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Three Little Syllables

They're a-lo-ha, and in Hawaii they are as ubiquitous as McDonald's, of which there were 25 at last count. Are the islands becoming too commercial? Well, yes, hey, life is commercial

Excuse me, could you tell me whether you pronounce the 50th state Ha-wah-ee or Ha-vah-ee?

Certainly. Ha-vah-ee.

Thank you.

You're velcome.

I have always thought of Hawaii that way—in flashes, a one-liner. Say Hawaii to anyone and sudden brief images wash over him: undulating grass skirts, Waikiki, Haleloke doing the hula on Arthur Godfrey, Arthur Godfrey strumming the ukulele, Duke Kawhatshisname swimming, From Here to Eternity, surfing, leis and Sugarloaf—which is actually in Rio de Janeiro, but which I have always confused with Diamond Head, which looms over Honolulu. Never mind; you get the picture. Aloha.

It is not surprising that Hawaii is so popular. At a time when theme parks are all the rage, Hawaii is the biggest theme park in the world. Theme parks are amusement parks with an identifying gimmick. To wit, Disney World, or Opryland in Nashville, which celebrates country music. Nashville itself used to perform this function, but now Opryland has been built to pull it off, with an entrance fee. Ultimately, there will be the ultimate theme park, Worldland: the African veldt will be over here, and hard by it, separated by a replica of the Berlin Wall, will be The Best of Westminster Abbey. Worldland will be ideal for Americans because no one will have to worry about going anywhere to see the world, or about un-English tongues, un-American currency and "the water."

In the meantime, Hawaii is the best we have of theme parks. Aloha.

Hawaii, you see, is perfect. Officially it is every bit as American as Evansville, Ind. or Greater San Jose—those little beige people can vote and get into Diners Club, just like you and me. But it doesn't seem American. Hey, present company excepted, not really. The people are different sizes and colors and they wear funny clothes. There's a toy language and live volcanoes and special music being played all the time. I took my first trip to Hawaii well before Christmas, but I always felt it was Christmas because Hawaiian music is played constantly, like Christmas carols in season. Aloha.

It is all indoctrination, which we undergo at the age of channelization, which is when we learn to recognize 1 through 13. By the time anyone actually arrives at Hawaii, the place is already constructed in the mind. It is propaganda. "Hey, we been working at this for 50 years," says the Hawaiian Visitors Bureau man, with a devilish smile. That which has lain in the mind for years is brought to a fever pitch by the airlines even before you arrive. Departure lounges, thousands of miles away, are done up in Hawaiian decor. The stewardesses wear Hawaiian muumuus, the stewards aloha shirts. There are Hawaiian place mats, Hawaiian pineapples, something dreadful named Aloha Punch. There is, of course, Hawaiian music. There are macadamia nuts. On United, you are given seven, in the same sort of triangular packet that usually contains a "non-dairy creamer," whatever, pray God, that may be. I love macadamia nuts, but just for the record, do not travel to Hawaii under the impression you can load up on them there cheaply. If anything, macadamia nuts cost even more in Hawaii. Aloha.

Even on the plane they start saying aloha. The only thing in Hawaii that comes cheap is aloha. If you have any sensitivity, you will come to shudder at those three little syllables. But it is a magic word, the key to the kingdom, the ticket to all the rides in the theme park, to Waikiki and luaus and Don Ho, to Mai Tais, the hula and Sugarloaf. In the old days aloha had help. It had the leis, which everybody got right after the boat docked, and you threw coins in the water for the "natives" to pretend to retrieve. But now, the boats are gone, the jumbo jets disgorge tourists at a dizzying rate, and the only ones who rate leis are members of tourist groups who are prepaid. Aloha.

My first impression of Hawaii—and the purpose of my visit was to record first impressions—is that it surely must be as glorious a resort as there is in the world. According to the Visitors Bureau, which will very shortly possess such sophisticated data that it can tabulate tourists by zip code and by "what side of the street they live on," 89.9% of the tourist sample queried in 1975 said that Hawaii provided an above average or superior vacation. In terms of climate, ambiance, activity, beauty and so forth, Hawaii is simply very hard to beat. It is in the middle of nowhere, of course, but that is probably a saving grace, inasmuch as it keeps down the teenagers with their transistor radios, who overrun mainland vacation spots.

