Category Archives: Honolulu Magazine

Moving Cans

Just about everything in your life—food, cars, building materials—comes to Hawaii via the waterfront. We went inside the world of the longshoremen, who load and unload all that cargo, and found that centuries of muscle and sweat have given way to skilled labor and powerful machines.

Story by DENNIS HOLLIER
Photos by LUCY PEMONI

Matson's gantry cranes run all night.

Nate Lum and his gang of linemen spread out along the wharf, watching impassively as the Lihue lumbers into dock beneath the gantry cranes at the Matson yard at Honolulu Harbor. The linemen are here to secure the vessel—the first of several gangs of longshoremen who will handle the ship while it’s in port. They’re a motley group, mostly older and thick around the middle; except for their hard hats and orange vests, they’re dressed haphazardly in street clothes.

But linemen are among the most experienced longshoremen; the members of this gang have spent decades in the shadow of ships like this one. And the Lihue is a behemoth: a 787-foot containership, crammed stem to stern with that ubiquitous beast of modern freight, the ocean container. These “cans,” as the longshoremen call them, are stacked as many as 12 abreast and 11 deep and tower more than seven stories over the water. And yet, despite its ungainly load, the Lihue docks gracefully. As the harbor tug slowly nudges the stern the last few feet toward the pier, the crew begins to send the dock lines ashore. The linemen collect them methodically, hitching the hawsers—thick as a man’s thigh—to a forklift and snaking them to bollards down the pier. The whole operation takes place almost wordlessly.

Containerships like the Lihue have come to dominate ocean freight, accounting for more than 80 percent of the household goods coming into Hawaii. Most of the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the furniture in our homes and, indeed, most of the material in the homes themselves, arrive in containers. The Matson yard teems with the massive machinery needed to manage the endless stream of cans: gantry cranes and jack cranes, top-picks and side-picks, bomb carts and forklifts. But these are all just tools. It’s still the longshoremen themselves who make the docks work. The waterfront is a world where centuries of muscle and sweat have given way to skilled labor and powerful machines, and I’ve come down to the Matson yard for a glimpse at how things have changed. Nate Lum, foreman of the lineman gang and chairman of the longshoremen’s union, has agreed to be my guide.

Lum is a second-generation longshoreman. He’s been on the docks for more than 30 years and embodies many of the contradictions in the modern stevedore. He’s a sober, burly man; but he laughs easily and carries himself with a self-assured grace. Like many accustomed to hard, physical work, he’s taciturn; but he’s passionate about the union and articulate in defense of its traditions.

Specialized containers are needed to haul liquids.

Lum’s career has coincided with the great technological changes that have transformed life on the docks—changes about which he’s ambivalent. When he began, much of stevedoring was still backbreaking grunt work. Today, although most of the heavy lifting is done with powerful machinery, old-timers like Lum still remember the personal cost of hard, physical labor. The containerization of modern shipping is a conundrum; although it’s made the life of the longshoreman less backbreaking, it’s also reduced work opportunities. Still, Lum is a realist. “We can’t fight technology,” he says. “We have to embrace it to survive.”

After getting me a hard hat and an orange vest, Lum and I hop into his truck for a tour of the waterfront. As we drive through the shipyards of Honolulu Harbor, he explains the organization of the longshoremen. In the old days, when the workers were predominately Native Hawaiians, the wharves were lined with great warehouses. Some longshoremen worked the wharf, sorting cargo in the warehouses and carting it back and forth to the ships. Others worked aboard the ships, loading and unloading cargo and securing it for passage down in the hold. Although containers have changed much of the work, longshoremen still operate within the old structure.

“Longshoremen are organized into gangs,” Lum explains. “Ship gang. Wharf gang. Machine operators. Crane operators. Linemen.” The modern wharf gang, they move the cans around the yard and man the “puddle”—the loading zone beneath the gantry cranes. The ship gang handles the difficult manual work aboard a ship, locking and unlocking the cans from one another, and lashing and unlashing the stacks. In the early days of container use, workers used chains to lash the stacks against ocean storms. Today, the lashing is done with 20-foot steel rods secured with turnbuckles. The awkward task of scampering between the stacks, balanced on temporary walkways called duckboards, is still considered one of the longshoremen’s most dangerous jobs. “The meat and potatoes of longshore work is this ship gang,” says Lum.

Out on the edge of the apron—the broad tarmac that runs along the pier—several members of the wharf gang sit in the shade of the container yard tower, waiting for the unloading of the Lihue to begin. Lum drops me off there to find out how technology has affected regular stevedores. Even here, though, longshoremen often have years of experience. Some, like machine operator Kahea Sanborn, have been on the docks more than 20 years. But the experience runs deeper than that. Carlton Cortez, the gang foreman, is a third-generation longshoreman.

A basic “can,” or container, is 40 feet long, eight feet wide and eight feet high. Locking mechanisms at the corners allow them to be securely stacked and moved around by the machinery in the yard. There are variations, specialized containers such as refrigerated cans for food, flat racks for lumber and cattle cans with slatted sides—but they still fit together like Tinker Toys. Containers are also standardized across freight platforms, so the cans from the containerships can be loaded onto semitrailers or stacked two deep on railroad cars. Within the past five years, the cans have also become GPS-equipped; their locations are monitored and recorded on computers in a Matson control room in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Machine operators also use increasingly sophisticated machines to move the cans. Little cabs, called UTCs, shuttle the cans between the cranes and the container yard, hauling them around on yellow utility trailers, nicknamed “bomb carts.”

Powerful vehicles, called top-picks and side-picks, lift the containers on and off the bomb carts. Like giant forklifts, they can hoist a 20-ton can onto a stack four stories high. The sheer mass of the loads and the gear makes this an especially dangerous job. Kahea puts the risks in perspective: “You don’t get injured. You die.”

Being a machine operator is considered a talent position, and the first advancement of most basic longshoremen is to get qualified to fill in as a substitute machine operator. “Used to be all labor,” Lum says. “Now it’s all skill jobs.”

