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What Does the Movie “The Descendents” Tell About Hawai’i Now?

February 2, 2012 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Spouse C. and I finally watched “The Descendents” at the Kukui Mall in Kihei. (C. is a George Clooney fan.)

The movie contained several of my friend’s George Kahumoku Jr. songs, so I was straining to hear them. But there were many slack-key songs, so it was difficult to identify them. The movie is unusual for a recent Hollywood production that has packed so many Hawaiian songs for the soundtrack. (The film is also unique for the number of Asian faces, since aside from World War II historical movies, Asian roles are very far and few between.)

In ”The Descendents” the King family (George Clooney plays Matt King, the father and husband with two girls and a dying wife) belongs to a unique category in Hawai’i (although it is fictional, the novel is based somewhat on a group of real people): wealthy, a large family and members of a huge land trust dating from the 19th century, living in large old houses in Manoa, paying tuition to private schools (one fictional boarding school is on the Big Island; references to Punahou School) working in air-conditioned high-tower offices in downtown Honolulu, Mainland law school graduate, eating lunch on weekends at a Waikiki private club*, and hopping on a plane to go to Kauai or the Big Island on a whim.

This high-end socio-economic category co-exists in our State with blue-collar ILWU-member dock workers in Kahului sending their children to public schools, going to Kamaole Beach Park on weekends, and living in modest homes (plus worrying each time they fill up the family car gas tank). A wide range of other groups and classes exist in Hawai’i, from Nanakuli to Kahala to Hana to Hilo.

The scenes that made me reflect more were those of the King family’s jetting to Kona and Lihue. For a father and three children, round-trip air tickets really add up now (add another adult and the credit card balance really takes a hit). During the Hawai’i air travel-competitive mid-2000s boom period, many Maui families took advantage of cheap rock-bottom $20 plane fares and flew to Oahu or Kauai to visit friends and relatives. After the Aloha Airlines collapse, air fares became prohibitive for many families, and there has been far less off-island travel by Maui families since 2008.

The result has been fewer glimpses or interaction of Maui children or youth with urban Honolulu (and fewer meetings with Tutu or Uncles/Aunties) or even the Mainland. I always thought a higher percentage of Neighbor Island residents vis-à-vis Oahuans traveled outside their islands, mostly to Honolulu, for work, meeting relatives, shopping. With Big Box Stores on Maui, there is probably less need for shopping for Maui residents on Honolulu. Anecdotally, the fewer trips may signify a shift to more isolation of Neighbor Island people and culture compared to growing interaction during the brief burst of cheap air fares.

In my previous blog I mentioned “Colonel” Curtis Iaukea, the Chamberlain and Secretary of Foreign Affairs under King Kalakaua. For an individual who lived in the late 19th century, he accumulated a lot of mileage points traveling globally. He visited Russia, Spain, England, Germany, France and Japan – this was done via stream ships before the 20th century. (He was among the first promoters of the Trans-Pacific yacht race between the West Coast and Hawai’i, and later was a leader in the Territorial government.)

Even cousins Henry A. Baldwin (son of the founder of Alexander & Baldwin, established only two years before his birth) and C.W. Dickey (the famous architect) – born six months apart on Maui in 1871 -- both departed for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in far-away Cambridge, Massachusetts, and received degrees in 1894 – again, six years before the 20th century began**. My own father, born in Kahului, had traveled to Japan, Honolulu, California and Michigan by his early twenties – all this before World War II.

The War played a enormous role in taking hundreds of Maui Nisei, barely 19 years old, a few months after the Maui High prom or dormitory life at University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and hurtling them to Mississippi basic training camp, North Africa, Naples, the siege of Monte Cassino, Rome (imagine St. Anthony High graduates meeting Pope Pius IXX at the Vatican, or Lahainaluna High graduates telling about their visit to the spot where Julius Caesar was crowned Roman Emperor to their teachers originally from Iowa or Colorado – and they had never been outside the U.S), the Po Valley, and southern France, and finally into Germany. Others were in the Pacific Islands like Iwo Jima and Saipan, and visiting Japan for the first time in their lives.

Travel transformed young Mauians; they saw segregation (separate buses, drinking foundations) in the American Deep South, the towering Renaissance cathedrals of Florence, the nightmarish concentration camps at Dachau. Everything on Maui looked different to a twenty-something Pu’unene Camp-born U.S. Army officer wearing medals for battlefield bravery walking in front of silent judges standing before the Wailuku Courthouse on South High Street.

The young veterans’ return in 1946 resulted in a kind of “Arab Spring” on Maui, a popular movement to change Maui political structure, wages, eventually the entire plantation “system”. This led to the 1954 Elections that brought the Democratic Party to power, and fundamental changes followed for Maui and the entire State.

For others, the travels outside Maui resulted in the blossoming of talent not focused on politics: art. Tadashi Sato was born on Maui, and after Army War service in the Pacific, in 1948 he went to New York to study art. Later returning to live on Maui, Sato would exhibit his work globally, and his most famous work was the glass mosaic in the center of the Hawaii State Capitol entitled “Aquarius”***, the most striking abstract-expressionist work exhibited in Hawai’i today. In essence, Tadashi Sato’s “inner creativity” had emerged through travel and stimulation, meeting new peoples and cultures, and he took tremendous risks to study abstract art, when his Haiku friends were beginning careers in insurance or sugar.

For Maui children and youth, in order to contribute new ideas for Maui’s future, travel is essential to gain insights to other peoples and cultures. Unlike a fictional movie that shuttles families from one end of the Hawaiian island chain to the other in an instant, current airline fares makes it challenging for a Wailuku family’s annual pilgrimage to Ala Moana Shopping Center in Honolulu. Ultimately, simple air fares – like a butterfly in Africa that may cause weather changes in Seattle in the famous example of how small actions have larger impact (“Chaos Theory”) -- may have unexpected long-term consequences for Maui society.

*One Honolulu private club did not allow non-Caucasian members until 1968. To put this in perspective, the year 1968 was when the musical “Hair” appeared on Broadway, and one year before the Apollo moon landing and the Woodstock Music Festival.

**If Henry A. Baldwin did not study civil engineering at MIT, which was crucial in expanding sugar cane production on Maui, it is highly probable that my grandparents would have never immigrated to Maui and I would exist in a different trajectory in Japan.

***During Maui school excursions to the State Capitol in downtown Honolulu, teachers should point to the beautiful blue-green mosaic and say to the Maui students: “This art was created by a son of Maui, who was born in Kaupakalua. The entire world applauds his artistic talent. Just like every one of you, he is from Maui.”


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