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Celebrating Pacific Islander Heritage Appreciation Month with a Visit to my Island Home

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Appreciation Month, and while I am not ethnically either of those groups, I have a very personal connection to Pacific Islander culture. I was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and spent the first seven years of my life growing up on the island of Oahu. My parents were conscientious about raising me to be aware of the history of where we lived. My childhood consisted of almost daily walks to the beach, playing amongst fragrant and beautiful plants, and being educated on Hawaiian culture. I learned how to hula at four years old and surf at five (sadly I've lost both skills), and my parents read me Hawaiian legends at bedtime. I was for the first part of my life also an ethnic minority, with most of my classmates being of Asian or Islander descent, an experience that made me feel self-conscious at the time but appreciative of others' experiences later on in my life.

After my parents divorced, my brother and I divided our time between Honolulu and Redlands, California. We spent every summer between 1987 and 1994 with our father on Oahu. The summer of 1994 was the last time I set foot on the islands, after which Dad moved to Big Bear Mountain near our California home. My memories of Hawaii would remain with me throughout my life, however. Thankfully, my father had put together a photo album for every summer and from these I could remember what the house I grew up in looked like, the places we used to visit, and my old friends. I can recall many good times with Dad at the Honolulu Zoo, eating traditional Hawaiian food (poi!), exploring the island, feeling the wind whip my hair at the Nu’uanu Pali, and swimming in Hanauma Bay with innumerable tropical wildlife. Being a “haole,” (white person) however, I was made aware that my opportunities and experiences were not necessarily everyone’s opportunities and experiences. Many Hawaiian natives still depend on tourism to survive and there is a high rate of poverty due to the extraordinarily high cost of living. So, I would have to admit that it was a charmed childhood.

My Dad, my brother, and myself at the Honolulu Zoo, relaxing a bit (1991).

My father passed away suddenly in 2000, and I wondered if I could ever return to the place that I had so fondly associated with him. As it turned out, I didn’t return to Hawaii for almost 30 years. After all, the world was big and there were plenty of places in it that I hadn’t yet seen. I explored Europe, Africa, and South America in adulthood. Hawaii was always there though, should the right opportunity arise. Finally, this year, it did. An old family friend who had relocated to Oahu over a decade ago announced that he was getting married. My brother and I were both invited. I thought, “this is it, this is the moment.” Not only would we have the chance to celebrate our friend’s wedding, but we could reconnect with our childhood home, even if it was as tourists.

Arriving on the island again after so much time had passed was a surreal experience. There were more buildings in downtown Honolulu than I remembered, but otherwise it was all incredibly familiar. While I didn’t really have the opportunity to explore many sites outside of Honolulu due to wedding-related activities taking up a good amount of my time, I visited some places I remembered well and it was a wonderful experience. So, in light of this wonderful and unexpected opportunity to reconnect with Hawaii and the fact it happened during Asian American and Pacific Islander Month, I would like to dedicate this blog post to some of my favorite parts of the island of Oahu and the stories associated with them.

Nu’uanu Pali – A Haunting History

“Don’t get too near the cliff!” was always the warning I heard when we went to Nu’uanu Pali (Pali is “cliff” in Hawaiian). The winds that careen through this mountain lookout are some of the strongest on Oahu, and the drop to the forest below over one thousand feet. To get there you have to drive from Honolulu through tunnels that are bored through the Ko’olau mountain range. The Pali was the site of one of the most infamous pre-colonization battles in Hawaiian history. King Kamehameha I was the first Hawaiian leader to unite all of the islands, but it was not done easily. He had to defeat tribes on the islands of Maui, Moloka’i and Oahu from his own island of Hawaii (the Big Island). He did so with the support of his most trusted advisor, his wife Ka’ahumanu, troops from his island and the allied island of Kauai, and of British and American traders who also supplied him with arms and ammunition. In 1795, he launched his campaign with 968 war canoes and 10,000 warriors.

