“Let the torches be lit!”
The voice boomed through the International Market Place. Eleanor and Gwen instinctively looked up from their dinner.
“We welcome you to join us now at the Queen’s Court, as we present O Nā Lani –– the Sunset Stories. Welcome, and Aloha!”
An incantation was heard, and Gwen noticed tourists seeping out of the stores, and gathering around the grassy courtyard where they sat, eating.
“Where is the Queen’s Court?” asked Dania.
Eleanor glanced towards the trio of statues: King Kamehameha IV, his wife Queen Emma, and their son, Prince Albert. The statues flanked a simple wooden stage, surrounded by tiki torches.
More people gathered, led to the center of the market by the music. From another hallway, just past the Maui Jewelers store, Gwen caught sight of four performers heading their way: two women, dressed with leaf headbands, and two men, oiled and shirtless and carrying flaming rods.
“We’re staying,” Gwen demanded.
“Should we?” Eleanor asked. “It seems a little––”
The women approached the stage, as the men began to light the torches. Eventually, with the ambiance set and a sizable crowd gathered on both levels around the Queen’s Court, the actors took their places at the front. From the back walked an older man, in white pants and a blue sash.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he spoke into a handheld mic. The lights dimmed around the space. “We begin this evening with an offering of lei to our beloved royal family: King Kamehameha IV, Queen Emma, and their beloved son, the young prince. We honor our royal ‘ohana now.”
Actors and Emcee turned to each side of the stage, bowing to the statues in turn.
“Christ,” Eleanor whispered to Gwen. “This is a lot.”
“It’s a tourist trap, what did you expect?” Gwen replied.
“Then why are we staying?” asked Eleanor. “You know this isn’t authentic. It’s just mining nostalgia for the precolonial Hawai’i.”
“Exactly,” Gwen said.
“We’ve been avoiding this all trip,” Eleanor continued. “You wanted to see only things that were authentically Hawaiian.”
“What’s more authentic,” Gwen mused, “than the tourist trade?”
The Emcee introduced the first dance: the men, honoring “the foundations of our royal families.” Hands slapped bare thighs, and their swirling hips made their traditional loincloths shake. The music intoned in Ōlelo Hawai’i, amid guttural chants and grunts.
As they danced, Dania was struck by the fervent dedication of one of the men. With each move, his limbs thrust through space, landing with force against his chest and cutting the air like a sword. His dedication was not shared by his partner, who seemed less versed in the dance –– his moves were slower, more clearly the end product of choreography rather than devotion.
The two women followed, dancing a slower tune to honor Prince Albert –– who, for all his honor as the so-called “Pride of Hawai’i,” had passed away at the age of four. At least, that was Gwen’s takeaway. The Emcee, telling of Albert’s demise, had neglected to tie it to the succeeding dance.
The women seemed, to Dania, equally matched in skill. Their hands reached beyond them withcontrolled longing. Each foot stepped in time –– Dania recalled reading that one of hula‘s most important rules was to never show the soles of your feet. The women, symbols of dedication, kept their steps close to the wooden stage.
A voice cut through the latter part of the dance: “In the upland, the fragrance of the sandalwood perfumes the leaves of the trees…may love be your constant companion…”
Eleanor’s grip on her knee tightened. Gwen’s chin tipped further forward. Dania took another bite of dinner.
The Emcee stepped forward next, singing a jaunty song in ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i, before translating the lyrics for the crowd: “It’s just an old Hawaiian custom / when I say ‘Aloha!’ to you / I love to sing for you a plaintive melody / Give to you a lei to make you happy.“ He welcomed the crowd again: on behalf of the royal statues, and on behalf of “our fine vendors here in the market place.” He motioned to the second floor, towards signs for Hollister and GameStop.
During the dance that followed –– the women in dresses patterned with palm leaves, and hibiscus blooms tucked smartly behind the ear –– Gwen glanced at the sea of white faces watching from the grass. The tourist trade had been folded inextricably into Hawaiian identity, she knew. Even Ua Pau, at Kumu Kahua, reiterated that point. She considered the five performers on the stage, all Native Hawaiian. Hula was a cultural element caught in the crossfire: exoticized by the West, but taken up again during the Hawaiian Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. The dance now taking place hadn’t been introduced with the same connection to history that the former two had. Gwen wondered if these careful placements of the hands and swaying of the hips were skills that the two performers had learned before being hired by the International Market Place.
Following a jaunty number where the two men recalled the famed Olympian and surfer Duke Kahanamoku, the Emcee discussed, for the first time, the tourist trade: “Many singers have flocked to Hawai’i, especially in the 1940s and 50s. Which brought attention to our native dance tradition known as hula.”
The Emcee looked towards the technician running the sound board, but returned to the audience. “But not all forms of hula were embraced. The most popular was the hapa haole genre, for the way it showed off the glitz and glamour of…”
The women returned, dressed now in the shimmering cellophane skirts of Hollywood’s Hawai’i. Their grins, persistent since their first entrance, had no sign of fading.
“Well,” the Emcee shrugged to the audience, “you can see what I mean. Enjoy our dancers as they sparkle for you tonight!”
Hapa haole –– Eleanor wrote the term down. She had heard it before, but forgot its meaning. The dancers shimmied under the stage lights, keeping attention away from the lyrics: “she will surely make you giggle / with her naughty little wiggle…”
Dania’s head bounced to the music. The performance was cleanly run, with hardly any time for the audience to reflect. As an attention grabber for the busy Waikīkī shoppers, it was disarmingly effective. Not to mention, the focus on Hawaiian history with a slight recognition of the gaze often placed on it seemed to be taking a step –– if a shallow one –– towards the reality of the tourists’ own consumption of more than pineapple during their trip.