The most easily recognized feature of the Matson yard is the rank of huge, yellow gantry cranes along the pier. They tower over the docks like the robots in War of the Worlds, their legs spread far enough apart that four lanes of traffic can pass under them. They load and unload the cans from the containerships. High above even the largest containership, the crane’s boom juts out over the water, cantilevered by the weight of its massive machine house. The cab, instead of being fixed, is attached to a trolley that runs on tracks beneath the boom. Shuttling in and out in his cab, the crane operator is always directly over his load. The entire crane rides on railroad tracks along the dock, so it can be moved fore and aft along the ship. Sometimes as many as four cranes work a single ship. A good crane operator can move more than 30 cans an hour in a precise ballet.

Lum takes me up to the break room in the back of the Matson yard to meet a handful of crane operators waiting for their shifts to begin. Like the linemen, crane operators have decades of experience—and, in the union, where seniority is paramount, they’re at the top pay grade. It’s a position for which longshoremen have to wait years.

“When I got in [to the union], back in 1970,” Lum says, “my goal was to be a crane operator. Took me five years to get there.” Now, it might take twice that long. Richard Rees, a 25-year veteran of the docks, puts the wait in perspective. “I’ve been driving a crane about five years,” he says. “At Matson, we have seven gantry cranes. Crane operators work in pairs; two guys share a 10-hour shift, five [hours] on, five off. There are only 21 crane operators.”

I glance at the other crane operators milling around the break room. None of them look like they’re ready to give up their privileged positions, though it can be a lonesome job. Later, each of them will head out to his crane, climb the 10 flights of stairs inside one of the crane’s legs, then spend five hours in his cab, moving cans. They carry a lunch with them, and an old jug usually serves as the latrine.

Lum takes me up in the control tower to meet Rusty Leonard, Matson’s general manager for stevedore operations. Leonard has been on the docks for 30 years, five of them at Matson. Within the industry, he says, the big changes started in the early 1970s. “Before, there used to be mostly break bulk carriers like the old Maunalani and the Manukai and the Moanalei.”

Before the use of cans, cargo was loaded into the ships piecemeal, and stevedores climbed right down into the hold to do it. Cargo was segregated according to its destination port, and the ship gang had to serve as carpenters, too, building bulkheads and frameworks in the ’tween decks to shore up the cargo. Later, surveyors passed through, checking to make sure the shoring would hold.

Older stevedores talk about those times with dark humor. “The worst was getting on the tuna boats,” said Leon Camara, a winch man. “Got all the frozen tuna piled up inside. Frozen, but still stink though. Used to have to throw away our clothes.”

There were no gantry cranes back then. Instead, shipboard jack-cranes crowded the vessel’s deck—sometimes as many as seven to a ship, one for each hold. Cargo—the small stuff packed in bales and boxes and crates, the large stuff left loose—was hoisted in and out of the hold on pallets. Stevedores loaded and unloaded the pallets one by one, using handcarts to push freight around the enormous dockside warehouses. This called for a lot of labor, and, at its height, the longshoremen’s union had more than 4,000 members in Hawaii.

Modernization took a bite out of the union, and by the late ’50s and early ’60s, more than 2,000 stevedores were laid off. As Lum points out, “When I got hired in 1970, there were only about 400 longshoremen.” As harbor operations have grown, that number has gradually increased, and today there are about 1,000 longshoremen in the local of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

A visit to a monthly meeting at the union hall reveals a surprisingly diverse group. Most of the longshoremen had to wait a long time before they got their opportunity to join, even starting longshore work as a second career. “We’ve got a lot of athletes,” Lum says. “Got Jesus Salude, the former world flyweight champion. Got football players, too: Elvis Satele, Karl Lorch, Levi Stanley.” And it’s not just athletes who gravitate to the docks; there are also former policemen and ex-firefighters.

I look over the meeting hall. It’s a serious day for the union—they’re debating some of the details for their upcoming contract negotiations—and many of the stevedores have crowded their folding chairs toward the front of the room to listen to what the leadership has to say. But there’s also an air of conviviality in the room, and I’m struck by the sense of brotherhood there. During the union meeting, stevedores move in and out of the room, greeting each other with warm embraces. There are still a lot of Native Hawaiians among the longshoremen, and they often pause to honi in the old-fashioned way.

I head downstairs to the parking lot where some of the stevedores are preparing food. I find Ward Mariani there behind a grill, carefully tending the shoyu chicken and teriyaki steak. Mariani spent 34 years as a cop, but he’s been a longshoreman for seven years, three of them as foreman on a wharf gang. He points out that, even with all the machinery, the docks can be hard on a middle-age man. “I wish I was a little bit younger when I got in,” Mariani says. “What helped me was I stayed in shape. Lashing is hard work. It takes a lot out of you.”

When the meeting upstairs finally ends, Lum comes down and introduces me to Karl Lorch, one of the most famous stevedores. He joined the longshoremen after more than a decade as a professional football player with the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins.

Lorch knew people at Hawaii Stevedores Inc., one of the two big stevedore companies, so when his football career ended, becoming a longshoreman seemed like a good option. “It’s a hard job,” Lorch says. “But I went to school just to get by and to play football. This is a good job.” The ILWU is still a powerful union in Hawaii, so the wages and benefits are good for the stevedores. Although it’s dangerous work done in all weather, the basic laborer makes $31 an hour. Longshoremen often endure criticism for being overpaid, but, with the hours they work, they don’t make much more than other skilled blue-collar workers, like electricians and plumbers. Still, the longshoremen are sensitive about the subject.

Lorch also talks about the air of brotherhood I had noticed. “This is my first experience with a union—a real union,” he says. “Everybody’s like cousins, a big family.”

Lorch has been a stevedore for 18 years now. Normally, that would be enough time for a longshoreman to become a machine operator or a winchman, but Lorch remains happy on the wharf gang. “I started here when I was 40 years old,” he says. “I figured by the time I became a crane operator I’d be an old man. So, I just let the young guys go by.”

I ask Lorch what surprised him the most when he became a longshoreman. He thinks for a moment. “The first thing I noticed,” he tells me, “the pier is running 24 hours a day. With the lights on and the whole pier lit up, you’d think it was daylight. At 10 p.m., you’re just as awake as you are at noon.”

Listening to Lorch describe his early days on the docks, I think of something that a foreman on the wharf gang told me: “Just remember, at 2 a.m., when you’re home in bed dreaming, we’re down here. Moving cans.”

