Hilo after 1960’s tsunami/Photo: U.S. Navy

Hilo feels like a sleepy South Seas port off the pages of Somerset Maugham. The town climbs a slope leading up to the volcano, Mauna Kea, and looks out over Hilo Bay. Fan-like crowns of palm trees wave over corrugated tin roofs. Rows of wooden storefronts facing the harbor project an improvised rawness, as though the carpenters had just put away their hammers and saws. You can almost smell the pine resin.

As for Hilo’s more substantial buildings, they exist in a kind of aesthetic time-warp—Haili Church, the Classic Revival Federal Building, the Renaissance Revival Kaikodo Building, the vaguely Moorish Palace Theater. Architecture is always so much more than just building. To “read” architecture is to read history. Hawaii is often thought of as a paradise, but paradise is timeless, without a history. And Hawaii’s history, reflected in its architecture, is one of both cultural confrontation and cultural accommodation.

In the center of Hilo stands Haili Church, constructed of wood in the late 1850s. It would not look out of place in a Vermont village. The church is a monument to the impact the missionaries made on Hawaii: this is a church-going town. Haili Church’s plain-spoken spire, competing with the baroque, domed steeple of St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church further up the hill, is a landmark on the skyline (such as it is) of downtown Hilo. Both Haili Church and St. Joseph’s are imports, introduced species that have brought New England Protestantism and Roman Catholicism to the islands.

Architecture is always so much more than just building. To “read” architecture is to read history.

One of the most pleasing structures to look at in Hilo is the Federal Building—handsome, white, three stories high, facing onto Kalakaua Park. The park that the Federal Building overlooks is named after King David Kalakaua, who reigned from 1874 until his death from cirrhosis of the liver at the age of fifty-four in 1891 at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. Having experienced the most stringent of missionary asceticism during his schooling at the Chiefs’ Children’s School in Honolulu, Kalakaua became a supporter of native Hawaiian culture, with its roots in ancient Polynesia and its pleasure-loving ways.

Hilo Federal Building, via Wikimedia Commons

The Merrie Monarch, as he is called, championed the hula and ukulele music, and helped popularize the ancient Polynesian sport of surfing—hard as it may be to picture the portly monarch hanging ten. His fondness for drinking, gambling, and carousing, and his love of the wahines (women) no doubt also contributed to his merriment. But Kalakaua was fighting a losing battle against the Americanization of the islands. His last words were “Tell my people I tried.”

A merrie monarch is not necessarily an honest monarch. As Sarah Vowell puts it in her book Unfamiliar Fishes, “Kalakaua’s weaknesses and strengths were of a piece.” He accepted hefty bribes from sugar magnates like Claus Spreckels, with whom the king played poker, and who, because of his influence over Kalakaua, became known as “the uncrowned king of Hawaii.” Robert Louis Stevenson records being present when in a single afternoon the king downed three bottles of champagne and two bottles of brandy.

During the election of 1886 the king plied voters with copious supplies of cheap gin. The electorate dutifully, if not soberly, returned a slate of legislators loyal to the king and his cronies. This legislature passed a bill allowing the king to issue a license for the importation of opium. Kalakaua sold the license to a Chinese merchant for $71,000, then assigned the license to another bidder and pocketed the first man’s money.

Many members of the Anglo-Saxon elite on the island were the children of missionaries. Is it surprising that they would bridle at this level of corruption, particularly when it interfered with their business interests? The “bayonet constitution” of 1887 by which they seized power took away most of the Merrie Monarch’s prerogatives, creating a constitutional monarchy, the upshot of which was to solidify power in the hands of the missionaries and haole (Caucasian) industrialists.

Structures like the Federal Building went up in 1915 when civic pride among the ruling class was the order of the day, when there was no lack of sugar money for construction, when the orderly, sober Anglo-Saxon oligarchy that had deposed the Hawaiian royal family called the shots and made fortunes for themselves.

One block closer to the Bay from the Federal Building stands the Kaikodo Building, or Hilo Masonic Hall, a Renaissance Revival structure also built in the nineteen-teens. A granite stairway with a carved oak balustrade leads from the lobby to the second and third floors. At one time a roof garden with a view of the bay topped the Masonic Hall. During Hawaii’s years as a U.S. territory, when fortunes were being made on the Hamakua Coast’s sugar cane plantations, the Masons who built this edifice ruled the roost.

