Hapa in Hawaii: Mixed Feelings

March 29, 2009

So, in my previous post (Hapa in Hawaii: Kumu Kahua), I covered how incredible it felt to be in Honolulu, surrounded by folks that actually looked like me, for one of the first (and only) times in my life. And – due to that – I kind of think of Hawaii as my adopted homeland in a lot of ways.*

But – being me – I wasn’t able to just stop there and bathe in the warm glow of blending in. No – I had to go deeper. I had to really examine why this place existed – an island where a majority of the people resemble me, phenotypically-speaking.

And, of course, it comes down to history. Due to its position 3,000 miles from any continent (Asia, Australia, or Americas), Hawaii was able to avoid the earliest rushes of colonial expansion and empire. It wasn’t until 1778 when white colonizers arrived on Hawaiian shores with Captain Cook.** Shortly thereafter, King Kamehameha I was able to unify the islands under his rule through a relatively quick war of conquest. Ironically, evidence suggests that Kamehameha was able to defeat his opponents largely due to his use of European guns and weaponry (brought by American and European traders).

A united Hawaii, in theory, should have led to furthering Hawaiian strength. Sadly, it was all downhill from there.

Over the course of the next 100 years, foreign interests (mostly white American businessmen) steadily gained a firmer foothold on the islands. By the mid-1800s, there were basically two opposing sources of power in Hawaii – the Hawaiian-run government that held political power and legal authority, and the American businessmen, who controlled Hawaiian economic power. We’ve seen this sad story a million times – so what happened next, when American capitalism and greed was pitted against an indigenous government?

Right. In 1893 U.S. marines landed and helped the American business interests (led by Sanford B. Dole, founder of the Dole fruit empire) overthrow the Hawaiian government. In 1895, Queen Lili’uokalani was arrested for treason when she attempted to regain power. Can I repeat that? The Queen of a previously-independent state was arrested for treason by American business interests when she tried to rule her previously-independent state. In 1898, President McKinley (I’m glad he was shot, but I should note here that Grover Cleveland – McKinley’s predecessor – was actually opposed to annexation) signed the resolution of annexation to make Hawaii a U.S. territory. Notably, native Hawaiians weren’t allowed to vote on the decision to petition for annexation. Upon joining the union, Sanford Dole became the first governor.

– Brief interruption – Dole becoming governor is like if Lee Scott, Jr. (Walmart CEO) took over the Phillipines and then the U.S. made him governor.*** Put that way, though – would you really be surprised if it actually happened?

Anyway. So – Hawaii was colonized by the U.S., had its freedom curtailed, and was forced to become part of the Union (without native Hawaiian input). Deep down, somewhere, everybody understands this, but let’s just make it clear: Hawaii is a colony, plain and simple. And, just like with the U.S. mainland, it has never won its independence. The only difference being native Hawaiians are actually still visible and harder to ignore on the islands.

Okay – so where do all the Asian folk come in? Well, unfortunately for Dole and his buddies, Hawaiian annexation came 30 years after slavery was made illegal, so free labor wasn’t available. So they did what American business interests have been doing for centuries (and continue to this day) – they found cheap immigrant labor to work under slave-like conditions. It’s no coincidence that in 1865 – only two years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the year of the end of the Civil War and realization that the North had won – ships from Hawaii arrived in China to bring back plantation laborers.

By the early 1880s, 22% of the islands’ population was Chinese. Enter the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1884. The Chinese well dried up as Chinese laborers were no longer allowed to come to the States. Suddenly, an influx of Japanese workers appeared on the scene. Then, when the Japanese island population became too large (and deemed a “threat” by white Americans), the Filipinos began to roll in. The first large wave of Korean immigration began around that same time.

So, by the early 1900s, Hawaii’s ethnic demographics fell out like this: 24% “colored” (which would include Filipinos and other Asians, as well as black and other ethnicities), 23% white, 22% Native, 21% Japanese, and 8% Chinese (that Exclusion Act sure was effective). As far as the hierarchy went, you had the Asian laborers at the bottom with indigenous Hawaiians, and the white folks running the show at the top. So – as usually occurs with such distinct class divisions – some racial mixing began with the “lower” levels. Various Asian ethnicities began to mix (a little, there is still a lot of intra-Asian cultural hostility) with each other, as well as some mixing with native Hawaiians.

So – 100 years of racial mixing led to the racially-ambiguous look of the people living in Hawaii presently. Few with native blood aren’t mixed to some degree.

But we’re not finished yet. Because we still haven’t explained the explosion of “hapas” that hit the islands some decades back.

Interestingly, along with the Asian laborers coming in at the beginning of the 20th century was a large population of Portuguese immigrant laborers. At that point, Portuguese wasn’t white, they were on the same class-level with the rest of the laborers, and a large numbers of mixed folks in Hawaii with white blood have Portuguese ancestry.

But wait – there’s more. Starting in the 1980s, Asian economies (specifically Japanese) began to gain momentum. And, with the increase in economic power of these Asian peoples came with their increase in political power (and levels of acceptance) in Hawaii. So, as Japanese (and some other Asians) began to mix, politically and socially, at the highest class levels, they also began to mix their bloodstreams. Et voila! The birth of the modern “hapa” movement.

Whoo! So here we are – present-day. “Hapa pride” is a catch-phrase, and the majority of mainland Americans think “Hawaiian” folks look like me. If we’re talking about people living in the state of Hawaii, then that’s true, of course. But if we’re talking about indigenous Hawaiians? Not at all.

And so, after putting all these pieces together, I realized that my “blending in” as a hapa-haole in Hawaii is actually a consequence of racial privilege. The majority of the hapas on the islands come from a relatively privileged background in comparison to the indigenous Hawaiians. The only reason folks of my mixture exist in such large amounts on the islands is due to American colonization and Asian economic dominance.

So, really – my “look” is a symbolic representation of American empire and the rule of capitalism. My “blending in” in Hawaii served as a bridge for further connection from myself to native Hawaiian issues, but, in a way, I am a cause of those same issues.

What do I do with this knowledge? How does this affect my excitement at the opportunity to see people like me all over the place?

I’m not really sure. My first step is open acknowledgement of it. I’m not going to hide from it. I will examine it, deeply, and accept whatever I find. And then I’ll share it. Through my writing on this blog, as well as artistically (I already performed a piece that addresses this). The second step is to allow myself to still appreciate my opportunity to be “normal” – no matter the historical significance of that. Being any kind of racial mixture is a remnant of cultural expansion and empire, and there’s no avoiding it. In spite of how people with my particular phenotype came into existence, I still have the right to feel a sense of normality.

And, finally – I will continue to look for ways to rectify past wrongs. It isn’t my fault that things are the way they are, but nor is it my subsequent right to allow things to remain that way. As a direct recipient of benefits wrought by privilege (however small and fleeting, in this case), it is my responsibility to do something.

And so I will. Because I refuse to hide in ignorance, no matter how soothing – even when it comes disguised as something I’ve longed for for so long.

* China being the “motherland,” literally, but obviously not really my place. The mainland U.S. more or less the “fatherland,” but – again – not fully my place in a lot of ways. My “homeland,” then, being where both sides meet.

** At this point, y’all don’t need me to explain why I qualify “white” explorers . . .

*** I use the Phillipines as an example, because their current state of being a quasi-U.S. colony with heavy military presence mirrors that of Hawaii before the overthrow . . .



  1. Nice post.
    A lot of people who get stationed there ( from the military) end up adding some flavor too.

  2. Good point. Definitely a large influence on the overall makeup of the islands . . .

  3. ‘Hapa’ is a term used to identify people of mixed native Hawaiian heritage. Somehow, it got confused to refer to mixed Asians, but I know that some native Hawaiians resent the use of ‘hapa’ by mixed Asians who have no Hawaiian ancestry.

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