Dennis Hollier is a freelance writer with a real fascination for the hubbub of the waterfront. He writes about business, culture, science and the environment, but he can usually be seen staring wistfully out to sea.

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Community: A Matter of Trust

Can community land trusts provide affordable housing? Maui is set to find out.

DENNIS HOLLIER

Tom Blackburn-Rodriguez

Maui may be the center of Hawai‘i’s crisis in affordable housing. With the average home price approaching $700,000, working families there are increasingly excluded from home ownership. And Maui is only the worst example. Affordable housing is in short supply throughout the state. But Maui is also at the forefront in the search for solutions. Recently, affordable-housing advocates, the Realtors Association of Maui and the county government collaborated to create Na HALE o Maui, a community land trust (CLT).

Na HALE o Maui is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to acquire land and develop affordable housing. Although it plans to sell homes, the organization will never sell the land, instead remaining the permanent landowner. By definition, CLTs like this offer long-term, renewable leases—a concept familiar to Hawai‘i homeowners. In addition, when the owner decides to resell his home, a CLT will typically retain the option to buy at a specified price. The price is fixed by a formula that gives the seller a fair profit. These rules ensure that the homes remain affordable for future buyers.

CLTs aren’t new; more than 30 states have them. For example, BCLT, of Burlington, Vt., has provided affordable housing for more than 20 years. Recently, BCLT merged with another organization to become the Champlain Housing Trust and now oversees around 2,000 homes.

Here in Hawai‘i, the CLT model enjoys bipartisan political support, including that of state Sen. Robert Bunda (D). Last year, Bunda introduced legislation making certain state lands available to CLTs. According to Bunda, “We have lots of land currently zoned for agriculture that would be appropriate for this kind of development.” This year, Bunda expects to introduce legislation authorizing private developers to build homes on state land leased to CLTs.

CLTs have some downsides: Homeowners may not receive the traditional benefits of owning a house. For example, CLTs limit the amount of equity a home can accrue, minimizing one of the primary ways a fee simple home builds a family’s wealth. Some experts are also concerned about the use of state resources for private gain.

But Tom Blackburn-Rodriguez, president of Na HALE o Maui, says support for the CLT is strong. The county council has already appropriated $50,000 for it, and the Realtors Association of Maui chipped in $15,000. “We’re moving ahead,” says Blackburn-Rodriquez. “We’re already in consultation with a number of developers.” Private landowners have offered to donate land. With luck, construction could start within a year. Not a moment too soon for Maui’s strapped homebuyers.

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Waimea Redux

Courtesy Audobon Society

Gary Gill has big plans for the future of Waimea valley. He just doesn’t know exactly what they are yet. It’s not surprising. As executive director of Hiipaka, the nonprofit created by the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to manage the park, he just took charge of the valley on Feb. 1. It’s been a mad rush to get basic systems in place. “Up to now, we haven’t had time to look at long-term planning,” he says.

That’s not to say Gill doesn’t have a vision. The 1,875-acre park will continue popular programs, like its botanical gardens, but he expects a stronger focus on native Hawaiian culture.

“This is a place for local people to come,” says the former city councilman.

“We’d like to see a lot more cultural programs: hula and weaving and Hawaiian language. Over time, we hope to make the valley a living puuhonua (sanctuary).”

Gill believes visitors will also be drawn to authentic Hawaiian culture. That’s an important consideration, because the valley has operated at a loss in recent years. OHA plans to spend millions of dollars to take care of the park’s long-deferred maintenance, but, ultimately, Waimea should be self-sustaining, he says.

“We’ll probably be increasing the business staff,” Gill says. “We have an existing gift shop, which we’ll be redefining, and refocusing on native Hawaiian goods. We’ll also be reopening the Proud Peacock [restaurant] and concentrating on improving facility rental space.”

Butch Helemano is the kahu of Puu o Mahuka, the largest heiau on Oahu, which sits on the bluff overlooking Waimea. “Some people don’t want to see any entertainment in the
valley, but I believe the tour buses belong there,” he says. “You have to have respect for the culture, but it’s possible to have these programs without bastardizing Hawaiian culture. We just need real practitioners.”

Gill knows that, for any of his plans to succeed, he’ll need the support of community members like Helemano. “Everyone loves Waimea,” he says, “and everyone has a stake in it. But if you want people to come, the first thing you have to do is invite them.”

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State Parks for Rent?

As the state moves toward public/private partnerships, Malaekahana will serve as a test.
DENNIS HOLLIER

Malaekahana, a park in transition

The cabins at Malaekahana state Recreation Area in La‘ie are in shambles. The roofs sag, the galvanized plumbing is crumbling and the siding is peeling away. Built in the 1930s, many of the buildings look like they’re one good storm away from demolition.

But changes are in store for Malaekahana. Two years ago, the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) requested private bids to redevelop and manage the park. Now, DLNR is considering a plan that will gut the existing infrastructure at Malaekahana and replace it with new cabins, roads, sewage treatment and a high-tech, off-the-grid electrical system.

Malaekahana Partners, a company affiliated with the nonprofit that currently manages the Kahuku section of the park, will redevelop all of Malaekahana in exchange for a long-term lease. It’s part of DLNR’s strategy to create public/ private partnerships, and may serve as the model for similar programs at other state parks. And it’s making the neighbors nervous.

Much of their concern revolves around Craig Chapman, one of the principals of Malaekahana Partners. He’s managed the park for 12 years, but if you ask him about his status in the community, he’ll tell you, “I’m the haole hotel guy from Vegas.”

“I’m not a spiritual man,” says Chapman, “but if you listen to her [the park], she’ll tell you what she wants.” Chapman thinks she wants to be an eco-resort. He envisions a variety of community and educational activities at the park. And with the new cabins, he believes he can attract both kama‘aina and international visitors.

For the past 12 years, Chapman has operated under a year-to-year lease. Without a long-term lease, he has been unable to raise funds to fix the cabins and other problems in the park. So, when DLNR asked for proposals for Malaekahana, Chapman saw his opportunity. He assembled a group of local partners, persuaded a Canadian friend to finance the project and put together a proposal for DLNR. His was the only qualified bid.

