Take your hand and make a fist. Now extend your pinky finger and your thumb. Seen it before? Of course you have! This is Hawaii.
You see it on the road when you let someone into your lane. Teenagers in group photos pose with huge grins and make over-the-top gestures. Even tourists see it. We put it on every imaginable sort of paraphernalia. One of the first things I acquired when I moved back to Hawaii was a silk tie with the little hand gestures on it. I got it from someone who was moving to Washington D. C. and felt he couldn’t get away with wearing it there.
Like the plate lunch and other local institutions, the shaka is part of local culture. But where did it come from?
Many credit the Mormons. Hamana Kalili grew up in Laie in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He helped construct the Mormon Temple that stands there today.
Kalili also worked at the Kahuku Sugar Mill feeding sugar cane onto gigantic rollers that squeezed out their juice. Apparently, Kalili got his hand stuck in these rollers and lost the first three fingers on his hand. (In another story, he lost his fingers to a hungry eel on the reef.)
After the accident, he worked as a security guard and traveled between Sunset Beach and Kaaawa. Kalili still waved at passersby. Now, however, he had a very distinct-looking wave. Kids apparently imitated him and would wave back. The shaka was born.
As he got older, Kalili got involved in his church’s luau and hukilau activities for tourists. Playing the part of King Kamehameha for tourists, Kalili would wave at them in his own distinct way. There’s even has a statue of Kalili at the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie. And of course, he’s flashing a shaka.
But that’s not the end of the story. Kalili’s wave would have been lost to history or confined to the small windward Oahu towns if it weren’t for television and a very enterprising car salesman.
David “Lippy” Espinda sold cars for 26 years at the intersection of Kalakaua Avenue and Kapiolani Boulevard. His car lot is gone and has been replaced by multi-million dollar buildings, but back in his day, it was ground zero for the pidgin-speaking salesman.
Lippy was known throughout the islands for his colorful advertisements on television in the 1960s and ‘70s. He’s credited as one of the very first people to speak pidgin to TV viewers. Espinda was known to finish his ads by flashing a hearty shaka and sign off with the phrase, “shaka, brah!” Espinda died in 1975. By then, the shaka—like rubber slippers and spam—was part of local culture. He cited the word “shaka” not to the Mormon fisherman, but to his boyhood days playing marbles. A good marble shooter in old Honolulu was known as a “sharp eye.” But the old pidgin phrase for “sharp eye” morphed into “shark eye.” And with the accent, Espinda got the word “shaka.”
A year after Espinda died, the maverick haole from Connecticut started campaigning all over Honolulu with a new symbol. Frank Fasi knew the power of the shaka. For years his campaign signs consisted of the yellow shaka. When he left the Democratic Party to form his own independent party—aptly named “The Best Party”—he brought the shaka with him. A chubby hand in black and yellow became synonymous with the popular politician.
But perhaps the most widely-seen shaka came in 2009. Oahu-born and Punahou-educated, Barack Obama, had just been inaugurated as the forty-fourth President of the United States. It was a cold day in January and the traditional parade was making to the newly-sworn president.
When President Obama saw his alma mater’s marching band, he made the local greeting and smiled. Someone snapped a photo and the new President of the United States in a long, black coat and scarf proudly revealed his roots.
The shaka was seen around the world. And it’s a good sign to represent Hawaii. Decades after his ’76 campaign, Fasi in an interview explained why he liked the shaka so much.
“I think (it) meant shake it up, buddy. How’s it going? Aloha. Have a good day. All those good meanings. It just meant a world of goodness.”
I think he’s right. The shaka makes everyone feel good, and no one should be shy about doing it. I’m just glad the guy who gave me that tie didn’t want it back so he could wear it in the capitol.