Posted on: Sunday, January 14, 2007
Exposing life beyond sand, surf
By Christine Thomas
Special to The Advertiser
"Waikiki: A History of Forgetting & Remembering," by Andrea Feeser, art and design by Gaye Chan, University of Hawai'i Press, 188 pages, $29.
Be prepared to have your expectations and assumptions challenged from the moment you pick up Gaye Chan and Andrea Feeser's genre-defying book. The coffee table format and artful design masks its contentious underbelly, just as the writer and artist argue Hawai'i's tourism machine has done in the creation of a fictional Waikiki.
What was once the "place of spouting waters," they contend, is now marketed to the public as a tourist mecca of idyllic sunsets and iconic imagery, strategically "forgetting" the historic and systematic rape of the land. Though the book's composition is often beautiful, its meat is a dense academic dissertation that doggedly critiques the destruction of Waikiki by forces of capitalism and colonialism.
"We can trace Waikiki's transformation from a self-sustaining Native Hawaiian community to an urban resort by examining how its waters were drained," writes Feeser, an art history teacher. "Thus, these waters will serve as a metaphor for how Waikiki and its people have suffered and resisted the destructive effects of colonialism and capitalism."
Feeser lived and worked in Hawai'i for six years, during which she and local artist and professor Gaye Chan began the public art project Historic Waikiki. Among its aims is helping "tourists and locals alike understand our complicity in the decimation of Hawaii's land and people."
The introduction's condensed history of the turn to capitalism, the Great Mahele, the reign of sugar, and the shift to tourism, offers the most reward to those with little knowledge of Hawaiian history — the visitors they presumably would like to educate.
More intriguing is the focus on nine areas that originally make up Waikiki, from Le'ahi to Kaneloa and Kapua (now Kapi'olani Park).
In each section Feeser details or sometimes just postulates about the damage done — whether about the "scar" of the Ala Wai Canal and erasure of duck and rice farming, the military's damage to Kalia families and reefs, or the lost healing waters of Kawehewehe. It's never difficult to detect Feeser's thesis, which reappears in each section, as ubiquitous as a palm tree.
At its core, "Waikiki" is an undeniable indictment of haole residents and visitors who are presented as using the land, Native Hawaiians and Asian laborers for their own wealth and power, while claiming betterment of all.
Though a few sentences here and there mention good that has been done, such as protection of Diamond Head or restoration of the Ala Wai watershed, they are mainly afterthoughts.
And though Chan and Feeser presumably see everyone as complicit, Native Hawaiians, former contract laborers, and the Hawaiian monarchy freely escape condemnation and are portrayed wholly as victims.
There's no question the structure and presentation are impressive in their mirroring of the book's detailed analysis and message, but its hermetic nature risks alienating the audience.
Scattered throughout are prints of historical documents, brochures, postcards and photographs, but they do not appear in context; the captions are hidden in the back. This anonymity echoes the theory of forgetting, but also keeps at a distance the reader who wants to engage thoroughly in the text.
The large format itself also inhibits long, close reading, and despite attempts at conversational segues, usually surrounding a fleeting image, the text can't break out of its instructional tone.
Perhaps most perplexing are sections throughout that are rendered in blue.
Though this is not explained, the publisher has informed me "the blue part indicates the presence of water in the text." Unfortunately, even if it had been clarified, it's the same color as most hyperlinks, and distracts rather than flows.
Nevertheless, it's difficult not to admire Chan and Feeser's concept and ambition, and to appreciate their efforts to expose some of the artifice of Waikiki. In a country that clings to its one-dimensional view of the Islands, this book is an important catalyst for perceptive change.
Christine Thomas blogs about literature at http://literarylotus.blogspot.com.
The article can be viewed online at http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2007/Jan/14/il/FP701140318.html