History of Hawaii/Hawaii in Popular Culture


Byrds of Paradise

In the history of Hawaii, there was a shift in cultural representation and cultural production; as the years progressed Americans would come to view Hawaii differently. Before Hawaii was exposed to the mainstream American audience Hawaii was symbolized as a place of consumption, great scenery and a place where outsiders were actors. The 1994 Charles Eglee television series called "Byrds of Paradise” depicted the assumptions of contemporary Hawaii. “Byrds of Paradise” is a dramatic television series about a professor who moved his family to Hawaii to recover from the loss of his wife. The professor becomes the headmaster of a private Palmer school. The show portrayed life in Hawaii.

The reason why “Byrds of Paradise” did not receive the same reaction as its counterpart Hawaii Five-O is because it did not make its viewers aware of Hawaii’s causes. According to the producer the goal of the show was to portray the realities of Hawaii without “bursting” anyone’s bubbles. Although the show aimed to display the culture of Hawaii to Americans, it distorted and made the outsider views of Hawaii worse. The show exemplified engaging issues while leaving out common ideals people already knew, with the exception of typical Hawaii stereotypes, to appeal more to the mainstream audience. During the filming of the "Byrds" the people of the island interfered with filming by defying stereotypes while being in the spotlight. When the women were asked to act more Westernized they told them to leave immediately instead of acting less local for the camera. The producers admitted that they took a risk when they portrayed a more real Hawaii in some of the main scenes. A lot was scripted about Hawaii to appeal to both the mainlanders and mainstream audience. The logic behind why so much was scripted was to simplify ideas. Hawaii had too many different types of pidgins for each ethnicity and the island names got confusing because of the numbers. The producer’s main concern was presenting too much pride and insiderism of local culture behind the tourism stereotypes. Mainlanders feared stereotypes and wanted to be represented realistically because since the 1970s tourist industries began to take over their land and create false culture. The depiction of Hawaii influenced the tourism industry greatly to outsiders.

“Byrds of Paradise” was ultimately cancelled before the first season finished, with multiple theories explaining the cancellation of the show. One theory explained that the "Byrds" did not represent the Hawaii that these island natives experienced on a daily basis, turning off local viewers. Local viewers expected to see a less Americanized depiction. The exotic paradise was not illustrated in "Byrds", but a darker side of Hawaii was illustrated, depicting the aftermath of tsunami. The Hawaii portrayed was not what Americans envisioned and they disliked it immediately. Although the show attempted to be accurate, while appealing to Westerners, some thought that denying “reality” would end up helping the show’s ratings, but instead it appealed to neither audience and caused a sense of confusion about Hawaii. “Byrds of Paradise” was not the first of its kind either; many shows such as "Baywatch Hawaii", "Magnum, P.I", "Adventures in Paradise", "Little People", "Hawaiian Eye" and "Hawaii Five-O", followed a similar formula. These shows used the locals for smaller roles in the show with Hawaii as a backdrop.


My Pretty Hawaiian Baby

Music produced in Hawaii has contributed to the popular visual of Hawaii as an exotic destination of discovery at the time of colonization, as well as a tourist destination since annexation in 1959. Stemming from its Hawaiian aboriginal roots, Hawaiian music was used as one of many tools to familiarize the American society with Hawaii. Additionally, music produced in Hawaii was used to divert attention away from the colonization occurring within Hawaii. Marketing assimilation was accomplished through merging traditional Hawaiian culture with elements of Western culture. For example, Western stringed instruments like the Portuguese ukulele, joined with the steel guitar was used to project a tone that had been accepted as Hawaiian music. A further example of merging Hawaiian music with Western culture is Beachboy music.

The popularity of Beachboy music increased exponentially in the 1930s, composed of Hawaiian background instrumentals merged with American pop and sung in English. It was formally known as hapahaole before it received its nickname Beachboy. This musical style received national attention with Albert Cunha's performance the song “On the Beach at Waikiki” at the 1915 Panama-Pacific international festival in San Francisco in front of 17 million people. The year following Cunha’s performance, hapahaole music sold more than any other genre. Hapahaole music contributed to tourism and introduced Westerner’s to traditional Hawaiian music.

