“What Pinched-In Bodies!” Part II

Tattooed chief, lithograph after a drawing by Jacques Arago, 1819

The Reverend Hiram Bingham was shocked that Liholiho, who had become Kamehameha II with the death of his father the previous year, wore no shoes, stockings, pants, or gloves, although Thomas Hopu, the young Hawaiian missionary who had traveled with the Americans on the Thaddeus from New England,  had warned the chiefs and chiefesses to dress with modesty when they called on the missionaries. As the aliʻi were accustomed to wearing Western clothes (merchants had long supplied them with shoes and suits, and bolts of cloth for gowns), most of them obligingly appeared for their daily visits in gowns of Chinese silk and striped taffeta, brocade jackets, and heavy velvet waistcoats, which were stifling to wear in the heat. Some of the ali’i, hoping to please the haoles, evoked instead their private ridicule by their odd assortment of clothes — one of many melancholy ironies that was to ensure that the Hawaiians and the missionaries remained unknown to one another.

Over the next week, the missionaries waited patiently for the king’s decision, confident of the sanctity of their mission (to their irritation, the chiefs were easily distracted, at one point by a troupe of musicians) as they made excursions on shore, sailed up and down the coast on the Thaddeus, and visited with the Hawaiians. As the moon rose one evening, Asa Thurston and Hiram Bingham climbed to the maintop of the Thaddeus, and while their wives, the captain and crew, and the ali’i of Hawai’i Island watched in silence, loudly shouted the hymn they had sung at their ordainment in New England and again at Park Street Church when they left Boston.

The Reverend  Hiram Bingham, photograph  from his book, A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands, published in 1848
The Reverend Hiram Bingham, photograph from his book, A Residence of Twenty-One Years in the Sandwich Islands, published in 1848

Head of the Church Triumphant,
We joyfully adore thee:
Till thou appear,
The members here,
Shall sing like those in glory:
We lift our hearts and voices,
In blest anticipation,
And cry aloud,
And give to God
The praise of our salvation.

The royal women and their chiefs and attendants arrived at the ship each morning, seated under Chinese silk umbrellas on the platforms of large double canoes as they were fanned by a dozen men. The redoubtable Hiram Bingham was impressed by the agility and physical grace of the paddlers, if little else:

Ten athletic men in each of the coupled canoes making regular, rapid, and effective strokes, all on one side for a while then, changing at a signal in exact time, all on the other. Each raising his head erect and lifting one hand high to throw the paddle forward…dipping their blades and bowing simultaneously…making the brine boil and giving great speed to their novel seacraft. These grandees and their ambitious rowers gave us a pleasing indication of the physical capacity, at least, of the people whom we were desirous to enlighten.

View of Ka’awaloa, Kealakekua Bay, drawn by Persis, daughter of Lucy and Asa Thurston, 1835
View of Ka’awaloa, Kealakekua Bay, drawn by Persis, daughter of Lucy and Asa Thurston, 1835

The missionary wives sewed a dress for the queen mother, Keōpūolani, that so delighted her that she ordered more for her attendants and herself, waiting as the foreign women, unused to the dry heat of Kona, dazedly cut and stitched her a wardrobe. The chiefesses and queens were particularly taken with the Chamberlain’s young daughter and decided to adopt her, or hana’i, a practice common in Hawaiian families. To their surprise, the Chamberlains refused, but reluctantly agreed to let the child be taken ashore for the night, a gesture that helped to convince the queens that the missionaries meant them no harm. Lucia Holman, the prettiest of the missionary wives, wrote that one of the queens, “got me into her lap, and felt me from head to foot and said I must cow-cow and be nooe-nooe, i.e., I must eat and grow larger.” When Lucia walked with Nancy Ruggles and Maria Loomis on shore, the Hawaiians surrounded them, touching and poking them with curiosity.

They are white and have hats with a spout. Their faces are round and far in. Their necks are long. They look well.” The Hawaiians’ nickname for the women was Long Necks, in the tradition of awarding people — natives and foreigners alike —- with apt and perceptive names…The women…enjoyed their loudest transports of merriment at our expense, quizzing us without mercy, but never with ill-nature, while the singers honoured us occasionally with a place in their extemporaneous compositions.

“Reine Cahoumanou,” Plate III in Louis Choris’ Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Monde, Paris, 1822. Hawaii State Archives.
“Reine Cahoumanou,” Plate III in Louis Choris’ Voyage Pittoresque Autour du Monde, Paris, 1822, Hawaii State Archives.

When the missionaries learned that Ka’ahumanu had at last returned from fishing, they went on shore to discover the chiefs at a feast to welcome her home. Ka’ahumanu lay on a large mat in a yellow satin pā’ū (skirt of kapa, or barkcloth) with a purple satin kihei (capelet) over her shoulders, wearing a lei of maile leaves, and a band of yellow feathers low on her forehead. Her attendants fanned her and scratched her back, while the chiefs waited in line to greet her. It was the first time that the missionaries saw the hula — hundreds of dancing men and women, shouting and clapping, the men in anklets of rattling dog’s teeth. The women dancers were bare-breasted, wearing pā’ū and feather anklets. Daniel Chamberlain wrote that he had never in his life seen anything so Satanic.

