There's more than one way to get immersed in Hilo


POSTED: Sunday, February 08, 2009

It wasn't raining when I landed in Hilo last week. But soon enough, it started to pour.


June Shigimasa, owner of the Hilo Lunch Shop, tried to wise me up: “;If you wait for a nice day in Hilo, you never get anything done.”;

Outside of Queens, New York, Hilo is the most diverse place in the United States. And in some ways, the most Hawaiian. In the Bayfront Kava Bar, owner David Stevenson has posted a sign over the 13-foot avocado-wood bar: “;Maximum Occupancy 30, By Order of the Illegal Occupation Government.”;

Stevenson makes kava as Kamehameha's court did, with fresh coconut water. (It's not good, exactly, but it's better.) Every batch, he takes a coconut shell full and puts it at the foot of the king's statue in Wailoa Park.

In line at Cafe 100, the home of the loco moco, the people in front of me were conversing in Hawaiian, the only time I've heard an informal conversation in the host language the entire time I've been in Hawaii. That's not a rarity in Hilo. You can go from preschool to a Ph.D. there now, entirely in Hawaiian.

Twenty years ago, I wrote a story lamenting that there were fewer than 40 native speakers of Hawaiian left in the state, and the rich, sonorous language seemed destined to die.

At that time, I met three activists trying desperately to save 'Olelo Hawai'i, starting with Hawaiian language immersion preschools. Two of them, Pila Wilson and Larry Kimura, now teach at UH Hilo. (Kimura, if the name rings a bell, co-wrote the classic song “;E Ku'u Morning Dew.”;)

Wilson drove me out to Ke Kula o Nawahiokalaniopuou, Nawahi for short, the Hawaiian immersion charter school in Keaau where the third person of that original group, Pila's wife Kauanoe Kamana, is principal.

I was shocked to find the student body turned out to welcome me with kahea, song and speeches. A rainbow of shining faces, all fluent in Hawaiian. Despite the drizzle, you can't imagine a more beautiful morning.

Hello, Stranger

Carleen Birnie and her husband, Ian, Hilo's recently retired harbormaster, live near Rainbow Falls in a 1923 plantation-style house.

Last week, Carleen saw a man in her driveway, talking to her neighbor. Changing out of her pajamas first, Carleen stepped out and demanded to know, “;What am I missing?”;

She was missing a discussion with character actor David Strathairn, who's been in more than 100 films and was on the Big Island to finish filming “;The Tempest.”;

“;I had no idea who he was,”; says Carleen. “;He looked kind of familiar though, a nice-looking man with great silver hair.”;

David Straithairn's grandfather, Thomas, Hilo manager for the Inter-Island Steamship Co., had built the house. His father had grown up there, but David had never seen it. He got to see only the exterior, since Carleen refused to let him inside: “;The house is a mess because we're moving.”;

Husband Ian arrived home just as Strathairn was leaving, momentarily blocking the driveway. “;I didn't give him stink eye,”; said Ian. “;But I did give him a harsh glance.”;

The two had no idea they'd been talking to an Academy Award-nominated actor (for “;Good Night, and Good Luck”;) until Ian Googled him.

“;He came more than 5,000 miles, was in Hilo for the first time in his life, and Carleen wouldn't let him in,”; said Ian. “;We made up to him, though. We've been e-mailing him pictures and history about his family.”;

The Birnies are planning to return to Honolulu, putting the classic Hawaii house up for sale. Strathairn's interested.

Cookin' with the Band

The Royal Hawaiian Band at the Arizona Memorial end of the pier struck up the greatest American march, “;Stars and Stripes Forever.”; By the time they got to the second return, the piccolos trilling, the brass punching the counter melody, the drums booming, the entire audience at the 10th anniversary party for the USS Missouri was on its feet.

“;That's my music teacher,”; said chef Alan Wong, pointing to bandmaster Michael Nakasone. It's true. Nakasone taught Wong at Wahiawa Intermediate School.

“;He was a good student,”; reports Nakasone. Could he play trombone well enough to make Nakasone's current band? “;Of course,”; said the bandmaster, generously.

Wong was not called upon to play trombone. He was at the event to judge the Hawaii's Mightiest Chef Competition, which Sansei chef Roderick Dizor won hands down for his Dungeness crab ramen in an Asian truffle broth.

The competition included military chefs, among whom the winner was Culinary Specialist Second Class Nathan Weaver from the USS Port Royal, the $1 billion guided missile cruiser that managed to run aground Thursday off the Reef Runway, no fault, I'm sure, of the food on board.

Between the Buns

Restaurateur DK Kodama and “;Lost”; actor Daniel Dae Kim are opening a restaurant together, a casual, build-your-own-burger franchise called The Counter. Next to Whole Foods at Kahala Mall, next month.

How'd they get together? DK's daughter and DDK's son are in the same class at Hanahauoli.

Networking in Kakaako

Last Sunday local actor Greg Howell threw a housewarming for his 30th floor Keola La'i condo, catering by Prestine Padon. It paid off in more than fun. Lolly Susi and Bree Bumatai, director and producer of Manoa Valley Theatre's “;Tuesdays with Morrie,”; dropped by and offered Howell the chance to share with Glenn Cannon the role of Morrie, the 76-year-old professor dying of ALS.

“;I have wanted to try an age role for a long time,”; says Howell. Good thing, because the party doubled as a fifth anniversary celebration of his 50th birthday. The play opens March 18.

John Heckathorn is editor of Hawaii Magazine and director of integrated media for the aio Group.