The distinct Hawaiian sound created by the merging of Hawaiian culture, and Western culture created the popular image of Hawaii as an exotic destination. Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, with his melodic guitar playing, has contributed substantially to the merging of Hawaiian and Western culture. His success as a musician can be attributed to the unique Hawaiian influence which differentiates his music from that of mainland American acoustic music.

In addition to the exotic image, popular music feminized Hawaii. This is evident in both the cover art of albums and the lyrics of the songs produced in Hawaii. This exotic and feminine image of Hawaii is evident in the lyrics of the Aloma and Milican song “Texas has a Hula Sister Now”:

The yellow rose of Texas wears an orchid in her hair
 and her garland of white blossoms so sweet in the Western air
 She was born of a pagan marriage of the sand and the coral sea
 and she learned from the restless tradewinds that men and the wind are free.

The lyrics feminize Hawaii with the connection of hula and the use of the word sister. The lyrics also depict Hawaii as an exotic destination by portraying hula as an “exotic and alluring dance.” Album cover art often feminizes Hawaii by depicting the hula dancer as the face of Hawaii. Additionally, Hawaiian music is used as a tool in popular culture to promote tourism. The lyrics and cover art of albums depict Hawaii as an exotic and tropical paradise as well as a cultural resource there to discover. The music depicts Hawaii as a fantasy and a heaven on Earth, making the islands a prime tourist destination for people around the world.


Hawaiian hula dancers posed in J. J. Williams' photo studio

The Hula, or Ha’a as Hawaiians have called it until the name Hula was created in the 1800s, is defined as the dance performed with bent knees. The dance is performed by women and men in costume with an accompaniment of instruments or chants. Hawaiian legends say that the Hula began on the islands of Molokai and Kauai. The ancient form of the Hula is called Hula Kahiko and the modern form is called Hula Auana, influenced by Western culture. Hula has been influenced by Western presences in Hawaii since well before Hawaii was annexed by the United States. Prior to European contact in Hawaii the hula was a religious custom that was performed at temples for worship and for entertaining chiefs and visitors, most commonly at feasts. Hula dancers at this time danced under the protection of Laka, the Goddess of the Hula.

The Hawaiian hula has greatly influenced Hawaiian’s sense of self-identity and the way that the mainland states perceive the Hawaiian islands. In the 1820s Christian missionaries began arriving in Hawaii and tried to ban the hula due to its strong sexuality and spiritual significance which were strongly integrated into Hawaiian culture. However, it was not until 1859 that the Hawaiian Legislature passed a law stating that public hula performances had to be regulated. Although the Hula was banned it continued to be practiced in the secrecy of small villages. After two decades the resurgence of this traditional dance created publicity for Hawaii depicting the state in the same fashion it is depicted in today’s society.

The dance itself is comprised of many Nā Keʻehi I Ka Haʻa (Hula Steps). Some have more then one name that describes the action and a name that's origin is unknown. Lele, which involves walking forward while lifting the heel with every step with a slight inward movement is an example of a Nā Keʻehi I Ka Haʻa. The steps and motions of the body tell a story visually with an upright torso, bent knees and certain placement of arms. Motions and gestures above the shoulders mean the action was above the ground, between shoulders and waistline means that the location was on land, and below the waistline means the location was in the sea or underworld. The body, torso, and leg positions dramatize the gestures to an extreme, such as bending the torso, straightening the legs, standing on the balls of the feet, or crouching down as close to the floor as possible demonstrate the meaning.

Instruments and chants contribute to the story and motion of the dance. Kahiko hula involves more chants because in ancient times chants related to achievements of rulers or honored Gods. The dances entertained rulers, those in power, and the people of Hawaii who knew the culture and language. Chants were also preformed to pray to Laka (Goddess of Hula) and to welcome the audiences. In Auana hula Western culture has influenced instruments and sound as well as the dance. Many of the popular hula songs that have been used are about the late monarchy era of the late 1800s. The Auana hula dances are now the more common in American popular culture and consist of modernized sounds that American mainlanders have become accustomed to.

Hula dancers' costumes relate to the elements of the poetic text being told in the story of the hula. Traditional hulas dancers' heads, necks, wrists and ankles are always covered. Long ago, men wore necklaces of human hair with bones or whale's teeth attached, bracelets and buskins of net work, hog or dog teeth. Women were covered in garlands of flowers, grass skirts, necklaces of shells, leis, wreaths, and feathers. Color and fabric are important to display a natural look. Depending on which Hula being performed, ancient or modern, the costumes affect the ear. Auana dancers wear grass skirts, leis and flowers while Kahiko costumes are more elaborate.

Today, rather then watching the hula for its traditional meaning and story, the majority of American audiences watch it for entertainment. The audiences do not understand or hear the texts' original meanings, affecting the tradition as well as the performance, since the audience is unaware how to react to certain parts or appreciate fully what is being depicted.

With its history in traditional religious practices and cultural folklore the hula may have a deeper significance for, and certainly has a longer history to, native Hawaiians than to mainstream American society. However, it has always been practiced by native Hawaiians in one capacity or another, whether for religious ceremony or as an entertaining dance. The function of hula has changed over time but remains very popular in the Hawaiian Islands and has been especially popular since the Hawaiian Renaissance of the 1970s. As the citizens of Hawaii struggled to gain recognition and governmental rights before becoming a state in 1959 it was the hula that helped earn the small, distant place some attention. In the 1930s a film "Paradise of the Pacific" was released and emphasized how friendly and laid back Hawaiian citizens were and how united hula was with Hawaiian identity; according to the film “hula is Hawaii and Hawaii is hula.” Not only did hula contribute to a tourist industry in Hawaii itself, but it also made its way into American night clubs and showrooms and impacted the entertainment industry in mainland USA.

Hula circuits traveled all throughout the United States in the 1930s marketing hula as “middlebrow American entertainment”. These hula circuits of the 1930s are significant to American popular culture since at this time, even before Hawaii was annexed and made a US territory, Hawaiian culture was still very much a part of the entertainment of the average American citizen through hula as an art form. Many islanders believe that it was this migration of traditional Hawaiian entertainment that provoked the idea of an “imagined intimacy” between both sides. Hula, once a traditional Hawaiian custom, has long been an essential part of a more broad and inclusive American popular culture and has contributed to American perception of Hawaii both positively, as with the booming tourism industry in Hawaii and likewise in America, and negatively, as with the popular misconception that hula is but a frivolous art form meant only for entertainment purposes and that Hawaiians are but a laid back and relaxed people. While hula is important in Hawaiian tradition it is also an important part of popular culture in the United States, though not for the same historical reasons. As a result of the influence that the West has had on hula and its place in American popular culture, mainlanders commonly regard hula as a sexy but superficial part of Hawaiian tradition and history and not necessarily as a historical or significant part of Hawaiian culture. However, because of its appeal and popularity among Euro-Americans in continental USA hula is an important part of the tourist industry and popularization of Hawaii.

US Navy 081219-N-0879R-001 Hula dancers perform as family and friends welcome USS Reuben James (FFG 57) during the ship's return to Naval Station Pearl Harbor

The cultural relationship between Hawaii and America, including the popularity of hula in mainland USA, grew even stronger after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II. The attack on the then-American territory greatly upset Americans and fostered a special relationship between the United States and Hawaii which was encouraged by further embracing of Hawaiian culture and hula in American popular culture. Hawaiian hula girls commonly performed for American troops during the war at military bases and outposts and participated in USO tours both during and after the war and still up to today. The performances of hula as a part of the war effort became more than just entertainment like it had always been before to mainlanders; hula is now more symbolic to Americans as it represents the attack on Pearl Harbor and the strengthened bond between Hawaii and the United States and Hawaii as a part of the United States of America. Hawaii’s contributions during the war, including its contribution of entertaining and encouraging performances of hula, was valuable to the United States military and American citizens and contributed to Hawaii’s becoming a state in 1959.

