Wahanui’s Tall Tales
Here in Wahanui’s Tall Tales, a look through the Looking Glass (Darkly) of our Correspondent and Connoisseur of the Absurd and the Magical
I ola no ke kino i ka mā‘ona o ka ‘ōpū. – The body enjoys health when the stomach is well filled.
The Last Kahuna | Budding Calamity | Bumpy’s Village | Lair of the Chaos Monster | Mr. Shimada’s Spite Strip | Squid Eye and Sweetheart | Corporate Vision Statement | Cane Field Factory | Mandarin Redoubt
The Last Kahuna
I was quite surprised when my friend invited me to his wedding, since I hadn’t realized that he even had a girlfriend. The occasion, a “celebration of loving commitment” as he called it, was to be held at his penthouse apartment. And it was there that I met Uncle Herman, an old kahuna who would perform the ceremony since, as I later realized, no one of legal capacity would.
When the day came, I arrived late and made haste to join the others, who had assembled in a big circle. As we joined hands and prepared for the blessing, I searched for the bride, but there was my friend, standing arm-in-arm with some guy who, as it dawned on me, was the bride.
As I came to know Herman better, I realized that he offered a wealth of highly original insight on certain seminal events of Hawaiian and world history, events to which he himself had in some way been party. Fascinated with his stories, I became a regular visitor to his apartment in Chinatown, a place that he shared with Doctor Daniel, a surf bum who served as caregiver in return for a roof over his head. But theirs was a contentious relationship, and on more than one occasion, Herman threw him out, leaving his things at the door and a note on the landing. But he always took him back, since among other things, Daniel helped him on down to Duke’s in Waikiki, where he drank himself silly and wheeled about the dance floor, flirting and winking and doffing his Stetson to an old woman who was so enraptured by his antics that she literally crapped her pants.
Herman inhabited a world that was largely of his own fabrication, and in between picking over a plate of tinned salmon and poi, he let me in on its secrets. He had been a cabin attendant on the Pan Am China Clipper. On one of its flights from New York to Canton, he had met Senator John F. Kennedy. After they disembarked in Honolulu, Herman had taken him to a Kahala pig farm, where JFK had cavorted with the girls in the family furo. Kennedy was so taken with his Japanese hosts that he urged statehood for Hawaii at once.
I also learned the truth behind a significant watershed in Soviet-American relations. Herman had met Mrs. Nikita Khrushchev, who had accompanied the Soviet premier on a visit to New York and the United Nations. They met in the elevator at the Waldorf Astoria, where she had winked at him, and late that night, there was a knock on his door: there she was, in her nightie. He let her in, and asked her what this was all about. She and the premier were not getting along these days, she explained, and all affection has disappeared from their marriage. Which was why the premier had become cross, doing things like taking off his shoe and banging it on the podium at the U.N. She was convinced, in fact, that his ornery disposition had caused the Cuban Missile Crisis, and brought the world to the brink of nuclear apocalypse.
I was also made privy to the real reason for the attack on Pearl Harbor. King Kalakaua had once gone to Japan, where he had agreed to engage the hand of an Imperial princess in marriage in exchange for delivering up the island of Maui to the Japanese (Herman had a copy of the treaty in his safe deposit box). But when His Majesty failed to live up to his part of the bargain and deliver up the island after all those years, the Japanese had been patient, but then they exacted terrible vengeance. And at last, I was given to know of his secret audiences with Ronald Reagan, who sometimes slipped into town on the sly, so that Herman might employ his stores of sacred Hawaiian minerals to treat the president’s worsening affliction with “Old Timer’s Disease.”
And now you know the rest of the story.
Izzy’s girlfriend Kathy wasn’t really pretty, mostly Japanese with some other mixed in. But she always had a warm smile, a real sweet girl who could never make as much in the bar as the other girls because she didn’t have it in her to hustle people for drinks. She always made sure there was stuff to eat–raw crab and sashimi, boiled peanuts and rice balls and kimchi, or shoyu chicken wings or even cold sliced octopus. Like the other waitresses, Kathy paid for the food herself and hoped she made it back in tips, which she usually did, and a modest amount extra. She seemed to enjoy just listening to people talk, and she never hit you up for drink.
Izzy had a place somewhere above Hilo Bay. Things were pretty good. His small house was an A-frame that his friends had helped him build, and he and his friends would pull up chairs outside and drink beer and smoke and play slack key. He had an old truck, a pit bull named Tiger Lilly, and a patch of a hundred or so plants up on the big mountain. Back then, it was fun to go up to the volcano and be with his plants in that fantastic terrain of fern forests and steaming fumaroles. There were pigs, too, and sometimes he shot one and took it home to smoke the meat.
It was all braddah-braddah. No mean and stingy boss, no shitty job and insulting wages. It wasn’t work, really. At the farmers’ market in Hilo, Izzy and his friends traded stories and growing tips, talked prices, put each other on to some samples, and had a good time. It was so easy. Just dig a hole and put the seedling, and after several months, it budded. You didn’t even have to water, since it rained all the time. Once a month, he put some fertilizer on the plants, and maybe a handful of lime to reduce the acidity of the soil. Then when it was ready, he took the plant, dried it, cleaned it, and had some nice buds to sell. He did okay, just making the rounds with his friends and their friends.