Dancer in kapa skirt, with tattoos and bleached fringe of hair, colored lithograph after Jacques Arago


“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.

The Rescue of Warriors

Once when I was nine years old, swimming in front of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel (where once a week, I, with twenty-five other boys and girls, attended a class in cotillion in a thatched long house in the garden), I was lifted by a little wave and could no longer touch the bottom. I was, for a moment, drowning. As promised, my life passed before my eyes. But the surge of high water gently withdrew, and I was earthbound once again. At lunch, I made the adults laugh, which embarrassed me, when I admitted in disappointment that the events of my life had flitted past very quickly — I had not lived long enough to render the experience of drowning very interesting.

The Royal Hawaiian Hotel in the late Fifties, with new hotels rising around it
The Royal Hawaiian Hotel in the late Fifties, with new hotels rising around it
The house in Tantalus --- the new houses that have been built in what was once our garden have been ʻdisappearedʻ by W.
The house in Tantalus — the new houses that have been built in what was once our garden have been ʻdisappearedʻ by W.

Until I was ten years old, we lived in the mountains in Tantalus, a fragrant rain forest high above Honolulu, in a large nineteenth- century shingled house.

Later, we lived in a neighborhood half an hour from downtown Honolulu, on the ocean side of Kahala Avenue, near Pueo Street. Kahala was, and still is, a fashionable and expensive place. With fitting irony, one of the most prestigious stretches of land in the Islands possesses the most unpleasant beach. The water has a flat, opaque surface, grey in color, with little movement, stretching placidly to a low reef a half mile from shore, indicated by a thin line of white where the sea breaks over the lustreless coral. Chunks of loose coral and rocks, broken glass and tin cans litter the bottom. There is a sulfurous stench at low tide, occasioned by the desiccation of the endless organisms that thrive in the mud. The beach, draped with rotting seaweed, is not really good for anything but walking. A mile from our house, Henry J. Kaiser had employed dredges to dig a swimming hole in front of his own house, and sometimes we walked to Hunakai, as it was called, to swim in the little hole cut from the shelf of coral and clay.

At the old Halekulani Hotel, Waikiki, 1963
At the old Halekulani Hotel, Waikiki, 1963

Honolulu was a ravishing little world then (the population was about one hundred thousand people); an isolated place, redolent with romance. Before the development of jet-travel in the late Fifties, it had been difficult to reach the Islands — five days by ship from San Francisco (Los Angeles did not exist for us; it was thought to be a little vulgar). Honolulu was a snobbish, hierarchical and quietly racist society. The charming, even enchanting life of a mainly haole elite was to change, of course, but it lasted for a very long time. As children, we were unaware of the racism, and that it had long been institutionalized, but our parents and teachers knew, and sanctioned the restrictions and bylaws that kept most non-whites not only from private clubs, but from certain neighborhoods. These restrictions are ended now (sometimes by court decision), but in 1958 they were unquestioned by either side. I was astonished when I learned that only haoles were allowed to live in the most desirable neighborhoods — Diamond Head and Kahala, for example — especially as there were three generations of Hawaiians, named the Worthingtons, with quite a number of children and dogs, and an irritable but dignified matriarch in black holoku, ʻilima lei and trim Kona hat, who lived in a large compound on the beach at the bottom of our garden in Kahala. To visit the Worthingtons, which I did every day, I had to bend low and squeeze through a hole in a thick hedge, which only increased the strange and intense delight I felt on leaving my constrained and somewhat fraught haole world to enter a different kingdom. I spent most of my time with this mysterious and jolly family, as did my younger brother, M. Years later, I tried to find the Worthingtons, but they had disappeared.

Just this week, while doing research for my book, I came upon a privately published genealogy by a woman named Helen Y. Lind. Like many of my own generation, she had taken an interest in her antecedents too late, and many of the informants who might have guided her were dead. Helen Y. Lind, who was an instructor at the University of Hawaiʻi, died seven years ago, when she was ninety-eight years old. She wrote that while trying to sort out her tangled genealogy, she spoke to a man named George Clement K. Kopa, who lived for many years in the Fifties “at the makai (ocean) side of Kahala Avenue near the corner of Pueo…[with his wife] Mrs. Worthington,” and a number of Worthington step-children. I realized with a shock of joy that Iʻd found them. Mr. Kopa was from Hana, Maui, the descendant of a warrior named Kahoʻoilimoku, who with his four brothers had been in the service of a high chief of Kaʻu. In the late eighteenth century, when the chief was killed in battle, the brothers escaped with his body in a canoe (both prisoners and the dead were used as sacrifices by the victors), only to be blown off-course by a storm. They came ashore near Kaupo on Maui, where they were revived by four young women, who, true to the nature of benevolent maidens, married the handsome strangers. The name Kahoʻoilimoku commemorates the menʻs flight and shipwreck.

To think that I might have listened to Mr. Kopa talk about these things as I played in his dusty courtyard!