The Westernization of hula and its purposes parallel the Westernization, or rather Americanization, of Hawaii. The sexuality of Hawaiian hula girls and the ideas of picturesque beach scenes and leisurely lifestyles which seem to always accompany them are idealistic and misrepresentative. The false image is perhaps one of the reasons that Americans really began to embrace Hawaii and Hawaiian traditions. The skewed perception of Hawaii and Hawaiians, through Westernized hulas and hula girls for example, is suggestive of an attitude of mainland American superiority, with the molding of the traditions of Hawaiians to suit a mainland American audience. Though Hawaiians are still somewhat distanced as “others” to mainland Americans the very fact that Americans have embraced Hawaii as a state and adopted traditional Hawaiian practices, like hula, into American popular culture is indicative of America’s inclusion of Hawaii as a part of American identity, but also represents the certain paternalistic relationship there is between the United States and Hawaii.

Since the war Hawaiian hula culture and the stereotypical, grass-skirt clad, carefree, sexualized “native” Hawaiian hula dancers have remained an integral part of American, especially Euro-American, popular culture. Hula, however, is not the only traditional Hawaiian custom that has evolved and become a part of a larger American popular culture.


Lahaina Luau

Luaus represent an essential part of Hawaiian culture and are among the chief imagery for foreigners with regards to the Islands and its culture.

The traditional luau, or lū'au, takes its name from taro leaves, served in traditional Hawaiian dishes. Traditional luaus were feasts emphasizing preparation, consumption and the giving away of food by their hosts. It was necessary for preparations to begin several days in advance in order to prepare all the food that was required. It was used only to celebrate special social occasions, such as a child's first birthday or a wedding. Luaus also followed festivals such as the Hi'u Wai (water-throwing festival) where it became a tradition to hit a person with water, contributing to the luau later or at the festival for the New Year to welcome the New and mourn the passing of the Old. After the feast, there were typically games until the sun set.

The more Americanized, tourist version of luaus emerged in the 1930s and 1940s as promoting tourism in the area. This was partly due to the fact that many celebrities, such as Shirley Temple and Mary Pickford, were visiting the sanctions of Hawaii. Another factor leading to the Americanization of luaus was the many singers and dancers performing in world fairs and expositions. The tourist perception of the luau not only revolved around food and beverages, but furthermore, the light and energetic atmosphere, and the excellent entertainment. Luau companies have ensured to always go to a fairly secluded beach site with palm trees for the night. Upon arrival, guests are presented with leis, with Tahitian drums and rattles playing in the background. The evening involves a night of singing, dancing and consistent joking, with the performers dressed in grass skirts or loincloths, tall feather headdresses and flower leis.

Many elements that were originally present in luaus, such a special celebratory event or day, are no longer a factor since they have become tourist attractions around the islands and occur nightly. Despite the exception of a few dishes such as the laulaus (steamed bundles of greens with either pork or beef wrapped in cordyline leaves), there has not been a drastic change in the foods that were served in previous events. Foods served in modern luaus are mostly recreated from ritual offerings from old Hawaiian religion (which was abolished in 1819). The iconic roasted pig (kalua), tarococonut pudding (kūlolo) and red fish were all once restricted to ceremonial offerings to pagan Gods and to upper classes. Since then red fish has been replaced with lomilomi salmon (with tomatoes, green onions and crushed ice) in modern luaus.

