Let’s move on, and continue with my responses/reviews of some readings on Hawaiian history. In this post, I look at three journal articles on somewhat unrelated but complementary topics.
*DeSoto Brown, “Beautiful, Romantic Hawaii: How the Fantasy Image Came to Be.” The Journal of Decorative and Propaganda Arts 20 (1994): 253–71.
*John P. Rosa “Beyond the Plantation: Teaching about Hawai’i before 1900.” Journal of Asian American Studies 7, no. 3 (2004): 223–40.
University of Hawaii students sit together to show the ethnic differences of Hawaii’s population in 1948. Image from NPR.
These three articles address somewhat different topics, but overlap in interesting ways. All three seek to address aspects of Hawaiian history outside of the standard stereotypical understandings, complicating or challenging those stereotypical views.
Lori Pierce’s essay “The Whites Have Created Modern Honolulu” discusses the ways in which haole businessmen & other haole community leaders in the 1910s-1930s constructed and deployed discourses of ethnic harmony in order to promote their own interests, including protecting (maintaining) their own superior political, economic, and social position in Hawaiʻi. This aligns well with DeSoto Brown’s article “Beautiful, Romanic Hawaii,” which explains how films, travel advertising, aloha shirts, popular/folk music and other elements of popular media discourse combined to construct idyllic or otherwise romantic impressions of Hawaiʻi among American mainlanders – impressions which do not accurately, or “truthfully,” match what life in Hawaiʻi was ever actually like, and impressions which continue to fundamentally inform stereotypes of Hawaiʻi today, even as the golden age of popularity of a particular cultural concurrence (aloha shirts, fake luaus & hula, tiki bars, etc.) has become largely a thing of the past. Pierce’s article also aligns with John Rosa’s essay “Beyond the Plantation,” in a different way, insofar as both address ethnic relations in the islands. Rosa addresses the emphasis on plantation life in Asian-American Studies approaches to Hawaiian history, suggesting that a greater focus on Native Hawaiian demographic & economic history, and on the history of haole political and economic activity, would better inform a fuller understanding of the history.
Rosa touches briefly upon ancient Polynesian voyaging traditions and origins, the role of the sandalwood, whaling, and other industries in the economic “development” and political changes in early 19th century Hawaiʻi, and the political events surrounding the overthrow in the 1880s-1890s, with a particular focus on population decline and decline of political power for Native Hawaiians. I can imagine that for an Asian-American Studies audience (given that this was published in the Journal of Asian American Studies), it might be of particular importance to press such an audience to remember to think about these events & their surrounding issues; however, even as a novice historian of Hawaiʻi & the Pacific, I feel that there is little of Rosa’s argument that is new for me; little of it is anything I did not already believe was important – central, even – to the basic historical narrative of Hawaiʻi’s history. Still, this article serves as a useful basic primer to these issues, and to some key sources for learning more about certain issues and events. When I come to putting together a syllabus for a survey of Hawaiian or Pacific history, I will look back to this article, among others.
“Hawaii welcomes you as you’ve never been welcomed before…” Come enjoy our harmonious paradise, where everything is perfect, because if you knew it wasn’t, it would harm the tourist industry, and never mind the ethnic resentments seething just below the surface :) Creative Commons image courtesy Flickr user Don O’Brien.
The two articles by DeSoto Brown and Lori Pierce are quite interesting and informative for thinking about my own experience moving to, and living in Hawaiʻi, negotiating between preconceptions and reality, as well as for engaging with how to think about, or teach, the construction of stereotypes and misconceptions. The “discourse of aloha” that Pierce describes, a belief in the harmonious relations between ethnic groups in Hawaiʻi, remains a constant refrain today in Hawaiʻi, despite serious ethnic issues and divisions. It is interesting to see how this was constructed in order to promote American travel to the islands, and general positive attitudes towards the “project” of Americanization assimilation efforts in the islands, as part of broader discursive efforts to justify and normalize haole political, social, and economic dominance. Haoles have never been an ethnic majority in the islands, and in the early 20th century feared the growing influence of those of Asian descent; many, Pierce relates, feared that such a small number of haoles would not be able to exert sufficient cultural force to properly or fully Americanize these non-whites, and viewed labor strikes on the plantations not through a lens of morality of labor practices, but rather as a matter of insufficient Americanization – that is, insufficient loyalty on the part of these Asian workers to American businesses & American national / patriotic interests. And this sort of attitude hasn’t ended. Look at how Native Hawaiian protest against the TMT telescope project on Mauna Kea is viewed. This sort of attitude seems all the stronger in Japan, where just about any protest, especially those by Okinawans, is inevitably described by at least some source, some contingent, as being financed by China or Korea to make Japan look bad – in other words, they are viewing the protest as an attack on the Japanese nation, as a sign of insufficient loyalty, and not considering the protest for its own words, its own meaning, as is being expressed.
Returning to Pierce’s article, parades, pageants, and the like organized by haole community leaders celebrated Hawaiʻi’s ethnic diversity at the same time that they emphasized Americanness and patriotism – in fact, some of the organizers explicitly intended these events to educate children in Hawaiʻi in American history and American viewpoints, instilling in them a sense of American patriotism. Yet, despite this haole origin for the “discourse of aloha,” it seems to have been wholeheartedly adopted by the “local” Asian-Pacific Islander-American population, cited time and again today. It would be interesting to learn how and why this came to be the case – whether this discourse can be said to have been appropriated and re-conceived, or adopted wholesale – but this seems to fall outside of Pierce’s intentions.
Her discussion, however, of the multiple visions that haoles had at that time for America, and for an Americanized Hawaiʻi, are particularly informative for our broader understandings of the ethnic or cultural character or nature of the United States today. As she explains, some believed in assimilation into a standard, established, Anglo-American culture, seeing assimilation into this culture as uplifting, civilizing, and moralizing. In this view, all people regardless of their ethnic or cultural origins are entitled to the equal opportunity to become (Anglo-)American. A similar notion is often cited, stereotypically or popularly, as being the dominant notion of equality in France today – everyone is equally welcome to “become” “French.” A second vision articulated by Pierce is that of an American identity born out of the “melting pot” combination of diverse ethnicities and cultures, resulting in a new and distinctive American identity that takes the best of all these diverse influences, becoming something (ever) better and greater. Some promoted Hawaiʻi as a living example of this mode, as an ever-increasing proportion of the population in Hawaiʻi were not solely haole, Asian, or Pacific Islander, but rather were (are) hapa, a mixture of Polynesian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Portuguese, and/or haole ethnic and cultural backgrounds. A third vision celebrates cultural diversity that remains distinct – the salad bowl model, perhaps, rather than the melting pot. All three of these visions are still prevalent in the United States today, remaining powerfully fundamental to citizens’ understandings or beliefs of what the United States is, or should be, and it is not hard to imagine the profound and powerful role these conflicting visions play, on a fundamental level, in contributing to our broader, ongoing, political debates on a variety of issues, and to a deep sense of cultural divides.