Saturday, July 27, 2013


Civil Beat articles sanitize the brutality of the Ala Wai canal development

The story of Waikîkî’s conversion from a vital self-sufficient community to a tourist dystopia is one of colonial oppression and unchecked capitalist development, both of which have fundamentally transformed all of Hawai‘i.from the description of Waikiki: A History of Forgetting & Remembering, on the Native Books Hawaii website

by Larry Geller

The Ala Wai canal is more, much more, than a modern-day pollution problem. The creation of the artificial waterway enabled the destruction of native culture in Waikiki and the building of a tourist mecca on its ruins.

By the early part of the 20th century, Waikiki was becoming a popular enclave of the “haole elite” and well-to-do vacationers who were enticed by the luxurious Moana Hotel. This 1918 ad entices visitors to the increasing attractions of Waikiki. Dredged material from the canal was used to fill in the nearby wetlands and allow Waikiki to grow.

[Civil Beat, The Ala Wai Canal's History (1910)]

To “allow Waikiki to grow…” sounds innocent, doesn’t it? Waikiki needed to grow, and here was a way to do it.

Civil Beat has perpetuated the abuse of the Hawaiian people and their land by omitting, in their coverage of the creation of the Ala Wai canal, recognition of the ravages of colonialism and local capitalism on those who originally lived in what is now Waikiki. The original inhabitants were displaced—intentionally—by building a canal to drain their land and drive them away.

In omitting this aspect of the canal’s history, CB has whitewashed a story of oppression that needs to be told. In this short article I can only introduce the subject. Perhaps they will be moved to augment their article to fill in, and so preserve, the hidden history of the Ala Wai canal.

Nor are the abuses behind us—development continues unchecked on Oahu, with prime farmland about to be paved over, and Kakaako transformed into a version of Hong Kong very remote from anything Hawaii. The development—and overdevelopment—of Waikiki was only the opening salvo in a war on what there is to love and to respect about this small island. The war is also on self-sufficiency and favors out-of-state enterprises who will supply the packaged food condo dwellers depend upon.

If you can locate a copy of Waikiki: A History of Forgetting & Remembering by Gaye Chan (2006), turn off your web browser and open this attractive volume. Let the disappeared history of Waikiki enter your mind and educate and refresh your spirit.

The Waikîkî you encounter here, however, is not the Waikîkî of advertisements geared toward tourists, which promise a paradisiacal idyll free from the trials and tribulations of everyday life. As this fantasy is told and retold, Waikîkî’s real histories are willfully forgotten. Forgetting and Remembering Waikîkî resurrects historical events to explore a place fundamentally structured by trials and tribulations, where escape is possible only if you turn a blind eye to past and present realities.

The Ala Wai canal was the “weapon of mass destruction” of its time, designed to drain the fish ponds and loi and so make the land uninhabitable to Native Hawaiians and other settlers.

Let’s cut right to the chase. From the book description:

Long before it became a tourist mecca, Waikîkî ("Place of Spouting Waters") was a watery expanse fed by mountain streams, underground springs, and ocean waves. Its waters irrigated taro plantations, which in turn fed man-made ponds rich in fish and seaweed. Waikîkî nourished the spirits of Native Hawaiians as well as their bodies. The area was considered sacred; several heiau (temples) were built and many came for spiritual healing. Early Asian immigrants to Hawai‘i continued to raise fish in Waikîkî, as well as duck, and cultivated acres of rice paddies. Only in the last century would Waikîkî’s waters be drained, purportedly to combat disease carried by mosquitoes, initiating a relentless reclamation of land for defense and building by military officials, government leaders, and businessmen. Waikîkî’s environment was ravaged, and many of its people were displaced to make way for military installations and hotels.

The book is beautiful, and I don’t want to mischaracterize it by selective snipping, but it also contains a historic record that is most usually buried or omitted today—as Civil Beat has done—and which is essential to preserve. Why? Because it is the true history of this part of Hawaii, and if history has value, we should not allow it to be erased or rewritten casually or to excuse the injustice it documents.

We know that Waikiki has been transformed into the economic engine of the state, but we bury and deny the history that made that possible. We ignore at whose expense the politically powerful today reap the benefits of Waikiki’s immensely profitable tourist economy.

