Sunday, November 23, 2014

Hawaii Fashion Month, the Hawaii International Film Festival, and why you should probably retire in Florida instead

There's a consensus in New York City that living anywhere else in the world is for suckers. This applies to people from Shanghai, Port-au-Prince, Lagos, Paris, and Pittsburgh--but not, apparently, to me. Hawaii seems to be the one place on Earth that is better than NYC, because New Yorkers never fail to asked me with envy and disbelief what I'm doing here when I could be there.

My reasons for being in New York aren't any different from the other immigrants'. We all come for the excitement, the culture, the jobs, and--if you're in a certain demographic--the opportunity to live on Sesame Street.
Sunday in the Slope.
The difference is that all those other people weren't born in an area that exists in popular imagination as an allegory of Christian Heaven. Hawaii is the place you go to reward yourself for working hard and earning lots of money. A journey there, for a vacation but even more so for a permanent move, takes on these Puritan overtones of morality and virtue: you have labored, and may therefore be blessed with ease, warmth, light, and a complete lack of snakes as far as the eye can see.

(Actually, I read in the Hawaiian Airlines magazine that Hawaii does in fact have a tiny little snake, the Brahminy blind snake, that lives underground, is very shy, and is frequently mistaken for an earthworm. All Brahminy blind snakes in Hawaii are female clones of each other, as they reproduce entirely through parthenogenesis.)

I think people are surprised that I would leave Hawaii because Hawaii is seen as an end unto itself. Why would I go backward through life, choosing to toil in a sinful world, when an accident of birth had already achieved the ultimate goal for me?

Somehow, this is also Sunday in the Slope.
Which is pretty insulting, if you think about it, because it erases the experiences of an entire state of about a million people who are struggling to pay their bills and educate their children, just like in any of the other 49 states. But that's how colonialism works, by dehumanizing the colonized and stripping away their unique identities to replace them with the colonizers' ideas of what they are. In Hawaii's case, the stripping was very thorough. Most of the images you see of Hawaii don't even have people in them. It's just landscapes, or resort scenes with smiling hotel employees.

This kind of talk, by the way, is the reason my mum, my sister, and I could wake up before six every day of our vacation in Honolulu and still not leave the hotel room until eleven. We're all intellectuals and prodigious chatterers, and what with all of our reviewing of the previous days' cultural activities and the rehashing of Hawaiian Airlines magazine articles, there was a lot to dissect each morning.

Our weekend was full of fodder for discussion. On Saturday evening, we attended a runway show at Hawaii's first ever Fashion Month, and on Sunday we attended the closing film of the 34th Annual Hawaii International Film Festival.

The runway shows were sponsored by Hawaiian Airlines and featured designers from the MAMo organization (Maoli Arts Month). We didn't reserve any seats, but we showed up to the Convention Center a little early to cruise the floor and try on clothing at the exhibits, and this being Hawaii, there were plenty of empty seats and gift bags left for us latecomers. We saw a couple lines of wearable fashion.
Here I am wearing some of it, a Wahine Toa dress.
There was also a show of all the Hawaiian Airlines flight attendant uniforms from the company's founding until today. I love to see fashion put into historical context like that, especially if it means we can all remember just how nuts the seventies were:
"This is my professional headband."
A uniquely Hawaiian element to the runway show was the exhibit of native Maoli tattoos. My sister told me that the designs of these tattoos aren't chosen by the subject, but are received by the tattoo artist through trance and prayer. The tattoos are created by dipping sharpened bone tools into ink and pounding the ink into the skin with little wooden hammers. The rhythmic sound made in this process is what gave tattooing its name, ta-tau. A recording of ta-tau was the only soundtrack for the tattoo show, which made for a very powerful viewing experience.

Mum said afterwards that the Maoli tattoos just "felt different" from the tattoos you see on any Brooklyn street corner. "They have mana. You can tell."

Of course, we all agreed that no fashion show would be complete without a viewing of the ridiculously un-wearable. Fortunately, Marques Marzan had us covered. His line looked like costumes for a dystopian sci-fi movie where the remnants of humanity struggle for survival and love on the high seas.

I think I just described the plot of "Waterworld."
So Saturday was a very successful vacation day at the first ever Hawaii Fashion Month, with art, fashion, culture, history, and even a taste of the future. I would recommend this event on Trip Advisor (anything to balance out the nonsensical reviews by people who don't get that part of Hawaii's charm is that it's laid back and a little shabby, and why are you complaining about the bad carpets in a two-star hotel anyway, what did you expect for less than $100 a night?).