Another element present in modern Americanized luaus is the music. It has become part of the tradition to have slack key guitar and ukulele playing as main entertainment while in the background there are Tahitian drums and rattles playing. This is somewhat curious as the ukulele is commonly attributed to 19th century Portuguese immigrants and slack key guitar is an adaptation of introduced musical styles yet both have become deeply embedded in the traditional image of the celebrations.


Surfing the waves

By 1779, riding waves either lying down or standing on long, hardwood surfboards was an essential part of Hawaiian culture. Surfing was as layered into the society, religion and myth of the islands as baseball is to the modern United States. This is important because surfing created an identity for Hawaii and its culture, which informed others of its presence. The nature of the sport itself is significant in developing Hawaiian characteristics due to the warm weather and water currents needed to surf. Surfers find these elements enjoyable and pleasurable because the create a sense of exclusivity, separating Hawaii from most destinations. Surfing is also significant to the Hawaiian culture, demonstrating the dominance of its people over nature, which is rooted within the nation.

Surfing had a direct impact on the development of California as a surfing destination. California adapted the Hawaiian creation in hopes of recreating a similar lifestyle within the state. Doc Ball's classic photo book, "California Surfriders 1946" is a masterpiece of the time, illustrating sturdy men and women enjoying a pristine California coast; from beach parties with fresh lobster and abalone pulled from the ocean, to minimal traffic along the coast highway. This is significant because mainland America has begun to mimic the Hawaiian culture proving the strength of its influence and the desire others had to live a comparable lifestyle. With increasing media coverage over the past 40 years, surfing has grown from a small clique sport to an immense industrial complex. Where kings and commoners once competed in the surf, risking status, property, life and limb, now there is a multi-million dollar international professional surfing circuit, with a tour that covers the globe from Hawaii to South Africa and back to Tahiti. This is a prime example of how the Hawaiian culture has spread significantly and will only continue to grow as generations pass.

Positive representations of its people and scenery helped Hawaii grow into a nation that is viewed by others as attractive. Surfing creates a bond between person and nature and it is for this reason that Hawaiian natives are associated with a distinct outdoor personality. In return, this has created a significant amount of tourism for the island as people from all over the world come to Hawaii to get a taste of its historical culture. Without a shadow of a doubt surfing has had a tremendous impact on popular culture in America and across the world. It is true that surfing is an element of traditional Hawaiian culture that has survived the test of time.

Despite its popularity in Hawaii today, the modern sport of surfing nearly disappeared forever from Hawaii’s shores. By the 1840s surfing was almost nowhere to be found on the islands, with the exception of Lahaina, Maui, an area which still saw a considerable loss of interest. Other traditional Hawaiian games and sports (such as land-sledding, called holua) had vanished and some Hawaiians were concerned that this may also be the fate of surfing. Fortunately for future generations of surfers, the sport did not diminish completely and many Hawaiians continue to surf today.

The loss of interest in Hawaiian surfing can be attributed to several different factors. First, the native Hawaiian population decreased significantly prior to the 20th century. An estimated population of 300,000 Hawaiians in the late 18th century decreased to approximately 40,000 by the turn of the 20th century. The traditional structure of the tabu system (which diminished in 1819) had once been fundamental in supporting native Hawaiian religion and traditions. The loss of the system resulted in a cultural revolution, which in combination with the population dive made surfing as a tradition difficult to maintain. The rituals associated with the sport of surfing like gambling and chants had disappeared by the early 1900s. Had Hawaii's interest in surfing had not been restored, a significant element to Hawaiian culture could have been lost forever. However, the beginning of the 20th century witnessed changes essential to the revival of surfing in Hawaii. One alteration to traditional surfing was a change in the surfboard itself. Popularity of the sport had weakened, causing many surfboard manufacturers to close their businesses. What were once 16-foot surfboards were now 6 to 8 feet in length. Expert techniques had also been lost with the disappearance of surfing rituals, thus with a new board length and no expert techniques, only new methods of surfing were inevitably surfacing across the islands. An intrigued young population was eager to take on these challenges. However, the most fundamental component to regained interest in surfing was its introduction to the rest of America.

