Wahi Pana: Waikīkī

#110 in the Moʻolelo series

In the lobby of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel is a painting by Herb Kane of Kamehameha’s fleet invading Oʻahu. They landed at Waikīkī. Were I a tourist, this image of native Hawaiians invading the very spot were I stood would make me nervous. I’ve been hesitant to write about Waikīkī because so much has been done on the topic, but I actually grew up there, so I feel I have the right to do so.

Kamehameha Landing at Oʻahu by Herb Kane

Maʻilikūkahi, in the 1300s may have been the first to make Waikīkī his headquarters. With its broad plain (partly what we call Kaimukī) and abundant sources of water (from Mānoa and Pālolo streams, which the Ala Wai canal wastefully drains away today) it was an ideal base for building political power. Waikīkī and the surrounding areas may have been one of the largest kalo growing complexes in the world.

One of the few ancient features remaining in Waikīkī are the “wizard stones” of Kapaemāhū. According to Teoratuuaarii Morris, who wrote a Master’s thesis on the stones:

Nā Pōhaku Ola Kapaemāhū a Kapuni is a Kanaka Maoli cultural monument in the heart of the world famous Waikīkī , on the island of Oʻahu. While this site plays a vital role in the preservation of indigenous knowledge systems and navigational histories, these stones have not always been visible and tell a dynamic story through how they have been valued and interacted with differently across time.

Morris, 2019
Nā Pōhaku Ola Kapaemāhū a Kapuni

In the unification period, both Kahekili and Kamehameha considered Oʻahu the prize of their conquests, and resided at Waikīkī for a time. In the Kingdom period, most of the major aliʻi had lands in Waikīkī as the Kamehameha dynasty held on to those prized possessions. I grew up singing the song “ʻĀinahau” with my mother, but didnʻt know it was around the corner from our apartment. Miriam Likelike had that property where Kaʻiulani famously lived. Kamehameha V and later Pauahi had the lands that are now Royal Hawaiian Shopping Center, and the royal grove of niu called Helumoa has been recreated in the shopping center along Kalākaua Boulevard. Anyone who has been to the remodeled International Marketplace will know that this was Queen Emma’s property (Kimo Kahoano and his partner reenact her legacy nightly at the Marketplace).

In the twentieth century, land transactions became murky because of shady land deals, adverse possession and sometimes outright sale. The use of oral history is important in these cases and one case shows land transactions in Waikīkī:

Hawaiian Nani Roxburg (Center for Oral History, 1988, 375-376), interviewed by Warren Nishimura, describes her mother’s land transactions, which show the transfer of Hawaiian-owned land to large estates:

            WN:    And what happened to the land your old house sat on?

            NR:     They sold it. Then I heard the ʻIlikai Hotel came up (chuckles) …

            WN:    Who did your mother sell the house to?

            NR:     Oh, that land down there? Dillingham.

            WN:    Hawaiian Dredging [and Construction Company]?

            NR:     Hawaiian Dredging. They bought all that property. They [also] built Ala Moana Shopping Center.

Dillingham and Hawaiian Dredging was central in the development of Waikīkī and their headquarters was at the corner of Dole and Kapahulu. The Ala Wai canal made dry land out of marshes that effectively grew kalo and rice for generations.

Kapiʻolani Park was named for Kalākaua’s wife Queen Kapiʻolani and was a horse racing track. This history is seen in the song “Kaimanahila” [Diamond Head]:

I waho mākou i Kapiʻolani Pākā …

Ike I ka nani o ka lina poepoe

Hoʻoluhi kino

We are out at Kapiʻolani Park …

Look at the beauty of the round line [the curve of the racetrack]

It tires the body [to walk all the way around]

Another song that tells the history of the area is Makee Ailana (a song we sang in the Lahainaluna Boarders Chorus), about a small island in the park, which has been partly recreated in recent renovations:

The Makee for whom the island was named was James Makee, a Scottish whaling ship captain. He was one of King Kalakaua’s poker buddies and the Kapiolani Park Association’s first president. He came to Hawaii in 1843 … He was a colorful and well-liked local figure. In addition to the island, there is also a hula named for him; “Hula O Makee”. He is also recalled in the popular song “Makee ‘Ailana.”


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