In downtown Honolulu, the Iolani Palace, the only former royal residence on U.S. soil, sits in the middle of a park. In its second storey is the airy room where Liliuokalani was imprisoned; it contains the quilt she did up, with help from visiting friends, during her captivity. The palace library is extensive, and holds one of the first telephones installed on the islands. Hawaii’s monarchs tended to be highly cultured and early adopters of new technologies. In the dining room, the docent tells me, one king insisted on sitting at the table’s middle, not its head, to better gather information from travellers. One distinguished visitor, Robert Louis Stevenson, became a friend.
I’m put onto my next site by writer Lois-Ann Yamanaka, who covers another, less elite slice of island life: Her ancestors were Japanese immigrants who came to work on the sugar plantations, now mainly gone. In her most recent novel, Behold the Many (2007), she looks back in anger, yes, but also with compassion and humour at the multi-ethnic society that grew up on those farms. Because the planters wanted to prevent feelings of solidarity among the workers, members of each group were encouraged to keep their customs, to speak their languages and to decorate their houses as they would in the old country.
At Plantation Village in Waipahu, west of Honolulu, the Japanese houses cluster around a communal bath, the Puerto Rican houses have Caribbean coffee plants growing around them and the pagoda-style Chinese social hall is painted a festive red. My guide is a Japanese-American who has just retired from the shipyard at Pearl Harbor, and whose plantation-worker father fought on the American side in the European Theatre in the Second World War.
He explains that the mix of foods you see sloshed together on one plate in Hawaiian fast-food restaurants – Japanese shoyu chicken, Chinese noodles, Portuguese-spiced pork, New England-inspired macaroni salad – comes out of the plantation culture. “We were never a melting pot. We were the world’s first multicultural society,” he argues. “Everyone you meet, they’ll often tell you what parts of them are which heritage. That’s often one of the first conversations you have.”
Near the end of the trip, I read one of Mark Twain’s dispatches for the Sacramento Union about trying to learn to surf. After a disastrous outing, he sniffs that “none but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly.” I decide to follow him into the water to see whether I can do any better.
It would make for a better story if I’d wiped out dramatically. But whether it was my instructor’s pointers, the gentle waves or sheer beginner’s luck, I manage to stay on my board for good stretches of time. And (I know from the photos), I ride the water with a strange, exhilarated look on my face: So this is how the other, beach-and-palm-loving half lives. Not too bad, not too bad at all.
But then I notice the hau tree under which Stevenson is said to have lazed, perhaps comparing the actual tropics with those he’d dreamed up earlier in Treasure Island. And down the beach I know there’s the famous Outrigger Club – a setting of key scenes in The Descendants. Once again, I am caught up in a sea of stories.
IF YOU GO
WHAT TO SEE
Bernice Puauahi Bishop Museum: The Hawaiian hall is the highlight of this museum. Through objects, it tells the story of how these islands came to be inhabited, and how the arrival of missionaries utterly changed the way of life here. bishopmuseum.org
Honolulu Museum of Art: Hawaii author James Michener donated his extensive collection of Japanese woodcuts to the museum, and many of them tell vivid stories. The museum also runs tours to tobacco heiress Doris Duke's beautiful Moorish themed-estate, Shangri-La. (Full disclosure: My brother-in-law is the museum’s director.) honolulumuseum.org
Hans Hedemann Surf School: The absolute beginner gets a gentle intro on the usually minimal waves of Waikiki. hhsurf.com