Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, April 1, 2001

These celluloid dolls are worth $100 to $300,
says Mark Blackburn's "Hawaiiana."

Tiki-tacky treasures

"Hawaiiana -The Best of Hawaiian Design"
By Mark Blackburn (Schiffer Publishing, ISBN 0-7643-1220-0, 258 pages, $59.95)

"Hula Dancers and Tiki Gods"
By Chris Pfouts (Schiffer Publishing, ISBN 0-7643-1247-2, 210 pages, $39.95)

By Burl Burlingame

There is the Hawaii we live in, and the Hawaii we think we live in. One has teachers' strikes, a never-ending recession, power lines between us and the sky; the other has balmy seas, fragrant nights, winsome maidens wearing next to nothing as they dance in the firelight. Both truly exist: One Hawaii exists in our heads; the other Hawaii exists in our hearts. Each is nothing without the other to strike balance.

Because the islands are so far from anywhere, they float in a world apart from other cultures. Access is limited, even today. Hawaii remains one of the few places on Earth for which the destination is more interesting than the journey to get there.

And so for most of the world, Hawaii is a place of mythology, like Middle Earth or Atlantis. The pull of such places is powerful and magical, and it's a human trait to collect talismans as proof of the journey and as a reminder of one's time in Paradise before being expelled.

The book also lists Tip Freeman's fish paintings
at $600 to $900 per bamboo-framed pair.

Which explains the stores filled with "Hawaiian" gimcracks, doodads and tchotchkes all over the islands. They're marketing the tourist equivalent of the Golden Fleece.

Hawaii has existed long enough as a tourist destination that the industry has developed its own culture and history. The things Hawaii has exported to the world - the ukulele, surfing, alohawear, hula and the sexual fantasy attached to hula by Westerners - have become part of world culture. The cycles of manufacturing have created their own rhythm of collecting over the years. Everyone's got something vaguely Polynesian in an attic or closet.

Over the last decade, the concept of "collectibles" has become a growth industry, based on speculation rather than manufacturing. Although a collectible is worth exactly what someone is willing to pay for it, enough auction catalogs and eBay sales exist to give a rough idea of what something is worth. That is, if you were to try and sell it, rather than hoard it. But then the primary joy of collecting is in acquiring, and the other half of the equation is figuring out exactly what you've got.

"Elviki" is found in "Hula Dancers and Tiki Gods."

The Overstreet comic-book price guides led the way among the nerds three decades ago, and now collectible evaluating and categorizing is prime-time, with shows like "Antiques Roadshow."

Not much has existed for Hawaiian collectibles, however, outside of photocopied price lists for the hardcore buff circle. Despite book after book of Hawaiiana produced locally, no major Hawaii publisher has addressed the subject of collecting Hawaiian stuff. And by "Hawaiiana," we mean mass-market gimmes, not rare artifacts or artworks. We mean the kind of stuff the average person might own.

A series of new books from Schiffer Publishing of Pennsylvania is filling that niche. According to Nancy Schiffer, who helped found the publishing company nearly 30 years ago and who has written some of the Hawaiiana titles, Schiffer has something like 2,200 titles aimed at collectors of all sorts. Schiffer books tend to be well-printed and colorful, as well as pricey, which you'd expect from titles that aren't aimed at the idle browser market.

Schiffer, herself a collector of Hawaiian shirts, thinks the appeal comes from "the cheerfulness of the culture, and the timelessness of it," she said from Pennsylvania. "The books are selling fine, and they're selling equally well all over the country. I guess there are a lot of armchair surfers out there. The books have a long shelf life, we've discovered."

We took a look at the two most recent Schiffer titles, "Hawaiiana -The Best of Hawaiian Design" by the prolific Mark Blackburn, and "Hula Dancers and Tiki Gods" by Chris Pfouts.

Blackburn, a Big Island antiques dealer, has actually revised and expanded a 1996 edition of the same book, and notes that prices have escalated dramatically in the last half decade. The book is glossy and well-printed, and features a fascinating and bewildering array of stuff, from paper items like menus and postcards to textiles and clothing to dolls to music to lamps to jewelry to unclassifiable souvenirs to ... you get the idea. It's like visiting a well-stocked antique store, which is just what Blackburn operates.

Some of what you see here is incredibly cool, other things are unbearably awful. Which is which? It's in the eye of the beholder, but you're unlikely to find airbrushed landscapes of Diamond Head anywhere except on the side of a van. All are given equal weight, anyway.

The photographs of the items are very well done, and the color fidelity is first-rate. There isn't a lot of information attached to each item, however, and little told about the industries that created these items, and no cross-referencing at all. It's a book for leafing through to find what you're looking for.

More problematic is the layout, which uses hard-to-read type, and also plops generic landscape pictures in at random to fill space. Little sidebar stories are likewise used as filler, rather than as a useful addition to the scholarship.

These problems will doubtless be addressed in future editions, as more knowledge bubbles to the surface. In the meantime, a lot of the stuff in "Hawaiiana" is way cool.

Far more successful - and less expensive - is Pfouts' "Hula Dancers and Tiki Gods," because it focuses almost exclusively on one subject, the depiction of the hula dancer in popular culture. And let's get real: By "dancer" Pfouts means "girl," in all her dusky, sexy, grass-swinging glory. The tikis of the title are almost an afterthought, sort of an addendum to the hula happenings. Little information is given about tikis, except that Pfouts, as a kid, thought they were neat.

Pfouts, editor of "International Tattoo Art" magazine, has an eye for striking images and a healthy appreciation of the female form, and the pages are full of cheerful hula kitsch. They range from postcards and matchbooks to calendars on the low end to the surrealistically glowing Leetag paintings on black velvet, where the women are so hot they seem to be radioactive. Three-dimensional collectibles include mugs, lamps, "Island Fun Barbie," and those spring-loaded lasses meant to shake their skirts on the dash of your car. And then there are Hollywood collectibles of hula-themed productions, such as posters of Clara Bow's "Hula" to Nancy Kwan's "Tamahine."

Kitschy it may be, but there's no denying that the "hula girl" has become an enduring icon, as recognizable a type as the Japanese samurai or the Wild West gunfighter. Some items dug up by Pfouts are delightful, and despite the underlying sexual stereotyping, the book is filled with good cheer. After all, hula girls are known for their smiles as much as their hips. And, as Pfouts points out, no one watches the hands.

The layout and production values are first-class, and the annoying clutter of "Hawaiiana" is missing from this volume. The chapters and collectible breakdowns proceed logically.

I asked a couple of well-known Hawaiiana collectors and dealers to give me their impressions of the Schiffer efforts. DeSoto Brown of Bishop Museum felt that, in general, Schiffer books were "skimpy on facts and text, but they have very nice pictures. They are stunning visually. Too bad, because it's a lost opportunity to be a really useful guide.

"The increase in values for Hawaiiana - and memorabilia in general - have paralleled that of online auctions such as eBay. It has boomed in the last decade, which is interesting because Hawaiian collectibles have been around as long as money was being exchanged in the islands," Brown said.

"Publications like this might inspire people to collect such things, or also convince them to hang on to the things they've already got and thought were junk. That's good, because good pieces are less likely to be thrown away, and bad, because people might be deluding themselves into thinking everything will be valuable."

Pake Zane of Antique Alley also wishes there were more background and cross-referencing in Schiffer's volumes. "Then they'd be of more use to collectors and the industry, instead of being primarily picture books to look at. But they are filling a niche. Before, all we could do was search through auction catalogs. They're fine, as long as you think of them as a guide rather than a bible.

"And they have brought more people into collecting, or at least looking through Grandpa's trunk," said Zane, who refers to himself as a "cultural recycler."

And what they find will give an insight into what Grandpa was interested in. "The appeal of the fantasy paradise is very strong, and has existed in every culture," said Brown. "It's still strong today, because it comes from both cultural mythology and from the heart."

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