part of that legacy.”
Today, you can see this pride on display during the Kamehameha Day Parade, held this year on June 10, when Hawaiians gather on Honolulu streets to celebrate the birthday of King Kemehameha, the great unifier of the islands. The ‘Iolani Palace, built by King David Kalakaua, stands as further evidence of this heritage—after decades of restoration, it embodies this cultural pride and awareness. Upon its completion, the palace was completely wired for electricity, well before the White House could claim the same. Ironically the palace is located across from the state capital, which resembles mid-century California architecture. For those interested in Hawaii’s long history, the Bishop Museum in Honolulu provides great insight into its Polynesian roots and pre-European past.
To be clear, Honolulu and the island of Oahu are but one slice of Hawaii. Each island has its own personality, and its people have their own identity.If you visit, though, don’t sleep on the state capital. While it is easy to be hypnotized by mai-tais on the beach, there is much more there there. In what other American city will you find Sun Yat Sen plaza (where excellent and very affordable dim sum can be had)? Built along the canal on the edge of Chinatown, it memorializes the Chinese revolutionary’s time in the city. If you look past the mid range shopping and chain restaurants, an ocean of culture lies before you. Dive in.
 Gavan Daws, “Honolulu in the 19th Century: Notes on the Emergence of Urban Society in Hawaii”, The Journal of Pacific History, Vol. 2 (1967): 80-81.
 James L. Haley, Captive Paradise: A History of Hawaii, (New York: St. Martin’s, 2014), 168.
 Harold Whitman Bradley, “California and the Hawaiian Islands, 1846 – 1852,” Pacific Historical Review, 16.1 (February 1947): 27-28.
 Isaiah Helekunih Walker, Waves of Resistance: Surfing and History in Twentieth Century Hawaii, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2011), 88-89.
 Wells Tower, “The Hawaii Cure”, New York Times, March 21, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/21/magazine/hawaii-travels-escape.html
 Walker, Waves of Resistance, 75.
 Walker, Waves of Resistance, 106.