Professor Gary Okihiro, Columbia University, re: Hawai

Professor Gary Okihiro, Columbia University, re: Hawaii
Interview by Sara Kolbet
Date: May 9, 2005
2 Discs, 2nd half of Gary Okihiro on Manila Men,
Disc 2 – 10:46 – 3 Tracks


TRACK 8 – 10:04

SARA: Introduce yourself.

GARY: I’m Gary Okihiro, director of the study of ethnicity and race, and professor of international and public affairs here at Columbia University. How I got started in the history of Hawaii began with my own background. Having grown up in Hawaii and in fact growing up on a sugar plantation, having grown up in Iaia Hawaii, or on the island of Oahu. And that sparked my initial interest in the place and also my own background.

SARA: What was Hawaii like initially?

GARY: Hawaii evolved over the course of several thousand years before Europeans arrived and most scholars believe that the Hawaiians came in waves from Polynesia. At first the Society Islands and then Tahiti. And each waves brought ideas from people about social structure and so forth. Although we can’t be absolutely sure because archeology is very difficult in the islands because of the acidic soil, which corrodes organic materials, we still have sites from around the turn of the eras and maybe as late as the 800AD that denote a sequence of migrations. T he original people probably were kinship groups that migrated purposefully to this part of the pacific. By the way, that’s a very interesting story because most of the Polynesian migrations went eastward. Many believe that Polynesians originated in southeast Asia and gradually island-hopped eastward as far east as eastern island and then moved southward towards new Zealand and then northward to Hawaii. there are more than a thousand miles of ocean between Hawaii and the islands of the south seas, as they were called, so their migration northward diverted from their path eastward, and also most scholars today believe that their expeditions had to be purposefully outfitted for exploration and settlement so this move to the north to Hawaii was probably a purposeful one and instigated not so much by necessity or warfare, famine, hardships at home, but by the sense of adventure and also exploring new territories where they could settle. So the upshot was that this was an ingenious native people who moved in new directions purposefully for the idea of setting up a new society. They brought with them ideas and they also brought with them a material culture. The material culture included things like plants and animals that they needed to subsist on because they couldn’t really on the islands that they found to have the food they needed, and also ideas about religion and social structure. I’m going on and on.

SARA: I want to talk about the Hawaii social structure. How was their structure different when white people arrived?

GARY: Most scholars today believe two basic changes happened. The first group of Polynesians who arrived probably came as I said as kin groups and as a much more egalitarian society than the one that came later with the migration of Tahitians into the islands. Now this is the course of several hundred years after the initial group probably settled. The egalitarian nature of it revolves around the ideas of human beings and their place within the universe. And that is that humans are here to share the resources of the land. That people do not own things, there is no such thing as private property…people do not own things, and in fact the resources are shared and open to all. The egalitarian social structure revolved probably around the relations of production and who involved themselves in production. And that would be the principal division would be between men and women. Men occupying certain economic niches and women others. The egalitarian nature of that would be that one needed both to sustain oneself, and some believe Hawaii to have been a matrilineal or matriarchal society because the principal means of economy was in agriculture. So although different parts of production were also divided among men and women. So even within agriculture for example, men did certain chores within that sector and women did others. However, around probably 800 AD with the migration of Tahitians to Hawaii they brought in a much more stratified society of castes. Mainly a royal caste and a priestly caste who imposed their will over the commoners or ordinary people. And probably the commoners were the original inhabitants of Hawaii and probably the priestly and chiefly castes were the recent immigrants from Tahiti.

SARA: When westerners came in did they take advantage of that structure?

GARY: When westerners arrived they had familiarity already with other Polynesian societies in advance before arriving in Hawaii and many of those Europeans actually studied those societies as scientists, both in terms of the natural resources and also the human resources because they were also looking not only to map and place on the globe the various exotic people and crops that they found, but also with the idea of eventual colonization of those places for likely colonial products and also peoples. The British, who were the principal Europeans who discovered and then came to settle Hawaii, came with the idea of indirect rule. And indirect rule, as conceived by almost all of Britain’s colonies involved ruler ship through the chiefly caste. And they would largely keep the social structure intact but utilize those who were at the top to govern the masses. And it was an economic model of course. So what they did was to ingratiate themselves with the chiefly caste at first through goods, trade, and then also through ideas like religion, conversion to certain ideas which would eliminate the priestly caste which had a very strong hold over Hawaiian society about the time Europeans arrived.