Skipping ahead in the book:

In this chapter, we review the history of the Ala Wai, which was created by Walter F. Dillingham’s Hawaiian Dredging Company in 1921–1928 and was aptly first known as the Waikîkî Drainage Canal.1 Whereas Lè‘ahi [Diamond Head] is the most recognized landmark associated with Waikîkî, the Ala Wai is the mark on the land—indeed the scar on the ‘âina—responsible for creating the Waikîkî we know today. The canal ostensibly was created to clean up Waikîkî’s so-called swamps, which harbored mosquitoes feared as carriers of disease. However, the engineering project was really undertaken as a reclamation endeavor, to create land suitable for development into commercial and residential real estate. Although the enterprise was a gigantic business deal orchestrated largely by two men, Dillingham and Lucius E. Pinkham, the groundwork for reclamation was laid by Sanford B. Dole’s republic, which stole Hawai‘i’s government from the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893.

[p. 25]

Until you find your own copy of the book, let me leave you with this snip, a tiny extract which cannot do it justice but which suggests the rewards we may reap by digging further into the history of Waikiki and the motives for the creation of the Ala Wai Canal.

We can trace Waikîkî’s transformation from a self-sustaining Native Hawaiian community to an urban resort by examining how its waters were drained. Thus, these waters will serve as a metaphor for how Waikîkî and its people have suffered and resisted the destructive effects of colonialism and capitalism.

Oftentimes, we cannot imagine that transforming what we take can be problematic because generally, what we have in mind is improvement. Sometimes we view this in a very elemental sense: it will improve my well-being; it will make me happy! On other occasions, our motives are more altruistic. We think that what we do will benefit others. Frequently these two notions are intertwined and supported by value systems that we do not question.

Kânaka maoli born and raised at Waikîkî descended from Polynesians who traveled to the Hawaiian Islands in waves, the first dating from as early as 300.1 Those who settled in the islands brought with them foodstuffs from their native lands, and dramatically changed the natural environment they encountered in order to grow their plants. They cleared a great deal of forest to cultivate bananas, breadfruit, sweet potatoes, sugar cane, taro, and yams. They also cleared silt from denuded areas drained from streams into lagoons and bays, likely affecting fish in these habitats. These transformations were not harmful in the long run, for Hawai‘i’s early people developed stewardship practices that turned harvested areas of land and water into mutually beneficial ecosystems. For example, in Waikîkî, streams irrigated taro plantations whose waters fed fishponds, and ponds near the shore contained brackish water that nourished varieties of fish and limu (seaweed).

Indeed, Waikîkî’s waters not only made the area a rich farming ground, but also a sacred place frequented for physical and spiritual renewal. Ali‘i nui, divine aristocrats who served as interlocutors with Hawai‘i’s gods and governed Hawai‘i’s people, favored Waikîkî as a dwelling site because of its freshwater, bountiful agricultural, and ocean harvests, as well as its ready access to sea transportation. Waikîkî was thus suffused with the mana (spiritual power) of these sacred rulers, who in their roles as providers oversaw the vast taro and fish farming complex established in the area. Maka‘âinana (planters) tended Waikîkî’s loko (fishponds) and lo‘i (taro patches) and collected and caught other foodstuffs from the shore and ocean depths. They therefore supplied abundant food for themselves as well as the ali‘i and kâhuna (priests, healers, and teachers) who presided over rituals at Waikîkî’s heiau (shrines), which protected and blessed the community. Waikîkî’s waters also provided kânaka maoli with sport and leisure through surfing and succor for body and soul: a spring and section of ocean in Waikîkî were sites for healing procedures.

Oral tradition and archeological records indicate that Waikîkî was well established as a settlement and farming center by the fifteenth century.

History is valuable in many ways. Dillingham the capitalist and Dole the enabler are gone, with only street names remaining that tell us nothing about the forces of exploitation that they put in motion.

The ghosts of Dillingham and the others have yet to be exorcised. Their influence persists in our times. Just as Waikiki was transformed for their profit, left unchecked, the forces of rampant development today will chase us all from the land.

Remember: those condos planned for Kakaako are not for us.


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