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March, 2009:

Ka’iulani: the Activist Princess

The Hawaiian Hall at the Bishop Museum is still closed for renovations (we got a sneak peak on our visit — it’s going to be stunning when it opens in August) so there is only a limited amount of Hawaiian artifacts currently on view. The Kāhili Room at the museum is open, though — it’s in a different building — and it displays portraits of the Hawaiian monarchy and their feathered standards. These torch-like staffs were carried in front of royalty to visually announce their arrival.

Two of the portraits really stuck with me: the photo of Princess Ruth, a frowning, broad woman contained in severe Victorian dress, and the portrait of Princess Ka’iulani, also in Victorian attire but looking less awkward. Princess Ka’iulani cemented her place in the hearts of Native Hawaiians by traveling to the mainland to plead with Congress and two US Presidents for the restoration of the Hawaiian monarchy.

Seeing her portrait reminded me of this article about the Ka’iulani movie that’s coming out, a lush costume drama that tells the story of the activist Princess’ short life. There was a bit of a flap about the movie because the working title for the picture is “Barbarian Princess.” Our guide at the museum told us that the press in her day, never having met Princess Ka’iulani, referred to her exactly that way — as the Barbarian Princess — but she won over “society” with her elegance and grace. Some Native Hawaiians were also angry that the role of the Princess went to the ethnically ambiguous Q’orianka Kilcher rather than to a Hawaiian actress; beyond that, they worried about the film crew’s impact on Ionlani Palace, and were concerned that the story would trivialize a historic figure who fought for their independence.

There’s no release date listed yet — the Matador Pictures site just says it’s “in production” — but the trailer is up. It looks intoxicating, with a swelling soundtrack, period costumes and footage of beautiful Hawaii. I’ll go for the escapism, that’s for sure — but in the meantime, I’m off to the library to pick up a biography of the Princess’ life in hopes I’ll be able to watch the movie with a sharper sense of context.

Lt. Gov to SNL About Hawaii Skit: That’s Not Funny!

According to Hawaii’s Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona, “Hawaiian Hotel,” a Saturday Night Live skit (video below) in which two grass-skirted, uke-playing, hula-dancing, minimum wage entertainers abuse guests at a hotel restaurant is not funny.

The skit “went too far in its negative depiction of Hawaii’s native people and tourism industry,” Aiona said. He added he wouldn’t let “such distortions go unchecked” when the economy is doing so poorly.

There’s more reaction in this AP article on Huffington Post.

Dig a little deeper still and you’ll find that there’s some truth in the attitudes portrayed. So much so that earlier this year, the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce held a special presentation to discuss the issue:

The Hawaiian words Hawai’i and Aloha are the two most powerful marketing brands in the world recognized by people living in the most far flung places on earth. Ho’okipa, the act of welcoming and hosting guests, is so fundamental to Hawaiian culture and routinely extended even to strangers. Why then, are Hawaiians so disdainful and distanced from Hawai’i’s largest industry? — Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce

While on Moloka’i last year, I got to talking with some hospitality staffers about their jobs, the tourism industry, and what they thought about tourists. One of the guys was just happy to be working. “What else am I going to do, bag groceries at the market?” The other was more circumspect about tourists coming to Hawaii. “Depends on why they’re here,” he said. “If they want to learn about Hawaii’s people and history and culture, they’re very welcome. But if they just want to sit on the beach and drink Mai Tais, they can go to Florida.”

More from the AP’s article:

Jonathan Osorio, a professor at the University of Hawaii’s Center for Hawaiian Studies, said the skit accurately addressed how many in the islands work for low wages and how Hawaiian culture is sometimes packaged for tourist consumption without concern for its authenticity. It also accurately showed how many tourists who visit are ignorant of these realities, he said.

My reaction to the skit? Funny. Painful. And probably, like most sharp humor, based in truth. Judge for yourself: