“I Want To Be At Waikiki With You, My Little Chickadee”

Sheet music for ʻHula Blues,ʻ 1919, with an oddly Mt. Fuji-like mountain complete with rising sun
Sheet music, 1919, with an oddly Mt. Fuji-like mountain, complete with rising sun

When I was a child, my parents and most of their friends preferred swimming in a chlorinated pool to the ocean, and traveled to San Francisco sooner than to Hanalei. The study of island culture, and the awareness of a specific and important history were to come in the late Seventies, to the point that many activists today demand that Hawaiʻi be granted status as a sovereign nation. Many people, of all races, now learn to speak Hawaiian, and study hula with a traditional kumu hula (teacher), give luaus for babies, build traditional outrigger canoes by hand, sew  Hawaiian quilts (in the past, the patterns came to women in dreams). Fifty years ago, however, Hawaiiana was not yet a business. Stores did not possess sections given to calendars of handsome beach boys, cookbooks with imaginative breadfruit recipes, and illustrated anthologies of ritual chants. Although the interest in all things thought to be authentically Hawaiian is sometimes tinged with postmodern rhetoric or New Age philosophy, the new scholarship and the publication of many good books, has occasioned a long overdue awareness of a history that came close to disappearing.

Although the Hawaiians were admired and even idealized in my childhood, there was little interest in Hawaiian culture or history. We learned to dance the hula, but it was always a hapa haole (half white) hula, like ‘My Little Grass Shack’ or ‘Lovely Hula Hands.’ The music that was popular throughout the Fifties came to be known as nightclub hula, with songs like, “I Want to Be At Waikiki With You, My Little Chickadee,” and later, the egregious and smarmy Don Ho, with his own particular version of Hawaiian music, aimed to please tourists.

When I was a child, a Hawaiian woman named Alice Kema looked after us. At my insistence, she taught me the Hawaiian words to old traditional songs (oddly enough, I did not know their meaning until much later, having learned the lyrics and chants by rote). She told me angrily — I could not tell: was she angry with Hawaiians or was she angry with me? — that the Hawaiian people had turned away from everything; the beautiful as well as the practical. Her great grandfather had been interpreter of omens for a chief of Oʻahu, but her children could not speak Hawaiian. She was distressed that many of the old secrets had been lost — the location of the apeʻape herb found only in the damp mountain gullies of east Maui, or the recipe for the love potion made from the last remaining stalks of red sugarcane. (Recently, to my surprise and delight, I saw several stalks of red cane growing in a parking lot in Kamuela on the Big Island, and I wished that Alice Kema were still alive so that I could show them to her.) She told me that there were very few people left who could speak with any certainty about the past, and that soon there would be no one. She minded deeply. There would be no one left to dance the old hulas; no one who would remember the meanings of the chants.

Sombre-looking dancers, dressed by missionaries
Sombre-looking dancers, dressed by missionaries

 In the Twenties, a dyspeptic traveler named Mrs. Gerrould wrote:

A few aged men and women can still sing and dance in traditional fashion, but there is no one to whom they can pass on the words of the songs or the motions of the dance. The new songs are different — lyrical at best, never epic, and the new dances might delight a cabaret, if any cabaret could conceivably be allowed to present them. The old hulas were different, were stately and, dare I say, a little tiresome, with their monotonous swaying and arm gestures repeated a thousand times. Only a very old person now can dance in the earlier fashion; you could easily count up the Hawaiians who know the meles [songs]; and there is just one man, I believe, left on Oahu, if indeed he is still living, who can play the nose flute as it should be played, to the excruciation of every nerve in a Caucasian body. I have never, I am sorry to say, heard anyone in Hawaii play a nose flute.

The dancer Meymo Ululani Holt, featured dancer in the Lexington Hotelʻs ʻHawaiian Roomʻ in New York, 1938. She was from a prominent hapa haole (part Caucasian) Honolulu family and attended the Punahou School. She was said to be treated as a ʻminor celebrityʻ on the mainland.
Meymo Ululani Holt, featured dancer in the Lexington Hotelʻs Hawaiian Room in New York, 1938. She was from a prominent Honolulu family and attended the Punahou School. She was said, with some condescension, to be treated as a ʻminor celebrityʻ on the mainland.
Illustration of sailors watching hula girls, Honolulu, 1845
Illustration of sailors watching bare-breasted dancers, Honolulu, 1845
Detail from oil painting ʻPomp and Circumstanceʻ by Eugene Savage, 1940, collection of Matson Lines Shipping
Detail from oil painting ʻPomp and Circumstanceʻ by Eugene Savage,
1940, collection of Matson Lines Shipping

Mrs. Gerrould was wrong. We know from journals and letters (those of Archibald Menzies, who sailed with Vancouver; the French artist Jacques Arago; the Reverend Charles Stewart; and Mark Twain, among others) that the hula was anything but monotonous, and was a sight inducing much delight,  if not sexual longing. It did not inhibit admiration that until the restrictions imposed by the missionaries, the dancers were nude but for their kapa skirts (the grass skirts that we know from nightclubs, movies, and graphic art were introduced much later by people from the Gilbert Islands).