Some have reacted skeptically. DeeDee Letts, a member of the Ko‘olauloa Neighborhood Board, points out that Chapman has been fined for improperly disposing of trash at the park. She’s also concerned that Chapman’s proposal promises more than he can deliver; in particular, that the capabilities of his sewage treatment system are overstated. Chapman counters that the fine was for a single incident many years ago, and that the type of sewage treatment system he’s installing is now required in state parks.

As a part of the approval process for his proposal, DLNR requested that Chapman make presentations to the neighborhood board and local community associations. Dan Quinn, DLNR’s administrator of state parks explains, “This is something we want to do properly. There’s a diversity of opinion about this project.” As for community concerns, DLNR has created a community board that will periodically review activities at the park. Even if DLNR approves his plan, Chapman still has to do an environmental impact statement, obtain permits and negotiate a lease.

Quinn remains confident that this is a good model for other state parks. He says DLNR will continue to expand these public/private partnerships, which range from Adopt-a-Park programs to master leases like the one proposed at Malaekahana. He suggests Hapuna on the Big Island may be a good candidate. But he’s quick to add, “We’d like to get through the process on this one first.”

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Cutting School

A humble Chinatown institution incubates much of Hawaii’s hair-styling talent.

By DENNIS HOLLIER, PHOTOGRAPHY BY SERGIO GOES

Leo Williams, owner of the Honolulu Institute for Hair Design

Leo Williams has probably had his fingers in your hair. At least vicariously. As the owner and director of the Hawaii Institute of Hair Design, Williams has trained perhaps 80 percent of the barbers and hairstylists in Hawaii. His former students work in almost every barbershop and salon in the state. They’re meting out $200 haircuts in high-end salons; they predominate in countless Super Cuts and Fantastic Sams; and they run most of the old-fashioned two and three-seat barbershops scattered thoughout Island strip malls. To get their licenses, all of them spent at least 1,500 hours—10 months—under Williams’ patient tutelage.
The school was founded in 1942 by Williams’ grandfather. About 40 years ago, his mother and father moved the school to its current location: in an old building on North Hotel Street. And while he’s still in his thirties, Williams has been teaching there for more than 18 years. Up on the third floor, Williams’ mother, Margaret, manages the school’s administrative offices—and serves as a mother hen to the students.

Tony McDougald, for example, is a sedate student from North Carolina who recently got out of the Army and came to the school on the G.I. Bill. He wears his hair in a neatly carved fade, but had no prior experience with hairstyling. “I never touched a comb in my life,” he says, “so I’ve had to work harder than some of the other students.” The portability of hairstyling appealed to him. “My wife is still in the Army,” he says, “so we travel a lot. And people need haircuts everywhere.”

The tagline on an old brochure calls the school’s program “The Scientific Approach,” a system that has its roots in the precision cutting techniques developed by Vidal Sassoon in the 1960s. Students spend two months in class, practicing those techniques on mannequins, and learning some surprisingly complex material on chemistry and disorders of the skin. But the heart of the school is the bustling, ground-floor salon, where Williams presides calmly over dozens of student hairstylists, three or four instructors and hundreds of customers a day.

The allure of working indoors, with air conditioning and all those young women around, convinced Pham that hairstyling was the profession for him.

At first glance, the school seems like any other salon. Customers wait patiently up front, reading the labels of the hair products in a vitrine. The requisite Wahl Clipper Co. poster is tacked to the wall. At the back of the salon, a row of elderly women doze under hairdryers. And, as usual, the music’s loud and there’s the faint stink of hair straighteners and coloring chemicals.

The salon has a utilitarian look to it—more like a large barbershop than a fancy spa—but it’s scrupulously clean and unusually busy. There are more than 30 chairs, but, because there are usually more students than that, none of the young stylists have their own stations. Instead, they carry their equipment around in little black briefcases issued by the school, setting up shop on the counter behind each client. The students joke among themselves, but they seem serious about their work. Tuition is over $8,000—most of the students rely upon financial aid—so it’s a big investment. Still, they sometimes get bored with the endless parade of men’s fades and the standard cut-and-color. So when a burly young man with a mop of magenta hair settles in and asks for a fauxhawk (a cross between a Mohawk and a pompadour), they drop by to watch the action.

Young hairstylists get ahead—ahem—with instructor Sandra Malunay.
Because they get so much practice on the mannequins, even the newest students are surprisingly competent, and it’s rare for a customer to leave the salon with a bad haircut. Williams and his instructors constantly prowl the floor, inspecting every haircut before the customer leaves. Students feel “they always have a backup. I can pretty much fix anything,” notes Williams. Throughout the day, students walk up to him and quietly hand him their shears and comb to indicate they’re ready for him. Sometimes, they’ve finished and are ready for his inspection; sometimes the haircut has overwhelmed them part way through and they need his help. In either case, he calmly steps in, praising good work, correcting mistakes and demonstrating alternative techniques.

Despite the close supervision, students are given a lot of freedom. Even the students still working on mannequins on the third floor are expected to come down to the salon on Fridays and Saturdays to practice on real people. But rather than paying customers, they work on models—friends or people they lure in off the street with the offer of a free haircut.

“My first haircut,” says Tuan Tran, a student from Seattle, “I poked the scissors in someone’s head. I was sweating so bad.” The first haircut is usually a simple cut; nevertheless, some students are so nervous they can’t finish. “We like them to cut hair the first day they come down,” Williams explains. They don’t have to do the whole cut. “If they just do 10 percent, that’s fine.”

Students are expected to learn every aspect of hairstyling, and have to master cutting hair with shears, clippers and razors, as well as the fundamentals of color and highlights, straightening and perms. Each student also spends at least 40 hours at the front desk—practice for the business side of hairstyling. And before they can graduate, they’re expected to perform a dozen shaves, each replete with the hot towel, bristle brush and straightedge razor of an earlier era.

Students work with five to eight customers a day, six days a week. Toward the end of their training, when they begin to work faster, they might see as many as 10 clients a day. It’s the school’s job to attract all those clients, most of whom come for the low prices. A basic haircut is $5.50; a perm and cut starts at $19.95; color begins at $10.95; and you can get highlights starting at $5.

“It’s like a community service,” Williams says. “Clients can pamper themselves for a reasonable price. Standard salons are double to triple our prices.” The fees are just enough for the school to pay the rent for the salon, ensuring that there will be enough clients for the students.

