You’ve seen her hanging around tiki bars, swiveling her hips seductively but woodenly indifferent to the scene around her. She’s often found bobbing and playing ‘ukulele on the dashboard of cars, dangling from key rings, lounging under palm trees on matchbook covers, and thanklessly holding up lampshades. Often scantily clad or topless, her uniform may include a grass skirt, a coconut bra, bright floral fabrics, and flowers in her hair. She beams from Hawaiian tourism brochures, and her most modest incarnation meets travelers arriving by plane or ship, lovingly placing a lei around their necks.
“To be sexually adept and sensually alive was as important to ancient Hawaiians as having sex to produce offspring.”
She’s the comely Hula Girl, the ever-present icon beckoning Westerners to Hawai‘i—and she’s about as grounded in reality as Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. Certainly, the hula is an actual ancient Hawaiian dance form, which has shifted and morphed during 200-plus years of Western contact. But popularized images of female hula dancers have deviated far from their origins, perpetuating stereotypes that have had devastating impacts on perceptions of Hawai‘i.
“Before contact with the West, hula was this incredible esoteric tradition,” Constance Hale, the author of the 2016 book The Natives Are Restless: A San Francisco Dance Master Takes Hula Into the Twenty-First Century, explained to me as we sat in her office. Both men and women performed hula, chanting atonally and dancing topless—the men wore loincloths and the women wore skirts made of barkcloth—to heavy percussion sounds pounded with sharkskin drums, sticks, bamboo rattles, gourds, stones, and pebbles.
“It was an intense dance, fierce and elemental,” Hale told me. “There were hulas that were very spiritual. Some were performed in temples; some were not. Other hulas, like the mele ma‘i, which celebrates the chief’s genitals, are also very sexual.”
In ancient hula, the movements were secondary to the poetry or songs being chanted, which were known as mele. “Hula was the history book, children’s literature, and sacred text of a people with no written language,” Hale writes in The Natives Are Restless. “It maintained the relationship between gods and mortals. It preserved the greatness of the chiefly lines. It honored the race and encouraged procreation, and it traced the subtleties of the natural world: the rolling of waves onshore; the tumbling of waterfalls; the distinctions between tropical mists, showers, and rains.”
According to Hale, the hula “is said to have originated with the goddess Laka, who is identified with hula, fertility, the forest, and various blossoms and ferns.” Before performing their ritual, the dancers would build an altar to Laka in the spaces known as a hālau, long meeting houses Hawaiians would also use to study canoe-making, featherwork, and other traditional arts.
“Before the altar, students pray to Laka for inspiration,” Hale writes in The Natives Are Restless. “Hula dancers must find a way to bring Laka’s ambiguous presence to life in order to invest power and meaning in the dance.”
“You had American girls dancing these silly dances that had no content to them. It’s the image of hula that, for some reason, got set in the popular imagination.”
At the end of the 18th century, Laka’s idyllic reign was disrupted, thanks to a pattern happening all over the globe: In the Age of Exploration (1500s-1700s), European captains set sail on the ocean to look for fertile lands with resources their countries could exploit. Once contact was established, seafaring merchants would set up trade with the native inhabitants while whalers would plunder their seas. Then, sometime later, the missionaries would arrive and settle in the exotic place. The new inhabitants would set about teaching the locals their home language, converting them to Christianity, and replacing their “savage, heathen” ways with a “respectable” Western capitalist lifestyle.
In 1778, English explorer and Royal Navy captain James Cook and his crew were the first Westerners to land in the Hawai‘i archipelago, which they dubbed “The Sandwich Islands,” after the Earl of Sandwich. “Shortly after their arrival on the island of Kaua‘i, his crew was treated to a performance,” writes Jim Heimann in his 2003 book Hula: Vintage Hawaiian Graphics. “They fell instantly for the sight and returned to Europe with illustrations of the sensual dance and the bronzed dancers.”
But Cook’s love affair with Hawai‘i didn’t last long. When Cook came to Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island of Hawai‘i in early 1779, he was greeted warmly by the islanders, but after several weeks, he got into a dispute with them over blacksmithing tools and a canoe, and then he attempted to hold King Kalaniʻōpuʻu for ransom. Seeing their king in peril, the Hawaiians attacked, and even though the sailors had the advantage of muskets, the islanders managed to kill Cook and four others.
“All the fierceness and scary shit that used to be in hula was subsumed in this big PR campaign.”
The rest of Cook’s crew and his journals made it back to the continent. Despite the mutual violence, their stories painted a Western fantasy of an exotic, beachy locale where it’s always summer, populated with beautiful brown-skinned women who were sexually liberated and free from the constraints of “proper” society. They echoed the previous descriptions written by Louis Antoine de Bougainville, the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the world, who had journeyed to nearby Tahiti in the 1760s. These tropical visions captivated the imagination of Americans and Europeans beaten down by the stress and smog of the Industrial Revolution and inspired more Westerners to hit the high seas.
In Hula, Heimann writes, “In art, printed matter and even tattoos …, it was common to confuse the imagery of South Sea island women with that of female Hawaiian hula dancers. Sailors’ accounts, as well as those of various writers and artists, described the dances of Polynesia as a series of sexually charged movements performed by topless dancers, which presumed relaxed sexual mores on the part of the native population. Thus, accounts of Hawaiian hula girls often blended with those from other South Pacific archipelagos and a muddled stereotype of the hula girl emerged.”
In his journal, Captain Cook described the Hawaiians’ hula: “Their dances are prefaced with a slow, solemn song, in which all the party join, moving their legs, and gently striking their breasts in a manner and with attitudes that are perfectly easy and graceful.”
In The Natives Are Restless, Hale explains, “To be sexually adept and sensually alive—and to have the ability to experience unrestrained desire—was as important to ancient Hawaiians as having sex to produce offspring. The vital energy caused by desire and passion was itself worshiped and idolized.”
