Even though I’ve been away from Hawaii for almost as long as I lived
there, I still get homesick sometimes. And not for the Hawaii 5-0, Tom
Selleck, Brady Bunch Hawaiian Vacation version of the place either. I
have days when I miss the actual islands and the way it feels to be
there: the humidity, the slow pace, the way the ocean is almost always
somewhere within view.
Recently, when I went searching for signs of the Aloha State on San Francisco, I was reminded that there are, in fact, two Hawaiis: the place I once lived, and the one former Hawaiian residents—or Kaima’aina—have re-created here. And while there’s definitely some overlap between the two, the Hawaii you’ll find in the San Francisco has a character all its own.
My quest for Hawaii in San Francisco began in a hula class, with Hula Halau O Kekoaokalani, a group who meets every Thursday under the guidance of a teacher named Pono Herenui Kekoaokalani Ka'ahanui, or “Kumu Pono,” as his students refer to him.
If you don’t know anyone who dances hula, don’t be surprised; it’s not like yoga or African dance. You can’t just drop in and try out a class. In fact, when I started looking for one, I learned that SF’s biggest hula school isn’t taking new students until 2011.
Like in Hawaii, hula on the mainland takes place in “halaus,” or groups that require intense commitment, and often function as the center of mainland Hawaiian communities. (The word “halau” means “meeting house” or classroom, but also applies to the body of people).
On the night I visited, most of the dancers were wearing simple cotton hula skirts (pa’us) tied at the waist with rope, but I noticed a few didn’t have them. It was only later that I learned that the right to wear a pa’u is something you have to earn.
According to tradition, they greeted Kumu Pono with a chant. “That was horrendous,” he said, and made them repeat the chant twice until he was satisfied with the volume, strength and traditional inflection. The men and women lined up in three rows and went through a grueling round of warm up movements that I recognized as Kahiko, the hula that existed long before the flowy-arms, swaying-hips type that you might see in, say, a 1950s movie or the lobby of a hotel. By contrast, Kahiko entails much stronger movements; the dancers almost always keep their arms straight and stiff. Each movement also sets the location of the story being told (signifying mountains, the ocean, rain, etc.) or advances the narrative in some other way (dancers might be on a journey, or re-enacting a battle, for instance).
Each halau’s hula is subtly unique. “Ours is close to the ground” Pono told me. “We believe the life energy or ‘ha’ comes from the ground, so the closer we are, the less it has to travel.”
If the recent proliferation of Hawaiian barbeque spots in the city is any indication, there is island nostalgia in nearly every San Francisco neighborhood. And while modern Hawaiian cuisine has little to do with the native Hawaiian diet (it has a much higher percentage of starch and grease than, say banana and taro), it’s different kind of authentic. I see it as the product of the last two hundred years of multiculturalism in the islands.
I love that you can find kimchee (from Korea) on a plate next to lumpia (from the Phillipines) and chicken katsu (from Japan), for instance.
Much of what is now considered Hawaiian food (aside from the high-end cuisine that restaurants like Roy’s have established) was heavily shaped by World War II. The influence of Pearl Harbor and a large population of military personnel in the 1940s popularized canned meats (thus the advent of spam sushi) and a move away from fresh vegetables. The emphasis on rice is a direct result of the large numbers of Japanese, Chinese and Korean people who were brought to Hawaii in during nineteenth century to work in the sugar cane fields.
When I set out on a quest for island food, I brought my sister, who has always had a penchant for the unique combination of white rice and mayonnaise-based macaroni salad you can only find together in the Hawaiian “mixed plate.”
We decided to try The Hukilau, a casual place on Geary that boasts only a slightly more upscale atmosphere than L & L BBQ. It was Wahine Wednesday, and, being wahines, we opted for the girly spiked Hawaiian punch. When the Teriyaki Chicken and breaded Mahi Mahi arrived—this was a kind of comfort food you have to know by heart to really appreciate—I did feel transported to a small drive-in on one of the rural roads on the Big Island. And when I looked around at people at the other tables, it was clear that they were all spending the evening there with me.
When I walked up to Saichi Kawahara’s house, he was pulling his car out
of his garage. There was supposed to be a basic ukulele class in five
minutes. Was he running out to get some crucial supply? But then he
stopped in the driveway, returned into the garage and rolled the door
down behind him. I knocked, was let inside, and immediately understood: classes are taught in the garage.
Saichi is the real thing. Even though he left Hawaii in 1958, he built a career touring and playing Hawaiian music with the Kapalakiko Hawaiian Band. He comes across as gruff, and even a little intimidating at first. I was reminded, as I took a seat in a chair near a metal folding music stand, of the semester in fourth grade, when everyone had to take ukulele class three times a week.
The other two students there have been studying ukulele for a while and when they started playing a song, he encouraged me to follow along, which turns out to be much easier said than done. But as I practiced the chords, some of the craft came slowly filtering back to me through the years.
Just like in grade school, Saichi told us what chords to play and everyone wrote them down on their photocopied song sheets. When he introduced a new song, he didn’t seem quite so gruff anymore, as he told us everything about the writer—where in Hawaii he/she lived, how they fit into the diaspora of Hawaiian music, and how long it’ s been since he/she and Saichi have last spoke. It’s not name dropping, exactly. But it’s clear that part of him has never really left the islands—even if he’s lived in San Francisco his whole adult life.
We close the class with a lullabye called He Aloha Mele. I would never have remembered the lyrics on my own, but there they were, right where I’d left them, in my brain’s fourth grade drawer. And the island girl in me couldn’t help but sing along: “Now there's the sun and the moon talking story/ Telling tales about a new day/It's gonna be a nice day…He Aloha Mele…” We finish the song and Saichi uses a pidgeon English term I haven’t heard in years. “See,” he says. “Simple as duck soup!”
While thinking so much about Hawaii, I started understanding one of the striking things about not being somewhere. There is a distillation; the distance allows you to preserve whatever aspects of the place you found most meaningful while you were there.
This idea really hit me while I was inside Smuggler’s Cove. The bar is a post-modern mix of a tropical locales and their menu includes cocktails from all over the Caribbean, as well some said to originate in the early “legendary tiki bars” of the 1930s and ‘40s, an age when the idea of Hawaii began to take on a life of its own.
It’s telling that while the names are pure Hawaii (I had to try a Kona Cocktail, named after my home town), many of the ingredients (fresh peach juice, or candied hibiscus flowers, for instance) have more to do with making a really good cocktail, as they do with any actual place. Guests are invited to “discover the mystery and enchantment of a world of perpetual dusk, potent libations, and tiny umbrellas.”
There are some important things about the actual Hawaii you just can’t recreate: the humid-without-being-oppressive air, the lush vegetation, the warm rain. But, the funny thing is, with a waterfall running down one wall, and traditional woven cloth on the ceiling, I could understand why the original purveyors of tiki culture would have wanted to capture the things that evoked the essence of the place, beyond the actuality. For a brief moment I am in my own Hawaii-once-removed, and I want to stay.
To get your hula on with Hula Halau O Kekoaokalani, check out their website. Hawaiian food is all over the city these days, but Wahine Wednesdays is only at The Hukilau. To get more information on Saichi Kawahara’s uke classes, check out his newsletter at http://www.kapalakiko.org. For a taste of fantasy island, there’s Smuggler’s Cove, which boasts a heroic knowledge of rum.