Judging by the number of long-time customers, many are attracted to more than just the low prices. Kimo, a retired Waikiki beachboy who wears his hair like Samson, says he’s been coming to the school’s salon for 10 years. “I get a cut and color,” he says. “In all that time, they only made one mistake, and that was probably my fault. I was in a hurry and didn’t let them leave the chemical in long enough.”

Williams is quick to point out that students can only learn the basics in school; it takes years of practice to become an accomplished stylist. Kimo’s long, swooping hairstyle, for example, isn’t among the cuts taught in the school’s textbook, and its peculiarities eventually flummox the young student working with him. She calls over Susu Danforth, an instructor familiar with Kimo’s trademark style. While Danforth finishes up, Kimo jokes with the young student about the attention he pays to his hair. “I like go out clubbing,” he says with a grin. “If I see you at Ocean Club and ask you go dance, no ignore me now.” When the student asks the name of this singular haircut, Danforth deadpans, “The Kimo.”

At the other end of the salon, a young student named Anousack Sithammalat touches up the long black hair of an unusually serene client. “I come every week to get my roots done,” the woman says softly. “My theory is, if you’re gonna wash away the gray, you might as well be thorough.” Sithammalat works quietly, meticulously sectioning hair and applying the dye to the roots. “This guy, he’s brilliant,” the customer says, beaming. She’s become a faithful customer of Sithammalat, but when he graduates, she’ll choose another student to patronize. “This is the perfect place to be pampered for not much money,” she explains. “I pay $10 to get my roots done. For $3 more, they toss in a scalp massage. So for $13, I’m queen for a day.”

Like Sithammalat, most of the students are part of a young, hip crowd. Many have spiky hair and studs in their lips, but it’s still a diverse group. Danz Pham is a tough young boxer from Waianae who wears his hair in a short, tri-color fade. Before he enrolled, he was working in construction behind the school.

“I was a bad boy,” Pham says. “I used to come in and cruise the students.” But the allure of working indoors, with air-conditioning and all those young women around, convinced him that hairstyling was the profession for him. “Besides,” he says, “I used to cut hair all the time at home. All Waianae boys cut hair.” He still flirts with the girls, but it’s mingled with kibitzing on coloring techniques.

During slow periods in the salon, students sometimes gather among the empty chairs in the back to fiddle with one another’s hair and talk story. Many have family ties in the hair business and relatives who are also graduates of the school. Some students already have chairs waiting for them in family salons. “I’ve got several offers for when I get out,” says Sara Maikui, as she carefully removes hair extensions for another student. “My aunt has a salon in Vegas, if I want to go there. But I think I’ll stick around here for a couple of years first.”

Leo Williams has taught many of Hawaii’s hairstylists—everything from how to hold a comb to how to run a business.
“Foxy” Nga Le, fresh out of high school in Waianae, says her brother came to the school about two years ago, and that her mom and sister-in-law are also hairstylists. Former bartender Jeanine Joseph feels good about her job prospects after graduation. “My cousin, Travis, just graduated,” she points out. “His mom and sister also cut hair. They all work at Studio Kiss in Pearl City.”

Stewart Crockett graduated three years ago, about 20 years after his father, Donald. Donald and his wife own two Fantastic Sams, one in Wahiawa and another in Mililani, so it might seem natural for Stewart to join the family business. “Stewart basically grew up in a salon,” Donald says. Even so, Stewart didn’t envision himself as a hairstylist. “I never thought I could do it,” Stewart says. “It looked hard.” Then, Donald introduced him to Williams.

Stewart found the book side of school difficult, but once he came down to the salon, things began to improve. “The first haircut was the most nerve-wracking,” he says. “In the end, it turned out all right. It wasn’t a perfect haircut, but I didn’t put any rat bites in their head.” He feels that the patience of the instructors and the constant practice eventually revealed a gift. “By the time I came out,” he says, “I was better than my parents.”

Williams keeps track of former students, and many later become instructors at the school. They work as professional hairstylists, but one day a call will lure them back to the school to teach. Mel Kihara graduated nine years ago and now owns Mel’s Barber in Kaimuki. “When I opened it,” Kihara says, “my instructor came by to give me one of those Chinese things you put up on the door that says, Good luck.’ That surprised me—how did they know I had opened a shop?”

In the salon, Williams checks on the student’s work. Her client has chosen a mod Japanese hairstyle called an “octopus” and students gather around as Williams does the final touches. Working his thinning shears like a razor, he carves the upper layers of the client’s hair until it seems to cling tightly to the shape of her head, leaving the long ends to flare down around her shoulders like tentacles. The students nod their heads at his technique. When he finishes, the customer exclaims, “Ooh … Sassoony!” But Williams has already moved on, his eyes scanning the salon for the next student who needs help.

Freelance writer Dennis Hollier bares his bald spot with a short, layered, barber cut. “I’m just vain enough,” he says, “not to want anyone to think I’m vain.”

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Kailua Memories

A look back at some of Kailua’s most evocative places.

BY DENNIS HOLLIER

Some of the images featured in this article will be in a forthcoming book on Kailua, published by the Kailua Historical Society. Special thanks to Barbara Pope Book Design.


The view from Alala point towards Lanikai, circa late 1920s or 1930s.

PHOTO COURTESY OF HAWAII STATE ARCHIVES

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF ERLING HEDEMANN, JR.

 

The junction of Oneawa and Kailua Road has long been the physical center of Kailua town. For a generation, though, the Kailua Theater was probably its cultural center. A caption on the back of this photograph, taken the late 1930s, indicates that movie tickets cost 12 cents. Kailua Theater was owned by John Magoon, who also owned the Kaneohe Theater. Erling Hedemann, who grew up in Kailua, remembers that you had to have a mosquito punk (repellant) under your seat at Kaneohe Theater, “but Kailua Theater was high class.”

Across the street, roughly where McKenna Ford stands today, the old Kanetake Garage presided over the town’s inbound traffic for decades. Well into the 1950s, dairy cows grazed in the field out back. Arby’s and the Firestone store have replaced the theater. But the careful observer will note a familiar triangular median in the roadway. The iconic banyans? They’re visible in the old photo; barely visible against the white of the movie house, you can make out the first sapling against the white of the movie house.