But it is the aloha connection that makes the islands so alluring for most Americans. Nothing else would account for the incredible popularity of certain awful institutions. The luau, for example. Many hotels feature weekly luaus, most of which are conducted as engagingly as a lube job down at the Sunoco. Before the roast pig is brought by (some hotels use the same show porker over and over, returning it to its residence in the freezer after displaying it), before the tedious historical hula show starts, the tourists are shepherded into line to have their pictures taken. The male visitors are photographed standing next to a picture-book hula beauty in artificial grass skirt, real bra and lei. The women are placed next to a bare-chested Hawaiian male. The camera snaps, the next tourist moves into place. The pictures are up on the bulletin board the following day. Buy yours and take it back to the mainland as proof that you actually consorted with genuine hula natives. Aloha.

Surely, American tourists want desperately to believe that the islands are the racial paradise they are made out to be, that Hawaii, our last hope, has achieved the racial serenity the mainland never has. It has always seemed to me that even the worst American bigots would prefer not to be what they are. Thus, it is easy for the island flacks to perpetuate the myth that Hawaii is still destined to produce "the golden man," to be the place where everyone has the same perfect hue and heart. In fact, the melting pot simmers. Racial resentments have not affected tourists the way they have, say, in the Caribbean, but out of sight of visitors, relations are uneasy and often raw. The Japanese (known slightingly as Buddha-heads), who were first brought in as contract laborers in 1868 and have long since become the largest ethnic group, compete with mainland Caucasian Americans for control. The whites are called haoles (howlees), once a passive word meaning newcomer, but now a pejorative on the order of honky. The Filipinos (frips) are down at the bottom with the few remaining full-blooded Hawaiians (pineapples) and with the Portuguese, who figure in the local version of Polish jokes. But the theme park runs smoothly; the single most favorable response the Visitors Bureau gets is that the locals are "warm and friendly," and I would certainly subscribe to that.

I cannot help but wonder, though, if it is a put-on, if the Hawaiian-Americans who service the tourist-Americans don't view us as enviously and suspiciously as Jamaicans and Mexicans and Virgin Islanders do. That feeling is heightened away from the glitter of Waikiki, and especially in the other islands, where the country does not seem at all like the U.S. It is poor and it seems very Caribbean: corrugated tin roofs on old houses that often sit on stilts; skinny dogs pawing around; dirt roads and dirty children; faded Coca-Cola signs. There are many banana trees, too. Banana trees always seem to signal poverty. They are squat and off-green, and while they are cousins, more or less, of palm trees, the one makes us think of style and opulence, the leisure of the tropics, while the other recalls the hot squalor and ignorance of those latitudes. There is no Banana Beach, no Banana Springs for the beautiful people. Get away from Waikiki and all the magnificent resorts on all the islands, and there are a lot of banana trees in Hawaii. Aloha.

And then, as in any resort, where separating wayfarers from their cash is the perennial pursuit, there is an inordinate concern about money in the islands. Because it costs a great deal to ship anything to Hawaii, prices are high, and the inhabitants, isolated on their Pacific Eden, resent this presumed inequity. Now the tourist boom has escalated the price of things already there, the very earth. Can the Hawaiians afford Hawaii? On a guided bus tour I took all around Oahu (or Alohaland, as it actually said in the bus destination window), the driver kept telling us the prices of houses, the rents of apartments we passed. He was obsessed by real estate. "Eighty thousand, and only three bedrooms," he said, shaking his head. "Five hundred and seventy-five dollars, including utilities," he revealed over the microphone. He pointed out shopping centers as if they were unique indigenous attractions. Coming back into Honolulu, he said, "On my right, is where the Utah went down with 54 men, and on my left, the new Sears warehouse." Periodically, he would cry out, "Aloha," and everybody would obediently chant "Aloha" back at him.