Cook and his men—and the merchants, whalers, artists, and writers who followed—mistook the hula’s sexually charged fertility rituals as a signal the Hawaiians’ youngest and loveliest women were both promiscuous and sexually available to anyone who set foot on their beaches. In her 2012 book Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire, historian Adria L. Imada explains how natural hospitality of “aloha” culture—the word used as a greeting that also means “love”—made Hawaiians vulnerable to outside exploitation. To Westerners, the fantasy of a hula girl willingly submitting to the sexual desires of a white man represented the convenient narrative of a people so generous they’d willing give up their land without a fight.
Contrary to this fantasy, the people populating the eight islands of the Hawaiian archipelago weren’t so submissive. In fact, the chiefs reigning the islands of Mau‘i and Hawai‘i had been attacking and raiding each other since the 1650s. But contact with the Western world was something they were unprepared for, and the introduction of Western diseases like smallpox and measles began to weaken and decimate the islands’ native populations.
“In the 1970s, there was a tremendous desire among Native Hawaiians to go back in time, and learn and preserve authentic forms and traditions.”
Cook’s 1779 skirmish with the islanders also impressed upon a young Kamehameha I, the nephew of King Kalaniʻōpuʻu, the power of muskets in battle. When Kalaniʻōpuʻu died in 1782, Kamehameha defeated his cousins, Kalaniʻōpuʻu’s sons, to become king of the island Hawai‘i. Kamehameha also conquered Mau‘i shortly thereafter. With the help of Westerner traders and two British sailors who settled on the islands, Kamehameha and his soldiers adopted canons, muskets, and Western warfare techniques, which helped him defeat Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, and Lānaʻi by 1795. The king, who took dozens of wives, demanded that a Western-style brick palace be built in his honor.
In 1810, the final two islands of Kauaʻi and Niʻihau willingly joined Kamehameha’s Kingdom of Hawai‘i, and he established the archipelago’s first united legal system. To remain independent, he banned non-Hawaiians from owning property in his kingdom, and collected taxes for trade with Europe and the United States. When Kamehameha died in 1819, his 22-year-old son, Liholiho (a.k.a. Kamehameha II) ascended to the throne, but Kamehameha I’s favorite wife, Queen Kaʻahumanu, maintained political control of the archipelago as Queen Regent.
Devout Christians, particularly Protestants in New England, had heard stories from traders and marines about perpetually sun-kissed beaches of the Sandwich Islands and its bare-breasted women who supposedly welcomed strangers into their grass huts. But they were not so charmed by these tales. They saw all the people of the South Seas as inferior pagan savages who needed to be Christianized and assimilated into Western values. The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions determined they should organize a mission to Hawai‘i—led by 30-year-old Calvinist pastor Hiram Bingham, his new bride Sybil Moseley Bingham, and his fellow preacher, Asa Thurston, and his wife, Lucy Goodale Thurston—setting sail from Boston on October 23, 1819. Their group also included two teachers and their wives, a doctor and his wife, a printer and his wife, and a farmer and his family.
When Bingham and company arrived in Hawai‘i in 1820, they were disgusted by the hula. “The appearance of destitution, degradation, and barbarism among the chattering, naked savages, … was appalling,” Bingham wrote in his journal. “This was a dark ruined land whose people were filled with unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, murder, debate, deceit, malignancy—whisperers, backbiters, haters of God … without natural affection.”
Immediately, the Christians shamed the women for their exposed breasts and persuaded them to cover up. The American wives made lightweight, floor-length, high-necked dresses called “holokū,” which became the standard Hawaiian wardrobe. Underneath the holokū, the women wore a short, loose-fitting dress called “mu‘umu‘u,” which took over as a staple of casual dress in the mid-20th century.
In the 1820s, the newcomers sought to Christianize the ali‘i, or the royal court, starting by converting Queen Ka‘ahumanu, who was baptized in 1823, along with six of her high chiefs. “The missionaries were succeeding in convincing some Hawaiians that the hula was lascivious and scandalous—and so it was suppressed,” Hale told me. “The women were dancing topless, the dance was very sexual, and that appalled the missionaries. But also, the dances were praising the wrong gods. The missionaries objected to the actual spiritual content of the music and the dance. They were trying to break the Hawaiians away from their gods.”
The missionaries convinced Queen Ka‘ahumanu to outlaw the hula in 1830, as well as prostitution and drunkenness, much the chagrin of the Westerner traders and sailors who looked to the islands for hedonist escapism.
The missionaries settled permanently in the Hawaiian islands, starting schools for the islanders and their own children. When 27-year-old Kamehameha II was visiting London in 1824, he and his favorite wife contracted the measles and died. His 12-year-old brother, Kauikeaouli, became King Kamehameha III, while their stepmother remained Queen Regent. Meanwhile, Asa Thurston and the schoolteachers had been working on a written version of the spoken Hawaiian language, another way to replace the oral-history tradition of hula. Thurston translated the Bible into Hawaiian and the instructors started to teach islander students how to read it. “Kamehemeha III was one of their first students,” Hale writes. “Not only did the young king quickly learn to read and a write, but he chose to make universal literacy part of his legacy.”
As a young man, the king established a Western-style government and Constitution that was recognized by the United States and many countries in Europe and, in fact, rebelled against the missionaries, allowing for a public hula performance. By 1840, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions had ordered the Binghams to return to America, and in 1851, Kamehemeha III’s government enacted a statute that created a regulated system for public hula that required performers to pay heavy licensing fees.
But many Native Hawaiians continued to practice the rituals behind closed doors and passed it down to subsequent generations. Because they loved the four-part harmony of the hymns the missionaries taught them, they started to incorporate those sounds into their hulas. “When Westerners came, Hawaiians took very readily to the musical change,” Hale said. “They went from atonal chanting to four-part harmony easily.”
