Diversity has long been part of the fabric of Los Angeles and Southern California. Humans first arrived here at least 13,000 years ago and more than twenty Native American nations made their home here before the Spanish Conquest. The Spanish pueblo of Los Angeles was itself founded by people of Native, African, European, and mixed ancestries and in its early years as an American city it attracted substantial numbers of Armenians, Basques, Canadians, Chinese, Dutch, French, Germans, Irish, Italians, Japanese, Jews, Mexicans, Russians, Serbians, Sicilians, and others. For some, ethnic enclaves came into existence (and often vanished). Other people have tended to spread out across the region rather than cluster together — which makes exploring their presence in Southern California more difficult but no less rewarding.
The largest population of ethnic Hawaiians (“Kānaka Maoli”) living outside of the Hawaiian Islands live in the Los Angeles metro area. Obvious signs of Hawaiiana are mostly limited to Hawaiian restaurants and festivals. Less obvious but no less profound is the influence of Hawaii on Southern California as evinced by Surf culture, Tiki culture, the hibiscus and palm-dotted landscape, and the existence of cities like Hawaiian Gardens.
The Hawaiian Islands are the most isolated landform in the world and it wasn’t until around 300 CE that Austronesian language-speaking Polynesian pioneers discovered the islands. The Austronesians were a people with origins in Taiwan who fanned out across a vast area and colonized the islands of the Philippines, Indonesia, Madagascar, New Zealand, Micronesia, Polynesia, and Rapa Nui. The nearest landform to the 132 Hawaiian archipelago is California, located 3677 kilometers away and although far from conclusive there is some suggestion that the Hawaiians may’ve been in contact with California’s seafaring Chumash and Tongva peoples.
The first European to visit Hawaii was the English Captain James Cook, who arrived uninvited in 1778 and, ignoring the locals, introduced a new name, “the Sandwich Islands.” He came bearing gifts — mainly western diseases to which the islanders had no immunity such as gonorrhea, Hansen’s disease, small pox, syphilis, tuberculosis, and capitalism. By 1832 the population of Hawaii had dropped from approximately 300,000 to 130,000. It continued to dwindle, ultimately shrinking to as few as 30,000.
After Hawaii’s “discovery” by Europeans, England, France, and US sent in missionaries, troops, and capitalists to control and exploit the native labor force who increasingly found themselves employed on vast pineapple and sugar plantations where they performed back-breaking labor for little pay. As their numbers shrank, laborers had to be imported from Portuguese islands, several Asian countries, and Spain, who mixed with Native Hawaiians to create a new Hawaiian identity. As of the 2010 census, 23.6% of Hawaiians self-identified as being of mixed race.
The first Chinese arrived in Hawaii with Captain Cook’s crew. From the mid-to-late 19th century, about 46,000 more arrived — often remaining in Honolulu’s Chinatown after the expiration of their contracts.
The first Portuguese arrived in 1878, mostly hailing from Madeira and the Azores, and introduced the machete, the cavaquinho, and the rajão, instruments which in turn influenced the creation of the Hawaiian ukuklele.
Japanese were banned by their emperor from emigrating to Hawaii until 1885, following overtures made by Hawaii’s King David Kalākaua, when 153 Japanese laborers arrived. By the 1920s Japanese would comprise 43% of the islands’ population.
After Japanese laborers waged a strike, the first Koreans arrived in 1903 and by 1905 their numbers exceeded 7,000.
Filipino laborers first arrived in 1906 and today comprise the single largest ethnicity on the island.
As racist sentiment against Asians increased and laws were passed to prevent their immigration, the Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association decided to court more laborers from Europe, despite the higher cost. From 1907 to 1913, 9,262 Spanish from the Málaga province were imported to work in the fields.
For decades the US Navy had been tasked with protecting American economic and military interests in Hawaii. Pearl Harbor served as a duty free port mainly used to transport sugar to the mainland. In 1874, riots broke out between supporters of Queen Emma and King Kalahaua and the US Navy’s USS Tuscorora and USS Portsmouth along with the British HMS Tenedos joined forces to quell the unrest. Afterward, the US demanded and was granted exclusive rights to Pearl Harbor for use as a repair and coaling station.
In 1887, Americans in Hawaii founded a militia, the Honolulu Rifles, who seized the royal palace. In 1893, Queen Liliʻuokalani was overthrown by American forces. The Republic of Hawaii was declared on 4 July 1894 with Sanford Dole, a Honolulu-born son of immigrants from Maine, acting as president. His cousin James Dole founded the Hawaiian Pineapple Company, which evolved into the Dole agribusiness.
