How Waikiki was built “on war, racism and human misery”

Militarism and tourism have always been intimately related institutions in Hawai’i. With APEC leaders descending on Waikiki in November, Larry Geller reminds us of the hidden history Waikiki as illustrative of the history of Hawai’i as a whole.

In Hawaii’s hidden history—slave labor, profit, and the taking of Waikiki, Larry Geller writes “If you’re a visitor to Hawaii, or planning a trip, and a Tweet or Google search has brought you here, there’s a movie about Waikiki below.”

He’s referring to the 1994 classic social-political documentary by Ed Coll and Carol Bain “Taking Waikiki”.   As Geller points out, the film may have been produced nearly two decades ago, but the history and message is as relevant and urgent today as ever before:

This film might be shown in all of the schools as a history lesson, but of course, no such thing will happen. It’s a documentary centered around how Waikiki, originally a rich center of agriculture and aquaculture, became the present tool of the tourism industry. Tourism (and to a lesser extent, service to the military) drives the economy of the state and separates us from other Pacific islands wallowing in intractable poverty.

Why post it now?

For one thing, when the film was made, there was no Internet to post it on. Now, a documentary can be seen by millions, by people anywhere in the world. This film needs to be seen. When it was made, the extensive effort needed to produce a film could attract only a few eyeballs. I assume it was aired on `Olelo, the public television channel, but it could not have gone viral. Without YouTube, it that would have been tough.

For another, as we follow the development of Waikiki, we learn some history that is uncomfortable today, and so likely to be neglected. Particularly as the first of a series of human trafficking trials is set for July in Honolulu, that is, not even a month away, it may be revealing to many to learn that Hawaii’s plantation economy was based on slave labor. The documentary touches on that.  Slave labor is nothing new here, and if the federal charges stick, we will sadly learn that it has not yet been wiped out in “Paradise.”


Finally, the state administration is upset just now that it cannot wring unending growth from tourism. It is also undertaking the privatization of public lands based on a law passed this year. And it’s in the news that the best agricultural land in the state (perhaps in the country, capable of four harvests in a year) is on the verge of takeover by developers.

So the documentary might have been made yesterday. We seem still to depend on slave labor, low-paying jobs in the tourist industry to profit the rich, and the loss of farmland to development. We still have a government that knows how to do nothing else for the economy but rape and exploit the land and people. We’re in no position to dismiss our history because it continues to the present day.

Taking Waikiki shows how the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the taking of land and water for capitalist development, American militarization and empire and tourism are  intricately interconnected.   The tragic story of Waikiki is tied to the political machinations of Walter Dillingham and his dredging and construction empire.  One of Hawaiian Dredging’s first major projects in 1909 was the construction of a dry dock at Ke Awalau o Pu’uloa (Pearl Harbor), the first step in the eventual development of Pearl Harbor Naval Base.  As quoted in the film, the Pacific Studies Center report from 1970 concluded “Dillingham thrives on war, racism and human misery.”

A2006  Honolulu Advertiser article  about Dillingham stated:

He asserted his considerable influence in support of the killers of Joseph Kahahawai Jr. in the infamous Massie Affair, and once testified before Congress that “God had made the white race to rule and the colored to be ruled.”

Watch the movie Taking Waikiki by Carol Bain and Ed Coll (1994):

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