Used to be just local people like him growing weed. But then outsiders moved in. There were lots of hippies at first, but then later on they were something else altogether. They were so full of shit, those people, all talk about love and getting mellow and up the establishment and go back to Mother Earth and live off the land. They sat under a tree and meditated with one hand on each knee. They ate alfalfa sprouts. They were dirty and never cut their hair and they walked around barefoot, and the women thought they were local girls with flowers behind the ear. Worse, some of the guys wore flowers behind the ear. But these same people who talked about mellow out and live and let live, they ripped each other off all the time, pulling up each other’s plants, selling people bad acid, and they got drunk and got noisy and they had no respect.
And now it was getting crowded, even up there on the big mountain. People were getting paranoid about hiding their stuff from other people who just went hunting for it like Easter eggs and ripped you off. So many people were growing it everywhere, even way out in the middle of nowhere, and the people who wanted to rip you off were climbing all over the countryside to find it. You couldn’t even grow it out in the sugar cane anymore, since the cane workers knew where to look for it.
Everyone was getting ripped off. Not just hippies ripping each other off, but growers, and getting busted too. The ones that got caught were getting some pretty stiff sentences, like twenty years even. And hikers would just disappear– there were booby traps of sharp bamboo punji stakes up there. Sometimes you heard guns going off, up in the forest. There were pig hunters around, but you always thought the worst. And now some syndicate assholes from Honolulu came in and basically took over, and things were no longer so braddah-braddah.
The feds and the police got mad, and fought back. It went on for three weeks, and they took no prisoners: 406,000 plants destroyed, 38 people arrested, 15 weapons seized. Their planes dusted the crops and sprayed them with herbicide. If it didn’t kill the plant, the stuff would damn near kill you.
Izzy had decided it was time to pull up his plants and go look for someplace else, or maybe even find something else to do.
We climbed into his old truck, a 1941 Chevrolet Apache with 79,000 miles on an odometer that could only register five digits, nearly unreadable beneath its cracked glass. The truck’s coating of flat orange primer had rusted away, and its broad white grill scowled from beneath headlights bracketed by dents.
The truck bumped and groaned along the sandy road, and guava branches lashed the sides of the truck and their ripe fruit spattered the windshield. We stopped in an old plantation town for gas. Izzy said this was the kind of place he had in mind when he said he didn’t want a real job. Cutting sugar cane was sweltering, brutal work. After the cut, they would burn the rubbish in cane fires that crackled and glowed in the sooty night. Then the next morning, they came in and picked through the unburned trash and loaded it onto carts, and there was always somebody on your ass to make sure that every piece of cane was picked up and sent to the mill. They slapped at mosquitoes and wasps, sweated under the sun, choked on clouds of cane smoke and fly ash, flailed away at the cane, and lived their lives in their tiny pine-board houses. On Big Island, there weren’t many choices: cut cane, work in the hotels and wait on tourists, or grow weed. And now the last option was being foreclosed.
Several months later, Izzy’s friend Kathy was in the news. Early one morning, police had found her body in the bushes out by the airport, stabbed dozens of times by some guy she was doing chemicals with. Ever since the feds had cracked down and sprayed the crops, weed couldn’t be had at any price. But crystal meth was cheap, and a new Ice Age had arrived. It chilled the spirit of the community with its harrowing tales of women being beaten up and children abused, and people ripping out the copper wiring in street lights to sell to the smelter. A way of life had been uprooted along with the weed, and in its place there flourished ugliness.
There has long been an element of tragic comedy in the affairs of state of the Hawaiian nation—to the extent that, and on the occasion when, there was one. Nowadays, the Sovereign Nation of Hawaii had reconstituted itself around the leadership of one Bumpy Kanahele, who had spent his last hundred dollars on fishing line, some water buckets, a charcoal grill, some groceries and shoyu and rice, gone to the garden shop and bought sweet potato and taro seedlings, assorted seeds, and a few tools, and loaded everything along with his friends into an ancient station wagon and betaken themselves to a complex of derelict houses at Makapuu. The Coast Guard had abandoned them in 1974 when an automated lighthouse was built to replace the old one, and round-the-clock operators were no longer needed. The structures were badly damaged, with holes in the walls, wires dangling from the roofs, and walls covered with graffiti. The toilets and sinks had been uprooted from the bathrooms, and the windows had no screens to keep out the flies. During their first night there, everyone slept under the stars.
There was so much injury and alienation and ill will to heal. But all their troubles were going to vanish in a heartbeat, without having to worry about paying the damn rent to some piggy-ass landlord. All sickness would disappear when you ate good Hawaiian food, lots and lots of poi with good Hawaiian salt, sweet potato, crunchy red limu and ahi and those ono freshwater shrimps, and lots of good savory pork fresh from the imu– no more junk food that rotted your teeth and made you sick and rotted your soul too.