 

PHOTO BY HEATHER TITUS

 

Jean’s Bakery

 

 

A couple of months ago, a reader wrote in to the local paper asking if anyone knew the recipe for Boston cream pie from the old Jean’s Bakery. The memory of desserts is a persistent one. Jean’s Bakery (seen here in December, 1955) was a Kailua institution, but it’s been closed for more than 30 years. In a photograph dated 1951, the bakery staff stand behind a gleaming counter in the original store in the back of the old Piggly Wiggly store on Oneawa. In 1955, George Abe, the owner, bought the lot across the street on Uluniu. He built his home in the back and a new bakery and soda fountain in front. There, the Abe family continued to sell cakes and pies and fountain drinks for nearly another 20 years.

Kailua Town

PHOTO COURTESY OF ERLING HEDDEMANN, JR.

For nearly four decades, the Kailua Tavern, on the corner of Oneawa and Kuulei, served as the town’s only real night spot. According to longtime Kailua resident Erling Hedemann, “People came to the tavern all the way from Honolulu. They say that scurrilous cowboys tied their horses out front—and I include my scurrilous brother in that group.” Despite the cowboys, there was a genteel side to Kailua Tavern, too, which also had a restaurant and a dance floor. Alberta Hussey, once the vocalist with the Gigi Royce Orchestra at the Royal Hawaiian, sang at the Kailua Tavern with the Audino and Allen Band after World War II started. By then, the tavern was known as the Coconut Grove Inn.

 

Kalapawai Market

In 1941, Hussey lived with a cousin on Kalaeloa Road and remembers walking barefoot to work along Kailua’s sandy roads, carrying her shoes in her hands. “On breaks,” she says nostalgically, “I used to go across to the Harada Store and have a half a cantaloupe and a vanilla ice cream.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF ERLING HEDEMANN, JR.

Kalapawai Market has catered to the residents of Lanikai and along Kailua Beach for more than 70 years. The original owner, Richard Wong, knew what his customers needed, and developed strong loyalties among them. When Maurice Sullivan built the first Foodland nearby, some residents were excited to finally have a real supermarket in the neighborhood. Others, though, were alarmed. Peggy Bredesen, whose family has lived on the ridge above Lanikai since 1931, notes that they could see the great domed structure over the treetops. “It was the biggest eyesore,” she says. More importantly, they were concerned that the new supermarket spelled the end of their old friends at Kalapawai.

But you should never underestimate the power of customer loyalty. Ironically, although Sullivan went on to create a Foodland empire, at this location it faltered. The Kalapawai Market, under the new ownership of Don Dymond, flourishes still.

 

Matsuda Store

PHOTO COURTESY OF HAWAII STATE ARCHIVES

In the 1930s, when downtown Kailua was still mostly watermelon patches, the area’s population center was farther up Kailua Road, among the taro fields and rice paddies of Maunawili. During this era, the Matsuda Store, near the Waimanalo junction on the old Pali Road, served as the Kailua store. Area farmers visited for everything from gasoline for their cars to feed for their livestock. Even after the Matsuda Store closed, the building—now a part of Kaneohe Ranch—remained stand-ing alongside a dead-end fragment of the old Pali Road behind Castle Hospital.

Martin Knotts, whose Diamond K Ranch still runs about 60 head of cattle along the fringes of Kawainui Marsh, lived in the old house for its last 20 years. “In June of 2000, I finally had it torn down,” he says, “because the termites were in there so bad, and I couldn’t get a long-term lease.” Today, though the state now owns the land, Knotts still lives in a trailer right behind the foundations of the old Matsuda Store. Only a small concrete plinth, a remnant of the old gas pumps, gives any clue to the store’s former location.

Nishikawa Fruit Stand

The row of churches along Kailua Road has an air of permanence. It’s the nature of churches. But, for most of its history, this section of Kailua was agricultural. Around the 1920s, Issei farmers began to grow fruit and vegetables and chickens in farms along Kailua Road. Their children, because their English was better, sold the produce from popular roadside fruit stands.

The most successful of these was the Kailua Fruit Stand, owned by the Nishikawa family, which stood about where the First Presbyterian Church is today. Kinji Nishikawa and his wife, Some, grew avocados, papayas, grapefruit and vegetables. Sandy Kimura, their granddaughter, says famous people, like Duke Kahanamoku, used to come from town to visit the fruit stand. “John Burns came every Sunday, before he was governor,” she says. But, around 1959, the Nishikawa lease expired; and, after 25 years serving Kailua, most of the farm was bulldozed to make way for development. According to Kimura, though, you can still find a few of the old Nishikawa fruit trees strewn through the Kukanono neighborhood.

Amii Kahikina, whose Amii World Travel Agency on Oneawa occupies a plot of land that’s been in the family for nearly 70 years, remembers that Boston cream pie. “It was like sponge cake with powdered sugar on it instead of ganache.” Today, the old building has had an addition at the front, and houses a new “old institution”: the Chinese Garden restaurant. But the square outline of Jean’s Bakery is still discernible in the L-shaped building, and old-timers passing by on Uluniu sometimes still find themselves craving that Boston cream pie.

Dennis Hollier grew up in Enchanted Lake and writes frequently for HONOLULU Magazine.

 

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At Work on the Bay

DENNIS HOLLIER, PHOTOGRAPHY BY KARIN KOVALSKY

Captain of the Nissei

The Nisei

It’s still well before dawn, and the crew of the Nisei sit quietly in their skiff, killing time. Bowed by the weight of the tide, 150 feet of fine-gauge net stretches from the stern to shore, its end tended by a crewman on the jetty. Another 150 feet is still stashed in the deep belly of the skiff and serves as a lounge for the crew there. Now and then, the captain, Hiroshige Uehara, nervously shines a flashlight on the water to see how the catch is going. The rest of the crew, mostly Okinawans like the captain, pull the hoods of their slickers over their heads against the drizzle. We’re waiting for the nehu to come in.