SARA: Did priestly castes take care of the people?

TRACK 9 – 10:04

GARY: It was, while highly stratified caste wise there was also reciprocation involved in the process and that is that while the chiefs were privileged, they also had responsibilities to the people, the commoners. So the people produced for the chiefly castes, produced in terms of agricultural and ocean products, necessary for the sustenance but also for the wealth of the chiefly castes. In turn the chiefs were expected to protect and nourish the people. Similarly the priests had privileges but they also were expected to nurture, support, and sustain the people religiously, psychologically. The reciprocation involved such that people who were unhappy with particular rulers were free to leave that group for another. Often that meant moving simply to another side of the island because each island had several chiefs in control of areas, or moving to another island entirely where chiefs were more distantly related. So while there was that going on, a greater sense of reciprocation between the ruling caste and the ordinary people, Europeans introduced the idea of private property, and private property was a key instrument in the seduction and subjectification of the people. What that meant was the land occupied by certain groups, kin groups principally, which were shared by all within the kin group, became the province of certain chiefs, kahuna, the priests, and then ordinary people had smaller properties. And the division of the land called the Great Mahele, took place in the 19th century, and that division then preserved the land for the ruling class and few of the land for the vast majority of the people. With that control and the control over external trade by the ruling caste or class, they were able to accumulate wealth that separated themselves from the ordinary people, and the process became much more a one-way process of exploitation rather than a reciprocation between the ruled and the rulers.

SARA: What was plantation paternalism? Do you want to describe sugar production?

GARY: How does sugar production get to be a principal crop in Hawaii? as I said, these Polynesians who arrived in Hawaii came with plants and animals and among the plants was the sugarcane. So the Europeans, when they arrived in Hawaii, found the Hawaiians cultivating sugar, which they were familiar with in other Southeast Asian and Asian countries already. And so Europeans saw that as a means by which to derive profits and of course longer standing was cane culture in the Caribbean islands, where Europeans deployed African slaves and Asian coolies to cultivate. But in any case in Hawaii there were crops like pineapple, like sugarcane, that Europeans saw as a means to enrich themselves through trade. Similarly the ruling caste in Hawaii saw that as a means by which to trade for the products, the manufactured products that they coveted from the Asian and European trade. So there was that foundation for planter paternalism in so far as the ruling classes derived profits at the expense of the commoners. Interestingly some of the first commercial sugar producers weren’t Hawaiians but Chinese who were brought over by Europeans who were already familiar with cane culture and also the production of large scale of sugar for exportation, probably from south china, and these established the first plantations and presses on the islands and then Europeans came and took over essentially the production of sugar because they also had the means by which to transport that sugar unlike the Chinese before them.

SARA: you say cane culture, what do you mean?

GARY: Cane culture involves large plots of land, first of all, as opposed to subsistence plots, which were devoted mainly to garden crops, the staple like tarot for the Hawaiians or sweet potato. It involved large acreages of land. It involved a single crop as opposed to several crops. Several crips you see ensured against economic up and downswings and also against famine, which might result against pests and other rainfall and so forth, but insurance against that. But the single-crop economy, with that large acreages and large single crop you needed and infrastructure of plantation workers, and those workers have to be a relatively stable group as opposed to migrancy, which say in California the crops there might be more amenable migrancy. And so large labor, stable labor force, needing then a camp of agricultural laborers, generally of a particular gender, age, and eventually ethnic group. By gender, we want those who would do certain kinds of tasks, who would be able bodied, of a certain age, so they wouldn’t be infirm or old or too young, to do the work. An efficient labor force, in other words directed at the production of sugar. And then finally you had to have the kind of machinery or technology involved in the production of sugar and then the technology to ship or transport that sugar to the markets.

SARA: When large companies were planting, what was their system of paternalism?

GARY: Planter paternalism refers to a system of cane culture that involves a ruling class who presumes and assumes the roles of a guardian for presumable inferior and children like people.. planter paternalism involved things like houses, welfare, social activities, products, like the stores and so forth that workers would need, the whole infrastructure of needs on the part of workers were provided by the planting class or the ruling class. And those, within those bounds then the workers need to be grateful for that oversight, for the protection and beneficence on the part of the planters. So it was conceived as a reciprocal relationship but as devised by those in control.

