Inner Circle

The Lingering Spirit of Aloha

Yeoh Siew Hoon rediscovers Hawaii

The Lingering Spirit of Aloha

There’s something about Honolulu that lingers in your mind long after you have left the islands. Even though I hadn’t been back in more than 10 years, as if it were yesterday that I stepped off the plane. The airport felt the same, with all the signs in Japanese as they were all those years ago, which may surprise first-time visitors. The Japanese are still the most frequent visitors to Hawaii, although, today, Koreans and Chinese are among the mix of Asian travellers.

At the taxi rank, a huge stretch limousine pulled up in front of me with a Korean driver. Kim, who is from Seoul, has lived in Honolulu for 30 years. “I like it here,” he said, “It’s more relaxing.” Relaxing is the right word to describe Honolulu as tourists from around the world come to Oahu and its neighbouring isles to play, eat, shop and do the Waikiki walk. As tired as I was after two consecutive flights, I wanted to feel the sea breeze and soak in the sunshine. Waikiki is as I remember it – a vast stretch of white, sandy beach packed with swimmers and sunbathers.

Although it would be easy to be lazy and stay around the hotels, which have everything you need – shops, cafes, restaurants, playgrounds and pools – I wanted to venture out to see how the main strip had changed. Local friends recommended  the Legends of Ko’Olau Excursion run by the Ko’olaupoko Hawaiian Civic Club, an organisation whose mission is to keep the traditions of the Kane’ohe Bay region alive. According to the tour guide, the area was home to the largest Polynesian populations prior to the arrival of James Cook in 1778 and they were extremely advanced in fishing and the irrigation and cultivation of land.

Some enterprising young Hawaiians are attempting to bring back these traditional systems. I visited the Moli’i fishpond, one of four remaining original Hawaiian fishponds originally used by ancient Polynesians for ocean husbandry using sluices to control the flow of seawater flow. At He’eia, a census-designated area comprising several neighbourhoods, I learnt of an ambitious plan to make Hawaii self-sufficient again through taro production. Prior to 1927, the island was rich in taro fields, but because sugar cane and pineapples fetched higher prices, locals replaced native foods with imported ones. 

Hawaiians believe that when a man is separated from natural resources, he loses his identity. As a result, the Civic Club has leased a 450-acre plot of land with the intention of cultivating it back to its pre-1927 state. Their top priority is to reintroduce taro in the Hawaiian diet. Patricia, an MBA student who showed us around, epitomises today’s modern farmer. Well-educated and articulate, she plans to revive the wetlands and grow crops that are native to Hawaii. The “grow local, eat local” movement helps her cause because it advises farmers on which crops to grow, which are then ordered by local restaurants.

I also visited the Manoa Heritage Centre to learn more about native Hawaiian plants. Set up by the Cooke family as a non-profit organisation in 1996, the centre is open for tours and runs free programmes for school children, many of whom are from less developed areas. I was lucky enough to leave with a children’s book called “Ka-hala-o-puna (the beauty of Manoa)”, a legend about the “girl of the rainbow”. 

Written by James Rumford, the book was the result of a local battle waged by Mary Cooke, who still resides in Kuali’i, to stop authorities from constructing a high tower in the middle of the valley. The book was used to spread awareness of the significance of this valley to Hawaiian heritage. It took her 10 years, but she finally won the battle.

As I learnt more about Hawaiian culture, I realised how similar it was to many Asian cultures. The way Hawaiians name their babies, according to elements and a sense of balance, is similar to the Chinese; the way water is sacred to the Hawaiians is similar to the Tibetans; and the way new generations are more respectful of their heritage is similar to how the youth of Asia wish to learn more about tradition. This time round, I am convinced the spirit of Aloha will remain even longer in me, and I can guarantee it won’t be another decade before I visit the islands again. 

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