The genesis of the hula we recognize today actually began in 1874 with the election of King David Kalākaua. The king, Hale writes, “cut a figure Shakespeare would have loved. Think Hawaiian Falstaff—erudite, ribald, proud, and ‘party hardy.’ Both his critics then and his partisans now called him the Merrie Monarch, and he came by the moniker honestly. Critics cite his political weakness and bad decisions, but as a cultural force he was indeed merry and monumental. He … sponsored glee clubs, choral groups, and the Royal Hawaiian Band.”
Around 1879, three Portuguese men who happened to know how to play and make a four-string instrument called the machete arrived on the islands. Before long, the Hawaiians adopted the machete before creating the taro-patch fiddle and ‘ukulele. Then, in 1885, Joseph Kekuku, a musician and composer from Lā‘ie, developed the first steel guitar. As with the harmonies of the Christian hymns, Hawaiians readily integrated these new musical sounds into their hulas.
“In the 19th century, a syncretic form of hula with beautiful music evolved,” Hale told me. “As guitars and ‘ukulele changed the music, the hula became more fluid, and that became known as hula ku‘i, ku‘i means ‘to tie’—it was this idea of two traditions tied together. King Kalākaua saw hula as a way to reinforce Hawaiian nationhood, so he brought it back. It was the flowering of what they call the First Hawaiian Renaissance.”
A musician and composer himself, Kalākaua hired court dancers and musicians. Fluent in English and Hawaiian, he also traveled the world in 1881 to recruit Asian and European workers for Hawai‘i’s sugarcane plantations. He encouraged his court performers to combine Western dances like the minuet and Western poetry and costuming with that of the ancient Hawaiian tradition. Ti-leaf skirts became part of the public hula dress. Some ancient dances remained so sacred that they only took place in the hālau.
“The hula girls’ job was to be sexy and exotic—breaking some taboos that were present on the United States mainland, but at the same time, paradoxically, make Hawaii feel accessible and attractive.”
Kalākaua became a student of the suppressed ancient Hawaiian culture, collecting artifacts and consulting with elders. Hale writes, he “encouraged the practice of traditional arts—whether the Hawaiian martial art of lua, the sport of surfing, or the reciting of genealogical chants like The Kumulipo. He was famous for parties at his boathouse, Healani, but he also showcased hula on the palace grounds. Kalākaua didn’t do all this just out of love for his culture. He was intentionally defying the abstemious missionaries by fortifying his own rule, stoking pride among his subjects, and offering a new national narrative.”
Three of his siblings—Queen Lili‘uokalani, Princess Miriam Likelike, and Prince William Pitt Leleiohoku II—were also composers. Lili‘uokalani wrote “Aloha ‘Oe (Farewell to Thee)” between 1878 and 1883, and it remains one of the most famous Hawaiian songs. (In the mid-20th century “Looney Tunes” composer Carl Stalling used the chorus of “Aloha ‘Oe,” played as a slack-key guitar riff, to signal every Hawaiian-themed cartoon gag, cementing the song as the soundtrack of Hawai‘i in mainlanders’ minds.) Leleiohoku also wrote a love song called “Kāua I Ka Huahuaʻi,” or “We Two in the Spray,” in the 1860s that later became appropriated by Westerner composers as “The Hawaiian War Chant.” Together with Kalākaua, who wrote the current state song “Hawai‘i Pono‘ī” in 1874, the musical brothers and sisters became known as as Nā Lani ‘Ehā (“The Royal Four”).
“For his 50th birthday jubilee in 1886, King Kalākaua brought hula out that had been pushed into the far corners of the islands into the mainstream,” Hale said. “Dancers from all over the kingdom performed their own hulas.” In her book, she writes that, “As many as 60 people performed at a time—chanting, singing newly composed tunes, and dancing rare temple hula.”
“Ancient Hawaiians did not wear grass skirts. And so many of those women in grass skirts are depicted as topless, but Hawaiian women stopped being topless in the 1820s.”
Hula was also a daily occurrence at King Kalākaua’s boathouse, the Healani, where his royal seven-member Hui Lei Mamo hula troupe danced for and draped leis on his international guests in the afternoon. While the descendants of the missionaries complained bitterly about Kalākaua’s “sinful” indulgences, the court dancers on the Healani learned to speak English with their guests, and often wore long Western-style dresses while they danced. Kini Kapahukulaokamāmalu (often shortened to Kini Kapahu), who joined the court troupe she was just 14 years old, was the king’s favorite.
During the second half of the 19th century, amid the blossoming of the First Hawaiian Renaissance, more and more Westerners were traversing the South Seas. Writers like Herman Melville, Pierre Loti, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Mark Twain wrote romanticized tales based on their experiences in Polynesian locales like the Marquesas, Samoa, and Tahiti, as well as Hawai‘i. French impressionist artist Paul Gauguin became obsessed with Tahiti, painting beautiful nude brown-skinned women and writing about his life there. All of these stories became enmeshed in the West’s collective fantasies about Hawai‘i.
Unfortunately, King Kalākaua passed away while visiting San Francisco in 1891. “His sister, Queen Lili‘uokalani, moved onto his throne after his death, but in trying to shore up some of the power her brother had ceded to them, she ran afoul of a crowd of missionary sons, American settlers, and white merchants eager for stronger ties to the United States,” Hale writes. “In a sham revolution of 1893, planned by leaders of this group, the queen was overthrown.”
While U.S. servicemen had helped the missionaries and white businessmen and sugar planters jail Lili‘uokalani in 1893, it wasn’t until 1898 that Congress approved the invasion of Hawai‘i to secure Pearl Harbor as a key U.S. military base in the Pacific. During the Spanish-American War on August 12, 1898, American armed forces occupied the islands, and Hawai‘i became annexed as a U.S. territory. From then on, American servicemen streamed to the archipelago as dozens of military bases were erected and Americans set up English-only schools to indoctrinate the Native Hawaiians into U.S. culture.