Word got around that a new nation had been established at Makapuu. Their numbers grew from several to a dozen, and there were women and children. They set to work fixing up the old cottages, and brought in their old furniture and coolers filled with ice and beer and bags of groceries. Their junky old cars sat around like an encircling wagon train, and throughout the colony, the Hawaii state flag and a replica of a flag once used by King Kalakaua were draped upside-down, in a symbol of distress, over the settlement’s entrance. Below the flags, a large banner as blue as the ocean read “Nation State of Hawai’i, Independent and Sovereign.” The compound bustled with activity as carpenters sawed planks for benches from lumber donated by supporters. Across from them, workers prepared meals, and beneath blue plastic tarps were centers for public information, cooking, resting, sleeping, storage, recreation and meetings.
Their claim to the land stemmed from Bumpy’s tenuous and convoluted ties to a High Chief and original owner of the land, by way of a grant from King Kamehameha II. Applause and cheers rang out from those who had gathered round to listen to Bumpy, as he revealed his vision of the day when his people could return to land that had been stolen from them. They would reclaim the beaches and let Hawaiians fish and make salt and grow what they wanted on their own land, grow taro and re-stock the old fishponds. They would revive the Hawaiian language, make all the kids study it, revive the old traditions of dance and the telling of legends and let the kupuna elders rule the community. They would live a life that would serve as an example for the rest of the world, and show people that being greedy and raping the land was not necessary for happiness, that prosperity and growth came from within. They would show the world the true meaning of aloha, that it wasn’t the bullshit aloha of the hospitality Industry. They would show the world that what God had given man– the sea and the land and the sky and the sun– nobody could own. It was there for all to share, and not to exclude others from.
Things went well so long as the water at the nearby beach park flowed. They brought the water in with buckets and plastic shoyu containers, basins and inflatable plastic pools, and their taro and potatoes thrived. What a joy it was to live without laws or ordinances, without bills or rent to pay! It was all so madcap, and nobody paid attention so long as the clear cool water gushed steadily and the taro flourished and they reveled in the beach showers and the toilets flushed merrily away in the bathrooms at the beach park.
Something primal stirred in their breasts as they mucked about in the taro, its great heart-shaped leaves nodding affectionately to its long-lost keepers. The people recognized it as a long-lost friend. They lumped together the dusty hummocks of sweet potatoes and held the runner vines in their fingers and beheld the nodding taro leaves with a sense of wonder as the surf murmured and the heady saltwater breeze coursed freely throughout their rude shelters and their hearts.
It must have been a mistake. The bill showed that water usage had gone from 4,200 gallons a month to more than 773,000. The City & County called the Board of Water Supply, and asked them to check to see if there was some mistake. But no, there wasn’t any mistake. So they asked them to send someone to check the site. Must be a broken main, something wrong with the plumbing. Several days later, the Board of Water Supply called the City & County with its findings. They had sent an inspector out, and he had reported that a small tent city had gone up out there. People were using the toilets round the clock, and they were taking showers at the beach park. But most of all, people were carrying water away in buckets and inflatable swimming pools and containers of all kinds, and taking it to where they had their tents, and using it to cook and to irrigate a taro patch and some sweet potatoes they were growing.
Miffed at the misappropriation of its water, the City & County threatened to cut it off, and suddenly, the movement was thrown into crisis. The mayor indeed had the water turned off, the water lines plugged, the meters removed from the parks, and the toilets boarded up. It was hard to grow taro in lo’i that had dried up and baked and cracked under the relentless sun and heat. Now that the City & County had cut off the water supply, people had to drive miles up to the next beach park with buckets and trash containers lined with plastic bags to bring water for drinking, cooking, and cleaning. But it wasn’t nearly enough for the taro and the sweet potatoes.
The taro grew yellow and droopy. No matter how much water they brought in, in gasoline cans, biscuit tins, pots and pans, it was not enough to keep it alive. The parched lo’i instantly swallowed up the water and begged for more, and steadily the taro wilted. The brassy sun beat down on the sprawl of tents and plywood that had sprung up around the houses that were to have been the Healing Center, and the glare lay thickly on the beach.
The state threatened eviction. They needed to attract attention and more people, and Bumpy proposed that they distribute flyers to passing motorists. It got hot out on the highway, and the agitators grew thirsty and worn down from the sun. Someone brought beer in a cooler, a fair amount of it was drunk, and some grew rowdy and shouted at passing tourists with what sounded more like drunken invective than political harangue. It was a losing battle. The skies brought no rain. It was all parched and sun-baked lava flats around here, and every day, week after week, the sun broiled in a clear blue sky. Hardly a cloud crossed the sun to provide even a moment’s shade.
When the City & County cut off the water, it was just a matter of time. Without water, nothing would last for long. Day after day went by with no rain. The heat and the glare parched the land, and the taro and the sweet potatoes yellowed and wilted. A few continued their valiant efforts to truck in water from far away, but it was a losing battle. The community could not sustain itself without water, and in time, only a diehard handful remained, surviving mostly on bottled water, soda, and beer. They bathed in the ocean, and relieved themselves on the beach. Some people stepped in shit that had been only lightly covered with sand. There was no water for cooking, and they ate out of cans, or brought in plate lunches from Waimanalo. They were determined to tough it out, and resolved to stay here forever like this, if need be.