These tiny fish are the last commercial fishery on Kaneohe Bay. They school in great numbers there, and, for generations, aku boats have come to catch them for bait. Aku fishermen need millions of nehu. Instead of dragging nets like bottom fishermen, or using baited hooks like longliners, traditional aku fishermen hook skipjack using long poles and barbless hooks. To get the fish to bite, they chum the waters with swarms of live bait. Without the nehu of Kaneohe Bay, the old way of aku fishing would die. But the old way is a hard one. Once, dozens of aku boats set their nets in these shallows; the pier at Heeia Kea Boat Harbor was homeport for more than 20 of them. Now, only two aku boats are left: the Nisei and the old wood sampan, Kula Kai.

Like many fishermen, the Okinawan crew of the Nisei are a taciturn bunch. Although they’ve worked in Hawaii for decades, they speak English haltingly and are shy to use it. David Soto, the Nisei’s engineer, the only local in the crew, acts as a spokesman. He points out that the crew is experienced. “The youngest man on this boat is 52,” he says, “and that’s me.” He jokes about working with Okinawans, but he’s been with the Nisei since it was launched 13 years ago, following Uehara from his previous boat. Most of the crew have fished together for years. Soto makes an excellent guide. Out in the skiff, the only noise is the soft baritone of Soto’s voice as he explains nehu fishing to me. Then, the captain shines his light on the net one last time and nods to the crew. He turns to me and smiles. “Plenty fish,” he says.

It takes all hands to pull in a haul of nehu. We start by heading to the jetty to collect the crewman there, veering the rest of the net as we go. Once the circle of the net is closed, the captain kills the engine again, and Soto pulls on a scuba tank and slips overboard. He’s the penner; underwater, he uses his body to pen the edges of the net up against the side of the skiff so none of the fish can escape through the gap there. At the stern, the captain paces the haul, pulling in the head rope of the net float by float. Eisho, the captain’s brother, stands behind him, helping haul on the head rope, pausing every so often to organize the long net as it comes into the boat. In the center of the skiff, the brothers Hiromasa and Tetsushi Tamashiro grab for the belly of the net, shaking the nehu back into the water as they pull. They’re helped by Quentin Gohier, an old Hawaiian man from the Heeia docks who sometimes volunteers for these nehu runs.

Slowly, the pile of net under their feet grows as the circle diminishes. The nehu seethe inside. There are millions of them—so many that the weight of them begins to sink the net. Silvery swarms flush over the tops of the floats. Many more leap over the net to open water. Outside the net, schools of papio stir up the surface in a frenzy over the escaping baitfish. To keep the net from sinking, the crew stick the ends of stout bamboo poles under the float rope, cantilevering the net over the gunwale. The weight of the nehu bends the poles. When most of the net is aboard, the crew pull in the foot rope, which closes the bottom of the net, making a bag of fish about the same size as the 26-foot skiff. Soto surfaces out of the roiling turmoil of nehu and scampers back aboard.

There are eight live bait wells built into the aft deck of the Nisei. Each is about 10 feet deep by six feet wide. Sometimes, it takes two or three days’ work to fill them. This haul, though, is astonishing. The skiff pulls alongside the Nisei, penning the net between the two boats, and some of the crew jump aboard. Once on deck, they hand down large stainless steel buckets one by one, and the crew in the skiff use dip nets to fill them with bait. Then, the buckets are handed back aboard and emptied into the bait wells. Now and then, a crewman reaches into the seething net to grab an akule or a papio that’s been accidentally caught with the nehu and flings it back out into the Bay. The nehu are bounty enough.

The waters of Kaneohe Bay used to provide a livelihood for many of those who lived along its shores. Dozens of fishponds once fattened moi and mullet. At low tide, limu pickers waded in the shallows. Fishermen poked in the holes of the fringing reef for hee and lobster. They plied their nets across the tide for akule, aweoweo and amaama. On old maps, you can still see the names of shore-side families jutting out into the bay as if their kuleana stretched to the bounty of the reef. But the fisheries of Kaneohe Bay have collapsed. Pollution and overfishing and silting have taken the profit out of fishing, and the Nisei and the Kula Kai are the only commercial boats that still venture into the bay.

The Coral Queen

Tour boats dominate the commerce of the bay. Most sail from the pier in Heeia Kea, where a ragtag fleet of catamarans and trimarans shuttle tourists out to the reefs. Although most of these boats have a utilitarian look, there’s a surprising charm to them. Some of them have spindly masts and booms, meant to give the impression they’re Polynesian sailing canoes. Others have had their spars removed, and they seem to squat on the water. But all of them are motorboats, and are slab-sided, garishly painted and ungainly. Nevertheless, when they’re nosed up to the sandbar on a sunny morning or moored haphazardly along the fringing reef in the dark just before a storm, or tied at the docks in the glassy waters of a Kona breeze, they still convey a sense of nostalgia for old times, and are beautiful.

Five companies operate commercial boats at Heeia, but the two largest, KBOS and Tropical Ocean Sports, account for most of the tourist trade. Between them, they manage more than a dozen vessels and employ nearly 50 people, including captains, mates, deckhands, tour guides, dive masters and hostesses. In all, the tour boats of the bay provide the livelihood for perhaps 100 men and women.

Among the tour boats, the Coral Queen, a plywood, glass-bottom trimaran, is the oldest. It has been ferrying passengers out to the reefs for more than 35 years. Today, the Coral Queen belongs to Tropical Ocean Sports. With a bright blue paint job, it matches the company’s larger boats. Unlike those others, though, the Coral Queen doesn’t cater to the tourist trade. Mike Nolan, the main captain of the Coral Queen, says, “Most of our business is local. We do a lot of preschool groups like UH Labs and Kamaaina Kids. We do a lot of ‘Make a Wish,’ too.” Over the years, thousands of Hawaii’s children have gotten their first glimpse of Kaneohe Bay’s reefs through the stout glass boxes in her main cabin.

Nolan has worked on many of the tour boats in Hawaii, and has spent most of the last 15 years on the bay. One of the biggest changes he’s seen has been in the way the state regulates the tour boats. In the old days, tour operators ran Jet-Skis and ski boats and dive platforms willy-nilly on the bay. But residents complained, and now, the Department of Land and Natural Resources restricts each tour operator to discrete zones called Ocean Recreation Management Areas, or ORMAs. “Some companies,” Nolan explains, “offer highly active tours, like Jet-Skis and banana boats.” These companies have to buy permits for their own ORMA. Other operations offer snorkeling or kayaks, but no motorized rides. These companies have their own ORMAs too, and much of the bay is divided into territories by tour boat companies.