When I left the Islands as a young woman, my Hawaiian life became a dream of longing, particularly a longing for the ocean. The Atlantic Ocean could not compare to the Pacific, although the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, the Aegean, the Sea of Cortes and the Indian Ocean were seductive substitutes. The sea became a matter of summer holidays, and resorts out of season. Never the same, and I was not the same for it. To my regret — what to do?— I find that I am less courageous in the ocean than I once was, and I swim less far. I no longer swim alone at night.  I used to think that it was a sign of growing wisdom, but in truth it is simply a sign of my fading strength. Iʻd like my body to be given to the sea when I am dead, a gesture that is almost impossible these days for reasons of public health and safety, but I am in the oceanʻs debt — it has given me the books.

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3 thoughts on ““I Want To Be At Waikiki With You, My Little Chickadee”

  1. Jill & John August 11, 2015 / 4:26 am

    Johnny Noble’s wife was one of my teachers at Manoa School in th fifties. She was a lovely Hawaiian woman and a wonderful teacher. Joyce will remember her.

    Enjoyed your blog. Luv Jill

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

  2. Toni Withinton August 11, 2015 / 8:32 am

    What a lovely patchwork of words and images, of memories and quotes — a dreamy walk though the tapestry of what it means to be Hawaiian. Love every one of your posts. aloha, toni

    Like

  3. porterstoddard August 11, 2015 / 9:27 am

    VERY BEAUTIFUL INDEED!  THE “LONGING” NOW IS POLITICAL NOT ROMANTIC OR EVEN CULTURAL. I HEAR FROM TIME TO TIME THE MOST OUTRAGEOUS ASSERTIONS. BUT OCCASIONALLY  I TELL THE WHITE FOLK THAT “ALTHOUGH THE HAWAIIANS WOULD NEVER SAY IT OUTLOUD  TO YOU, THEY ARE ALWAYS THINKING OF THE HAOLES, ‘YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG ….. YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG.’ ”     LULU AND THATCHER ARE ON THEIR WAY. I’M EXCITED. VERY. ARE THEY STAYING WITH YOU AND RICK BOTH ON THE BIG ISLAND???  I WILL LEAVE THEM TO PLAY AT WILL… UNLESS THEY WANT TO HIT A FEW HOTSPOTS LIKE LEWERS BAR AT THE HALEKULANI, SIDE STREET INN, THE LOUNGE ON THE 6TH FLOOR OF THE TRUMP, UPSTAIRS AT THE DRAGON, THE BAR AT LA MER, THE TERRACE OF THE HALEKULANI OF COURSE, HERB DOCTORS AND SHOPS IN CHINATOWN, LUNCH AT THE HONOLULU ART MUSEUM AS IT IS SADLY CALLED NOW, LILIHA BAKERY, AND SO MUCH MORE.  ONE OF MY FAVORITE STOPS IS THE WORLD LARGEST SAFEWAY ON KAPAHULU. IT REALLY IS LIKE NOTHING YOU’VE SEEN ANYWHERE. AND OPEN 24 HRS A DAY. HUGE WIDE AISLES WITH EVERYTHING. AGAIN, WORSHIPPED YOUR PIECE…I’M IN THE LAST PAGES OF THE PRESNTATION FOR MY MEMOIR, DAIRY OF THE 60’S. ( BEVERLY HILLS, LONDON, EUROPE) ONLY WITTY UPBEAT STORIES NO ONE HAS HEARD.  SOME GRAVITAS.( THE RITA STORIES) BUT NOT TOO MUCH. I HAVE THE MOST TALENTED ILLUSTRATER, SHE’S IN NEW YORK- WORKS FOR THE FASHION MAGAZINES – WHO WILL BRING A LOT TO THE AFFAIR.   I SEND LOTS OF LOVE TO YOU,      MICHAEL

    Sent on the new Sprint Network from my Samsung Galaxy S®4.

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