In the 1890s, “English replaced Hawaiian as the language of the government, the courts, and the school,” Hale writes. “The political power of the Hawaiian people was suppressed. The more ancient and sacred forms of hula went underground and were taught only within some families and a few hālau, or they vanished.”
Even as the hula was, again, on the verge of suppression in Hawaii, an American entrepreneur named Henry Foster saw an opportunity to cash in on every Westerner’s favorite fantasy: A gentle, alluring Polynesian woman who gives a welcoming smile as she shimmies her hips. According to Adria Imada in Aloha America, in 1892, just before the U.S.-supported overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, he convinced Kini Kapahu and two other women who’d been in Hui Lei Mamo to join the first-ever touring hula ensemble.
As their country’s government crumbled, for four years, the seven-member group performed what was billed as the “naughty naughty hula dance” across North America and Europe, often for a five-cent entry fee, at dime museums and vaudeville theaters. Kini Kapahu—who later changed her name to the American-sounding Jennie and took her husband’s last name, Wilson—“toured Europe, performing in Paris at the Folies Bergère, in Germany for Kaiser Wilhelm II, and in Russia for Tsar Nicholas II,” Hale writes in The Natives Are Restless. In photos, you see that, offstage, the female dancers had adopted “modern,” often modest dress, so when they wore leis and grass skirts for the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, they did so to play into American stereotypes of Hawaiian identitiy.
Of course, not everyone on the American mainland had the opportunity to see a real hula girl. Promoters with no qualms about cultural appropriation hired white burlesque dancers to play “hula girls” for their circus sideshows and erotic tease acts. Around the same time, the vaudeville composers of grossly caricatured “coon songs” about African Americans wrote similarly insulting slapstick ragtime tunes stereotyping Hawaiians. Songs like “Ma Honolulu Queen” (1896), “My Gal from Honolulu” (1899), “Ginger Lou” (1899), and “The Belle of Honolulu” (1902) weren’t about Hawaiian culture but ogling exotic hula girls over ordinary mainland women.
Because more and more mainlanders traveled to Hawai‘i on new steamships at the turn of the century, the U.S. government funded the Hawai‘i Promotion Committee, which was put together by local merchants and leaders in the hospitality industry in 1903. In addition to producing travel brochures, promotional material, and souvenir postcards, this committee continued to send Jennie Wilson, as well as other all-female hula troupes, also known as “hularinas” and “hula queens,” around the country to dance and play music for Americans.
“The turn-of-the-century was the beginning of the hula-girl thing,” Hale told me. “This exotic country of brown-skinned people had just been annexed into the United States. According to some scholars, there was a very self-conscious desire to make Hawai‘i comfortable and familiar. The government wanted white Americans to see Hawaiians as welcoming lovely people that the United States wanted to bring in, not as naked ‘savages’ or Indians.”
The scholar who wrote Aloha America, Adria Imada, writes that the shows were designed to depict Hawai‘i as “an eroticized and feminized space, a space disposed to political, military, and tourist penetration.” Hale concurs that “Hula helped create an image of the islands as a safe sanctuary in which Hawaiians freely gave aloha and Americans eagerly accepted the hospitality.” But the hula girls also reminded Americans “that Hawaiians were a distinct people with their own sacred and secular culture.”
When Jennie Wilson and her cohorts performed hula for Americans, Imada writes, their audiences were blithely unaware of the dance’s content—whether it was praising ancient deities or celebrating Hawaii’s royal lineage or the phallus of a chief—a fact that endowed the dancers with subversive power, even as they maintained their gentle image.
“Their job was to be sexy and exotic—some of the sexualized stuff was actually emphasized more—breaking some taboos that were present on the United States mainland—but at the same time, paradoxically, make Hawai‘i feel accessible and attractive, like ‘The Land of Aloha,'” Hale told me. “All the fierceness and scary shit that used to be in hula was subsumed in this new idea of hula as a big PR campaign.”
While their talents and sex appeal were employed for this larger publicity agenda, on an individual level, the first hula dancers were liberated in a way Hawaiian women had never been before. “Adria Imada sees these women almost as suffragettes,” Hale said. “The first hula girls figured out a way to travel, make money, and have interesting lives. Imada sees that as very empowering and feminist.”
Even as early as 1899, American recording companies such as Thomas Edison, Victor, American, and Columbia traveled to Hawai‘i to capture the sounds of the islands’ leading musicians. In the 1900s, the Hawai‘i Promotion Committee sent musical performers, including Toots Paka, Irene West, and Joseph Kekuku, to the States as well. Thanks to the tours and the 78s, America’s first mini-Hawaiian craze was for authentic island music, albeit hapa haole, or “half-white” music that had been influenced by 100-plus years of Western contact.
“If you look at ‘Iolani Luahine’s face in pictures; she’s not trying to be pretty. She’s not trying to be sexy. She’s channeling something else altogether.”
A prime example of the fruits of that contact can be found in the work of Hawaiian composer and performer Albert R. “Sonny” Cunha, who learned about American ragtime music when he was a student at Yale Law School in New Haven, according to Charles Hiroshi Garrett in Struggling to Define a Nation: American Music and the Twentieth Century. Cunha had a knack for fusing Hawaiian sounds and U.S. pop, slowing down the ragtime rhythm to “Tempo di Hula,” and writing English lyrics about attentive, carefree, and seductive island girls for his hapa-haole songs. His songs such as “My Honolulu Tomboy” (1905), “My Hawaiian Maid” (1916), and “My Honolulu Hula Girl” (1909) (who would “surely make you giggle … with her naughty little wiggle”) were sold as sheet music with covers depicting gorgeous island girls with flowers in their hair.
Hawai‘i also captured the imagination of an American playwright named Richard Walton Tully, inspiring him to pen “The Bird of Paradise” musical, which both played on popular stereotypes about tragic cross-cultural romance, and native religion, but also questioned the impact of Western colonization on the islands.