Against the opposition of the Japanese as well as many Hawaiians and Americans, Hawaii was annexed and made an oversea territory of the US. Unlike other conquered aboriginal Americans, Hawaiians retained no sovereignty in the form of reservations nor were they granted the same rights enjoyed by Americans.
On 7 December, 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked several Pacific territories held by the Netherlands, the UK, and the US in Malaya, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, and most infamously for Americans, Pearl Harbor. 2,403 American soldiers, 64 Japanese soldiers, and 68 civilians died in the attack. The next day the US declared war against Japan.
Although Japanese-American troops from Hawaii served in combat as the all-volunteer 422nd Regimental Combat Team, over 110,000 Japanese-Americans on the mainland were sent to concentration camps in Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming. By contrast 11,507 Germans and 1,881 Italians were detained during the war.
In Hawaii, where 150,000 Japanese-Americans comprised roughly a third of the islands’ population, only an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 Japanese were interned because to detain more would’ve been too detrimental to the islands’ economy. Hawaii was, however, placed under martial law. It was lifted at the end of the war but sovereignty was not restored. Instead, with the support of American-backed Hawaiian territorial governors and judges, Hawaii was annexed and made a state in 1959.
HAWAIIANS IN LOS ANGELES
Most of the early Hawaiian immigrants to the US had followed the route of the island’s sugar trade to Oakland and elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay. By the 1920s, for example, 95% of Crockett, California’s residents worked for the California and Hawaiian Sugar Refining Company (C & H). Soon, though, many Hawaiians quit the East Bay for Southern California’s San Pedro (the Harbor) and Santa Monica bays (the South Bay), where they often settled in the communities of San Pedro, Carson, Gardena, Hawthorne, Long Beach, and Torrance and where many were employed not in sugar refineries but in the aerospace and defense industry by the likes of Boeing, Douglas Aircraft Company, Northrup, and Jet Propulsion Labs.
After sugarcane, the most important import from Hawaii was surfing. Although surfing additionally practiced in Samoa and Tonga, it was first brought to the shores of California by a trio of Hawaiians in 1885. In 1907 Hawaiian George Freeth demonstrated surfing for a crowd in Huntington Beach. Surfing quickly took hold in Southern California to the point you’d be forgiven for assuming it was invented there and Huntington Beach now bills itself as “Surf City,” hosts the International Surfing Museum, has a Surfer’s Walk of Fame, and a statue of Duke Paoa Kahinu Makoe Hulikohoa Kahanamoku.
Polynesia-inspired Tiki culture really began in 1933 when Don the Beachcomber (né Ernest Raymond Beaumont Gantt) opened Don’s Beachcomber Café in the Yucca Corridor section of Hollywood. Not specifically-Hawaiian in its theme (it served rum-and-juice cocktails like with Tahitian names like Mai Tais and American Chinese dishes such as the as well as the 寶寶盤, or “pu pu platter”), its iconography certainly owed something to Hawaii… and Californians’ growing realization that their state was part of the Pacific, not the North Atlantic.
The interest in South Pacific islands, especially, increased dramatically when veterans from World War II returned to the mainland with an infatuation for usually superficial aspects of Polynesian culture like straw hats, Hawaiian shirts, and smiling, grass-skirted hula girls. Renamed Don the Beachcomber, the pioneering restaurant soon grew into a sixteen location chain and many other tiki-themed restaurants opened in the 1940s and ‘50s.
After Hawaii became a state, Honolulu (and the Caribbean) rose to the ranks of London, Paris, and Rome as a popular destination for American tourists — especially as airplane travel supplanted luxury ships and dirigibles.
The event of my mother’s family going to Hawaii was important enough to be covered by their small town Iowa newspaper (and important enough for my family to preserve). My maternal grandfather even built a tiki lounge in the basement of his rural, ranch home — complete with a hi-fi, wet bar, fireplace, fishing nets, sea shells, wooden masks, and even a sign proclaiming it “The Carib Room.”
In Southern California, Hawaiian/Polynesian-inspired style influenced the architecture and decor of apartment buildings, bars, drive-ins, and bowling alleys. My own apartment, construction of which began in 1961, has a steep, peaked A-frame roof and extended roof beams. There are many apartment complexes throughout the Southland with names like the Outrigger Apartments, Kona Gardens, Kona Kai Apartments, Kona Pali, and Aloha Apartments which make even more explicit their particularly Hawaiian aspirations.