John Troup Moir (1859–1933), manager of the Onomea sugar plantation, was master of the lodge. At the dedication ceremony in 1910, Moir announced that he had fired one architect and hired another because the first one was skimping on the quality of the materials. “Nothing but the best would satisfy the boys,” he assured his listeners, and called the Masonic Building “a substantial, fireproof, earthquake-proof, up-to-date building, first class in every respect, a credit to the town of Hilo and the Territory of Hawaii.”

The Palace is a grand building, less a barn than a drafty basilica.

The nearby Palace Theater, built in 1925, is an authentic temple of cinema from Hollywood’s high and palmy days, sporting a marquee and vertical neon sign that glow greenly in the tropical air. At night the letters spelling out p-a-l-a-c-e come alive in red—not a brash, declarative scarlet, but a mellowed neon vermilion in keeping with the town’s faded but still stylish aura. At one time the theater would have been filled with workers from the plantations on their day off, eating popcorn, chatting in pidgin, and marveling at the exploits of Tom Mix and Laurel and Hardy, enraptured by Theda Bara and Carole Lombard, impressed by Clark Gable’s masculine sexiness and sense of command. The men’s room, piss-whiffy as it now is, has a little anteroom with chairs and, of all things, bookcases. I think this must have been a smoking lounge. The Palace is a grand building, less a barn than a drafty basilica.

King David Kalakaua, the Merrie Monarch/Photo: Hawai'i State Archive

In contrast to what the missionaries and sugar bosses built, one of the most pleasing architectural notes in Hilo is Asian. Hongwanji Mission temples built by the Japanese community look like hybrids between churches and pagodas. Many buildings sport the upturned eaves of pagodas. My favorite is the lime-green and Chinese red pagoda faced entirely with glossy ceramic tiles of extraordinary beauty at the Chinese cemetery on Ululani Street. Christianity and Buddhism meet on this rainy island without apparent friction. A building on the south side of town that looks for all the world like a pagoda has a notice-board in front declaring it to be the United Community Church.

Wherever you go—to the Saturday market, to the Palace, to the mall, wherever—it is hard not to be struck by Hilo’s racially mixed population. As “Hilo, My Hometown,” a song from the 1930s—an era less self-conscious about such things—puts it, “See the smiling faces/ Of the many races,/ And you’ll be smiling too.” I don’t know of any other song about a city that makes that particular boast! Statistically, 17 percent of Hilo’s population is Caucasian, 14 percent Native Hawaiian, 10 percent Hispanic. Thirty-four percent of Hilo’s residents are of Asian descent. In addition, nearly 32 percent of its population classify themselves as being of two or more races, while 12 percent claim three or more races. (Good luck in making these figures add up to 100 percent.) Native Hawaiians have intermarried with Filipinos, Chinese, Caucasians from the mainland, and the Portuguese, or “Portagee.” More recently Samoans, Marshall Islanders, Koreans, Thais, Vietnamese, and other Asians have made their way to the islands.

Between the commercial center and the bay, the city created a large park on Banyan Drive after the ruinous tsunami of 1960 devastated what had been a warren of houses, mostly Japanese. The waterfront park is dotted with ornamental ponds, pagodas, pavilions, and Japanese-looking bridges and islands. It is a Blue Willow plate come to life. The park honors the many Japanese who perished in the tsunami and fills at all hours of the day with strollers, joggers, families with their keikis (little children), and people practicing tai chi.

So much of Hawaii has been turned into a tourist paradise that I am glad to live near a town that still works for a living. Hilo, in some regards, is refreshingly ordinary. I like going down to the docks to see the inter-island cargo barges load up with freight containers, fork-lifts scooting busily around the wharf. Those enormous triple-decker cruise ships that debouche tourists for a day are a magical sight from the hills where we live above the Hamakua Coast, when we see them steaming out of the harbor in the early evenings, their decks illuminated like something from a maritime fairy tale.

I like the dreadlocks and aloha shirts on Hilo’s streets, the Polynesian tattoos on legs and forearms, people going about their daily errands in flip-flops and cargo shorts, carrying furled umbrellas against the frequent tropical showers. Sometimes paniolos— the Hawaiian word is a corruption of Español—from the upland ranches near Waimea walk by bow-legged in cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats. The first cowboys here were brought in from Hispanic California in the 1830s.

