Saturday, August 17, 2013

A Love Letter to Kihei

We've all heard complaints about Kihei. It's too hot. It's ugly. It's overrun with tourists walking around in snow-white shorts and matching shoes or green newcomers zipping around on mopeds. Maybe it's true.
Kihei may not look like your typical town on Maui. Compared to Wailuku or Hana, the subdivisions are pretty new. And yes, there are a lot of condominiums squeezed between South Kihei Road and Piilani Highway.
But despite the way it looks, Kihei isn't all that different than the other towns on Maui. In fact, South Maui carries on a long tradition in Hawaii.
More than a hundred years ago, sugar and pineapple were the biggest industries in the islands. Sugar and pineapple companies owned most of the viable lands, ran the major economic engines of the time, and controlled just about every facet of the government.
The companies recruited workers from all over the world to sweat it out in the fields, harvest the cane and run the mills and canneries. They brought in immigrants from Asia, Europe and the Mainland to the islands and settled them into small, single-industry towns with such precision that they could essentially dictate who would stay and who would have to leave.
Waves of immigrants from Japan, China, Portugal, Puerto Rico and the Philippines were no accident. The migrations were the result of conscious decisions of the landowners and industrial giants. They were assigned to little towns built entirely for a single industry, such as Paia and Lanai City. These are the same towns we now call "historic" and consider the quintessential local towns now that the industries that created them are long gone.
Now, look again at Kihei. If sugar and pineapple were the industries of the past, tourism and construction are the industries of today. Instead of a compact company town, we have an unplanned boomtown on the dusty south shore.
Of course, the hotels and construction industries aren't as heavy-handed as their predecessors. They cannot pick where most of their workforce comes from, nor do they have company towns. However, as was once the case in Puunene, Kihei is where the workers in today's industries call home. And like the first generation of folks to arrive in Puunene, most of the people who actually live in Kihei are new to Maui.
It's full of newcomers, immigrants from other countries, and even locals who all come together to work in pretty much the same industry and live side by side. Just about everyone who lives there came from somewhere else, be it Mexico, Missouri or Makawao.
The story of the generations of people who move there, work hard in the service industry and raise their kids on the south side continues the local tradition. Plantation camps were full of people from other places getting together and working for a single employer. The story isn't that much different for a lot of people who call Kihei home. Most people living in Kihei work at the major resorts in Wailea, run late shifts at high-end restaurants, and man the kiosks and counters for vacationing tourists.
It may not be pretty for some, but then many probably didn't think the towns created by the sugar and pineapple industries to be all that attractive either. Nobody at the time figured that Paia would become such a quaint, gentrified center for organic food sellers, high-end yoga shops and hip tattoo parlors.
Kihei will get there too. South Maui is maturing. Generations of families are claiming Kihei as the only home they have known. The need for a high school is becoming more and more pressing. People who moved there in the 1970s, '80s and '90s want to raise their own children there. They want parks, schools, a hospital, and the infrastructure enjoyed in more established towns on the island.
Kihei is going to be old someday. It will have a historical society and be considered quaint. Maybe future Mauians will demand that its government preserve that late 20th- and early 21st-century look. Maybe they will argue that "historic" homes in Maui Meadows or the "classic" condominiums on South Kihei Road are the best examples of the tourism or construction industry booms of the era and should be spared the wrecking ball. We could even have a tourism museum where old pictures and real uniforms of pool attendants and valets are on display. Imagine hearing Kihei folks debate how much longer their ancestors have lived, worked and played along the sunny, hot stretches of South Kihei Road.
By then, Maui may find a new industry and a new startup town will be there for everyone to frown upon.
- February 8, 2013

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