The Coral Queen is the only glass-bottom boat on the Bay. It harkens back to an old tradition: The Coral Gardens, another glass-bottom boat, was the first tour boat on Kaneohe Bay. In the early 1900s, it took passengers out to ogle the reefs off Mokapu—reefs since dredged to make the runways for the Marine base. This bit of nostalgia, along with a kind of squat charm, made the Coral Queen attractive to me, so one afternoon, I joined in as it took a group from a Manoa elementary school out for a cruise.

The Coral Queen normally operates with a crew of three. On this day, Ty Fu, the young relief captain, is at the helm. Marvin Engoing, a large, doughy man with a wispy beard and a ponytail, is the crew. Rhonda Stewart, an enthusiastic woman who’s worked on the boat for many years, is the education director and is in charge of the children.

Once the teachers have the school group hustled below, Engoing slips the dock lines and Fu quietly spins the Coral Queen off the pier and heads out into the bay. Stewart begins to regale the children with stories about the natural history of Kaneohe Bay.

There’s a broad shelf at the forward end of the pilot house where an ad hoc nature center has accumulated: the shells of three different kinds of conch; a cowrie shell; a desiccated slipper lobster; an assortment of corals; the splayed shells of pearl oysters; corroded and coral-encrusted 50-mm bullet casings; the jaw of a hammerhead shark. In the main cabin, six glass-bottom boxes stand like cabinetry. The children peer through them, watching the coral rubble sweep past as we motor off.

Once we reach the reef patches off Coconut Island, Fu kills the engine and lets the boat drift slowly in six or seven feet of water. While the children crowd around the viewing boxes in the main cabin and marvel at the coral below, up on deck Engoing breaks up loaves of stale bread to throw over the side. Schools of yellow tang and striped angelfish swarm to the chum, drawing oohs and ahs from the children. Then Engoing, as the newest member of the crew, prepares a surprise. “Good thing I brought towel,” he says. “I gotta swim under the boat.” Stewart keeps the kids distracted below while he dons a mask and slips quietly overboard. There’s a burst of laughter from the children as he drifts into view under the Coral Queen. Floating past on his back, he waves to them, his ponytail undulating like limu.

For many of these children, this is their first time on a boat. “Despite being an island state,” Stewart says, “Hawaii has the lowest incidence of boat ownership in the country.” It speaks to a lost relationship—a sad lack of connection between the students and the sea that surrounds them. Passing Coconut Island on the way back to the dock, Stewart gets the teachers to lead the children in the Gilligan’s Island theme song. The teachers sing enthusiastically. None of the children seem to know the words.

Makani Olu

Science and education provide the livelihood for many of those who still work on the bay. Perhaps the best example is the sail-training program on the schooner Makani Olu. Matt Claybaugh, the director of the Marimed Foundation, which owns the Makani Olu, has an abiding belief in the healing power of the sea. Through a program called Holopono, Marimed attempts to rehabilitate at-risk kids, taking them directly from the courts or juvenile detention and putting them to work aboard the Makani Olu. “It’s the gift of a change in perspective,” Claybaugh says. Claybaugh views the Makani Olu as a wilderness program. He knows the sea can be hard, and the stress can sometimes break down the tough reserve of the kids in the program. “That’s the counseling moment,” Claybaugh says. “You need to be akamai to that. Otherwise, you’re just sailing.”

The Makani Olu is a 96-foot, three-masted, staysail schooner. Like all schooners, it takes a rat’s nest of lines to manage the sails. When the Holopono program takes groups of kids to sea, they have to literally learn the ropes. They go on five-day, round-trip cruises to the Neighbor Islands, where they usually also participate in community projects. At sea, the kids work the ship, standing watches and taking turns at the helm. Even so, it takes a professional crew of five to sail the Makani Olu: a captain, a mate and three hands—surely the last professional sailors on the bay.

The pilot house contains a mini natural history museum for young students to explore.
After a recent charter trip for an Elderhostel group, I volunteered to help move the boat from Aloha Tower back to the bay. The crew is new, and I’m eager to see them at work. When I arrive at the dock, I find a full complement of five crewmen aboard. Jon Michienzi, the captain, sailed with the Makani Olu several years ago. He and the first mate, Ben Hopkins, have recently arrived from the tall ship Amistad. The other crewmen also seem to be experienced. But my main impression is how young they all are. Even so, we pull away from the dock without incident and set out to sea. Michienzi predicts a six-hour passage.

The trip turns out to be more boisterous than expected. The trades gather strength as we leave Honolulu Harbor, and by the time we make Koko Head, they’re blowing hard on the nose. Even motor-sailing, our progress is slow. At first, the ride is exhilarating. But we have to tack far out into the Molokai Channel, and the swells build and become confused. Many of the passengers become seasick. In the cabin, loose gear flies from one side to the other. The young crew becomes more subdued as the passage turns into real work. This is sailing in Hawaii. Even after we finally round Makapuu and begin the downhill run along the windward coast, everyone is obviously looking forward to the end of the trip.

Darkness sets in as we reach Kaneohe Bay. The trip from Honolulu Harbor was a long slog, but most of the real work is still ahead. In the failing light, we wrestle down the sails, furl them on their booms and get their covers on them. By the time we reach the Makani Olu’s mooring, we need the spotlight to find the buoy. The wind is still strong and it takes several passes before the crew manages to grab the mooring line with the boathook—only to find the lines are tangled and we blow off again. Finally, a couple crewmen launch the ship’s tender and manage to untangle the lines and get one aboard. The Makani Olu is moored. In the end, the passage from Aloha Tower takes 12 hours.

After shuttling ashore in the inflatable with the other passengers, I stand in the shallows and watch Hopkins head back through the dark to the Makani Olu. No doubt, the captain wants to discuss the mooring troubles with the crew. But I’m struck once again with the miracle that, against all odds, young people still go to sea. The idea makes me smile. Boats and the wind and snarled lines will always give sailors trouble. But, if an old schooner like the Makani Olu can still make a go of it, perhaps there’s still hope for those who make a living on Kaneohe Bay.

Freelance writer Dennis Hollier grew up in Enchanted Lake. His last piece for HONOLULU, in our July issue, was on a downtown barber school.

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