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Three Little Syllables
Frank Deford
January 24, 1977
They're a-lo-ha, and in Hawaii they are as ubiquitous as McDonald's, of which there were 25 at last count. Are the islands becoming too commercial? Well, yes, hey, life is commercial
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January 24, 1977

Three Little Syllables

They're a-lo-ha, and in Hawaii they are as ubiquitous as McDonald's, of which there were 25 at last count. Are the islands becoming too commercial? Well, yes, hey, life is commercial

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My first impression of Hawaii—and the purpose of my visit was to record first impressions—is that it surely must be as glorious a resort as there is in the world. According to the Visitors Bureau, which will very shortly possess such sophisticated data that it can tabulate tourists by zip code and by "what side of the street they live on," 89.9% of the tourist sample queried in 1975 said that Hawaii provided an above average or superior vacation. In terms of climate, ambiance, activity, beauty and so forth, Hawaii is simply very hard to beat. It is in the middle of nowhere, of course, but that is probably a saving grace, inasmuch as it keeps down the teenagers with their transistor radios, who overrun mainland vacation spots.

But it is the aloha connection that makes the islands so alluring for most Americans. Nothing else would account for the incredible popularity of certain awful institutions. The luau, for example. Many hotels feature weekly luaus, most of which are conducted as engagingly as a lube job down at the Sunoco. Before the roast pig is brought by (some hotels use the same show porker over and over, returning it to its residence in the freezer after displaying it), before the tedious historical hula show starts, the tourists are shepherded into line to have their pictures taken. The male visitors are photographed standing next to a picture-book hula beauty in artificial grass skirt, real bra and lei. The women are placed next to a bare-chested Hawaiian male. The camera snaps, the next tourist moves into place. The pictures are up on the bulletin board the following day. Buy yours and take it back to the mainland as proof that you actually consorted with genuine hula natives. Aloha.

Surely, American tourists want desperately to believe that the islands are the racial paradise they are made out to be, that Hawaii, our last hope, has achieved the racial serenity the mainland never has. It has always seemed to me that even the worst American bigots would prefer not to be what they are. Thus, it is easy for the island flacks to perpetuate the myth that Hawaii is still destined to produce "the golden man," to be the place where everyone has the same perfect hue and heart. In fact, the melting pot simmers. Racial resentments have not affected tourists the way they have, say, in the Caribbean, but out of sight of visitors, relations are uneasy and often raw. The Japanese (known slightingly as Buddha-heads), who were first brought in as contract laborers in 1868 and have long since become the largest ethnic group, compete with mainland Caucasian Americans for control. The whites are called haoles (howlees), once a passive word meaning newcomer, but now a pejorative on the order of honky. The Filipinos (frips) are down at the bottom with the few remaining full-blooded Hawaiians (pineapples) and with the Portuguese, who figure in the local version of Polish jokes. But the theme park runs smoothly; the single most favorable response the Visitors Bureau gets is that the locals are "warm and friendly," and I would certainly subscribe to that.

I cannot help but wonder, though, if it is a put-on, if the Hawaiian-Americans who service the tourist-Americans don't view us as enviously and suspiciously as Jamaicans and Mexicans and Virgin Islanders do. That feeling is heightened away from the glitter of Waikiki, and especially in the other islands, where the country does not seem at all like the U.S. It is poor and it seems very Caribbean: corrugated tin roofs on old houses that often sit on stilts; skinny dogs pawing around; dirt roads and dirty children; faded Coca-Cola signs. There are many banana trees, too. Banana trees always seem to signal poverty. They are squat and off-green, and while they are cousins, more or less, of palm trees, the one makes us think of style and opulence, the leisure of the tropics, while the other recalls the hot squalor and ignorance of those latitudes. There is no Banana Beach, no Banana Springs for the beautiful people. Get away from Waikiki and all the magnificent resorts on all the islands, and there are a lot of banana trees in Hawaii. Aloha.

And then, as in any resort, where separating wayfarers from their cash is the perennial pursuit, there is an inordinate concern about money in the islands. Because it costs a great deal to ship anything to Hawaii, prices are high, and the inhabitants, isolated on their Pacific Eden, resent this presumed inequity. Now the tourist boom has escalated the price of things already there, the very earth. Can the Hawaiians afford Hawaii? On a guided bus tour I took all around Oahu (or Alohaland, as it actually said in the bus destination window), the driver kept telling us the prices of houses, the rents of apartments we passed. He was obsessed by real estate. "Eighty thousand, and only three bedrooms," he said, shaking his head. "Five hundred and seventy-five dollars, including utilities," he revealed over the microphone. He pointed out shopping centers as if they were unique indigenous attractions. Coming back into Honolulu, he said, "On my right, is where the Utah went down with 54 men, and on my left, the new Sears warehouse." Periodically, he would cry out, "Aloha," and everybody would obediently chant "Aloha" back at him.

Japanese vacationers take their own tours, and while American and Japanese tourists never seem to have to deal with each other except when their buses pull up to the same scenic overlook, the Orientals definitely add foreign luster to the place. They are also very businesslike, even about their holidays. Although it takes several hours longer to fly to Honolulu from Tokyo than from California, the average Japanese stays only five days, while the average American stays 10 (and Canadian 15). Of the five days, the Japanese often turn over one to a pilgrimage to the site of the sinking of the Arizona , where they listen uncomfortably to the toll of the dead and injured, and shift from foot to foot behind their Nikons. American tourists tend to check about for concession stands, so they can ship pineapples home.

But the Americans seem very aware of the Japanese. Hawaii is the last outpost of the U.S., the extension of the West and the Sunbelt alike. All these years it has been a dream, a Shangri-la, and now we have met somebody else coming round the other way. A lot of U.S. tourists don't quite know what to make of this.

An elderly gentleman from suburban Buffalo struck up a conversation with me on the bus tour because he wanted to buy the right aloha postcards, and he couldn't remember which island we were on. This seemed to be a constant problem on my bus. I told him it was still "Aloha from Oahu," and then I asked him what he thought of his first visit to Hawaii. "Well," he said, "it's a lot like Florida, weatherwise. It's a lot like Tucson, too. Tucson in Arizona. We went there last year. Hawaii's a lot like Arizona, only it's got all your special elements, your luaus, your hula. And, of course, it's also got all these Japs around."

In keeping with this spirit, I pointed out how your Arizona likewise had Indians and Mexicans, and your Florida had Cubans. He shook his head at my ignorance. "No, no, no," he said. "I mean the Japs are around, in hotels and on buses, just like us Americans."

While Hawaii works so well because it promulgates its theme park "elements" so well, its diverse beauty is surpassing. "The loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean," wrote Mark Twain (who is referred to in Hawaii as "our first copywriter"); Hawaii is so lovely that it is beautiful even when it is not. Sugarloaf, for example, is really quite brown and scruffy up close, barely a large knoll, and a romantic is terribly hurt at this revelation, like when you at last personally encounter a movie star and discover she is merely photogenic, only the sum of her best angles. Sugarloaf is like that: perfectly positioned and nothing else. How much did NBC pay to create its stylish new N? How much is that ship worth to Cutty Sark? Other theme parks have to hire all sorts of specialists to get a symbol, but Hawaii was given the perfect one—looming, backgrounding.

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