Monday, August 31, 2015

Buzz kill on the Bikini

In Hawaii, we love bikinis. The two-piece is as ubiquitous as a pair of rubber slippers or a beach towel. Whether you’re kicking back at the Cove in Kihei, scanning for waves at Hookipa, or cooling off at Iao Valley, you’re bound to see one.
We have bikinis for just about any occasion: bikinis for tanning, for surfing, for swimming, for beauty pageants. Bikini-clad women are on pages of magazines, in advertisements, and on television commercials. Whether you’re playing beach volleyball or strutting across a stage in a beauty contest, the bikini is everywhere.
The two-piece has a long history, but the bikini got its start right after World War Two in the summer of 1946.
France was still in shambles from the Second World War, but was happy to have its first war-torn-free summer in years. Fashion designer Jacques Heim introduced a scandalous two-piece swimsuit for women that shocked the public in his day. Heim called it atome after the atom and had skywriters fly above Mediterranean resort towns announcing it as the “world’s smallest bathing suit.” (A picture of the swimsuit only shows how far we’ve come since 1946.).
Three weeks later, he was outdone by a rival designer and showman. Louis Reard took his two-piece to a nineteen-year-old stripper and had her model it around a public pool in Paris. Reard’s design was smaller. He even bragged that it was “smaller than the world’s smallest bathing suit.” What made this different was the exposure of the model’s belly button. No one had seen anything like that before. It even managed to shock war-weary Parisians.
Reard’s wanted the name of his creation to be just as explosive and shocking as the reaction it got from the public. He called it the bikini.
It’s too bad he went there. What Reard--and so many of us--don’t realize is that name for that risqué kind of swimwear is much darker than he imagined.
Reard named his two-piece after the Bikini Atoll, a ring of itsy, bitsy, teeny, weeny, islands surrounding a large coral reef and lagoon in the western Pacific. The water is a sparkling blue and the sands are white. Fish and crabs are in abundance.
During World War Two, the Japanese occupied Bikini as an outpost and the rest of the Marshall Islands until it was crushed by the United States in the bloody battle at Kwajalein Atoll. The five Japanese soldiers manning Bikini killed themselves in a foxhole as the American forces closed in in 1944.
Months after the war, the Americans selected Bikini Atoll as the testing ground for nuclear weapons. Bombing began in 1946, just four months before Reard’s nude dancer paraded around Paris.
In all, we detonated a total of 23 atomic bombs. We blew up the reef, blew up islands, and even blew one up in midair and let radioactive ash rain down for miles. Millions of tons of sand, coral, plant life, and sea creatures were sent sky high from the blasts. We stripped the land of its trees and after a radioactive fallout caused by the bombing, several islands were uninhabitable.
Most of the black-and-white footage of the mushroom clouds rising high in the air among the clouds comes from Bikini. The bombing finally stopped in the mid fifties.
Bikinians at first believed that they would be able to return to the atoll shortly after the tests. They were wrong. They were shipped from one camp to another in the Marshall Islands. Many starved. By the 1960s, they had settled onto an atoll that was a fraction of the size of Bikini.
An attempt to resettle their homeland failed in the 1970s when they discovered that the crabs that were part of their native diet were radioactive. There was no food left and they left again.
The late University of Hawaii anthropologist, Dr. Leonard Mason, investigated on the status of the displaced Bikinians and was horrified by their living conditions on other islands. He became their advocate. Without taking direct responsibility, the federal government has provided housing, funds, and relief to Bikinians, but it can’t replace home. Bikini Atoll remains largely uninhabited (only five or six caretakers live there). Descendants of the last generation of Bikinians still hope to return some day.

That’s what the popular two-piece swimsuit is named after. Reard explained that he named the swimsuit after the test site because exposing a woman’s navel was just as explosive as an atomic bomb. Far from it. Tell that to the Bikinians.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Heating up the old Cane Fire Debate

For more than one-hundred and fifty years, companies have produced the sweet condiment in the islands. It’s just about gone. Maui is the last place in the islands where you can still see sugar cane waving in the trade winds.
That also makes Maui the last place in Hawaii to experience a cane fire. The next time you find yourself driving up to the Crater for sunrise, check out the island below and look for bright orange lines of fire illuminating the dark.
From that vantage point, the fires are spectacular. When you are stuck in traffic commuting to work and you are engulfed in haze and ash as a thick columns of smoke rises above the fields and the highway, however, it’s hellish.
When I was a kid, I didn’t think anything of it. Cane fires were normal like trade winds and big surf in the winter time. It was an unquestioned part of life on Maui.
That’s changed. Years ago I met a lawyer from California who had experienced his first cane fire at his hotel in Wailea. He was utterly amazed that we still had cane fires. How come, he wondered, no one challenged the sugar companies for burning their fields? Surely it couldn’t be legal, he said.
That challenge has finally come. An unincorporated entity calling itself Stop Cane Burning, along with three individual plaintiffs have sued the State, which issues the permits allowing the burning, and Alexander and Baldwin, the company that runs the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company.
The plaintiffs argue that the State’s issuance of the permit allowing the cane fires violates the State Constitution’s guarantee of a clean and health environment. They argue that it violates the state’s regulations designed to ensure a clean and healthy environment. The plaintiffs are also seeking an injunction that would stop all cane fires while the case is pending. Alexander and Baldwin filed a motion to dismiss the case all together. Both the matters are set for a hearing before Judge Joseph E. Cardoza in September.
This is more than just a lawsuit. Cane fires are a perennial talking point here. No one likes a raging fire near their home, workplace, or school. The fires are a health hazard and a nuisance. Ash in the stairwells are ugly. Irritated eyes and constantly coughing is no way to live, but sugar is part of life.
“The sugar cane industry is not ‘a Hawaiian institution’ and it was not kanaka who industrialized it,” said one of plaintiffs, Trinette Furtado.
She’s right. Sugar changed Hawaii dramatically.
Consider the land. Sugar transformed the arid hills and plains of Central Maui into the green fields we see from the airport to Upcountry today. The sugar industry long ago took water from the rainy North Shore and the verdant parts of the West Maui Mountains through an intricate system of irrigation ditches. It wasn’t a surprise that the water for the thirsty crop changed the streamflow. Hundreds of years later the use of the water remains in dispute.
But perhaps the most dramatic change brought about by sugar was the importation of immigrant labor. Everyone educated in Hawaii knows that the sugar cane industry brought in people to tend the fields, maintain the ditches, harvest the plants, and run the mills.
Sugar companies recruited and used workers and their families from just about every part of the world. They were housed in plantation homes and raised their children in the plantation school. For decades, the sugar cane industry created its own closed culture.
Furtado is right. Sugar is not a Native Hawaiian institution. The sugar industry mixed people with diverse backgrounds together into a one-of-a-kind creation we now call “local culture.” For many folks, an attack on the sugar cane industry is obnoxious and offensive. Some see it as an attack on local culture itself. HC&S has tried to find an alternative to cane burning, but no viable solution is in sight. HC&S, which employs approximately 800 folks, does not and cannot seem to separate sugar harvesting from cane fires.
And so begins what could be a big case for Hawaii. I’m sure as the hearing date gets closer the perennial debate between the pro-sugar and anti-fire camps will heat up. Angry letters will no doubt be sent to and published in this paper. Comments online will be unforgiving, misinformed, and vicious.