Although many beloved tiki bars and restaurants have closed (RIP Bahooka (1967-2013) and Royal Hawaiian (1947-2013) and Kelbo’s (c.1955-c.1985)), still extant tiki restaurants and bars include Damon’s Steak House, Don The Beachcomber, Kahuna Tiki, the Purple Orchid, Tiki No, Tiki Ti, Tonga Hut, Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar, and Trader Vic’s. The craze for Tiki culture is still in evidence at the Tiki Beach Festival in Long Beach, Tiki Night at the Egyptian in Hollywood, and Oceanic Arts in Whittier.
Although today the words “Hawaiian” and “music” almost invariably mean that one is about it hear Israel Kamakawiwoʻole‘s recording of Harold Arlen and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg‘s “Over the Rainbow,” often set to a YouTube slideshow of palm trees against a setting sun or a volcano, Hawaiian music’s influence on mainland music, especially in Southern California, is actually quite profound.
Although there’s no precise word for “music” in Hawaiian, highly formalized Hawaiian chanting (mele) and the ritualized, accompanying dance (hula) are often together characterized as being aspects of traditional Hawaiian music. It is heavily percussive, performed on the ipu and ipu heke (two types of gourd instruments), ʻiliʻili (lava stone castanets), pahu (sharkskin drums), pu`ʻli (split bamboo sticks)l, and ʻuliʻuli (feathered gourd rattles).
In the late 19th Century, steel guitars appeared in Hawaii, usually played with a knife or bottleneck instead of frets — a technique which first appeared in the American South. In the 1920s, steel guitar became popular in the US and in the 1930s and ’40s was popular with Western Swing bands and country guitarists like Speedy West, Missouri-born pioneer of the Bakersfield Sound and who released West of Hawaii in 1958.
Sandal-wearing longhair eden ahbez, (né George Alexander Aberle) composed the back-to-nature hit “Nature Boy” which was a hit for Nat King Cole in 1948. His only album, Eden’s Island, mixed poetry with exotica and was released by Del-Fi Records in 1960. Exotica, as its name suggests, was meant to evoke many “exotic” locales including Africa, the Amazon, the Caribbean, and the Orient, but perhaps no locale was more associated with the movement than Hawaii, which was made clear on numerous compositions by musicians like Les Baxter, The Polynesians, The Out Islanders, Martin Denny (who moved to Hawaii), and Arthur Lyman (who was born and died there).
In the early 1960s, Hawaiian music and iconography further influenced Southern California surf rock like Dick Dale & His Del-Tones, The Bel-Airs, The Challengers, Eddie & the Showmen, PJ & The Galaxies, The Journeymen, The Surfaris, and others, many of which were formed by teenagers living in South Bay and Harbor communities with substantial populations of Hawaiians. In the hands of bands like The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean, Hawaiian-indebted surf rock morphed into what came to be marketed and thought of as “The California Sound.”
The First Hawaiian Renaissance refers retroactively to the nationalist revival which took place during the reign of King Kamehameha V in the 1860s. The Second Hawaiian Renaissance was in many ways a response to the appropriation of Hawaiiana which saw Americans don Hawaiian shirts and host suburban luaus, produced television series like Hawaiian Eye (1959-1963) and Hawaii Five-O (1968-1980), and saw musicians like Annette Funicello, Elvis Presley, Gidget, James Darren, and Ray Conniff produce Hawaiian albums and in some cases, make Hawaiian-Hollywood films — many of which (aside from a few establising shots) saw Malibu or a studio backlot stand in for Hawaii.
Although some Hawaiian-born artists like Arthur Lyman and Don Ho benefited commercially from the vogue for Hawaiian kitsch, artists of the second renaissance sought to create more authentic expressions of kānaka maoli culture informed by a revival of traditional music, language, art, and cultural studies.
Since the tiki and surf crazes of the mid-20th century and the Second Hawaiian Renaissance, mainstream American pop culture has less often been informed by Hawaiiana. There’s been Lilo & Stitch (2002), Dog the Bounty Hunter (2003 – the present), 50 First Dates (2004), Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008), The Descendants (2011), and the revived Hawaii Five-0 (2010 – the present), which briefly featured Hawaiian actress Kelly Hu, who moved to Los Angeles in 1987. Actress Tia Carrere was also born in Honolulu and moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting in the 1980s. Actor/casting director Jeff Lam moved to Los Angeles in 2000.
