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Hawaii Special Issue : Hawaiian Renaissance


HONOLULU — I knew the Hilton Hawaiian Village on Waikiki was big, but until last month, I didn't suspect it had room enough for two Hawaiis.

The most obvious of the two is the commercially packaged version that lies all around as you walk the 20-acre, 2,542-room beachfront resort on a Friday night. On those evenings, bathed in the light of its 77 gasoline-fed tiki torches, the hotel stages its "King's Jubilee" show with 10 hula dancers and a man playing the role of King David Kalakaua, the "merry monarch" of the islands who revived interest in hula and Hawaiian music in the 19th Century. After the free hourlong performance, the hotel staff explodes fireworks over the beach, and thousands of vacationers stand below and marvel at the indigo sky, the creamy sand, the commotion of the tides.

I took in a portion of that scene the night I arrived. But after a few minutes, I snuck off to the hotel's Tapa Ballroom to spend a couple of hours with the other Hawaii, the one that native Hawaiians are struggling to sustain.

The event was a community children's hula competition, advertised on bulletin boards within the hotel. I paid the $10 admission and sat among several hundred locals to admire the dancing, chanting and drumming of 18 hula schools, known as halau , and the kumu (teachers) who lead them.

The annual Hula Oni E Keiki Hula Festival, assembled by the Halau Hula O Hokulani, was created three years ago. If the cultural offerings outside felt vaguely like a Las Vegas floor show, the atmosphere of these performances shared more with mainland Little League games and piano recitals.

Vendors offered homemade crafts. In the front row sat a line of impassive judges. And before them proceeded scores of nervous keiki --children--some of whom had studied hula for eight years and were just entering their teens. As 13-year-old Jessica Kamalani Bond prepared to take her solo, the master of ceremonies read a few details from her bio.

"When she grows up," he said, "she would like to be a computer technician and professional hula dancer."

That night, and for the next six days on Oahu, Kauai and Maui, I found two distinct trends at work: Hawaiians are exploring and celebrating their native culture with more enthusiasm than they have in perhaps a century, and the Hawaiian tourism industry is pouring new emphasis into replicating and advertising the most visitor-friendly elements of that culture.

If you're a strictly sun-sand-surf traveler, you're likely to notice small things here and there, many of them merely cosmetic: fewer plastic leis at the hotels, more Hawaiian-made products in gift shops, more taro dishes on menus.

Still, the list grows longer daily: At the Hyatt Regency Kauai, members of the island's historical society meet with interested guests for "talk-story" sessions. At the half-dozen sites of Hawaiian Hotels & Resorts, an "essence of Hawaii" promotional campaign, devised last year, highlights historical aspects of each site. On the two ships of American Hawaii Cruises, passengers now find that the crew includes a traditional Hawaiian storyteller. Last month on the Big Island of Hawaii, the Kona Village Resort threw a birthday party for 83-year-old Imgard Aluli, one of the state's most prolific Hawaiian songwriters. Meanwhile, Molokai, for decades one of the least tourism-oriented of the islands, now sells itself to visitors as "the most Hawaiian island" of them all.

But there's more to this than marketing. Glance at a community bulletin board, chat with a resident, make an inquiring phone call to a museum or cultural group, look in one of the islands' local festivals, or perhaps merely take a closer look at your hotel lobby, and you'll probably find hints of a deeper, more rewarding--and more conflicted--Hawaii.

In fact, a stranger can easily see those 77 closely tended Hilton torch flames as a sign of the strange state of tourism and cultural politics in Hawaii these days: Everyone, it seems, is declaring his or her eagerness to protect the flame of native Hawaiian tradition. But for every torch-bearer, there seems to be another set of presumptions and ambitions and another formula for feeding the flames.

One obvious element in Hawaii's introspective mood is the delicate condition of the tourism industry, which generates an estimated 40% of the state's gross product and is only now coming back from a deep three-year slump. Too poor to continue the developers' orgy of mega-resorts, monorails and water slides that capped off the 1980s, the industry's leaders last year publicly vowed to renew their emphasis on trappings of traditional Hawaii, a trend that had already been growing for several years. Now, in ever-greater numbers, tourism leaders are matching hotels with local hula schools, urging local guides to pass tests in island history and tutoring workers in aloha spirit.

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