But then the task force moved in, with bulldozers, Dobermans, and several jeep-loads of beefcakes packing pistols and radios. They cordoned off the area, hung “Restricted Area” signs on the trees, and sealed off all access to the beach. On the sand were a few piles of battered particleboard furniture, its veneer peeling, garbage bags full of unwashed clothing and flea-infested bedding, buckets of fish hooks, lures and weights, folds of nylon net, a guitar. The bulldozer smashed into the shacks, plowing plywood, a car seat, a table, and a cheap oil of a pastoral scene somewhere in the Canadian Rockies into the keawe brush. Then it turned on a panel truck that had served as bedroom, with three eviction notices glued to its windshield, turning it over and over until its windshield shattered and its rusted roof buckled.
The last of the settlers to leave Makapuu were arrested at dawn, as soon as they finished the awa ceremony. Wearing red kihei, they stood next to an altar at the beach, while the rest moved off to a crude heiau that had been built by the Nation the weekend before, where they had conducted traditional cleansing and healing ceremonies. The police waited with bowed heads. Then they gave themselves up peacefully. A crowd of onlookers applauded, blew conch shells, and wept.
Lair of the Chaos Monster
I used to see Chinatown as a garden that thrived on the compost of its own decay. But now, pruned and swept clean of litter and debris and tidied up, it had become a very different garden, one that increasingly required the fertilizer of money and the pesticide of regulation to bloom.
Chinatown then was mostly buildings like the Kee Wong Building, vintage 1922, a decayed structure of yellow brick covered with scabrous paint and festooned with rotted iron awnings and a flourishing banyan seedling. The walls were barren of any adornment apart from their filigree of masonry cracks, with window frames mortised shut with the dust and grime of decades. The windows were papered over with old Chinese newspapers that admitted only the aromas of leis and bagoong from the restaurant downstairs, from which people hauled out plate lunches of Filipino food. There were lots of shops selling leis of cigar flowers, pakalana, white ginger, Hilo maile, and red carnation. Long strands of pikake, tuberose, and plumeria, in red-and-cream pinwheels, yellow, and ivory, hung from the eaves and dripped from their periodic misting onto a cement floor littered with bits of blossoms. Each time the refrigerator was opened, their fragrance flowed into the street, lending freshness and renewal to the rancid dregs of the night that saw sailors hanging onto street lamps, vomiting up their very souls.
In some cases, the transformation of Chinatown had preserved that splendid spirit of chaos, albeit absent its filth and grit. Maunakea Marketplace, re-developed from a block of decayed godowns, still played host to the same throng of onlookers—wiry men with sleeveless undershirts visible beneath transparent rayon shirts in dull patterns, scuffed patent leather needle shoes and muddled nylon socks, and thickly oiled hair. The courtyard was packed, everyone yammering like a tree-full of mynahs. They sat beneath umbrellas and watched others watch them, scowling from beneath baseball caps and trading desultory remarks over endless cups of red tea and filter-less cigarettes smoked down to the bitter last shreds of tobacco. An old fellow hawked and gobbed into an official Maunakea Marketplace garbage can. Not onto the street, as in the olden times, but into the official rubbish bin. A young bard with shoulder-length hair erupted in a raucous rendition of a Cantonese pop song, but no one batted an eyelash. The spectator seats for the human comedy were free, the melon seeds, red tea, and cigarettes very nearly so.
The Modhouse Cart had been here in the courtyard for a long, long time, its inventory little changed as the months went by. Its centerpiece was a tapestry of a duo of outlaw bikers riding Harley hogs beneath a baleful moon, an enormous Confederate flag waving defiantly from the bike’s stern. There were butane lighters, three for a dollar, packs of playing cards, a set of extruded iridescent ceramic busts of the Virgin Mary and of a war-like eagle’s head. There was a stack of kung fu videos, football and baseball and basketball cards of sports heroes long since out of favor, and a calendar now badly dated. Their price tags were scrawled in that peculiar Oriental style of writing numbers that resembled the calligraphy of their written characters. There were a few stuffed toys and Aloha Paradise key chains, each with a photo of a blow-dried hunk that seemed to be covering himself with his body board, as if he suddenly realized how absurd he looked in his string bikini. There was a framed and glassed-in tray of coins and a dollar bill. Beneath the wares table there was a sign that said (illicitly) “Playboy Magazine Sold Here,” a pair of old 33 LPs tacked up on the board, an ad for GPC cigarettes on a hand-lettered sign, and two packs of Polaroid 800 film. Cassettes of Vietnamese pop music for a couple bucks were stacked alongside boxes of lychee, mangoes, and coconuts. There were frilly lace fans that wouldn’t stand up to their own breeze. It all looked like a hawker’s stall in the hinterland of China.