But can both sides prevail? Can we keep the sugar cane and at least minimize smoke and ash to reduce complaints? Or will the residents in Kihei and Paia be finally free from smoke and ash at the expense of the last sugar company in Hawaii? And what becomes of the 36,000 acres of cane fields? The answer could be coming soon and it may not be pretty.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Reviving an Old Holiday from the Kingdom

In the no-man’s land between downtown Honolulu and Kakaako is a big, green park. The park, however, holds a unique place in Hawaii history.
It goes back to the 1840s. By then the rest of the world had heard of Hawaii. The kingdom itself was already on to its third ruler: King Kamehameha III. Businesses and diplomats from France, the United States, and England were stationed in Honolulu.
The rights and privileges of foreigners were still in flux. Private property, land ownership, and other western concepts hadn’t really taken root. But that didn’t stop traders, merchants, and companies from doing business in the islands. Courts were set up and the Hawaiian economy was starting to buzz.
But a group of Englishmen were not happy; least of all a diplomat named Richard Charlton. Charlton was notorious for calling foul whenever he didn’t get his way. When he brought a questionable claim of land near Honolulu Harbor, he was taken to court to determine his rights. He lost.
Charlton eventually boarded a ship and met with a few fellow Britons in Mexico. He told them that his countrymen’s interests were in jeopardy in Hawaii and demanded action. Capt. Lord George Paulet responded by sailing to Honolulu to investigate. The king held a cool reception.
English agents and diplomats conspired to take over the islands and made more and more demands on the king. Finally, the English took over. They brought down the Hawaiian Flag, raised the Union Jack, and declared the islands under the jurisdiction and control of Great Britain.
For five months, Hawaii had joined the other colonies of the empire. Charlton made sure that his case was overturned (along with others). Hawaiian flags were destroyed and the law was in flux. Ironically, the economy tanked because it was uncertain what would happen next.
The king was not pleased. He sent a diplomatic mission straight to London. He also ingeniously smuggled an account of the takeover along with Paulet and Charlton’s report to the homeland.
In June 1843, both accounts hit the desk of the Foreign Office in Whitehall. The timing worked well. The king’s mission got there in time and made their case to the crown. They won. The crown agreed that the occupation was unlawful.
In late July, Capt. Richard Thomas arrived into Honolulu and requested an audience with the king. He told him that the occupation was no more. Charlton was dismissed and the Hawaiian kingdom was formally restored on July 31, 1843.
In honor of the good Capt. Thomas, a bit of land was set aside, turned into a park, and named in his honor. That’s the section of Honolulu real estate separating King from Beretania is Thomas Square.
And since the Union Jack came down that day, the Hawaiian Kingdom celebrated with a holiday. In the islands, we used to call the last day of July Restoration Day. But calling it Restoration Day these days is a bit odd. We are living on the other side of the overthrow of the monarchy and on the other side of American-style imperialism. To mark this day as a restoration of Hawaiian sovereignty (only to later lose it again in 1900) is a little weird, right?
That irony has not deterred Native Hawaiians. Last month the County Council on the Big Island considered a bill to recognize Restoration Day. It was primarily an empty gesture since it would take the State Legislature to get in on the act.
But proponents of the special day are not deterred. A big event has been planned in Hilo commemorating the restoration of Hawaiian sovereignty, including hula, food, and music.
There is still a good reason to stop and recognize the significance of what happened at that park so many years ago. The whole affair forced England to give something back to its native inhabitants. One of the mightiest and most aggressive European powers in the nineteenth century formally recognized the sovereignty of the Hawaiian kingdom ruled and populated by nonwhites. It was the first time the rest of the world took notice of that the tiny collection of islands in the middle of the Pacific was in fact a nation.
It also may have been the catalyst for King Kamehameha III. His advisors realized quite quickly that an independent island nation ruled by an aboriginal leader is a rare thing. This was the same time England engaged in the hostile takeover of Hong Kong. In the United States westward expansion and the systematic destruction of Native American tribes was fashionable.

And yet, in this little part of the Pacific, the imperialist power yielded to a small country’s right to simply exist and govern itself. Maybe that’s reason we still need to celebrate Restoration Day.