The Fullers, of the paint and brush company, were our other neighbors in Kahala (they were unaware of the Worthington compound, and might have minded had they known of it). It was at lunch with the Fuller children that I first saw that curious thing, an artichoke; the Fullers had lately moved to Honolulu from San Francisco. There was a serious but kind mother, and a boyishly handsome blond father, perhaps thirty-five years old, of high spirits in a country-club kind of way —- daiquiris, golf and a charming (even I could feel it at ten years old) manner with the ladies. I am quite sure now — and I was quite sure then — that adults were having a very good time. There was lots of drinking; and certainly infidelity, although the latter was unseen by most children (I am ashamed to admit that the one girl in our class at Punahou whose mother had been divorced was tormented unmercifully by us and soon turned to horses rather than schoolmates for companionship).

Christmas in the tropics was not celebrated with any less fervor than in more appropriate climates graced with snow and cold weather. Santa Claus dutifully appeared, although there were few chimneys, sweating profusely under his false beard and heavy clothing, and we did not mention the acrid odor of perspiration acquired over the years by his rented costume. Like other places, we had wreaths of holly, and mistletoe, lighted crèches, roast turkey and eggnog, and extravagant tableaux of lights in the front yards of the less expensive (and more Catholic) neighborhoods.

One Christmas Day, Mrs. Fuller, my father and three children —- my brother, Rick, my younger sister and myself —- fell in quickly with Mr. Fuller’s giddy idea to put the outrigger canoe on his lawn into the water. There were only five seats in the traditional canoe, and my sister, who was eight, would have to sit at the bottom of the canoe, between the legs of a paddler. I had not been aware of Mr. Fuller’s skill as a steersman, no easy thing with a big canoe, the work being done by a subtle but strong inflection of a paddle held in the water close to the side of the canoe, but he was convincing in his Santa Claus hat with a white pompom. We pulled the canoe across the lawn to the water and jumped inside, taking up the long-handled wooden paddles that all but the two younger children would use. Within minutes, given the high spirits of the three adults, we were approaching the gap in the reef that led to the open sea. Although I, too, was over-excited, I sensed, despite my unworldliness, a gaiety that neared hysteria, which I now understand was stimulated by alcohol. It seemed to me then that we were joyous to excess, and I liked it. The weather may have contributed to the exuberance, and the holiday, of course, and the seemingly endless expanse of ocean that rose before us as we glided effortlessly through the reef.


Oil on canvas by Arman Manookian, 1928, private collection

The water was suddenly very different. I was delighted by the sudden change of color from grey to deep blue, and the shallow troughs of water into which we were rhythmically dropped only to be lifted by the next swell. The adults, too, seemed changed by what they saw —- less noisy, less easy. I was sitting in front of Mr. Fuller, in the seat (really a polished plank) called Number Four by racers, and I could hear his breathing change as he labored to keep the canoe from swinging parallel to the waves. I saw my father look back at him once over his shoulder in what seemed to be quizzical concern as the canoe swung to the left, exposing the outrigger to an oncoming swell. A wave, larger than the others, blocked the horizon. We were tilted high for one dizzying moment, before the canoe was overturned and we were thrown into the sea.

I was trapped beneath the canoe for a few seconds before swimming free. We were not wearing life jackets. The other children were quickly pulled through the water to the long floating arm of the outrigger. Mr. Fuller’s red hat floated for a few minutes, then disappeared. Mrs. Fuller, never very talkative, was silent, watching the children, one hand on the outrigger.

The two men would have to lean their weight on the side of the overturned canoe opposite to the outrigger in the hope of flipping it over — not an easy task for two men with a large canoe. It also meant that the children would be deprived of the safety of the outrigger as it was lifted into the air. I swam to collect the paddles that had floated away, only to be summoned back by my father’s shout. It was the anger in his voice that at last made me acknowledge that there was cause for fear.

I know from my own later excess that their drunkenness must have dissipated the moment we were in the water. The men went to work, jumping in unison to throw their weight against one rounded side of the upturned hull. It is not easy to jump in water, as everyone knows. The two children were adrift now. My sister reached out to encircle my neck with her arms. Mrs. Fuller held on to my brother, or was it he who held her afloat? I soon grew tired with the weight of my sister. I was afraid that I would vomit, and the idea of it seemed odd; rather like crying underwater, a feat, which I had mastered.

My father counted to three and, with a great burst of strength, the men once more threw their weight onto the canoe in time with a rising swell. It took four tries, but the outrigger was at last raised, wavering tremulously as it hesitated then fell gracefully into the sea, righting the canoe. The men pulled themselves over the side. The muscles in my father’s arms quivered with strain. I slid the paddles into the canoe. We were hauled over the side, and quickly found our way to our places in the few fraught moments before the canoe was brought under control. We bailed with cupped hands, as Mr. Fuller shakily turned the canoe toward land. With one final push from the sea, we sped back through the reef and into the familiar calm, grey water. Nothing was said, not even to those waiting unconcernedly on the beach for us. It did not serve to make me wary of the sea, as it might have done, but wary of adults.