Saturday, November 22, 2014

Research Updates and some notes on Imada, Aloha America

More recent research updates on the Hawai'i project: I snagged a couple of interesting historical documents from Northwestern’s Transportation Library (which is as awesome as it sounds) that I plan to comb through in the next couple of days—in particular, I’m intrigued by a report from 1963 called “The Future Growth of Hawaiian Tourism and its Impact on the State and on the Neighbor Islands,” which provides a snapshot of the statistical details and trend conclusions involved during the time period that is both the larger focus, and culmination, of the larger historical narrative I’m charting. One passage that jumped out at me when I skimmed through it on Thursday was:

Our first recommendation is that Hawaii must recognize that compared with other tourist areas it has had virtually a free ride in the field of promotion. The history of the islands, their place in literature, World War II and Statehood, all gave Hawaii free publicity. But, now that Hawaii is a modern developed state . . . the free ride is over. (69)

Among other things, is this a recognition that a particular moment in Hawai'i's popularity had already passed--and related to that, was its popularity less a result of shrewd promotion that I might have initially assumed?

I’ve also been snooping around the Entertainment Industry Magazine Archives recently, which has revealed a lot of useful documents, primarily from Variety, about production backstories on Hawaii Five-O. There’s a lot more media titles to look at, of course, but the archive is so exhaustive that I’ve had to narrow it down to just that title for now (esp. since the show ran for a dozen seasons).

That said, the materials I’ve found so far are incredibly interesting (such as CBS hosting a party around `69-`70 for affiliates in Hawai’i, which included a tour of H5O sets), but I’m not sure if it will ultimately be of much use to the specific project I’m working in. As a starting point, I’m more interested in how Hawai’i and mainland film and TV (along with invested companies like United Airlines) negotiated back and forth with how to present, and promote, the islands—something that hasn’t really come up in Hollywood trades so far.

The larger project is about how these mainland images of the islands negotiated questions of tourism, racial identities, Hawaiian heritage and military culture for the post-WWII generation of presumably mostly white, mostly middle/upper-middle class Americans. But what I’m trying to chart now is the backstory, so to speak, of those narratives—why certain places, events, businesses, etc., may have been foregrounded more so than others, and why. This is probably something I’m going to have to go to Hawai’i tourism-related archives to find.

Also, I’m increasingly thinking it will be more of a reception study than I originally planned, since the claims I want to make about how it spoke to that generation need ideally to be grounded in strong reception evidence of the time (well, it doesn’t have to be, but I’ve grown increasingly annoyed by media “historians” who make such claims about the past without any hard proof beyond speculation). The problem then becomes, however, how to find those kinds of sources in periodicals (i.e., “why did audiences like Hawaii Five-O for so long?”)—Song of the South responses were easy to find in print because it was always so controversial, but I’m not sure the type of material I’m looking at now will lend itself to that visibility.

  *   *   *

Anyway, I’m probably getting sidetracked a little, but the further I go into the reading list and other forms of preliminary research, the more I get a specific sense of where I want to go, research-wise, and the challenges involved in getting there. The focal point of this post, of course, is to provide an update on the reading list—the past few weeks, I have been reading Adria Imada’s Aloha America: Hula Circuits throughAmerica (2012).

Of the first three books on my list, this is by far the closest content-wise to my own project—primarily in so far as it deals in large part with the ambivalent ideals of “Hawai’i” as they circulated in the mainland US imagination before, during and after Pearl Harbor, and the first (and one of the few I’ve found in general) to deal directly with film—or any other media for that matter. Beyond that, however, there probably isn’t a great deal of overlap (which to be honest is kind of a relief—given my initial anxieties when I read the description and skimmed through the pages).

One way to see this impressively researched book is as something of a first-person account of the real life, so-called “Hula Girls” who have maintained such a visual presence in US popular culture for over a century now, as well as a fascinating historical account of how that image came to assume the prominence it has today—and not just from the standpoint of the tourism industry’s aggressive promotion, but from the perspective of the ambivalent performers who literally embodied it (Imada also, however, has an entire chapter dedicated to Hawaiian men, especially musicians, who also attempted to navigate the challenges of performing “Hawaiian” for the colonialist/touristic audience).

Imada’s book concerns the specific roles that hula dancers played in the negotiation of Hawaiian heritage’s resilience in the face of colonization in the 19th Century, and then tourism and statehood in the 20th. Following that idea, Imada’s research is singular—drawing on countless archival materials (“English-Language newspapers from the islands and the United States, Hawaiian language newspapers, military films and photographs, oral histories and guidebooks,” 21) to document intimate biographical accounts of what these performers’ actual day to day lives were like, as well as the broader challenges of using hula practices as a potential site of resistance, or at least alternative readings, within the restrictive, hegemonic boundaries of America’s colonialist and militouristic presence.