Working with producer Oliver Morosco, Tully was determined to get the details about Hawaiian geography, history, and culture right. Together, they created an ornate set with grass huts, a cave, and a lava-spouting volcano. According to Garrett in Struggling to Define a Nation, the production also included five authentic Hawaiian musicians—W.K. Kolomoku, B. Waiwaiole, S.M. Kaiawe, A. Kiwaia, and W.B. Aeko—who performed onstage, playing ‘ukulele, steel guitar, and ipu, a double-gourd percussion instrument native to Hawaii. They became known as the Hawaiian Quintette, releasing nearly two dozen songs on Victor.
The only piece Tully and Morosco missed was what a hula dance actually looks like. A white actress named Laurette Taylor defined the role of the beloved island girl, and other than some coaching from Tully and the Hawaiian musicians, it fell to her to determine how to perform a hula dance onstage, even though she admitted she had little knowledge of Hawaiian culture. In the end, Taylor’s costume involved layers of beaded necklaces, a headband adorned with a flower, and a grass (not ti-leaf) skirt.
“The Bird of Paradise” went on to become the “Hamilton” of its day. The musical opened at Belasco Theater in Los Angeles on Sept. 11, 1911, and it was such a hit that it made its Broadway debut just a few months later, on Jan. 8, 1912, at New York City’s Daly’s Theatre. For the next 12 years it would tour the United States and Canada—after World War I, from 1918 to 1926, the production was also a favorite of European audiences. Central to the musical’s popularity at home and abroad was the standardized image it presented of the hula girl.
Thanks in no small part to “The Bird of Paradise,” Americans were suddenly wild for all things Hawaiian. Sears, Roebuck & Co, offered cheap American-made ‘ukuleles in its mail-order catalog, the Hawaiian Pavilion was the hit of the 1915 San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition, and the sheet-music publishing industry was pushing the genre hard on aspiring musicians. Indeed, two decades later, in 1937, critic J.C. Furnas was over it, complaining that “The Bird of Paradise” had “ineradicably imbedded the Hawaii-cum-South Seas tradition in the mass-mind of America,” causing “a nation-wide plague of Hawaiian acts.”
It’s true; the Polynesian dream was hard to escape. Revues such as the 1916 edition of the Ziegfeld Follies featured a Hawaiian act. More musicals and plays about tropical locales hit the stage, including “My Honolulu Girl” (1919), “Tangerine” (1921), and “Alma of the South Seas” (1925). “The Bird of Paradise” was revived onstage six years after it closed as a 1930 musical comedy called, “Luana.” Two movies even employed the same title, albeit altered plots: one by King Vidor in 1932 and one by Delmer Daves in 1951.
Artists also caught the hula bug. Moved by a touring of “The Bird of Paradise” in the 1910s, Oklahoma writer and illustrator Don Blanding packed up his things and migrated to Hawai‘i, where he made a living illustrating sheet-music covers, writing song lyrics and books such as The Virgin of Waikiki and Hula Moons, and spreading the fantasy of Hawai‘i’s tropical paradise.
Blanding wasn’t the only white artist to hijack the Hawaiian hula fantasy in the 1910s. Gene Pressler, a pin-up artist and devotee of Maxfield Parrish, began to paint white flapper girls as lei-and-grass-skirt wearing hula dancers. His lush works were reproduced on calendars and in ads for Pompeian skin cream. The famous sheet-music producers on Tin Pan Alley also started churning out Hawaiian-themed songs that often had little, if anything to do with Hawai‘i. College students learning to play light-hearted tunes on ukes—sure to be a hit at the next co-ed party—snatched them up.
Naturally, Tin Pan Alley songwriters reduced the Hawaiian language to its lowest common denominator. “The use and repetition of short syllabic sounds was understood by non-Hawaiians to be playful, primitive, and redolent of the exotic allure of the islands,” Garrett explains in Struggling to Define a Nation. “By exaggerating the lilting cadence of the Hawaiian language and the sensuality of this particular phrase, these songwriters transformed genuine Hawaiian terms like ‘Waikiki’ and ‘wikiwiki’ into a mishmash of nonsensical lyrics and comic song titles.”
“Once you get Tin Pan Alley involved, you get songwriters in New York writing songs like 1916’s ‘Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula,’ that has nothing the do with the Hawaiian language and nothing to do with hula,” Hale told me. “Then you had American girls dancing these silly dances that had no content to them. It’s the image of hula that, for some reason, got set in the popular imagination.”
A protégé of Sonny Cunha, Honolulu-born American composer and bandleader Johnny Noble moved to San Francisco in the 1920s, where he hosted a radio show promoting Hawaiian music and tourism to the islands, which helped popularize Tin Pan Alley hapa-haole tunes that also served to amplify the colonial fantasy that began with Captain Cook.
“American publishers began churning out sheet music about the fascination of white males for exotic Hawaiian females,” Garrett writes in Struggling to Define a Nation.“Though the visual imagery that accompanied these songs relied heavily on cultural and gendered stereotyping, certain song lyrics also underscored racial difference, as they used phrases such as ‘brown-skinned hula girl’ or ‘my little brown Hawaiian maid’ or ‘brown skin babies.'”
While most hulas during this time period were set to hapa-haole songs, that doesn’t necessarily mean some weren’t the creative product of Hawaiians, Hale explains. “Just because a song was written in the 1920s using guitar, ‘ukulele, and Western forms of harmony that doesn’t mean it’s not Hawaiian, because Hawaiian music evolved,” she told me. “And there’s a differentiation between this super-kitschy, super-tourist oriented Americanized hula and the hula tradition, which is a syncretic tradition throughout time.”
In the mid-1920s, the Matson Navigation Company opened a pink-hued resort called The Royal Hawaiian Hotel at Waikiki Beach in Honolulu. Then, the company began sending passenger ships filled with well-to-do white tourists from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Waikiki more frequently; their Hawaiian flagship being the SS Lurline. At the time, Boat Day, or the day tourists landed, became a major event on the island. Native Hawaiians who would leave work early that day to welcome the travelers, waving, cheering, and throwing streamers. In the water, people in outrigger canoes and coin divers would cheer the ocean liner. The Royal Hawaiian Band would play, as pretty hula girls would greet each visitor by placing a lei around their necks. Then the hula girls would treat the guests to a performance.
More than ever, traveling to Hawai‘i was an aspirational fantasy, even for Americans too poor for the heavy ship tickets. Even though the different Matson Line ships—SS Lurine, Matsonia, Monterey, Mariposa, Maui, Diamond Head, and Manlolo—offered different tiers of luxury for a range of prices, they were still out of your ordinary American’s price range. The fantasy lives on today, as mementos from Matson cruises are sought-after by collectors—from magazine ads that anyone could save to luggage labels, souvenir playing cards, or matchbooks acquired onboard a ship.
As stories about Hawai‘i played on the radio and at the cinema—with Clara Bow in “Hula” (1927), Dolores Del Rio in “Bird of Paradise” (1932), and “Down to Their Last Yacht” (1934)— the Anglicized “hula girl” was all over the mainland. In Hula, Jim Heimann writes, “She appeared on greeting cards and calendars, on match covers and pin-up prints, aloha shirts and neckties. Along with sugar and pineapples, she had become the preeminent export of Hawai‘i.” The first hula dolls appeared in the 1920s, made of unglazed bisque or redware. These figures would be hand-painted and then dressed with fake grass skirts, floral halter tops, and cloth leis.
While the grass skirt was a staple of hula dolls, and well, any hula kitsch, Hale told me, “Ancient Hawaiians did not wear grass skirts. Native people wear grass skirts on Cook Islands and some other islands, but never in Hawai‘i. And so many of those women in grass skirts are depicted as topless, but Hawaiian women stopped being topless in the 1820s. Missionaries covered them up, and that was it. Ancient Hawaiians also didn’t use coconut bras. I’m not even sure the extent they’re authentic in Tahiti, but they are used today in Tahitian dance. So those hula-girl images are really odd, when you think about it.”
For Californians and California tourists who couldn’t come up with the cash for a Matson ticket, two young entrepreneurs came up with the idea of creating pockets of Hawaiian fantasy in Los Angeles and Oakland. Ernest Gantt, who’d spent some years sailing to the Caribbean and the South Pacific, gathered so-called “beachcomber” detritus including Polynesian iconography, fishing nets, and pieces of shipwrecks, and used it to adorn an L.A. bar with a grass-hut-like interior he called Don’s Beachcomber Cafe, which opened in 1934. Victor Bergeron in Northern California had a similar idea when he opened his pub, Hinky Dink’s in Oakland that same year. Gantt’s pub later became Don the Beachcomber and Bergeron’s Trader Vic’s. These bars-turned-restaurants are credited with popularizing “tiki culture” in the United States, a kitschy fantasy of Hawai‘i and the South Seas that involves fake Polynesian gods and plenty of hula-girl figures. Gantt, who also rented out his ephemera to movie studios, was friends with Hollywood stars who dined at his restaurant and gave his dirty-bohemian concept a sheen of glamour.
Gantt and Bergeron created a whole genre of tiki and Hawaiian kitsch that’s now popular with collectors. But collecting authentic ancient Hawaiian objects is far more difficult. “The collectible stuff that’s authentic is museum quality, like featherwork, poi pounders, and calabashes—objects that were actually used,” Hale said. “Tiki gods are not Hawaiian; Hawaii’s wooden carved images were called ki‘i.”
For Americans flocking to tiki bars, authenticity wasn’t the point. Tiki Pop author Sven Kirsten told Collectors Weekly, “It became this escapist thing for urbanites to go to these places and feel bohemian for a while. If you look at 1930s photos of restaurants like Trader Vic’s or Don the Beachcomber, these places were full of jetsam and flotsam that didn’t exist in the normal, mid-century home at the time.”
In January 1935, famous female aviator Amelia Earhart made the first solo flight from the West Coast to Hawaii, and on November 22, 1935, Pan American Airways offered its first regular air-travel service to Hawaii, and also airmail between Hawai‘i and the mainland. At that time, traveling by plane was as price-prohibitive as traveling by ship. Nonetheless, this new development gave the tourism industry even more reason to ramp up its marketing.
A Hawaiian singer by the name of Clarissa Haili introduced the world to comic hula in 1936. As a part of Louise Akeo’s Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club, she was among a group of performers on a cruise to Portland, Oregon, when the woman who was supposed to dance a “sexy hula” to the Don McDiarmid Sr. and Johnny Noble hapa-haole song “When Hilo Hattie Does the Hilo Hop” got sick. Haili, who insisted she had never had a hula lesson, danced in her place, doing a humorous routine instead. Haili was such a hit she changed her named to Hilo Hattie and made the comic hula her trademark. Hale remember seeing Hilo Hattie on TV in the 1960s, and feels a lot of affection for her antics.
“The government wanted white Americans to see Hawaiians as welcoming lovely people that the United States wanted to bring in, not as naked savages or Indians.”
Throughout the mid-century, Bing Crosby, like other popular white singers, recorded dozens of hapa-haole songs such as “Blue Hawaii,” “Sweet Leilani” and “Mele Kalikimaka (Hawaiian Christmas Song).” Noble also took a stab at adapting Prince Leleiohoku’s love song, “Kāua I Ka Huahuaʻi,” with English lyrics by Ralph Freed, written in 1936, as “Ta-hu-wa-hu-wai.” Recorded by Tommy Dorsey and released on Victor Records in 1938, it became known as “The Hawaiian War Chant.” It was a perpetually popular tune for recordings and live performances, also done by Andy Iona and His Islanders, comic musician Spike Jones, Hilo Hattie, and—later—The Muppets. Hale doesn’t love this song so much. “Prince Leleiohoku wrote an incredibly beautiful love song, and then someone bastardized it,” Hale says. “The so-called ‘Hawaiian War Chant’ went on to become this total cliché.”