On the floor of the courtyard was an array of Jack-in-the-Box commemorative tiles, one for each of their restaurants—an ironic icon of corporate food in a marketplace chock-a-block with the likes of Melewe Thai/Vietnamese Cuisine, Two Sisters Filipino Fast Food, Korean Kitchen, Chinese Mini-Kitchen, Sawadee Thai Cuisine, Naty’s Filipino Foods, and Vientiene Fast Food. Today’s special at the Vientiene, a mixed plate of beef larb, ong choy squid and papaya salad, was presented side-by-side with “International Fortune Telling: Card-Reading, Astrology, Palm Reading” and a tray of hot dogs wrapped in nori, chicken wings sweltering beneath a 150-watt lamp, and fried grease balls. The BM Meat Market and its eerie piles of necrosis– cold white piles of chicken feet and pork claws and tripe– introduced the indoor market, packed with trays of parrot fish with spear wounds in their sides and viscera hanging out, and buckets of tiny red goatfish, pig intestines, and crabs battling against probing tongs. Live at $4.50, dead at $3, the crabs grabbed hold of anything in a tug-of-war with the tongs and hung on grimly. They scurried to bury themselves under the others, which resulted in a continuous churning up of the most cowardly from the bottom of the pile, in a desperate pyramid scheme. A tray of catfish lay perfectly still until someone went fishing, then it erupted. A butcher hacked chicken carcasses with the loud whack of a cleaver. Glassine envelopes of chilies brought to mind nickel bags of crack, and I noted a sign that, in a uniquely Chinatown twist on Western convenience culture, read “Pre-squeezed tomatoes–no need to squeeze! We’ve done it all for you.”
But the old Chinatown was losing its spirit of craziness and becoming dispirited. The women leered and bobbed their heads and nodded as they drooled and muttered and laughed softly to themselves. Like magpies on a telephone wire, a row of old codgers squatted on the sidewalk in front of a bakery that sold neon-colored confections grown stale from sitting in their dusty glass case. A man drew on his cigarette, then hoicked out a stream of spittle and smoke in the manner of a komodo dragon hissing its warning at the approach of an interloper. Another hobbled along the sidewalk, barefoot and filthy, on a horribly twisted clubfoot, past an old crone sitting on the sidewalk in a bikini, weaving baskets. Harridans and harlequins argued with imagined, unseen antagonists, and visited their opprobrium upon passers-by that strayed past the high-water mark of the tide of gentrification that was steadily overtaking Chinatown.
Back on the newly-moneyed side of Maunakea Street, most of the buildings had a new coat of paint and neat signs hanging on chains beneath new awnings. The chaos had been sorted out and sanitized. Nobody hung out on the block anchored by the police station, situated next to two enormous black marble Chinese lions that guarded the front line of redevelopment at this self-styled “Gateway to Chinatown.” Beyond the sentries was Chinatown Gateway Park, offering civilized repose beneath its pumped water sculpture and elephant ears that climbed the trunk of an overarching monkeypod. A sudden flurry of pigeons took wing and wheeled past the Indigo Restaurant’s open-air lanai.
Indigo had re-created the era of tropical colonial gentility once epitomized by the Raffles in Singapore. Lacquered rattan chairs stood on polished hardwood floors, astride tables set with glazed blue ceramic trays, inlaid ebony-wood cutlery, and linen tablecloths. The menu posted outside promised lobster pot-stickers with chili soy sauce, merguez lamb siu mai laced with garlic and cumin, scallop soba with tangerine sauce, and Sumatran coffee bread pudding– dainties for the after-theater crowd emerging from the Hawaii Theater Centre next door. The Miss Nubian Hawaii Pageant was playing (in keeping with his year’s themed tribute to African-Russians), and next week the Centre would premiere a choreographed festival of vintage Hawaiian steel guitar music, to the accompaniment of the Fa’afetai Le Alofa Samoan choir. At Habana Cabana next door, the languid swirl of ceiling fans was reflected on floors that seem lacquered. Patrons clustered around a brass-railed bar, where a vested barkeep poured single malts with strangled Scottish genealogies, and where oyster shooters and broiled mussels accompanied pinot noir, pints of Bass, and genteel repartee. Others languished in overstuffed top-grain leather armchairs over Partagas and Cohiba cigars, their reveries drawing inspiration from the framed bistro prints of opium smokers and absinthe drinkers.
Down the street, reveries of a more brutish, beer-fueled sort were enacted over the tattered baize of pool tables in bars that await the wrecker’s ball. When that happened, the old boys would remove their malodorous stogies, phlegm-draped spittoons, and themselves to the next block, and then to the next. At some point, though, Chinatown will have run out of space to re-invent itself.
Mr. Shimada’s Spite Strip
In Pearl City there is a certain property that developers would call a “spite strip”—a property that the owner wouldn’t sell at any price, that a developer would just have to build around. And so it was in this case, five acres of watercress and spite in the heart of the new Pearlridge Mall. Its languid ambiance mocked this surrounding behemoth of big name retailers, glass-enclosed elevators, neon tube lighting, bridges, balconies, vaulted skylights, and hordes of people circumambulating in mindless promenade. Millions of pounds of cold air were pumped through the mall to insulate shoppers from the soaking tropical heat, as stores that smelled of varnished oak flooring and gabardine wool carpets proclaimed “The Best of Fall Fashions” and “Jump Into Fall” in a place where no such season existed.
Outside was a vast parking lot, full of glare and cars and waves of heat weltering off the asphalt. Obese women dragged their squalling infants along, ambling like game on a broiling African veldt, surrounded by a forest of signs across the street for Home World, Territorial Savings, KFC, 7-11, Bank of America, Bank of Honolulu, Volvo Used Cars, Budget Furniture, Chevron, Shell, Anna Miller’s, The Pump. The sidewalks in front of the mall were plastered with black smears of gum, molten and bubbly like the asphalt. Above the sidewalks was a cat’s claw of phone and power lines, in the middle of which rose a single palm, its smoke-begrimed fronds visible through the tangle of overhead lines. The lone palm belonged to the Shimada Watercress Farm.