The turn of the century brought surfing to mainland America, having gained some popularity in California by 1912. George Freeth (an Irish-Hawaiian) has been credited for bringing surfing and other water sports to California. The popularity of theses sports grew quickly due to an increased interest in water sports by some southern Californian groups. Today, California maintains the most surfboards in use than anywhere else in the world. Some Californians have kept in contact with Hawaiians surfers to share techniques and tricks, and the two groups continue to modernize (and preserve) surfing in America. If surfing did not have continuous support from California as it has, it is possible that the sport would have diminished or disappeared entirely.


Japanese and American tourist on beach shores

Tourism in Hawaii has been around since Europeans first set foot on this tropical island in the mid 18th century. The first explorer to discover the island was Captain James Cook in 1778. He was on his third voyage at this time and was in search of the North West passage at the request of the English government. He stumbled upon the islands and named them the Sandwich Islands after the Earl of Sandwich. Cook was the first recorded visitor from Europeans to step foot on the islands and thus it was Cook who began a long prosperous tourism industry in the island archipelago of Hawaii.

Throughout the 19th century the islands of Hawaii were visited by many scholars and well-known authors of the time. Many theories for their visits include the one that they were drawn there for inspiration, since Hawaii was classified as a remote, friendly and newly exotic location. People did vacation on the island although tourism was a such a new concept at this time. The small amount of tourism that the islands did receive throughout the 19th century is most likely what helped to catalyze the great tourism boom that came to the islands in the 20th and 21th centuries. During the 19th century Hawaii went through some very important changes that can be seen to have helped out tourism expansion in later centuries. The arrival of Protestant missionaries in 1820 plus the spread of European diseases among the native population are important because they are just the beginning of Europeans and American expansion into the islands during the 19th century.

After Hawaii became the newest state in 1959, the state flourished due to the substantial increases in the tourism industry. At this time air travel was now capable of covering the distance from the American mainland all the way to the islands which brought a greater number of tourists to the island state. The Hawaiian culture along with its tropical and exotic location were the main driving forces behind the marketing of tourism. Tourist from around the world in the 20th and 21th century were coming to the islands to see a real luau and hula dance. Tourist are always drawn to new and exotic things and always have been so this is why the Hawaiian culture has appealed to generations of tourists for many decades.

The demographics of Hawaiian tourism are another area to look at historically because they have changed dramatically even over the last few decades. After Hawaii became a state in 1959, most tourists that visited were from the mainland United States. In more recent years however this has changed drastically because of the economic situation facing the country. More and more tourists to Hawaii are coming from Asian countries such as Japan, China and more recently South Korea. Much of the tourism sector in Hawaii now caters more specifically to Asian tourists and crowds than to North American tourists because of this demographic shift.

The history of Hawaiian tourism dates back to the 18th century with the first visit by a European explorer, however it is the more recent decades of the 20th and 21th century that saw the real growth in this facet of the Hawaiian economy.

Unfortunately for Hawaiians, the industry which has undoubtedly brought Hawaii the affluence it currently possesses, also serves as a tool of oppression. The negative effects of tourism on Hawaii can be witnessed through the flagrant industrialization and commercialization visible in present-day Hawaii. Most affected by the powerhouse industry of Hawaii are the Native Hawaiians, who have attempted to develop and retain a national identity not only on a state level, but on a national one. The inescapable influences of tourism has deployed a false identity upon many Native Hawaiians and as a result their unique culture is subdued by a manufactured image that the tourist industry portrays. The false image is produced to solidify mainland perceptions of Hawaii as a Utopian paradise. The false depiction of Hawaii escaping the economic struggles of mainland America does not bring to light the financial exertions many Native Hawaiians experience daily. Although being packaged with detrimental effects, tourism will likely continue to enhance Hawaii economically and cause Hawaii to remain a top tourist destination for many years to come because of its beautiful and exotic locations, saturated with a rich history and culture.