Earlier high profile Hawaiians in Hollywood include Poncie Ponce (né Ponciano Tabac Ponce), who played a ukulele-strumming, straw-hatted cabdriver on Hawaiian Eye (filmed on a soundstage in Burbank). Even earlier, Duke Kahanamoku and Etta Lee each appeared in fourteen films, each beginning their acting careers in the silent era.
HAWAIIAN FESTIVALS & ORGANIZATIONS
There are several Hawaiian cultural festivals that take place in the Southland. Lei Day was established in 1929 on the first of May and is celebrated by many Hawaiians, albeit mostly in Hawaii. Locally, the Hawaiian Inter-Club Council of Southern California has hosted Ho’olaule’a on the third weekend in July in Lawndale’s Alondra Park since 1977. Hula Halau `O Lilinoe ame Na Pua me Kealoha was founded in 1981 by Sissy Lilinoe and Lincoln Kaio of Carson. Mary Kahihilani Duarte-Kovich launched the Lei Hulu of California in 1983.
Every Labor Day weekend in Long Beach, the E Hula Mau has taken place since 1995, offering live performances, art, crafts, and Hawaiian food. The Heritage of Aloha Festival takes place annually in Santa Fe Springs. The Aloha Spirit Bash was launched in 2010 in Santa Barbara. The Imua Ho’olaule’a (formerly the Northridge Hawaiian Festival) takes place annually in Northridge (and is hosted by the Aloha Hula Dance Studio).Although not limited to Hawaiian culture, the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific’s Pacific Islander Festival takes place in June. San Diego also has Pacific Islander Festival.
The non-profit Ho’oilina Foundation “provides grants, scholarships and/or resource assistance to support groups and individuals of California who are continuing the Polynesian culture through art, music, dance, education and recreation.”
Before the arrival of Polynesians, Hawaii was home to relatively few edible plants, notable exceptions being the fern Hāpuʻu ʻiʻi (Cibotium menziesii) and species of sea vegetables. The Polynesian colonizers of Hawaii brought introduced plants (breadfruits, candle nuts, coconuts, plantains, sugarcane, taro, yams, and other crops) and animals (chickens, dogs, and pigs) to the islands and additionally hunted local fauna including fish, mollusks, shellfish, and flightless birds, some of which were consumed into extinction. The taro was famously used to make poi, a staple dish of Native Hawaiians. Sweet potatoes, represented by as many as 130 varieties and indigenous to the Americas, may’ve been introduced through trade South America’s seafaring Mapuche people.
Modern Hawaiian cuisine reflects the islands’ contact with other cultures. Whalers from New England introduced salted salmon which developed into lomi-lomi. Chinese brought char siu bao which became manapua, Portuguese brought sweet bread and malasadas, and the Japanese brought bento boxes which evolved into the plate lunch. Spam became popular amongst many Pacific Islanders after World War II (nowhere more than in Guam), when it was introduced by Americans and Japanese cooks transformed into spam musubi. Another post war creation, loco moco, was likely invented by Nancy and Richard Inouye in Hilo. Hawaiian pizza, it should be noted, was invented in Canada, not Hawaii.
In Los Angeles County there are several Hawaiian restaurants including Aloha Food Factory and Shakas Hawaiian Flavors (both Alhambra), Back Home in Lahaina (Carson), Rutt’s Café and A-Frame (both Culver City), Kope Poki (Franklin Hills), Aloha Café (Little Tokyo), Duke’s (locations in Malibu and Huntington Beach), Kukui Hut Cafe (Little Armenia), Shakas (Monterey Park), Ohana Poké (Downtown’s Historic Core and Silver Lake), Canoe House and Hawaiian Garden BBQ (both South Pasadena), Poke – Poke (Venice), and Waikiki Hawaiian Grill (Hawthorne). Ohana BBQ in Studio City offers a fusion of Korean and Hawaiian food. There’s also Hawaii Supermarket in San Gabriel.
There are also a few Hawaiian chains in the Southland, notably including Roy’s (with locations in Pasadena and Woodland Hills), and mega-chains like Poké Bar, Aloha Hawaiian BBQ and L&L Hawaiian Barbecue.
As far as I know, there hasn’t been a lot written about Hawaiians in Los Angeles. In 2012, Arcadia Publishing released Hawaiians in Los Angeles by Elizabeth “Nani” Nihipali, Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo, Christian Hanz Lozada, Cheryl Villareal Roberts, and Lorelei Santonil Olaes. Online there’s a blog, Hawaiians in Los Angeles Blog.
If you have any additions, please leave a comment and I’ll try to add them. Mahalo!
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.