Sunday gave us even more to think about. We met up with a newcomer to the islands, someone who had been there only a couple of months and didn't know anything about Hawaii before he moved there except the television show "Hawaii 5.0." We took him to dinner at our favorite Honolulu Chinatown restaurant, the Golden Palace, for authentic Chinese food, and then to the closing film of the Hawaii International Film Festival, for authentic Hawaiian cinema.

The film we saw was a documentary called "Visions in the Dark: The Life of Pinky Thompson." Again, we'd bought our tickets kind of late, but when we showed up there were empty seats waiting for us in the reserved section. None of us knew anything about Pinky Thompson, or the director Ty Sanga, who admitted to finishing it on Hawaiian time, just two nights prior. In fact, the only reason we'd picked that film over say, the short animation showcase, was because it was being screened in the historic Hawaii Theater. Hawaii Theater is a movie palace from 1922 that completed a massive restoration project in 2004. I was fortunate enough to see the first HIFF movie screened there after the completion ("Brokeback Mountain," if you're wondering), though in Hawaii fashion, the sound system still needed a lot of work.

I'm pleased to say the sound system is working great now, and it's still as beautiful inside as ever. There's even a lovely sculpture for my sister and me to giggle at in an immature fashion.

In our defense, C'MON!
The movie was lovely as well, a moving and well-told story about the life of one remarkable individual whose quiet, tireless efforts made the Hawaiian Renaissance possible. Myron "Pinky" Thompson was a World War II veteran and a social worker who dedicated his life to helping the Native Hawaiian people at a time when they were in danger of losing all memory of the past and all hope for the future. He was instrumental in creating the government and private systems of support necessary for the Hawaiians to regain their cultural heritage, as well as providing emotional and spiritual support to the younger generation of Hawaiians who fought for civil rights and to revive traditional practices.

I'd never heard of Pinky Thompson before this, though I'm familiar with his son, Nainoa Thompson, through his work with the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Nor was I aware of the events and upheavals in the Hawaiian community between the annexation of the nation of Hawaii to the United States in 1898 and the launch of the Hokule'a voyaging canoe in 1976.

"What an oddly specific date range." - Herb Kane, artist
I didn't realize how much damage had been done, and how much work was needed by people like Pinky, just to get the Hawaiian Renaissance off the ground. He wasn't doing the exciting work--he drafted bills while his son and their friends were sailing the Pacific--but his story of community activism and justice hard-won is just as thrilling.

I don't know what our newcomer guest got from "Visions in the Dark." There were very few landscapes in it, after all, and unless you read your Hawaiian Airlines magazine on the way over, you probably wouldn't understand any of the references to the Hokule'a, the Queen Liliuokalani Trust, or Kamehameha Schools. As a local, I think this is a perfect film for newcomers, as it exposes viewers to the rich, nuanced lives of their new community members.

However, it's a sad fact that many people who fulfill their dreams of moving to Hawaii actually hate it there. They struggle with the same problems immigrants in Hawaii have always struggled with: high cost of living, low employment opportunities, loneliness and a sense of great physical distance from the familiar. All of these problems can be managed, but only if they can engage with the existing community, which many refuse to do.

Trained as they are to think of Hawaii only as paradisiacal landscapes, they have no framework for dealing with the actual people, most of whom are not smiling resort employees. Instead of making an effort to assimilate and appreciate Hawaii for the wonderful, complex place that it is, they struggle harder and harder to make Hawaii into the place they think it should be. You can tell who these people are, because they end up at town hall meetings complaining about the lack of sidewalks in a town that's built on a goddamn hillside with literally no room for sidewalks.
Shall we fill in the cliff on the left, or chip away at the cliff to the right?
My sister doesn't understand why people retire and move to places like Hawaii or Florida. "You spend all these years building a life in your community, and then when you're old you just up and leave it?" I find the concept somewhat baffling myself. If you dream of living somewhere, why don't you go and build an actual life in that place? When I moved to New York, I did it with the intention of not just living in New York, but becoming a New Yorker. This city was going to be my home, not just the place I went to destroy my feet and develop permanent bitch-face to deter wackos from spitting in my mouth.

Geez, why did I come here again?

Of course. I remember.

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