Japanese vacationers take their own tours, and while American and Japanese tourists never seem to have to deal with each other except when their buses pull up to the same scenic overlook, the Orientals definitely add foreign luster to the place. They are also very businesslike, even about their holidays. Although it takes several hours longer to fly to Honolulu from Tokyo than from California, the average Japanese stays only five days, while the average American stays 10 (and Canadian 15). Of the five days, the Japanese often turn over one to a pilgrimage to the site of the sinking of the Arizona, where they listen uncomfortably to the toll of the dead and injured, and shift from foot to foot behind their Nikons. American tourists tend to check about for concession stands, so they can ship pineapples home.

But the Americans seem very aware of the Japanese. Hawaii is the last outpost of the U.S., the extension of the West and the Sunbelt alike. All these years it has been a dream, a Shangri-la, and now we have met somebody else coming round the other way. A lot of U.S. tourists don't quite know what to make of this.

An elderly gentleman from suburban Buffalo struck up a conversation with me on the bus tour because he wanted to buy the right aloha postcards, and he couldn't remember which island we were on. This seemed to be a constant problem on my bus. I told him it was still "Aloha from Oahu," and then I asked him what he thought of his first visit to Hawaii. "Well," he said, "it's a lot like Florida, weatherwise. It's a lot like Tucson, too. Tucson in Arizona. We went there last year. Hawaii's a lot like Arizona, only it's got all your special elements, your luaus, your hula. And, of course, it's also got all these Japs around."

In keeping with this spirit, I pointed out how your Arizona likewise had Indians and Mexicans, and your Florida had Cubans. He shook his head at my ignorance. "No, no, no," he said. "I mean the Japs are around, in hotels and on buses, just like us Americans."

While Hawaii works so well because it promulgates its theme park "elements" so well, its diverse beauty is surpassing. "The loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean," wrote Mark Twain (who is referred to in Hawaii as "our first copywriter"); Hawaii is so lovely that it is beautiful even when it is not. Sugarloaf, for example, is really quite brown and scruffy up close, barely a large knoll, and a romantic is terribly hurt at this revelation, like when you at last personally encounter a movie star and discover she is merely photogenic, only the sum of her best angles. Sugarloaf is like that: perfectly positioned and nothing else. How much did NBC pay to create its stylish new N? How much is that ship worth to Cutty Sark? Other theme parks have to hire all sorts of specialists to get a symbol, but Hawaii was given the perfect one—looming, backgrounding.

One can almost see God after He was finished making the Hawaiian Islands. They are volcanic, and an eon or two newer than typical American mainland. God was more practiced at making land by the time He put together Hawaii. And He was admiring His handiwork with some angels, and He asked for opinions, and the head marketing angel said, "I like it. It plays. But islands are islands. It needs a logo." So God gave Hawaii Sugarloaf.

The logo aside, everything else is so vivid. The colors come in great separate chunks: green land, blue water, white surf, black rocks. There is not much blending; it is not a peaceful beauty but a striking one. And it is disconcerting to think how much of it came from somewhere else: the pineapples from Jamaica, the macadamias from Australia, the hula from Polynesia, the leis from India, the ukuleles from Portugal, the people from distant islands—even the sand on Waikiki is alleged to have been imported a half century ago from Manhattan Beach, Calif.

The Hawaiians never had a written language. The missionaries put letters to the sounds they heard and found out they needed only 12 letters, which is why Hawaiian sounds like baby talk. The whalers brought prosperity, but it took the Spanish-American War to illustrate conclusively how strategic the islands were. By the latter part of the 19th century, the native rulers were an anachronism. The last king, Kalakaua, is said to have once beaten three aces in a poker game by uncovering three kings and pointing to himself as the fourth. A man named Dole thought pineapple might work out. Others built a couple of Victorian hotels on the strip of beach in Honolulu that the island royalty had always preferred.

It used to take great investments in time and money to holiday in Hawaii. The rich came for the whole summer; as recently as 1933, barely 10,000 tourists visited the islands during an entire year. But so well had Hawaii marketed its exotic themes that people lusted after the place, and with each succeeding mode of more advanced transportation, the tourist numbers fairly leaped: first with the Pan Am Clippers, then the four-engines, the jets, the wide-bodies. Visitors topped the 100,000 mark in 1955 and went past a million in 1967; now the figure has reached three million a year, which translates into well over $1 billion. So anxious are people to see Hawaii—just to be there—that they will spend way beyond their budgets in plane fare and the $50-a-day hotel tariff, and then eat all their meals at McDonald's.