With the introduction of Kodachrome color film in 1935, the vibrant colors of Hawai‘i—the green palm leaves, the deep red flowers and the royal blue ocean—were even more appealing to tourists and amateur photographers. In 1937, Fritz Herman, the vice president and manager of the Kodak Company’s Hawai‘i branch, debuted a free hula show to give travelers an opportunity to take souvenir photos in the daylight, promoting both his company’s film and island tourism at the same time. Before Herman’s show, so-called luaus were performed at hotels after dark. The first Kodak Hula Show, performed for an audience of 100, included five dancers and four musicians. Later, it expanded to include 20 female and six male dancers, 15 musicians, and two chanters.
The fragrant fantasy of Hawai‘i was already in the air—thanks to the 1940 hapa-haole hit “Lovely Hula Hands”—when Japanese forces bombed the U.S. Navy base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. Now, young men who’d never left their hometowns would experience the Hawai‘i dream firsthand.
“Hawai‘i was flooded with American soldiers and sailors,” Heimann writes. “The islands were a jumping-off point for the Pacific battleground and the military personnel were usually young and naive. … The hula girl, already a familiar figure, was suddenly a tangible presence, albeit a stylized and packaged one.”
While Hawai‘i and the dream of a Polynesian paradise has been popular before the war, the millions of men serving the Pacific Theater only amplified it. While many who served suffered from brutal battles among the heat and mosquitoes of the South Seas, the allure of island women offered them mental escape. Pin-ups and girlie magazines were popular morale-boosting gifts for young sailors. Servicemen at Pearl Harbor spent their wages on photo packets of topless hula girls they would have been too embarrassed to buy at home. They returned to the mainland with hula-girl lamps, playing cards, cigarette lighters, and pillow shams, making the caricature a nationwide fad.
The flow of sailors through Honolulu meant big business for former Navy man Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, who offered unique thick-lined tattoos of pin-ups, hula girls, and other Hawaiian themes at the arcades on Hotel Street. Collaborating with a Chinese tattoo artist, he launched Tom & Jerry’s tattoo shop during the war, where the two also ran a photo booth where servicemen could have a photo snapped with a “hula girl” played by Tom’s wife.
After the war, “Aloha” Barney Davis opened a gallery in Honolulu after the war, where he sold velvet paintings of Polynesian women by Tahiti-based Edgar Leeteg, his protégé Charles McPhee, and Ralph Burke Tyree, who made similar paintings of women in Fiji and Samoa. Topless beauties from all over the South Pacific were conflated with Hawaiian women, and such paintings became a part of the blossoming souvenir market.
“The hula dances were praising the wrong gods. The missionaries were trying to break the Hawaiians away from their gods.”
At first, this market included high-quality hula dolls produced by deLee Art Company in Los Angeles, by Hawaiian artist Julene Mechler, and in the Hakata-doll tradition in the Fukuoka Prefecture of Japan. After the war, hula-girl dolls were supplanted by hula-girl nodders, or “dashboard dolls.” These plastic figures had magnets on their feet so they could attach to a car dashboard and springs in their legs so the doll would wiggle her hips as the car drove. The most common hula nodders are depicted holding a ‘ukulele or empty-handed with one hand place seductively in her hair. Surfers and beachgoers visiting Hawai‘i first picked up these souvenirs, and the craze spread across the United States like wildfire. The demand for hula-girl dashboard dolls was so high, factories in Japan began churning them out.
New materials developed during the war were repurposed for kitschy American party gear like plastic flower leis and cellophane grass skirts. Then, Oklahoma songwriter Jack Owens wrote “The Hukilau Song” in 1948 after he attended a hotel luau in Lā’ie, Hawai‘i. (Hukilau is the word for an ancient Hawaiian way of fishing.) Before long, this hapa-haole hit became associated with a luau routine, a phony Western interpretive line dance version of the hula where the dancer must pretend to throw and pull fishing nets, swim like a fish, and intimate the shapes of a sunrise and old Lā’ie bay. This dance was a favorite for white American women throwing tiki parties at home throughout the ’50s and ’60s and for Honolulu hotels catering to white tourists.
“If you go to a luau, they teach you this hula,” Hale says. “The song has got, like, four Hawaiian words in it, and the music is kind of Hawaiian-y. But that hula dance is made for haoles. Even into the ’60s, it persisted as the main hula routine even in Hawaii, and it’s almost a direct contradiction to the real hula.”
Around that time, air-travel improved, and flights to Hawai‘i became more frequent. Meanwhile, films like “Pagan Love Song” (1950), “Bird of Paradise” (1951), and “From Here to Eternity” (1953) further served to Anglicize the hula girl and the American dream of escaping to Polynesia for sun, surf, and romance. In 1959, Hawai‘i officially became the 50th state in the Union, which reinvigorated mainlanders’ obsession with all things Polynesian—a trend that might have otherwise faded after the war. After statehood, “Tourism and urbanization proved as devastating to hula as had the missionaries and the movies,” Hale writes. And the “skyrocketing cost of living drove many Native Hawaiians to the mainland.”
During the 1960s, surfboarding became the big craze with the youth of America. Even teens who didn’t live in Hawai‘i, California, or anywhere near an ocean dreamed of the laid-back beach lifestyle. Heartthrob rocker Elvis Presley made Hawaiian-themed surf movies, including “Blue Hawaii” (1961), “Girls, Girls, Girls” (1962), and “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” (1966). The Beach Boys soared on the charts with California-themed songs like “Surfin’ USA,” “Surfin’ Safari,” and “Surfer Girl.” Teens embraced surf jargon, beach clothing like bikinis, aloha shirts, and board shorts, and surf music like Dick Dale’s ripping guitar riffs. All this drove even more white tourists to invade the beaches of Hawai‘i and amped up the demand for hula-girl kitsch like nodders, hula lamps, and the wooden hula-girl sculptures found in ubiquitous tiki bars.