SARA: Did that create problems when labor movements began?

GARY: The problems ensued right at the start, because I don’t’ believe any human being, whether planter or worker, is mindless. That people whether planter or worker devise means by which to achieve their own ends, their own perceived welfare. And workers, like the planters, who devise a system of oppression and exploitation, resisted oppression and exploitation and sought to ensure their own futures, economically and also the futures of eventually their own families and children.

TRACK 10 – 10:04

So yes, planter paternalism and the plantation systems that sought to impose a particular structure, was always resisted I believe on the part of the works. The resistance took individual and then eventually collective forms. Individual resistance against control involved things like feigning illness so they didn’t have to go out to work. Running away from a particularly onerous plantation for a seemingly more benign one. Breaking tools in the field or even setting fire to the cane before it was time for the harvest, and thereby destroying the crop. Those were some individual means by which some workers resisted control, and then workers early on again realized that by joining together, whether as a class of workers or as an ethnic group of works they could receive better salary increases, better conditions on the plantation, the eradicating of a brutal overseer or Luna, and those are the kind of things.

SARA: Describe the big five?

GARY: The big five was a monopoly and as a monopoly they had control from the production end to the distribution end. And what I mean by that is these companies controlled Hawaii’s means and relations of production from the production of the sugar to its manufacture to its transportation and shipping to the rest of the world. they involved banking, shipping, railroads and agricultural land. These five then controlled the economy of the islands essentially and they formed an interlocking directorship such that family members and they were to a large degree individual family or collective family members as heads of particular companies among the big five would sit on other boards of directors of the big five. So there was collusion among them as opposed to competition.

SARA: Did the fact that there were so few companies have a negative impact on Hawaii’s economy?

GARY: It affected the livelihood…The big five controlled the economic life of the territory which was the territory after the 1900 act of the US annexing illegally an independent Hawaiian kingdom, so the big five controlled the territory for sure, because of its monopoly over the production and distribution of capital. And products. And also influenced the political life of the territory because they controlled the economy and in control of the economy they were able to influence the structure and the inhabitants of the government.

SARA: Talk about the different cultures of the plantation workers.

GARY: Early on I talked about the labor force as economic and rational that is on the basis of gender and on the basis of ethnicity. Gender-wise, most of the plantations ran on men’s labor, so the vast majority of early plantation workers, whether they were indigenous Hawaiians or Chinese or Japanese or Filipinos were almost overwhelmingly men in composition. The planters along with the government, meaning first the kingdom and later the territorial government, sought to infuse the plantation workers with women. And that policy was a deliberate one and I believe an economically rational one. The presence of women, introduced onto the plantations had the effect of stabilizing the workforce. Men were less reliable in terms of stability. Families had a greater stake in the plantation they were at. So instead of running away they would be constrained to remain in one place. The idea also, which I believe false but the planters believed, was that women moderated men’s excessive behavior. By that, I mean men’s excessive behavior revolved around violence or physicality and anti-social behaviors like gambling and drinking, which reduce productivity. So the idea of women then was to moderate men’s excesses. Now, as I say I believe that to be a false representation but I believe that was part of the rationale for introducing women. Later on, with men and women, organizing themselves into unions, which only became legal after 1900, by the way, when Hawaii became a territory of the US, when they began to organize themselves collectively, they pushed up wages, which were differential wages. Men got paid more than women even though they might have been doing the same work. But they pushed up the wages of both men and women as well as the social benefits. Including things like hospitals, health care for the children, schools and so forth, which became increasingly expensive on the part of the plantations to run. The plantations countered then by employing women and children within the field who then were paid less than the men but provided just as efficient and also just as productive labor. So it actually was a means by which to exploit the workers, that is the introduction of women and children onto the plantations, as well as to preserve the work force. Now, the other kind of division besides gender was on the basis of ethnicity, or ethnic group, and again I believe that to have been a deliberate strategy on the part of the planters to divide and rule the workers. The idea of divide and rule was nurtured by the plantations in so far as they promoted ethnic culture. So while some white Americans might rail against the idea of Asiatic labor and also Asiatic religion, many of the planters promoted Asiatic migration and Asiatic religions to separate workers one from the other. So they would give days off, funds for the celebration of say…