Gwen sat back. Was it wrong to be enjoying the performance? She knew who it was made for. She guessed that the performers’ checks were signed by the company Taubman Centers, the international investment trust that managed the International Market Place since its 2016 overhaul and reconstruction.
Would these actors have performed these dances if not for the expectant crowd? Given that the performance was free, was this an act of cultural sharing, or passive consumption? Was this a preferable alternative to tourists invading a space meant for Native Hawaiian culture to thrive –– the creation of a proxy version of it within the Hawaiian equivalent of Downtown Disney? Would these tourists walk away with a greater sense of empathy towards the people of Hawai’i?
Gwen was so torn up by her own questioning that she almost missed the arrival of a sixth performer to the stage. Much older than any of the dancers, she was dressed resplendently in a dark gown, and held a fan just below her face.
“Yes, that was an exciting time to be had in Waikīkī,” the Emcee began. “But the truth is, there’s a far richer and deeper history, to be discovered here.”
As blossoms fell from the banyan tree upstage, the Emcee detailed the biography of Emma Kalanikaumakaʻamano Kaleleonālani Naʻea Rooke. As Queen, she committed herself to the welfare of her subjects by founding the Queen’s Hospital. “With its sole mission of providing in-perpetuity healthcare for their people, lands such as these beneath the center are part of an estate gifted at the time of the passing of our Queen, meant to generate rental income to be able to have their gift go on long after they...”
“Oh my God,” Eleanor groaned. “‘Shop here and you’ll keep the lights on in the hospital.'”
“At least they’re talking about the land,” Gwen whispered. “There’s some recognition that it’s living history.”
“Yeah, but there’s so clearly a message about how ‘the center helps.’ It’s justifying a massive shopping mall on ancestral lands.”
“It gives me great privilege and honor to present to you, Her Majesty, Queen Emma Kaleleonālani,” the Emcee said. “Portrayed this evening by the lovely…”
At that point, he referred to the actress by name. The crowd broke into kind, recognizing applause. Gwen and Dania did as well.
As the Queen left the stage, the Emcee returned. His brow furrowed as he spoke.
“Just think about what it was like, back in those days,” he said, motioning to the statues. “How we cared for them, and how they cared for us. It was unbelievable what we were able to accomplish. So if we look at that, we understand a little bit about the roots of our Hawaiian culture and the Aloha we share.”
At this point he stopped, and looked across the courtyard. “Things changed at the end of the 19th century, when Hawai’i was invaded by foreigners…”
Gwen sat up.
The Emcee’s eyes grew distant, piercing. He repeated his words into the mic: “We were invaded.”
Gwen caught her breath.
“In 1900, the language of ‘Ōlelo Hawai’i, the Hawaiian that we spoke, was taken out of the schools,” he continued, “which meant that every student that only spoke Hawaiian was now a rebel, and was cast out.”
At the doorway left of the stage, the four dancers had returned, and waited for their cue. Dania had noticed that they had occasionally hung around the doorway earlier in the show, talking with each other or the sound technician. But now, all four watched the Emcee with stone faces.
“We started to revive the ‘Ōlelo, recently. But you have to go through these steps, you know, in anything, to be successful. So our success is due to the fact that we still have people coming from all over the world, who understand who we are. Our success is that we’re able to share with you this beautiful picture, thanks to the Waikīkī International Market Place.”
The two male dancers exhaled, and they made their way to the stage, with the women close behind. Gwen watched their smiles as they passed –– for a moment, she thought she caught a dip at the corner of the mouth, before they turned on their welcoming grins.
“Our success is that we have these super talented dancers, to share with you, in the most professional way, our love for our culture, our history, and our people! And now! Especially for Queen Emma…”
The final dance began. Gwen barely moved from her attentive position, her eyes shifting only to catch sight of the Emcee, wiping sweat from his brow.
The dancers shook their hands, whooped during the song’s long drum break, and honored their Queen as they closed out the performance. Even as the audience continued clapping, they set down their ‘ulī’ulī and moved to the grass in front of the stage.
“We thank you for attending O Nā Lani Sunset Stories,” the Emcee said. “This show is here each night, starting at 6:30.”
“Every night?” Gwen repeated.
“Why not?” Dania asked. “Would you want people to miss out on it?”
“When you get home, tell your friends about what you’ve seen here,” the Emcee added. “Because that’s what this showcase is all about: Aloha.”
He gave a knowing look to the dancers, on both sides of the stage. “And now, in our final few minutes,” the Emcee said, “our lovely hula dancers will be available for pictures. Please form a line here…”
“Let’s go,” Eleanor said, standing up with the rest of the crowd.
“Wow,” Dania said. “Glad we stayed.”
“Me too,” Gwen said. Her eyes looked past the stage, as her mind began processing everything she had just seen. As they walked out of the market, Gwen cast one final look back to the stage, where the performers grinned as a pair of tourists snapped a photo.
– – – – –
The following day, Eleanor looked up the meaning of hapa haole. Literal translation: “half-foreign.” The term was generally applied to the children of Native Hawaiian and White parents. Within the hula circles, its meaning was more circumstantial: “the hula songs that white people wrote.”
The following evening, Gwen returned to the Queen’s Court at sunset, and watched O Nā Lani a second time. The Emcee was a different actor. As he approached the final scripted sequence, his patter touched only on the harvest of the taro crop, with not a mention of the language. Yesterday’s comment had been, evidently, unscripted.
Image Credit: International Market Place