Kokua Line

By June Watanabe

Wherever it came from,
shaka sign part of Hawaii

Question: Some visitors from the mainland recently asked me where and when the "shaka" sign originated and what it meant. I couldn't answer that question. However, a friend asked an elderly Hawaiian couple and they immediately replied that during World War II there was a Hawaiian man who lived in Punaluu who was missing the three middle fingers on one hand. As he greeted people he would wave at them, but of course only the thumb and little finger could be seen. This couple also said that "shaka" was a Hawaiian word meaning be happy or have a good time. But "sh" is not part of the Hawaiian language so far as I know. My daughter asked a Hawaiian friend, who said the sign had to do with a guy who lived in the country in the 60s and 70s. Because of an industrial accident, he lost his three middle fingers and when he waved at his friends as he walked on the side of the road, you could only see the thumb and small finger. Everyone in the countryside knew him and when former Mayor Frank Fasi was campaigning back then, he assumed that guy's wave and it soon caught on. Could you or any of your readers positively confirm this and if so, does anyone know the gentleman's name? It seems he should have an award or monument of some type, recognizing his distinct contribution to our Hawaiian culture.

Answer: It's probably easier to pinpoint the origins of the gesture than the term, with the latter apparently coming along much later. But "shaka" most definitely is not a Hawaiian word.

We discovered different and fascinating accounts of how the "shaka" sign -- denoting everything from "right on" and "thank you" to "howzit" and "hang loose" -- originated, mainly variations of someone losing the three fingers of one hand in an accident, including trying to catch fish by throwing a stick of dynamite into the ocean. A few also swear it originated with California surfers.

What's not in dispute is that former used car pitchman and TV personality David "Lippy" Espinda popularized the words and gesture, signing off his commercials with "shaka, brah!" Espinda, who died in 1975, reportedly once explained that his signature sign-off dated back to his marble-playing boyhood.

Meanwhile, Frank Fasi further ingrained the gesture into local culture, using it to symbolize his political campaigns beginning in 1976.

But as to its origins, the prevailing local lore is that it originated with Hamana Kalili of Laie, who lost the middle three fingers on his right hand during an accident at the old Kahuku Sugar Mill.

Kalili's grandnephew Vonn Logan, who works for Brigham Young University-Hawaii's Department of Continuing Education, explained that Kalili's job was to feed sugar cane into the rollers, which would squeeze out the juice. He lost his fingers when his hand got caught in the rollers, Logan said. Because he could no longer work in the mill, he became a security guard on the sugar train that used to travel between Sunset Beach and Kaaawa.

"One of his jobs was to keep all the kids off the train," Logan said. "All the kids would try to jump the train to ride from town to town. So they started signaling each other. Since (Kalili) lost his fingers, the perfect signal was what we have now as the 'shaka sign.' That's how you signaled the way was clear."

Logan can't remember when Kalili died, but said it was "a long time ago." He also said Kalili's accident occurred probably in the early 1940s, although "I'm not even real sure about that."

What he does know is that "Tutu Hamana was a community leader and also the choir director at the Mormon Church in Laie. That was another place that people saw (the gesture) -- he directed the choir that way and was famous for that."

Kalili was also the "mo'i (king) of the festivities" at the famed hukilau that was held annually in Laie as a fund-raiser for the Mormon Church, Logan recalled. The hukilau ended in the 1970s, but in its heyday, he said, it was a big community event, "like a May Day show," with the gathering of fish, a big luau and show. Photos of Kalili from back then had him waving and "when he waved, the wave was of his shaka," Logan said.

But when asked if the term "shaka" was associated with his grand-uncle as well, Logan said he doubted that. "We don't have any of that in our family history," he said.

"The sign came from here, but I'm not sure when the word 'shaka' became attached to it. As far as I can see, Lippy Espinda was the one who popularized it with his TV show," he said.

However, in a 1999 Star-Bulletin interview, Fasi credited the late Bill Pacheco with using the sign and saying "shaka brother."

"I think he meant shake it up, buddy. How's it going? Aloha. Have a good day. All those good meanings. It just meant a world of goodness," Fasi said.

If any reader has a different version of the origins of "shaka," write or e-mail us and we'll have a follow-up.


To two City and County employees who helped our parents after they suffered a one-car accident at about 11 a.m. Wednesday, March 20, eastbound on the H-1 Freeway between Ward Avenue and the Punahou onramp. Thank you for calling the police and ambulance, and helping them into the ambulance. Your hearts are truly gold! I was notified by Queen's Hospital by 11:30 a.m. while I was still at work and was able to leave so that I could attend to their needs. My brother, sister and I are all very grateful for your help. -- Y.M.L.

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