So planters would encourage various ethnic festivals for the Chinese, for the Japanese. Which went against the grain of certain Americanists who sought to Americanize the territory, which meant to whiten the territory, not only with the physical presence of white Americans but also with the cultural and religious apparatus of what the mainstream or majority group might have considered to be American. In any case, so that encouragement then sought to divide Chinese from Japanese, they were also paid differentially, so the older ones, the Chinese in this case, were paid more than the Japanese. The Japanese were paid more than the Filipinos and so forth. And that way the idea was so these workers would not united across those ethnic divides. But unite they did

TRACK 11 – 9:20

But it took some years after 1920. when the Japanese and Filipinos actually joined together in a major strike.

SARA: Today, if you went to Hawaii today and saw the mix of cultures, how would that derive from the plantation culture?

GARY: It seems amazing to me how the ruling class has turned things for their own benefit in the narrative of the historic past. The historic past is really one of colonization, appropriation, taking away of native lands for particular kinds of ends, meaning economic and political ones, of the colonizers. And then to transpose that story into one of beneficence and uplift of an uncivilized group is one of these narrative that the colonizers brought, vis i vie Hawaiians. The other mythology that has evolved from again oppression, exploitation, appropriation, is this myth of the multicultural Hawaii. multicultural Hawaii is indeed a reality but its origins were based initially in the division of labor and the antagonisms being promoted by that diversity of labor force. And so how a system of oppression becomes then a system of celebration, of multiculturalism and diversity, is a really interesting transition and I believe the transition comes in the decline of the production of sugar to the rise of militarism, or the presence of the military in Hawaii, along especially with the rise of tourism and the tourist industry. So under the guise of tourism and making Hawaii attractive to tourists, it actually began with a very racist drive on the part of the colonizers to swamp Hawaii with white people. So there were these deliberate recruitment campaigns to lure white people from the continent as tourists at first, and then eventual settlers in Hawaii. to lure them with the idea of paradise, meaning a physical paradise of temperate climates, abundance of products and food and leisure, but also a kind of paradise in terms of race and race relations. Where white is right, where white reigns supreme, but also an interaction of diverse cultures and peoples and a celebration of those cultures, which at root again under the plantation system was a means by which to separate and exploit workers, and under this new regime of tourism becomes a means of celebration and attraction.

SARA: Are there other ways plantation culture influenced Hawaii life today?

GARY: On the part of people themselves there is an object in promoting those mythologies. The mythology of colonization and the mythology of multiculturalism. People themselves were exploited under those systems of course do not want to speak or conceive of that past as their exploitation, but would like to see that past as a process of inclusion by which diverse peoples came to not only mingle but also to present the US with an exemplary society when the US is so riven by racism and race hatreds. Hawaii by contrast is like the omnipresent rainbows that form over Hawaii’s skies by which Hawaii’s colors mingle and present a more scintillating display as a rainbow. But in any case, the people themselves who were formerly exploited have a role and a desire in fact to promote those kinds of mythologies. Underneath it however you have what in Hawaii is called ethnic jokes. And ethnic jokes are revealing of particular fissures in that society. The fissures involve things like the Portuguese are the brunt of ethnic jokes in Hawaii and the reason for that is the Portuguese were to a large degree the overseer or luna class on the plantation. They were the ones who supervised the Asian and pacific islander workers. And they were the ones who were neither white, meaning Anglo white, at the top of the structure, nor of the bottom. They were in the middle. And as middle people who aspired, perhaps toward the top but could never get there, and who perhaps despised the bottom because they had certain privileges, they were the bulk of the kind of joke that on the continent they have Polish jokes about. That is, Portuguese then are dirty, stupid, incompetent and so forth within that lexicon of jokes. The other thing is we have particular ethnic groups, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, haoles or white people, and those kinds of humor bespeak I think a people’s deeply felt feelings about the other group, which aren’t all that celebratory, they’re not wonderful. Because they cut at particular stereotypes and prejudices against other groups. But in any case,….ethnic jokes and ethnic humor in Hawaii, gain I think a lot of their comedy by reducing the humanity of another group of people, and they bespeak widely held prejudices or stereotypes about other groups of people. And I think that still remains in Hawaii, a clear distinction of the division despite the reality of a great deal if intermarriage between peoples and on the whole amicable relations among different groups of people.