Hilo has its homeless population too, but somehow they don’t seem as desperate or put-upon as they do in New York or London or Dublin or San Francisco—perhaps because the climate is clement. It must be easier to live outside here, to shelter under a banyan tree when it rains, to drink your wine or smoke your pakalolo out in the open. I enjoy the raffish street life in this island city—the free spirits, burnouts, beachcombers with bad teeth and bloodshot eyes, old hippies with venerable beards, and Hari Krishna clones in dhotis with shaved heads and little pigtails, tilakas painted on their foreheads, pounding their hand-drums and wailing out their bhajans.

A hula dancer at the Merrie Monarch Festival/Photo: Thomas Tunsch, via Wikimedia Commons

Hilo is the island chain’s center for the practice of hula, widely popular here. Hula means traditional Hawaiian dance, music, and drumming. This culture and the Hawaiian language itself were passed down orally through leading families (‘ohana) such as the Kanaka‘ole, during the many years in which they were suppressed by the missionaries. A hula troupe is called a halau—though to call it a troupe is misleading. A halau is more than an organization of dancers; it is a family, an ‘ohana of its own under the guidance of a kumu, with a spiritual philosophy and an orientation toward the living traditions of this ancient art.

Hula in its purest and most traditional form is intertwined with the spiritual traditions of the native Hawaiians.

While mainstream American popular culture has its own clichéd ways of seeing Hawaii and its arts, trivializing the ukulele as an instrument and making hula almost a joke, the kumu hula practice and teach in its purest form this combination of dance, chant, song, drumming, and music. There are two kinds of hula, one ancient and tribal called kahiko, one more modern and familiar, called ‘auana, with music rather than drumbeats—more focused on feminine grace. The root of the word ‘auana means to wander or drift.

Hula in its purest and most traditional form is intertwined with the spiritual traditions of the native Hawaiians. Respect for one’s ancestors plays an important role. And it goes beyond respect. The individual is seen as literally embodying his or her ancestors. The idea is that they live in and through us. One kumu hula told me that he keeps his house filled with mirrors so that he can see in his own face the presence of the ancestors as they visit. “Oh, it’s you,” he says to one of them when they appear on his own features. “What brings you here today?”

To see hula, particularly in informal surroundings, is to witness an altogether joyful experience. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be part of an audience whose members are knowledgeable and appreciative of hula’s nuances. A really good hula dancer in the ‘auana style enters into the dance with all the sinuosity her body is capable of. She never stops smiling—and her smile is genuine, because she dances for joy, and she shares that joy with those who witness the dance.

As fine as it is to watch a dancer with a beautiful body, in a way I take more pleasure in watching an older woman who really knows the hula. Her body may have thickened, her perfections may be tarnished, but if she is a great hula dancer, these flaws are quickly forgotten. As well, she may be less self-conscious than a younger dancer might be about sexuality and the curves of her body.

Easter brings The Merrie Monarch festival, named after King David Kalakaua, an annual week-long showcase for traditional dance, music, and crafts. The Merrie Monarch is the high point of the social year in Hilo, eagerly anticipated. It’s almost as hard to get good Merrie Monarch tickets as it is to get tickets to the World Series. The performances are televised as well. Large hula troops, sometimes with more than 100 members of one halau on stage at a time, dance in perfect unison, wearing long dresses with orchids in their hair and leis of maile flowers, gathered from the high forests, which reach almost to the floor of the stage.

Practically as much of an attraction as the performers in terms of putting on a show, are the audiences of aging kumu hulas from the old families, as they try to out-do each other with their vintage gowns and profusion of orchids in their hair and strands of ti leaves braided into their leis. It is not unusual to see three generations of women dressed to the hilt in Forties-style grandeur, all as smart as a whip, the daughter proud to be the center of attention, the mother with dark lipstick looking like a film star, the grandmother in rhinestone glasses and a vintage silk muumuu to die for.

The festival is capped by a parade through downtown Hilo, a funky kind of Tournament of Roses spectacle with bands in aloha shirts and palominos draped with flowers. Participants and sponsors go all out to produce the most beautiful and showy floats, decked with flowers grown locally. Queens from the Polynesian islands and Pacific Rim countries wave to the crowds lining the streets from vintage American convertibles. If the missionaries had never come, if the United States had not extended its reach into the Pacific and seized power from the Hawaiian royal family, if Hawaii had not become the site of a hugely profitable sugar-producing industry—if, if, if!—one of these queens might be ruling her own independent island kingdom here.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 9, on page 34
Copyright © 2017 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
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