What began on the America mainland in the 1850s when the first hula dancers were presented to the public and what was promoted by Hawaiian music only a few years later – the promise of paradise on earth, an Eden in endless summer – the Hawaiian way of life, for the vast majority of American was inaccessible. Simply because of the remoteness of the islands and the enormous costs of getting there at all.
After the end or WWII and with travel expenses declining, this changed dramatically and quickly.
In ten very readable chapters author Alexander introduces the many features Hawaiian culture and related impacts of Polynesia and Asia that began to influence the US mainland since the 1930s. Because he concludes that the “… edenic dream called Hawaii became a state of mind well before it became a state of the union.”
Probably the most influential impulses for visiting the island were the stories of the large numbers of GIs serving in the Pacific during WWII. As Alexander states that „… there were 1,366,716 U.S. naval personnel serving ashore and afloat in the Pacific Theater alone. … more than one million of those serving returned to the United States after the war.“ In their luggage all kinds of memories of war, but also real souvenirs like Hawaiian shirts, maybe a few tiki mugs and some kind of savoir-vivre of a tropical island where the summer never ends. As the majority of the GIs were male, there were also memories of the grace of the landscape, interesting rum cocktails, beach life and beautiful Hawaiian women.
Nevertheless, the main provider of transportation, the Matson Shipping Navigation Company, by smart marketing early on created a strong longing for the place, praising Hawaii in countless beautiful illustration and promotional material. To accomplish the great interest in the islands, all kinds of efforts were used to (somehow) remake/rewrite Hawaii’s story, establish a myth of pure easy living, friendly population, the “absence” of time and the home of comfort and an endless summer. That way, the US finally annexed the islands – by purposely destroying a legal dynasty – Hawaii in 1959 became the 50th state of the Union.
The book is organized mostly chronologically; therefore, his first two chapters focus on passenger ships, luxury liners and passenger aircraft, with lots of detail (a rather unusual detail in a book on the Hawaii.) Nevertheless, this is an important fact in the history of the islands, as the dream that was marketed in countless brochures, magazine covers and travel office vouchers had to be accessible for the average American over the years. For example, in 1951, 56,4 % of all Hawaiian visitors arrived by plane. By 1976 finally, 99,9 % came by this means of transportation.
Alexander continues with the hula dance and how it satisfied the tourist’s urge to see as much Hawaiian culture as possible during their short stay. Banned from the islands in the 19th century, the dance today is taught in more than 600 hula schools on the continental US.
A large section informs about the power of Hawaiian music, digging deep into local steel guitar artistry and their influence (even though some Americans were familiar with that sound from blues records since the 1920s), while further chapters have the emphasis on exotica music, namely on artists such as Les Baxter, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman. As well as on the famous Hawaii Calls radio program on short wave, that could be picked up by the legendary Zenith Transoceanic radio almost anywhere on the planet. “The magic was – and is – exotica took place on a mass scale in the 1950s as a wide-ranging social phenomenon that colored the post-war generation with a tropical palette that extended through the ensuring decades, involving culture, dress, social attitudes, and subsequent generations.”
The combination of exoticism, primitivism and Orientalism had a strong impact on Americans who just had won a war and their that would see full employment, cheap mortgages on houses, high salaries and much money to spend.
Tiki culture, a major theme that comes to mind when musing on Hawaii, along with rattan furniture (originally featured, produced and sported in the Philippines) and a very unique interior design of Polynesia themed bars, restaurants and hangouts are further subjects. It had a strong influence on (American) interior design of the 1940s and 1950s.
Naturally, the many Hawaii-themed TV shows and series (Hawaii Five O, Magnum PI and others) have their place in the book, too. Needless to say that the Hawaiian shirt, that had a huge impact on Hawaiians economy, many famous local designers comment on in in interviews.
Tiki culture, a major theme that comes to mind when musing on Hawaii, along with rattan furniture (originally featured, produced and sported in the Philippines) and a unique interior design of Polynesia themed bars, restaurants and hangouts are further subjects. It had a strong influence on (American) interior design of the 1940s and 1950s.
Naturally, the many Hawaii-themed TV shows and series (Hawaii Five-O, Magnum PI and others) have their place in the book, too. Needless to say that the Hawaiian shirt, that had a huge impact on Hawaiian economy, has a chapter of its own where many famous local designers comment on it.
The success and the easiness with which various races mixed and cooperated on Hawaii could have served as a model for the entire US, as in the war years Caucasians with no former contact to people of another ethnicity suddenly witnessed and experienced social contact with Chinese, Asian, African, Philippine or Korean people. This was maybe the most important influence of the Hawaiian experience in the 1950s, as Alexander suggests: “Many of these GIs [who fought and lived in the Pacific theater during WWII] and war workers came home with changed attributes about race mixing, then raised children with even more liberal attitudes on integration. Still other GIs and war workers stayed in Hawaii and married local women.”
Surfing culture, together with the surf music and new industry branches that started producing magazine, wet suits, surf boards and other goods also took the continental US by storm, making California a hot spot for the way-of-life that came with the boards.
As each topic could fill many volumes (and there actually are many books on the topic), this title here gives an excellent and concise overview on the huge cultural influence Hawaii actually had and still has. Alexander’s writing style is somewhere between that of a newspaper author who also employs first-person experience and that of a scholar/fan of the subject. He is the founder and director of the Academic Film Archive of North America.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2019
Geoff Alexander. America Goes Hawaiian. The Influence of Pacific Island Culture on the Mainland. McFarland, 2019, 292 p.