After successfully conquering the first two islands for his objective, he turned his attentions to Oahu. The chief of that island at the time was Kalanikupule. Landing on Wai’alai and Waikiki beaches, Kamehameha’s troops pushed Kalanikupule’s army towards the Nu’uanu Pali, eventually cornering them and engaging in a vicious battle. Over 400 of Kalanikupule's men were forced over the edge of the cliffs that day, ensuring Kamehameha’s victory. Kalanikupule was sacrificed to the Hawaiian God of War Kūkāʻilimoku, or Ku. Kamehameha signed the Treaty of Kauai in 1810, officially uniting Hawaii under one kingdom and one law system, and he made Honolulu the seat of his power. To this day, the Pali is thought to be haunted by the ghosts of those warriors who lost their lives. My Dad used to tell me that you can still hear their screams on the wind. The strength of the wind is disconcerting enough, but when you know the story of the place, you can’t help but feel a shiver.

The Bishop Museum - Telling Hawaii's Story

The Bishop Museum was a yearly trip for us as a family. I remember in particular the gigantic whale hanging from the ceiling (which as you can see is still there). The museum has been educating the public about Hawaiian history and culture since the Gilded Age. Visiting the museum as an adult, I paid more attention to the exhibits that renovated and improved exhibits about Hawaiian culture and told the tragic history of the Hawaiian kingdom since English Captain James Cook first landed on Kauai in 1778.

In the later 19th and early 20th century, efforts to defend the integrity of Hawaii’s independence, in the face of English and American attempts to gain control of its resources, were led primarily women, notably Ku’u Haku or Princess Ke’elikolani, Bernice Kauha Bishop, Emma Rooke, Kaleleonalani, and finally the last leader of Hawaii, the tragic Queen Lili’uokalani. I'll focus on the first one, however, or else this post could turn into a book.

Princess Ruth Ke'elikolani

Ke’elikolani was born in the year 1826, and was a direct descendent from King Kamehameha I. She was the biological daughter of her mother, Chieftess Pauhi, and her third husband Mataio Kekuanao’a. When her mother died, Pauhi’s second husband became the second father of Ke’elikolani, a relationship recognized under Hawaiian custom. However, in her fight to secure land grants from the American government, which had already started making incursions towards establishing Hawaii as a territory, her parental relationships caused some complications for her as she had a hard time proving the value of her lineage (but was eventually successful). She married her first husband Leleiohoku and with him had two children. After he died she then married Isaac Young Davis, an American who was the grandson of a haole advisor to King Kamehameha. Her son with Davis was also raised in the Hawaiian tradition.

The Victorian-era Bishop Museum

She was a preserver and defender of Hawaiian culture throughout her life. She spoke English, but she chose to use Hawaiian in most business and personal matters. While she could have lived one of the palaces that had already been built for the Hawaiian royalty, she chose a traditional thatched hale (house). She rejected Christianity, which had been proliferated throughout the islands by missionaries. She also was physically very imposing, weighing 440 pounds

and reaching 6 feet tall. But she was seen as noble by Hawaiians, no matter what Western ideals had penetrated the culture. In one particularly dramatic incident, she traveled to the Big Island (Hawaii) to coax the Goddess Pele to spare the city of Hilo from the eruption of Mauna Loa volcano through chanting and offerings. The lava slowed and Hilo was left untouched. She became something of a legend after that. When she died she was the one of the wealthiest woman in Hawaii, and bequeathed her lands to her cousin Bernice Bishop, who founded the Kamehameha Schools and the Bishop Museum in memory of the latter's husband, Connecticut scientist Charles Reed Bisho with the purpose of educating Hawaii's children and preserving Hawaiian culture.

"Rabbit" Island or Manana Island

A picture I took of Rabbit Island on my trip.

While I’ve never actually been on this island, the image of this mountain rising from the sea that looks like the head of a lop rabbit is one of the most clear in my brain. You can see the island from the coast of Waimanalo on the east side Oahu. Dad would drive along the coastline so we could visit SeaLife Park (Honolulu’s version of SeaWorld). It’s also not far from Hanauma Bay, a protected living aquarium you can swim in and observe dozens of beautiful tropical fish. The best place to view Rabbit Island is from Makapu’u Lookout, and we would usually make a stop there on the way to see the island. That particular cliff affords stunning views in general, but Rabbit Island is the most fanciful. It is not only named Rabbit Island due to its physical appearance but also because it was the location of a rabbit colony that was established by a plantation owner named John Adams Cummins in the 1880s. Why did he establish this colony? Who knows. Maybe he was planning to sell them for people to eat. To keep them from overrunning Oahu, he put them on an island one mile away from the beach so he could go and harvest them at his leisure. As you can probably have predicted, the colony got out of hand and overrun the island itself, destroying the native plants and wildlife. In 1994, the colony was cleared out and the rabbits eradicated. I pity the person who was in charge of that. Today Rabbit Island is the location of a State-run wild bird and Hawaiian monk seal sanctuary, and a very popular subject for professional photographers.

Duke Kahanamoku - Ambassador of Surfing and Aloha

One of most famous Hawaiians, and a man who set off a movement that became a global sport, is Duke Kahanamoku. “Duke” is in fact his given name, not a nickname. He was born to a minor Hawaiian royal family, and his father was Duke Halapou Kahanamoku, who himself was named by Bernice Pauahi Bishop for Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh, who was visiting Hawaii at the time. Duke was born in Waikiki in 1890, when Hawaii was still a sovereign country (8 years later it would be annexed by the United States via the Newlands Resolution signed by President McKinley). He grew up learning how to surf and was a powerful swimmer. His favorite surfboard was an 11foot, 114-pound traditional board made from Koa wood. Imagine the strength you had to have to haul that around!!

As a swimmer he qualified for the Olympics and entered on behalf of the United States in 1912, 1920 and 1932. He broke records in several competitions and won Gold and Silver Medals in different categories, including water polo. It was during and after his Olympic career that he brought the concept of “surf-riding” to the masses. He performed surfing demonstrations in Australia and the United States, specifically on the coast of Southern California, which he had by then made his home. He famously used his surfboard to rescue several fishermen from a capsized yacht, making three trips from the shore to the boat in a heroic attempt to save as many people as possible for the Coast Guard arrived. A surfboard or body board is now standard equipment for lifeguards. He also had an acting career, appearing in movies that featured surfing, such as “Surfari” and “Isle of Escape”, further popularizing the sport. He returned to Hawaii permanently in the early 1930s, and was made Sheriff of Honolulu in 1934, a post he would serve in for almost 30 years, during 13 consecutive terms. He watched his home go from U.S. Territory to the 50th State during that time period. He was a big supporter of Hawaiian statehood and was made the “Ambassador of Aloha” after the fact. By then surfing had exploded across the globe and in 1964 he was the first person to be inducted into the Swimming and Surfing Hall of Fame. He passed away from a heart attack at the age of 77 in 1968. His face appeared on a limited edition First Class U.S. stamp in 2002.

My brother and I posing with the statue in 1990.

This bronze statue that honors him at Kuhio Beach in Waikiki was erected in 1970. The sculptor, Jan Gordon Fisher, was born Westwood, California in 1938. He went to Brigham Young University in Utah, and later became an art professor at Brigham Young University Hawaii where he had a 21-year career. He has dozens of bronze sculptures celebrating Hawaiian culture that can be found all over the islands. The Duke statue has become a go-to photo moment for both tourists and locals, as you can see here in a photo my father took of me and my brother in front of the statue when we were kids.

Picture from my trip, taken from Magic Island.

Thank you for reading about some of these memories and stories about my stories, and the history of Hawaii. There are plenty of places not included in this post that I just haven't made it to yet, including Iolani Palace, but this gives me another good reason to return. By the end of my trip I had an even greater appreciation for the island where I spent my childhood as an adult. I’m sure it will not be another 29 years before I come back. Mahalo, and Aloha.

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