What also makes Aloha America intriguing is the author’s rather transparent autobiographical perspective, situating her own personal experiences as a dancer within the longer historical struggle of po’e hula (“hula practitioners”)—a continual struggle to re-define Hawaiian identity within the commodified limitations of the islands’ infrastructure today (the book also echoes Legendary Hawai’i in so far as it fits a recent trend in scholarship on the islands that switches away from a blanket critique of US imperialism and towards the ways in which the local native population found ways historically to resist colonialism, rather than be seen perhaps as passive victims).

A majority of the book focuses on hula practices primarily on the Mainland as opposed to Hawai'i) before, during and in the decades after the annexation of Hawai’i at the end of the 19th Century. Although traditional hula as a tribute to the Gods had been banned by the white missionaries who first came to the islands for over a century by that point—as sacrilegious to the Christian faith (and as too sexually transgressive)—Americans showed a renewed interest in hula as part of a larger fascination with the islands and its histories in the wake of annexation. Meanwhile, rich Hawaiian notions of hula and “aloha” became re-framed as a superficial means for mainland audiences to imagine a friendly mutuality—“an imagined intimacy” (11)—between Hawaiians and Americans that worked to mask the many troubling truths of colonialism.

Still, within this development was the opportunity for islanders, such as hula performers, to affect how Hawai’i would be situated within the US imaginary and its monolithic vision of imperialism:

My interest is how they managed to seize their time on and off stage for their own discrepant practices and desires. These unpredictable and occasionally insurgent disruptions—while not necessarily oppositional to colonialism—nonetheless disorganize empire. (17)

She then traces numerous opportunities for hula performance, and their political and economic contexts, from the royal courts of Honolulu prior to the American overthrow to the hula circuits that migrated through the Mainland and Europe (such as world’s fairs) before and after.

In the second half of Aloha America is probably where I find some points of intersection with my own project—primarily, the ways in which these performers by the 1930s may have played just as vital a role in the collective US vision of Hawai’i as the more visible mass media of film, radio and print. As I talked about in the Shaws reading, one thing I did not fully appreciate when going back into this research was how much the islands—largely for economic reasons pertaining to unequal issues such as trade tariffs—pushed for statehood decades before the 1950s (it was my understanding that the push to sell Hawai’I as a tourist destination in the 1930s was more about the long-term economic unsustainability of the older plantation economy—which no doubt was also an inter-related factor). 

Added to this, then, is the idea that the ubiquitous “live” performances of hula on the mainland (for politicians but also in the context of countless Hawaiian-themed nightclubs) was also a considerable part of this unsuccessful political push—and something which created that kind of direct “imagined intimacy” between Hawai’i and the mainland in a way that audio and visual media of the time could not re-create.

On that last note, the importance of cinema in Aloha America is probably the sole letdown here. While the book promotes film texts as one of several primary sources it draws on, there is really only one chapter dedicated to such textual analysis—and one which limits itself almost exclusively to a single US govt propaganda film produced during World War II: Luau, a Native Feast (1944). That said, it is an impressively thorough reading, showing how this movie carefully constructed a vision of intimacy and reciprocity between sailor and Hula girl, in a way that heightened the bonds between islands and mainland at the crucial time of conflict, while also blocking off an recognition of the military’s central colonial role historically, including being the de facto political presence, of the bouts of civic unrest and violence in Oahu, and even of other racial identities (such as the massive local population of Japanese descent and the considerable influx of African-American soldiers during WWII). 

Still, this narrow part feels like something of a missed opportunity (particularly in how it glosses over the ambivalent experiences of the US soldiers themselves with "Aloha" during all the Pacific conflict of the 20th Century)--a more comprehensive account of how the military and perhaps Hollywood (such as Abbott and Costello’s In the Navy, an earlier depiction of soldiers and hula) presented hula shows and luaus during WWII might have yielded some deeper claims about representation—though I recognize that the project is focused first and foremost on the perspective of the po’e hula. In that regard a more sustained look at the “performances” given in this particular propaganda film would offer a glimpse into the kinds of “discrepant readings” that Amada’s searching for (such as a bored hula performer hiding off in the corner of the frame). Stepping back and looking at a more diverse selection of media titles might risk inadvertently presenting the hula girls as impersonal and interchangeable all over again--exactly the stereotype she's working to correct.

No comments: