Sunday, December 14, 2003

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi Hawaii’s
Back yard

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

Kapaa maintains small-town
America feeling, Hawaiian style

When Hurricane Iniki roared across Kauai on Sept. 11, 1992, the town of Kapaa on the east coast was left in shambles. "It looked like a war zone," recalls Marie Fifield, a longtime Kapaa resident. "Buildings and houses collapsed, roofs blew away, 90 percent of the telephone poles were down. There was no electricity and no running water in many places for months."

But the resilient population rebuilt their homes, their lives and their town, which is today the hub of commerce on Kauai's Coconut Coast, so named for the hundreds of coconut palms that flourish in the area. Walk through Kapaa today and it's hard to imagine the devastation of a decade ago. Only a few of Kapaa's buildings survived Iniki's fury unscathed; in fact, virtually the entire town was reconstructed from the ground up.

But you wouldn't know it at a glance. With their wooden fronts, wide awnings and pane glass windows, businesses on both sides of Kuhio Highway, the main drag, hark back to the turn of the last century. A Kauai County ordinance introduced in 1975 requires all buildings in town to reflect the look of this era.

Plans for buildings more than 50 years old must receive approval by the county's planning department and be submitted to the Kauai Historic Preservation Review Commission for its recommendations.

The Kauai Historical Society's 90-minute Kapaa History Tour provides a fascinating glimpse of life -- both past and present -- in this charming town.

Fifield has been a volunteer docent for three years, and she never tires of sharing its colorful stories.

Take Kapaa Liquor & Electric Shop, for instance. According to Fifield, people once flocked there for merlot, microwaves and marriage licenses. In 1980, Fifield and her betrothed received their license from proprietor Kash Kuboyama, along with a congratulatory bottle of champagne.

"It blew me away," says Fifield, laughing at the memory. "I don't know where else in the world you could get a marriage license and a complimentary bottle of champagne in the same place!"

Kuboyama no longer provides marriage licenses, but couples can get them a few blocks away at Pono Market, which loyal customers insist sells the best ahi poke, sushi and bentos on Kauai.

The Kapaa Railroad Track links present-day Kauai to the past.

Larry's Music Center has been a destination for music aficionados for 55 years, selling everything from instruments to sheet music to concert tickets.

"When founder Larry Matsuda was alive, he used to load a piano in the back of his pickup truck and drive as far as the North Shore, giving music lessons to kids along the way," Fifield said.

Kawamoto's is Kauai's longtime Maytag franchise, although lately it's taken on the ambience of an art gallery rather than an appliance store. "The photography and the paintings that are displayed are the work of Winston Kawamoto, the youngest son in the family," Fifield says. "Winston's teachers at Kapaa Elementary School begged Papa Kawamoto to let him go to art school; he was very talented. But Papa said, 'No, he's going to the Maytag Service Center to learn to be an appliance repairman.'

"And so Winston did, and he wound up doing very well in that career. He continues to service appliances, but as time has gone by, he is doing more with his art and photography, and the store doubles as a showroom for his work."

Great effort is being made to preserve the building facades of old Kapaa.

ONE OF KAPAA'S first entrepreneurs was King Kalakaua, who started a sugar operation in 1877. It lasted just four years, however, due in part to bad weather and the king's inexperience in operating such a venture.

Other businesses fared far better. Between 1913 and 1962, Pono Pineapple formed the backbone of Kapaa's economy. About 315 acres of the company's golden fruit carpeted the surrounding hills, and during its heyday in the 1930s and '40s, its cannery (located where Pono Kai Resort now stands) employed 2,000 workers and supported an annual payroll of $1.7 million.

"Almost everybody who lived in Kapaa during that time remembers working in the cannery during the summer as kids," says Fifield. "Kapaa was a cannery town, and in contrast to the company stores that you'd find on sugar plantations, it had many independent businesses such as bars, cafes, photo studios, grocery stores and movie houses."

One of the town's landmarks was the Roxy Theatre, which, sadly, was demolished by Hurricane Iniki. William Fernandez, who built the theater, started out as an itinerant showman, traveling from sugar cane camp to sugar cane camp, screening silent movies on a large sheet.

On a visit to New York, Fernandez saw the original Roxy Theatre and he was determined to open a movie house of equal grandeur in unpretentious Kapaa. When he returned to Kauai, he arranged financing with people with sugar interests and built his Roxy Theatre, which welcomed its first customers in 1939.

"It seated 1,050 people; it was one of the largest theaters in the islands," Fifield marvels. "World-famous opera singer Marian Anderson sang at the Roxy; the fact that someone of her stature performed in this little town is truly amazing."

After the United States entered World War II in 1941, thousands of troops were stationed on Kauai, some camping at what is now Kapaa Beach Park. The Roxy Theatre was open daily, with shows scheduled from early morning until late at night to accommodate the additional crowds of servicemen. Says Fifield, "The Army was happy to drop busloads of soldiers at the Roxy as long as they were assured it was showing morally correct movies."

When the war ended, Kapaa settled into a sleepy existence, which it retains today, although it's not uncommon for traffic to slow to a crawl during rush hour.

"I like Kapaa because it's a town with camaraderie," says Fifield. "We have just about every big-name chain you can think of on Kauai, but I ran into a friend the other day at one of the little markets in town. She said, 'I like to shop where I know the money stays on the island and with families that I know.'

"That's what's wonderful about Kapaa; it has the feeling of small-town America, Hawaiian style."

Kapaa History Tour

Place: Meet at Pono Kai Resort, 4-1250 Kuhio Highway, Kapaa, HI 96746

When: 10 to 11:30 a.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays; meet at 9:45 a.m. Light clothing, walking shoes and sunscreen are recommended.

Cost: $15 for adults, $5 for children under 12. Minimum tour size is two adults. Special group tours can be arranged. All proceeds benefit the Kauai Historical Society.

Call: 808-245-3373; reservations are required.

Also: The Kauai Historical Society also conducts guided walking tours of Poipu's Makawehi Sand Dunes every other Monday, monthly lecture programs on Kauai history and special "members-only" excursions. Check out its Web site for details.


Web site:

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.


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