Shimada’s was an oasis from the rush of traffic and the whooping and bleeping of car alarms and the wail of police and ambulance sirens. Its clear, cold water circulated in troughs through acres and acres of the dark green watercress. In the back of the farm, against the mall’s monorail that snaked along its transom, was a dense grove of towering banana trees, coconut palms, bamboo, monkeypod, pandanus, and willows. Snowy egrets flapped their wings in the watercress, and a cool breeze flowed off the farm, rustling the red plumerias and bougainvillea that lined the drainage canal.
In front was an open-air cement slab festooned with nets and glass floats, and on the wall had been mounted the tails of the dozen or so marlin that had come in at better than 600 pounds. Sumida’s daughter and her friends stood ‘round the carcass of a big marlin, cutting away thick steaks. They whacked and hacked at the spine of the fish, filling up big plastic buckets with filets packed with rock salt to marinate overnight in the big refrigerated room before they were smoked the next day in the brick smoker out back by the rows of corn and chilies. The smoker handled up to three hundred pounds of whatever was brought in—marlin, ahi, spearfish, ono, mahi, aku, kawakawa, onaga, opakapaka, uku, sailfish, and ulua. The reefer room was chilled by a vacuum cooler that had cost Sumida-san a quarter-million even back in the 60s, and now it was filled with the buckets of fish on a rack that also held bottles of shoyu, tomatoes, and big bags of salt. A well-fed cat leaned up against the metal door of the walk-in refrigerator and licked its hindquarters. The sign out back that said “No Fish Guts—Will Clog the Intakes” was unnecessary. The cat saw to that.
All kinds of people had badgered old Sumida-san to sell the property. Day in, day out came the phone calls and entreaties. Agents dropped in uninvited, as the women cut fish on the cement slab. They looked a bit foolish, climbing out of their Benzes in coat and tie and expensive Italian loafers, the women in designer fashions and Chanel heels, picking their way through the blood and marlin guts and fishy smell. They had a fabulous offer to convey.
Squid Eye and Sweetheart
Izzy came out here on the reef at low tide, at first light. The swells moved lazily up, bounded up against the boulders by the shore, slopped around in a soup of foam and scum that fed the seaweed that clung to the rocks, then moved back out again to gently collide with incoming swells. The early morning sunlight painted the ocean various shades of green: the mossy green of coral heads, the gold-green of sand among the boulders, the aqua green of the water. There were whitish green rocks in the sea, pink rocks, red rocks.
Izzy had the squid eye, knew how to push around the glass look-box along the reef looking for squid. He would walk slow, then stop, and stand still as he peered through the look-box. Then he moved ahead again, real slow, pushing the floating look-box along the surface in front of him.
The one with squid eye had to know the reef intimately—its holes, its colors, everything. Whenever he noticed anything out of place—a loose pile of stones, stones of a different color suddenly in the wrong place, maybe a slight discoloration in the ocean bottom, or sometimes the rocks looked like they had been scattered or overturned, their whitish color giving them away– it was because octopus were very fussy and didn’t like things being out of place. One in particular would cloud the reef with his ink while he arranged the rocks around his burrow to his satisfaction, and when the ink cleared, the rocks were back to the way he wanted them. Each to his own. Squid eye was not something that could be explained. You couldn’t show someone something that couldn’t be seen. You either had the eye or you didn’t, and you might never get it for that matter.
Some mornings Izzy and his friends came for squid, some mornings they went out for opelu. Izzy went out towards the big coral heads, where there was plenty opelu. He drew his knife from the sheath, and tapped out a slow, steady drum roll on the side of the boat with the butt end of his knife. He looked out over the still water, and sure enough, after a few moments there was Sweetheart. He knew her from the unique pattern of black stripes on her tail. He threw her some opelu. Sweetheart moved in, aligned himself with the prow of the canoe, and lazily swam along in front. He moved with the canoe, turning this way and that.
Izzy looked overboard with his look-box. When he saw opelu, he let some bait overboard, a mash of roast pumpkin that created an aroma that slowly drifted through the water. Opelu had a keen appetite for it, and they came together quickly into a tight, swarming mass beneath the boat. It was the presence of the barracuda, too, that drew the opelu, since they knew that where there was a barracuda there were bits and pieces of fish that remained from its meals. And the opelu trusted the barracuda to leave them alone. For some reason, they were not to its taste, and Sweetheart was only too happy to betray them into the hands of his friend Izzy.
As the pumpkin mash slowly drifted through the water, Izzy let down a funnel-shaped bag, which opened up and settled down in the sea like a large floating jellyfish. The opelu swarmed through the cloud of bait, and as Sweetheart went this way and that, the opelu followed him across the open net, and when they neared the center of the net, Izzy threw down another handful of pumpkin. He then threw a slice of opelu off to one side, and Sweetheart went for it. When the barracuda was out of harm’s way, he drew up the net, bringing in it sometimes hundreds of fish.
That was one smart fish. But it didn’t matter how smart. What did matter was respect. Hawaiians knew that. You respected the fish for its mastery of the ocean, better than anyone could ever hope to. You understood limu, since it was the best food for the fish and things, and because it made the ocean right in so many ways. You respected things because a much greater intelligence than yours saw fit to make them that way, and if you want to take, you gotta give back love and respect. Then they don’t mind giving to you.
Corporate Vision Statement
A great groan and hum and clank emanated from the Hilton, as gigantic yellow cranes hoisted rusty steel girders and beams. The sign at the construction fence commemorated Hilton’s “Commitment to the Revitalization of Waikiki” and promised us an Interactive Cultural Center, a Health and Wellness Spa, an Executive Lounge, and more. For now there was much slamming and banging, and the Waikiki Trolley, a faux San Francisco streetcar mounted on a bus chassis, clanged and careened by. Security and traffic control cops were everywhere, orchestrating the pick-up and drop-off of hundreds of convention-goers.
It was lunchtime, and people were on their way to Benihana’s, where I thought they might be tempted by the “Farm-Fresh Hawaiian Chicken” on the menu, which sounded like it couldn’t be the same miserable birds I saw flapping on their hooks at the Nimitz Highway slaughterhouse, being drawn into the abyss on a clanking chain. I gathered my wits at the Tapa Bar, a dimly sunned pool-side oasis surrounded by 30 stories of Hilton cityscape. A guest was smoking a Mild 7, spewing acrid chemical fumes into the hypnotic, Muzak-ed atmosphere of jungle drums and steel guitar that overlay the bleeping and hooting of the card swipes and cash registers of Check-In. Sunbathers lay still as Gila Monsters on a rock, straps undone, heads twisted, and breathing shallowly through the vinyl slats of their chaise lounges, grimly determined to bring off this requisite moment of perfect relaxation. A woman sipped from an orchid-festooned drink, keeping a woozy eye out for the children shrieking and coughing up their contribution of snot and spit to the pool’s chlorinated witch’s brew.
Every bush and tree on premises, even bananas and coconut palms, was labeled and accompanied with an ethno-botanical write-up. Its impressive credentials notwithstanding, the taro was yellowing, its spirit withering under the insult of Corporate America. A colony of black-footed penguins from southern Africa was fronted by a sign, in English and Japanese, that said “Please excuse my untidy appearance, we are not sick, we are moulting our old feathers and growing new ones.” Possibly for the benefit of our Japanese guests, well known for their abhorrence of the chaotic and untidy.
At a table next to the pool sat an old Japanese dowager with a hairdo like the hood ornament of a dirigible. At the next table was a man draped with heavy gold chains and a wristwatch that could only have been carved from a truly massive ingot, and a grossly distended stomach that would have merited a separate introduction. A young Japanese woman minced by in fluorescent pink stiletto heels trimmed with frilly ruffles, and managerial types strolled by in Velcro-strapped slippers, their shirts tucked into shorts like Sears models, wearing that sappy look of blow-dried, teeth-bleached sunny optimism. People ambled past the storefronts of world-class shopping experiences like Tiffany, Brendi, Hunting World, and Bernard Hurtig—I wanted to pronounce it “BUR-nerd,” in keeping with his Continental colleagues “GAY-org,” “Phil-EEP,” “Ro-BAIR” and “all the name brands you know and trust,” as the sign overhanging the arcade assured them. But I wasn’t sure that anyone really trusted them. Creatures of branding, franchising, and corporate marketing that we are, these were brands for Japanese.
On the wall alongside the walkway leading into the lobby was the Hilton storyboard, a gallery of nostalgic photos. At the tail end of the storyboard was Hilton’s Vision for the Future: “The Hilton Lagoon will be transformed into a network of waterways and swim-thru reefs will transform it into an unforgettable interactive underwater experience. Groups of up to 6 participants will be submerged 18” and gently guided by a self-propelled towing device called the Dolphinaire, while viewing 20,000 tropical fish in a replicated tropical coral reef environment, and gain an understanding of Hawaii’s fragile marine environment. Dolphinaire will filter air to participants and allow natural breathing underwater while also relaying multi-lingual nature lectures.” I doffed my hat to whatever corporate madman dreamed this one up– it sounded like great fun and value added to the Hawaiian holiday experience. “Improved landscaping and water features including waterfalls, palms, and an enhanced pedestrian experience depicting Hawaii’s indigenous flora and fauna, and evening lighting will enhance the Hawaiian ambiance, with a greatly improved recreational area for visitors and residents alike. “ But where would we residents park, and what would it cost us? The Hilton Garage charged an arm, a leg, and your first-born. Would it all be labeled? I certainly hoped so.
I could only wonder about Hilton’s Vision of the Future, with its automated, audio-animatronic lagoon, replicated reefs, labeled nature walks, and interactive cultural encounters, and hope that it was not a portent of really big-time booshwah for Hawai’i-nei.
Cane Field Factory
On the way into Waialua, you passed by a stand of eucalyptus trees so redolent it made your head swim. The trees brought to mind the fanciful woods of Van Gogh, their mauve layers peeling away to an undercoating of beige-rust. In the numinous morning light, shrubs of coffee and dryland taro flourished among vestigial pockets of cane. Stands of papaya and truck gardens of cabbages drew swarms of white butterflies. The former cane land, now nearly overgrown with a patchwork remnant cane crop, rolled up toward the central plateau beneath banks of charcoal-colored clouds.
Not far from Waialua’s shuttered, clapped-out sugar mill, on the premises of what used to be the old Koga Theater, is the old factory, a patchwork of corrugated aluminum sheets and cinder block reddened by drifting dust. Anchoring the parking lot is the emblematic kukui nut tree, its leaves harboring sprays of tiny white blossoms and fat fist-shaped nuts.
Retired from a career in sales and marketing, the owner had heard about a little business awaiting final disposition by the bankruptcy court. Knowing nothing about making oils (except that he liked the idea), he bought the assets of the business and became the only kukui nut oil manufacturer in Hawaii. Everything he knew about this business was self-taught– much of it from various abstracts and journals piled onto his old wooden desk, including the likes of the International Journal of Fats Oils and Materials; Society of Cosmetic Chemists; the International Magazine of Cosmetic Technology; Protein Oil and Starch; and The Physical and Chemical Characteristics of Oils, Fats and Waxes—each of them banquets of industrial arcana at steep subscription prices. Not many people knew anything about how kukui oil works its wonders, apart from the owner and his chemist, whose various retorts and paraphernalia were spread out on a folding table in the middle of a cavernous room. In the end, it was as much of an art as a science, since the right skin feel depends on getting the right slip and slide and glide, and then there was color, clarity, and smell to contend with. The people who perhaps best understood it, the ancient Hawaiians, are gone.
The kukuis were hand-harvested in the wild, then stored out in the yard alongside huge bins of macadamia nut “culls, dust, and shell” from growers on the Big Island. Beneath the vacant eye of the old projection room and the hooks that once suspended the Koga Theater’s movie screen, the shelled macadamias were dumped into an Andersen Duo 33 expeller press, forced along by a vertical screw driven by a heavily greased chain, and squeezed through barrel bars just thousandths of an inch apart. Out came a cake of shell and fiber and fats that looked like hashish and was sold to pig and cattle farmers as feed.
The raw oil was pumped upstairs to a room where it was again filtered through food-grade canvas, then mixed with a pinch or two of “bleaching earth”– a special clay from Mississippi. Cold-pressed then piped through ducts of charcoal filters, the golden oil of the Good Nut emerged, and was then pumped through stainless steel tubes into a big tank in a room which opened onto a room of plywood walls hung with reproductions of botanicals done by Captain Cook’s artist at Kealakekua Bay.
The aroma of the factory drifted throughout the emerald cane country on trades that issued from the marble-blue expanse of ocean. Nobody needed to be told this stuff was good.
Now that the Japanese had left, there was an unshakable end of an era feeling hereabouts. Those that remained included a woman I know, the daughter of the head of a once-mighty construction company in Osaka, now kept like a bird in the gilded cage of a luxury condo. She had become a pathetic, middle-aged gin-soak, with no fewer than two dozen pairs of Chanel slippers strewn about the foyer, with nothing to do, and all day to do it in, except perhaps to go shopping.
To a certain extent, the Japanese had been replaced by wealthy Chinese who moved into the gated communities. Being a shrewd lot, with long experience in the consequences of being overly conspicuous, the Chinese are not given to grand manors on beachfront acreage. But historically, neither have they been especially anxious to integrate themselves into whatever community has played host to their diaspora. But when they did take a stab at it, they often named themselves Worldster, or Woodrow, or Kingsley– chummy types that you’d like to meet at a potluck.
But the chumminess here in the gated community was conspicuously absent. They had ensconced themselves behind high security gates with intercoms and expensive walls made from rare blue lava rock, and seemed as imperious as mandarins. The walls were everywhere, some with elaborately wrought copper gates emblazoned with mantra-like Chinese characters and phoenixes riding gales of wind. Grand entryways belied the fact that you were not welcome here. Some were of etched glass, others of massive slabs of burnished koa, another an immense hammered brass door that gave way to a gilded hallway with porticoes and pillars in gilded brass and copper montage. Next to each entryway was an alarm company billboard: Sentinel Alarm, Honeywell Security, Alert Alarm,Security One, Central Security Systems. Parisian gas lamps and security lights overlooking artiste-designed driveways bathed the scene in a peculiar, paranoid ambiance.
The basketball court at the rec center didn’t seem to occupy the kids much. The net looked white and new and never touched. The tennis courts were empty. On the sign-up board, there were eleven one-hour slots for Monday-Sunday. One single, a “P. Yip”, had signed up. Apart from that, there was no one. The swing set made of stressed beams of lumber was stylish, as was the tire—a new Pirelli—hanging on a chain from a tree, but the cement picnic tables were empty. New residents might come here once or twice to try it out, for the sake of inaugurating the lifestyle. The verandahs with their sublime views of sea and sky and mountain were, to the last, unoccupied. Nor was anyone to be seen stewing in their spas, glasses of white wine in hand. Where were they? Inside arguing, arguably.
Have a look at all the tall tales coming up in Talk Story!
Eh… try look: Wolohu’s Sunday School.
P.S. If you have a taste for history, we invite you to our companion site WisdomMaps.info. It’s history as you’ve never seen it!