Almost all first-time visitors deplane at Waikiki, stay for a few days and then move on to one or more of the outer islands—or the "neighbor" islands as they are known now, so their feelings won't be hurt. Waikiki is only seven-tenths of a square mile and is saturated with 23,000 hotel rooms, up eightfold in barely 20 years. Drains and sewage, never mind muggings and parking, are becoming problems, so it is to everyone's benefit to shuffle tourists on to Maui, Kauai and the title island, Hawaii, which is always referred to as the Big Island. Of these, Maui is now the hot one—"where Honolulu was 25 years ago"—and it will not suffer itself to be lumped with the rest of the neighbors as "the other Hawaii" in advertising.

I chose the Big Island; and nowhere else, in such a relatively small space, could so much that is representative of this earth be jammed. On mountains, still growing, that now crest at close to 14,000 feet, there is skiing much of the winter; below, there are beaches of black sand. There is Kilauea with its great moonscape crater that smokes and simmers and spatters, where Pele, the fire goddess, resides, and Mauna Loa, the volcano, always grumbling, ever ready to show us a sneak preview of hell (eruption information may be dialed 24 hours a day). The road from this charred furnaceland winds into displaced pastoral highlands that lack all tropical touches, where cattle and horses graze on large ranches, where the citizens wear cowboy clothes and tote firearms. There is no blue Hawaii here. And yet, just minutes from this rolling piedmont, there is stark desert, and, minutes away from that, the harsh rocky coast where fancy hotels must patiently wait more millennia for the lava flows to provide them with beaches.

Such wondrous diversity seems impossible. By the lewd standards of our "adult" society—Isn't it revealing that adult is now a synonym for dirty?—Waikiki is a very sensuous place. Who could ever forget that X-rated film classic Hawaiian Thigh"? For anyone who loves this earth we live on, who marvels at its voluptuous body, a visit to the Big Island is like a torrid, lustful weekend affair. Waikiki is merely a party, maybe a party girl. The Big Island is a heavy physical relationship.

I stayed on the Kona coast a cove or two away from where Captain Cook met his grisly fate. A small statue, at a point inaccessible by land, commemorates his death. He was the first of his race to reach Hawaii, stumbling upon it on Jan. 18, 1778, when Washington lay huddled at Valley Forge. The Hawaiians had never before seen large boats (the word moku still means ship and island alike), and they took the captain for a god, an impression he did little to dispel. It was more in disappointment than anger that the natives turned on him when at last it seemed rather certain that he was something less. Aloha.

Ah, how quaint those illiterate primitives! One day, at my hotel on Waikiki, Hawaii Five-O, the TV show, filmed a segment around the pool. The tourists didn't act any less deferentially in the presence of the show's star, Jack Lord, than the natives could have responded to Captain Cook. One woman, her bikini in nearly as much disarray as her mind, fairly ran into the ice-cream shop, screaming, "And Dane Clark is guesting! Dane Clark is guesting!"

Hawaii is a place where most people are active. One of the reasons why Waikiki Beach never seems to be as crowded as you would expect is that the average tourist in Hawaii only spends an hour a day baking in the sun. Waikiki is an open beach, too. There is still access from the street; there are no uniformed guards to scream at you if you don't have the right hotel key. But the hotels employ people to take care of the beach. It is clean and white. Generally speaking, you can tell all you need to about a society from how it treats animals and beaches.

Almost from sunup, Waikiki is active, exuding a good feel. Soon after dawn, the surfers take up their places far out, where the waves break (it almost seems the surfers have been assigned the display role for the day, not unlike Sugarloaf, which surely must be put away at night, like the flags). Joggers splash along on the hard, wet sand, moving among fishermen, who still patiently ply the surf. There are only two strictures posted: NO FRISBEE PLAYING ALLOWED and, under a huge banyan tree just off the beach, WARNING/BEWARE BIRD DROPPINGS. Otherwise you are on your own. The beachboys come out with rakes and begin to scrape the sand clean. Two aging gigolos take up a shady bench and scan the sports pages. One has his college ring on—a college ring on!—and wears tinted glasses and Adidas track shoes. The other, from the texture of his skin, appears to have once been trapped in a tannery. And as his pelt has been bronzed by the sun, so has it blonded his hair (his eyebrows are dark). He wears sandals and short-shorts. He is too old for short-shorts. There is no hair on his legs. The saddest of male creatures is the old beach type, hanging on past his time. This guy was probably a lifeguard or a surfer once; every Boat Day was a score. It was too easy, he never got over it, and now he is coming hard on 60, still wearing short-shorts but reduced to having to get up at dawn to check out the outfield talent that the young beach stars wouldn't look twice at.

A group of Japanese come out of a hotel onto the beach. The men are proper in coats and ties, the women prim in long skirts and stout high heels. Yes, of course they have cameras, and a couple of ladies even make a concession to the sand and remove their shoes. They all take pictures of each other on the beach, posed so Sugarloaf backgrounds. The two old gigolos and other Americans glance up idly. The Americans all wear loose-fitting, casual kimono-type clothes. The Japanese appear to have just stepped off Fifth Avenue.

The Japanese go back to the hotel for morning tea—or coffee, regular, and a Danish, I suppose. A catamaran lands. Pigeons with cherry-red eyes pick at the sand. The place is filling up. The gigolos put down the sports sections and contemplate a chubby middle-aged arrival, deftly evaluating her with the caustic code language of their trade. She has a T shirt over her bikini; it says HERE TODAY, GONE TO MAUI. She takes it off, sits on her towel and begins to put on her special Hawaiian tanning lotion. Hawaii has got everybody who comes to the theme park so buffaloed that visitors are cheerfully deluded into believing that somehow the sun that shines on the islands is different from the one that beams down elsewhere.

The sun is hot by now. On the principal Waikiki thoroughfare, Kalakaua Avenue, the puka-bead shops are already in full sway. Aloha postcards, aloha hats, scarves, decals, panties are beginning to move. If this were Dallas, there would be the same junk with "Cowboys" stamped on it. They probably sell a ton of Jayhawk panties in Lawrence, Kans. The tourists are eating Eggs McMuffin or meeting the day's tour guides. Many are reflecting solemnly about how commercial Waikiki is. The most unfavorable comment that the Visitors Bureau receives is that Waikiki is too commercial.

This, of course, is our great modern affectation: that something is too commercial. It is supposed to prove how sensitive we are. I was at a party not long ago where a guy said he and his family were swearing off national parks (that's what he said: "swearing off") because they had become too commercial. Everybody nodded sorrowfully at this disgraceful condition and commended him on his noble sacrifice. Every pseudodoomsayer provides the same woeful expertise. Sports have become too commercial. Christmas is too commercial. The elections are too commercial. Toys are too commercial. Doctors are too commercial. The Bicentennial was too commercial. What was the first thing Jimmy Carter said after he was elected? The inauguration was too commercial. So Waikiki is too commercial.

Well, yes, hey, life is commercial. Surprise. This is no longer the Fertile Crescent with everybody sitting around eating nature's own pomegranates. If something is good in 1977, it is going to be commercialized. In the old uncommercial days, you had to be discerning about many things now taken for granted. You had to make sure the food wasn't spoiled. You had to stock firewood and make educated guesses about birth control. The least we can demand of people nowadays is that they don't just rail at everything being commercial, which it is, but that they apply some old-fashioned discernment to the matter. Just because there is a whole lot of commercialism running around doesn't mean you have to indulge in all of it. It is my experience that precisely the people who put on the phony hair shirt and moan about things being too commercial are the ones who would expire from lack of pollutants, who would go berserk if they had to endure two days on vacation without scuba lessons at the pool and left-hand-turn lanes.

Of course Waikiki is too commercial. Of course most all resorts are. If they weren't, people wouldn't go to them. But the point is, Waikiki is not too commercial unless you let it be. I found it—the beach, the bustle, the tumult—to be very real, as genuine in its way as smoldering volcanoes and sultry rain forests. What is so patently false about Hawaii is all the pretentious rubbish pawned off as culture and tradition. If I was told once, I was told 100 times that there are now 25 McDonald's on the islands. This was always said with a sense of doom, and so I never knew how to react properly to the news, because McDonald's neither frightens me nor heralds the end of civilization. The people I saw eating at McDonald's appeared infinitely more contented than those who had forced themselves to attend a luau.

My advice is, if you are looking for the most real glimpse of Hawaii, go see Don Ho perform. The hula and the luau—all that stuff was culture once upon a time, but it is a straight-out fraud now. Don Ho is culture now. He is also commercial; also, I could not abide his act. It was boorish and overdone, and often puerile. But it is utterly fascinating, because when you get up to go, you recognize, as I did, that you have experienced what Hawaii truly is.

Don Ho (it is impossible to call him Ho) somehow bestrides the confluence of what Hawaii has become and what the tourists expect. He is the personification of the islands (something the mainland haole Jack Lord could never be), Chinese in name, but "chop suey" when all his strains are totaled up. It is not true, but a revealing rumor nonetheless, that he is paid $1 million a year by the Visitors Bureau not to defect to Vegas.

Many cities used to be instantly connected with an entertainment star, but most cities (or states) now are associated with sports people: Johnny Bench of Cincinnati, Bear Bryant of Alabama and so on. Al Hirt in New Orleans might be one exception to this rule; Don Ho is certainly the other. And he has the place completely to himself. World Football and World Team Tennis are the only "big league" operations ever to try to make a go on the islands. Don Ho is the only superstar on the Aloha team.

He operates out of a supper club located in the heart of Waikiki next to Don Ho Lane. It is known as the Polynesian Palace, and for the twoshowsnitely the tourists are jammed in like cordwood. The people on tours, with prepaid tickets, get the best seats, the ones with tables. The minimum is two regular drinks or one "exotic" drink—a Mai Tai or a Chi Chi or a Tahitian Itch or a Surf Sunset, any of those sugary treats that come with pineapple slices and little parasols sticking out of them. Don Ho bellows, "Suck 'em up," periodically throughout the show and the haoles respond dutifully. If you order the exotic drink, you get to keep the special Don Ho glass.

Don Ho suddenly emerged as Mr. Hawaii several years ago, notably on account of his theme song, Tiny Bubbles. He succeeds, I am sure, because while everyone else in Alohaland puts on a stylized little happy face, he scowls. After days of hearing alohas rained on you like call letters of a rock-'n'-roll station, there is something dear about a mean little man who refuses to smile, who, in fact, glowers and shouts, "Suck 'em up, gran'ma." Don Ho also professes to despise The Hawaiian Wedding Song, and between numbers he enriches the audience with crude jokes about honeymoons, bathrooms and ethnics. The night I saw him, by far his own greatest amusement and that of the adoring crowd came from his considerable repertoire of gags about passing wind. That brought the house down. (Of course, to give the devil his due, Don Ho did restrain himself for 45 minutes—44½ over the aloha average—before delivering a double entendre based on the word lei.)

Don Ho's constituency is older women, a singular honor that he shares with one other crooner, the rosy-cheeked Las Vegas staple, Wayne Newton. But whereas Newton is all confectionery, the consistency of cotton candy, Don Ho is lecherous and lewd, an exotic tough guy. Newton is the safe good son; Don Ho is the daring bad son.

When he growls, "Where are all my favorites, the gran'mas?" they hop up, the old gals, drop their canes and the scales from their eyes, and scurry to the stage where they gladly wait in line as Don Ho plants a wet, open-mouthed kiss on each. For the most favored, he also pinches rear ends and speculates on the sexual activity of the aged. At one point he takes his shirt off and carries on that way for a time, and whenever he deigns to sing, the room turns instantly reverent. Don Ho does not miss a trick. Near the end, juxtaposed with his final dissertation on stomach gas, came a reverie about the glory of being an American. The final number, I want to tell you, was not Tiny Bubbles but God Bless America.

It was a mighty happy bunch that poured out of the Polynesian Palace, clutching their special Don Ho glasses. Certainly, all the gran'mas had them and almost all of the couples in matching muumuus and aloha shirts. I suppose Wayne Newton makes women feel safe in such a hard, evil place as Vegas, and I suppose Don Ho provides the reverse function in Hawaii, supplying a little candor and edge to all the sugar goo. A little eruption now and again is not all bad. Eruptions made the place, after all. Suck 'em up. Au Revoir.