At that point, the common image of a hula girl and hula dancing was completely divorced from the authentic sacred hula dance the ancient Hawaiians practiced. And Hawaiians, taught English in schools, were losing the ability to speak their native language at home. Fortunately, in the mid-to-late ’60s, though, movements for ethnic studies and increased awareness of racism made such stereotyping and cultural appropriation uncool. Native Hawaiians started to reclaim their sacred practice. To revive King David Kalākaua’s love of traditional Hawaiian arts, “The annual Merrie Monarch Festival started in 1964 in Hilo, becoming known as the Olympics of Hula,” Hale writes.
“‘The Hukilau Song’ persisted as the main hula routine even in Hawaii, and it’s almost a direct contradiction to the real hula.”
“A cultural reawakening swept the islands, inspired by the activism on the mainland in the ’60s and fueled by a potent mix of anti-development anger and ethnic pride,” Hale writes. “Interest in crafts like featherwork and musical composition surged. Traditional navigational practices were reinvigorated, and pride in Polynesian know-how swelled as the double-hulled canoe Hokule’a sailed to Tahiti in 1976. Elderly masters of the lua (martial arts) were tracked down and the training of warriors reborn. Students filled Hawaiian-language preschools and bilingual-immersion elementary schools. Hawaiian Language became the hot course at the University of Hawai‘i.”
While women performed hula ‘auana, “the wandering hulas” of the early 20th century, as well as cheesy hapa-haole dances for the white tourists, behind closed doors, families passed down the ritual drum-based hulas known as hula pahu that almost suffocated under the weight of white American culture. One of the champions of the late-’60s hula renaissance was ‘Iolani Luahine, who learned sacred hula from her aunt, Keahi Luahine, and opened her influential dance studio on Honolulu’s Queen Street in 1946. “‘Iolani Luahine was amazing,” Hale told me. “If you look at her face in pictures; she’s not trying to be pretty. She’s not trying to be sexy. She’s channeling something else altogether.”
Another leader of the hula revival, Margaret “Maiki” Souza, who later became known as Aunti Maiki Aiu Lake, was born in Honolulu in 1925. When she was in high school in the 1940s, she and her friends established a Hawaiian Club, which would put on the type of hula ‘auana performances embraced by the tourism industry at places like Kilohana Gardens in Kane’ohe and Queen’s Surf in Waikiki. When Maiki learned of Lōkālia Montgomery, a woman who taught hula-pahu chanting and dancing in secret, she and a couple of her friends eagerly sought Montgomery’s instruction. Maiki received special one-on-one training and worked her way up through the traditional ‘ūniki to the sacred status õlapa, meaning “hula dancer.” Maiki even took lessons from Montgomery’s teacher, Kawena Pukui, who maintained knowledge of esoteric Hawaiian traditions through much of the 20th century. Maiki eventually achieved the top ‘ūniki level, teacher. Today, such culturally strict teachers are known as kumu, which means “source” or “foundation.”
“Starting in the ’60s with the civil-rights movement and ethnic awareness, we had what we call the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance,” Hale told me. “It was really the second renaissance, because 100 years before King Kalākaua was saying ‘No, f— the missionaries, we’re taking our culture back.’ In the 1970s, there was a tremendous desire among Native Hawaiians to go back in time, and learn and preserve authentic forms and traditions.”
Aunti Maiki Aiu Lake, who became known as the Mother of the Hawaiian Renaissance, developed a way to teach hula to modern audience, and she influenced a crop of new teachers in the hula’s ancient ways. She brought back a traditional styles of known today as hula kahiko. “The dances—primal, percussive, sexual, and powerful—praise the gods, honor the chiefs, and express all kinds of love,” Hale writes.
Today, Hale and many other San Franciscans learn both the flowing hula ‘auana and the fierce and elemental hula kahiko from Kumu Patrick Makuakāne—and it looks nothing like the scantily clad hula girl on your kitschy bottle opener.
“Around me are dozens of other urbanites doing the same thing—my hula ‘brothers and sisters,'” Hale writes in the introduction to The Natives Are Restless. “Some are Native Hawaiian; some are Samoan. Some are Korean, Filipino, Japanese, and Chinese. Some are Mexican, some Caucasian. Many are a mix of two or more of these. They may be eighteen years old or they may be eighty, but most are ordinary mortals like me: fiftysomething, more lumpy than lithe, and definitely not fitting the stereotype of what a hula dancer is supposed to look like.”
In her office, Hale explained to me that Kumu Patrick has found a way to incorporate and subvert the Hawaiiana hula kitsch so many mainland Americans are familiar with.
“He’s taking the stereotypes and just playing with them,” Hale said. “He has a dance where the girls are wearing cellophane skirts. He has a dance that has grass skirts, only it’s the men who are wearing grass skirts. And they are super buff and gay, and they’re, like, dancing to techno music. He’s like ‘If you want your grass skirt, I’ll give you a grass skirt.'”
(To learn more about the real hula, pick up Constance Hale’s “The Natives Are Restless: A San Francisco Dance Master Takes Hula Into the Twenty-First Century” and Jerry Hopkins’ “The Hula.” To learn more about the first hula girls, read Adria L. Imada’s “Aloha America: Hula Circuits Through the U.S. Empire.” To see more hula kitsch, pick up Jim Heimann’s “Hula: Vintage Hawaiian Graphics.” To learn more about the role of hapa-haole sounds in American music history, read Charles Hiroshi Garrett’s “Struggling to Define a Nation: American Music and the Twentieth Century.” Dig deeper into the story of Hawai‘i at HawaiiHistory.org.)