SARA: Are there Chinatowns in Hawaii or areas of town?

GARY: The residential segregation pattern began with the plantations and by the way on the plantations certain groups were located physically in certain camps. So for example I grew up in Iaia plantation and the camp that I grew up in was largely Japanese but also some Chinese and Portuguese. Whereas the Filipino camp was down at the bottom of the plantation physically, where it was hotter and less comfortable for the people to live. So there were those physical kinds of segregations, residential segregations that paralleled the occupational segregations or hierarchies, and in the rest of the, in the urban centers there would also be these residential segregations based principally on economic or class standing.



TRACK 1 – 7:05

GARY: Back in the 1950s I remember certain areas of Honolulu to be principally reserved for white people, haoles. The particular areas would be around the tourist areas like Waikiki and also the residential areas around Diamond Head, which today still remains a very luxurious place of residence. Whereas certain other groups of people like Hawaiians and Samoans lived in certain areas of the town and Japanese and Chinese lived in other areas of the town. So yes, there was noticeable residential segregation based both on race and class right up to the 1950s. later, however, into the 70s and 80s, we see greater diversity of population among previous enclaves. Mainly non-whites moving into white areas with their rise of economic status. So today that kind of residential segregation is largely invisible. However, several areas of the islands, mainly in the rural areas, are still quite distinctively Hawaiian. Or pacific islander.

SARA: Each generation becomes a bit more mixed.

GARY: Yeah, but I wanted to historicize the process, because oftentimes one thinks of it as a kind of static phenomenon. But things change all the time. Like today’s Chinatown did begin in the early 20th century and it was mainly Chinese but it’s infusion as a Chinese enclave was because of migrations. So recent migrants tend to settle or to work or to visit Chinatown as an enclave, whereas other third, fourth, eighth generation Chinese Americans are less susceptible to that kind of draw. Chinatown itself has changed to include a lot of Vietnamese now and southeast Asians including Filipinos within the enclave. So it changes.

SARA: The sugar strikes that were in Hawaii, did they influence the mainland strikes?

GARY: I don’t know if I should talk about that because I’m not sure about that. In fact I think it happened the other way around. And part of the reason for the mainland, meaning Hawaii’s minimal influence on the other mainland, on the pacific coast, is because of the different nature of production and organization of labor force. I spoke earlier about the plantation system and the plantation system is quite different in terms of its labor force than say the agriculture on the west coast, which promoted, as I said also, migrancy as opposed to settlement, which the plantation system would lean toward. And under migrancy you have again single gender, a rational system of agriculture, but you have a very mobile work force, which makes it very difficult for these farm workers to unite and form unions. In fact the first one in 1903, in Oxnard California organized around a single product, meaning sugar beets, was organized by Japanese and Mexican workers. And that was an extraordinary event because it was an anti-racist union, which promoted both members. In fact when they petitioned to the AFL, the American Federation of labor, for union membership, Samuel Gompers, the head of the AFL, wrote back to the Mexican secretary of that union saying if you guys will kick out the Japanese we will gladly put you guys into our union, and Lazarez, who was the Mexican secretary of the Japanese-Mexican labor association refused that privilege of that Mexicanness over their Asian brothers and thereby promoted anti-racism within a union structure that was supposed to be a class-based organization. So it’s a remarkable association, the JMLA in 1903 because of not only its anti-racist organization but also because it organized agricultural workers on the west coast at such an early date. More successful organizing happened in 20s 30s, and especially after WWII. Mainly among Filipinos and Mexicans.

SARA: Did the strike in 1946 have any influence on other strikes?

GARY: The 1946 strike was a very different one that influenced things around the world because of the shipping and also the Stevedores involved in it, which connected Hawaii with the West Coast principally but also with the rest of the world.

SARA: The Stevedores?

GARY: Yeah, people who work at the docks in shipping. Am I misusing it? I think they’re called Stevedores. But on the whole I think they’re quite distinctive because of the different types of labor. It would make sense with Hawaii and the rest of the pacific agricultural workers.