My first introduction to the importance of sugar here on the Big Island came in a sermon from Father Bob. He reminded us that 18 years before, the people all along the Hāmākua Coast were invited to step outside their homes to see something. The mood was not joyful, as when a parade passes by, nor grief-filled like the viewing of a hearse. He said the best word to describe it was melancholy; it was the passing of an era. As people lined the highway, tears in their eyes, they watched an 18 wheeler drive by. The truck let out a long sorrowful sound. It was the last truck of sugar cane to drive the Hāmākua Coast. The controlled life of the plantation, where the owners provided workers with housing, utilities and medical services, was over. The sugar industry was dead.
The early camps in the mid-1800s were no more than barracks for single men, immigrants segregated by place of origin. Later their picture brides showed up, and real home life began in small plantation houses, with babies born and raised. Many of the people in the church listening to Father Bob’s sermon had lived in the camps. Some still live there. They remembered.
It would be hard to overestimate the importance of sugar in these islands. While sugar was already here when Captain Cook arrived, the first plantation wasn’t built until 1835. By 1890, sugar comprised $12.6 million of Hawaii’s $13 million in exports, mostly to the US. The islands didn’t have sufficient population to supply the many laborers needed for the work, so plantation owners brought people here from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Portugal, and Puerto Rico. Hawaii became a global village.
Saturday, we honored the 20 year anniversary of the closing of the last sugar mill on the Big Island just makai (downhill) from Honoka‘a. It was the first Plantation Days Festival. True to Big Island festivals, we commemorated with food, dance, and celebrations of the rich cultural diversity we now enjoy. The Japanese welcomed all to join their bon dance (“the original line dance, just done in a circle,” quipped the MC). Women from the Portuguese Club proudly wore native dress and the Portuguese band played ukuleles, befitting the group that brought these instruments to the islands. Hawaiians danced the hula. It’s always fun to see the keiki dance, but nothing beats the beauty and subtle fluid motions of their teachers, some of whom have been dancing for 40 or 60 years.
I must have been in the Honoka‘a Theatre seeing films of the plantation days when the other ethnic groups performed. It was a wonderful commemoration of that last harvest day for those who had been there. But it was also important for those of us who are newcomers, a chance to learn and feel history.
Watching a Hāmākua Sugar Company training video for cane truck drivers, I learned that each truck carried 100,000 pounds of sugar cane to the mill, which sounds like a lot. But the sugar mills ran around the clock and required 1.5 million pounds of cane each hour to prevent a mill shutdown from having no cane available. These trucks arrived every three minutes, 24/7 in all weather.
Back at the outdoor stage, the locals talked story about washing their cars and then driving behind a cane truck and having dirt clods and cane flying off in every direction, dirtying their cars again. And the old kupuna recalled few roads and fewer cars; they caught the sugar mill train to school every day. They talked story about seeing cane-burning clouds coming close to their houses and the rush to get the laundry off the line before the ash descended on everything. This burning process quick-flashed off the small sharp blades that cut workers, while the stalk remained intact. So much to learn.
As with all festivals here, we enjoyed great street food. The Hāmākua Youth Center, my favorite non-profit in town, offered coconuts and sugar cane. The Japanese, Portuguese, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans and others offered their favorite items like Portuguese hot dogs, kalua pork and cabbage, pickled onions, poke bowls and pastelles. And all along the street, booths offered traditional plate lunches, each group offering their own twist. The Japanese served it with rice, three-cabbage tsukemono (Japanese pickles), nishime (Japanese stew) and Okinawan pork. It only struck me later how many of the foods included pork and then I made the connection; pork would have been one meat readily available years ago in the form of wild pig hunting.
As I reflect on the Plantation Days Festival and what I absorbed there, a thought begins to simmer about what makes Hawaii different from other melting pots. When the plantation owners brought in different ethnicities and separated them into different camps, the workers did their best to recreate their life from back home, many deciding to settle here permanently. This firmly planted pockets of those cultures all over the islands. Later they started intermarrying. A local film on five generations of the Shigimatsu family revealed that it took four generations for family members to marry non-Japanese. Other ethnicities intermarried much sooner.
Very few locals are pure anything anymore. One woman I met listed eight ethnicities that comprise her children’s heritage. Yet, unlike other melting pots, these locals still remember and celebrate all of them. The result is the wonderful mix of cultures that came together for this festival, with most people honoring more than one heritage. This is what makes Hawai‘i a global village: celebrating our differences together.
For more on the Big Island’s ethnic diversity see Traditions and Family Values.
For more information on plantation life, see YourIslandRoutes.com, and in particular, these articles by Melody Lassalle: Processing Sugar Cane in Hawaii Circa 1860, Male Workers on Hawaiian Sugar Plantations, Female Workers on Hawaiian Sugar Plantations, Hawaiian Sugar Plantation Occupations, and Sugar Plantation Work Days and Wages.
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