Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Adventures in Hawaii

If you’re ever in Oahu, and you’re the type of person that would patronize the commercial tourism industry, you’d probably attend a luau or perhaps make a day of the Polynesian Cultural Center. There isn’t anything wrong with these things, though despite what the glossy pamphlets tend to imply, I’d say it’s doubtful that you are getting an “authentic” cultural experience. What you are getting is a kind of modernized, moralized and Disneyfied depiction of an ancient culture. It’s all meant in good spirit, but I imagine the tourist machines must make the real purveyors of Pacific Islander cultures sneer. It seems, however, that many, perhaps even most island guests – with their Hawaiian shirts, leis (and Mai Tais in hand for the luaus) -- seem to take the experience as the essence of the Hawaiian or general Polynesian cultural experience.

One might compare this to the American perception of Chinese food. What most Americans think of as Chinese food, is actually a distinctly American food that is dished up with some Asian cooking techniques. Real Chinese people don’t eat sweet and sour pork, kung pao chicken, or crispy beef – yet they cook it up for Americans all over this land all the time. (Note, however, my favorite local Chinese establishment Pick Up Stix has a row of Mexican chefs lined up behind the woks.) Some Chinese dishes have some similarities to these dishes, but most food that Chinese people eat is simply too exotic for the American palette – and probably doesn’t have enough MSG and sugar added. I don’t think Chinese people tend to package their food in those little square containers either. But I digress…

At the Polynesian Cultural Center in Oahu, you’ll see a depiction of various Polynesian cultures in a beautiful, immaculate theme park environment – and brought to you directly from the Church of Latter-Day Saints. In fact all the cultural representatives from the different Polynesian islands are actually students (converts plucked from their representative homeland) attending the adjoining Brigham Young University adjunct -- and undoubtedly you’re getting a look at these cultures through the church’s ever-present, though again generally well-meaning, filter.

One authenticity you won’t see at the PCC – or in any other show I know of in Hawaii (except the joint across the street from our hotel on Kuhio Street) is the nudity that was once a normal part of ancient Hawaiian culture. Going back a hundred and a half or more years ago, around the time that Joseph Smith was seeing his visions back on the mainland, protestant missionaries were working hard to mold the natives into a more “civilized” culture. Apparently, a significant part of the mission became the task of simply convincing native Hawaiian peoples to please wear clothes.

Just around the time of the end of the Civil War, Mark Twain journeyed to Hawaii on a steamship called the Ajax. It’s not clear to me how well known it is to the general public that Twain went to Hawaii (then referred to as the Sandwich Islands) or that he wrote some good material that offers among other things, an interesting historical perspective about life there in the 1860s. His exploits make a nice little book which I picked up at the Bishop Museum called “Mark Twain in Hawaii: Roughing it in the Sandwich Islands.” He took residence there for about four months writing articles and letters while doing extensive sight-seeing. The book has some characteristic humor that make it well worth the read. Take for example this section of text where Twain explains some of the problems with Hawaiian’s adjustment to this new custom of wearing clothing…

In the rural districts of any of the Islands, the traveler hourly comes upon parties of dusky maidens bathing in the streams or in the sea without any clothing on and exhibiting no very intemperate zeal in the matter of hiding their nakedness. When the missionaries first took up their residence in Honolulu, the native women would pay their families frequent friendly visits, day by day, not even clothed with a blush. It was found a hard matter to convince them that this was rather indelicate. Finally the missionaries provided them with long, loose calico robes, and that ended the difficulty -- for the women would troop through the town, stark naked, with their robes folded under their arms, march to the missionary houses and then proceed to dress! The natives soon manifested a strong proclivity for clothing, but it was shortly apparent that they only wanted it for grandeur. The missionaries imported a quantity of hats, bonnets, and the male and female wearing apparel, instituted a general distribution, and begged the people not to come to church naked, next Sunday, as usual."

In another section Twin writes:

“At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went and sat down on their clothes to keep them from being stolen. I begged them to come out, for the sea was rising and I was satisfied that they were running some risk.”

Twian’s writings cover a broad range. He tells stories about riding a lame horse on Oahu, looking at the live volcanos on the Big Island, seeing the Iao Valley on Maui, and even commentary about some Hawaii lawmakers. For example, Twain recounts a little story about a Hawaiian legislator who offered a bill for "the construction of a suspension bridge from Oahu to Hawaii, a matter of hundred and fifty miles! He said that natives would prefer it to the interisland schooners, and they wouldn't suffer seasickness on it.... Do not do an unjust thing now, and imagine Kanaka [native Hawaiian] legislatures do stupider things than other similar bodies. Rather blush to remember that once, when a Wisconsin legislature had the affixing of a penalty for the crime of arson under consideration, a member got up and seriously suggested that when a man committed the damning crime of arson they ought either to hang him or make him marry the girl."

I mentioned Captain Cook’s rather unpleasant end at the hands of Hawaiian natives (including what happened to his heart) in the last blog. Twain offered these details:

“His flesh was stripped from the bones and burned (except nine pounds of it which were sent on board the ships). The heart was hung up in a native hut, where it was found and eaten by three children, who mistook it for the heart of a dog. One of these children grew to be a very old man, and died in Honolulu a few years ago. Some of Cook's bones were recovered and consigned to the deep by the officers of the ships.”

When Twain returned to San Francisco, he felt his Sandwich Island adventures had ample opportunity for the podium and he tried his hand on the lecture circuit. They proved to be very successful for him. The poster for the event advertised: "Doors open at 7 o'clock. The trouble to begin at 8 o'clock."


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