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Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, August 1, 2000

Filmworks Press
The concrete jungle of Waikiki almost blocks the
view of Daimond Head in the background. The
steep roofline pattern of the convention center in
the foreground somewhat resembles that of
The Waikikian, built in the '50s.

Waikiki -- Holding on to the dream

Film director Edgy Lee takes
a look at the dreams and schemes
of Waikiki past and present

By John Berger
Special to the Star-Bulletin

WHEN was the "golden age" of Waikiki? Filmmaker Edgy Lee and her co-author, Paul Berry, suggest in "Waikiki: In the Wake of Dreams" that for traditional Native Hawaiians it was no later than the first half of the 20th century.

"People (still) lived off the beach," Lee said yesterday.

"They had wana (sea urchin), lobster, shrimp, all three kinds of limu that are no more -- only one kind is left here. They had octopus and squid and coconut. All they needed was their poi. That was up until the '30s."

Edgy Lee

A documentary film and a soundtrack album will complete Lee's multi-media look at Waikiki early next year. In the meantime, the book stands on its own as an attractive "coffee table" work that is priced to be an economical gift item as well. Lee and Berry balance a fascinating collection of pictures with enough solid research to make "Waikiki" a success as both a photo book and a light history book.

"The story we tell is from the outsiders' point of view and the insiders' point of woven together," Lee explains.

"You see how it is to grow up here like the Paoa and Kahanamoku families, and you see how people come and go with this idea they have of 'paradise' and how they reinvent it. They find something in Waikiki that is in their estimation the closest they've ever come to Paradise and then try to change it."

And so, "Waikiki" illustrates the history of the area from the formation of the landmark crater 300,000 years ago up to the present. The historical narrative is spiced with first-person accounts and clips from an assortment of vintage publications.

It's the same format Lee used in documenting the history of the Hawaiian cowboy in "Paniolo O Hawai'i " and Lee says the similarities she found made "Waikiki" a "compelling" project and a race against time.

"When we did 'Paniolo' I thought we were about 30 years late because most of the old-timers were gone. In (considering) 'Waikiki,' I saw that the beach boys, the musicians and the entertainers are mostly gone, so I felt compelled in the same manner. If we didn't get their stories now it would be way late."

Filmworks Press
The Waikikian shortly after its opening in 1958.

Lee documents the time in 1914 when Hawaiians commemorating Kamehameha's landing on Oahu were forced to wear long underwear under their semi-traditional attire. And she tells of the uproar when women went swimming in garments that exposed their arms and shoulders!

Prudes responded with the 1921 Desha Bathing Suit Act that prohibited such lewd attire but public response eventually made the act unenforceable.

"The shock once we got started was how little we knew and how we underestimated what history there is there. It's far greater than I ever imagined. In economics (Waikiki) has set an example as a world-renowned resort area that began as a neighborhood, and still is a neighborhood."

How many people remember Sen. Daniel Inouye's experiences as a pre-war Waikiki beach boy? That story is told as well.

"I don't think too many people know that (he wanted to be a beach boy), or that he went out there under the tutelage of some of the most famous ones -- Steamboat Micah and Blue Makua. I think that's an obscure story," Lee said.

Although private homes are long gone from the beach, and the area known in the '70s as "The Jungle" is now mostly high-rise canyons, Lee says "31,000 people or so" live in Waikiki.

"This is what makes Waikiki so different from any other high-end resort area (and) the historic Native Hawaiian cultural root -- even if you don't see it as clearly today -- is what makes Waikiki so fantastically compelling and mesmerizing and elusive."

Lee and Berry make it clear that the ill-conceived boom town "development" of Waikiki from the mid-'50s through the '70s not only erased much of the Hawaiian character that still existed after World War II, but also created long-term problems that are still impacting the area. They tactfully avoid naming those responsible for the frenzied building that made much of Waikiki into concrete canyons, but note that public outrage prevented developers' schemes to build high-rise hotels and condominiums on the slopes of Diamond Head.

She hopes that the book, film and soundtrack will encourage more responsible future planning and land use in Waikiki, as well as greater awareness of the past -- what has been lost and what remains.

"If we could only remind the people who are in the position to make the decisions (that) every single small decision they make affects the environment, and acknowledge that the Hawaiian culture's roots in Waikiki are important. I just hope that this book and then the film can help people make those decisions with greater knowledge."

One questionable point is the suggestion that Hawaiian musicians have been "moved out" of Waikiki in recent years when in reality Hawaiian music is still alive and well there. Don Ho continues to be Waikiki's premiere showroom headliner and every major Hawaiian hotel presents Hawaiian music along with other popular genres. The Hawaiian Regent, the Sheraton Moana-Surfrider, Outrigger Waikiki, Royal Hawaiian, Sheraton Waikiki and Halekulani present a diversity of Hawaiian artists that includes Genoa Keawe and Gary Aiko, Moe Keale, Ku'uipo Kumukahi, Kapena, Led Kaapana, Makana, and the Makaha Sons.

"The question is, 'Can musicians like Boyce (Rodrigues) and Nina (Keali'iwahamana) make a living like they did in the old days?' None of them had day jobs; they made a living as musicians. Uncle Boyce says he never had a day job. Now days most Hawaiian musicians do."

As for "Waikiki," it offers a great historical and cultural overview of the area, and a tantalizing preview of the movie and soundtrack album to follow.

"It may sound like if you buy the book you don't have to see the film but they complement each other. Some things that play better in the book would make it a five hour film. Some other things have such impact visually when to see them happen (in the film). Thanks to the UH Oral History program we have the real voices of people who would be 100 years-plus and one of them talks about Queen Lili'uokalani's visit to his grandmother's home. It is reminiscent of a Waikiki that we may never know."

For more Information: call (808) 537-6813 or visit the website at


Bullet "Waikiki: In the Wake of Dreams" by Edgy Lee and Paul Berry (Filmworks Press); 125 pages; $14.95.

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