Land of grass skirts and tiki bars?

A fire-knife dance is performed in Honolulu. The dance was invented in 1946 by Letuli Olo Misilagi of American Samoa.
A fire-knife dance is performed in Honolulu. The dance was invented in 1946 by Letuli Olo Misilagi of American Samoa. (LUCY PEMONI / AP, File)

Some popular symbols aren't very Hawaiian.

Posted: September 23, 2012

HONOLULU - Walk along the shops in Waikiki and it isn't hard to come across vendors selling knickknacks of a fake Hawaii. No, the Aloha State doesn't have wild monkeys or parrots. Lei aren't plastic and don't cost 99 cents - they're supposed to be made of real flowers.

Here are some other symbols that have become associated with Hawaii that aren't, well, Hawaiian.

Tiki bars

Two California restaurants, Trader Vic's and Don the Beachcomber, started the tiki bar phenomenon in the 1930s. Both opened branches in Honolulu in the following decade.

Tiki is a word for carved figure in Maori, the language of the indigenous people of New Zealand. The bars often feature wood carvings, sometimes cartoonish, that vaguely resemble kii, or sacred Hawaiian carved figures of deities and family guardians.

DeSoto Brown, historian at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, said the restaurants never tied themselves to a specific location. Instead, they were based on a fantasy that the proprietors were mercantilists or scavengers who traveled the Pacific.

The restaurants evolved further after World War II, and spread around the country to become a national fad.

"Those two guys invented tropical cocktails, gave them funny names, and put little accessories in them. Like Zombie this, Mai Tai that," Brown said.

Grass skirts

They were introduced to Hawaii by immigrants from the Gilbert Islands (small atolls that are today part of the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati) in the 1870s and 1880s.

Brown said Hawaiian hula dancers most likely started wearing them in performances while traveling on the U.S. mainland vaudeville circuit. The skirts were practical because they were dry and thus easy to carry to the mainland.

Hawaiians traditionally wore skirts made from fresh ti leaves, not found on the mainland. By the early 1900s, hula performers in Hawaii and on the U.S. mainland wore grass skirts. Some hula performers still wear them today.

Torch-lighting ceremonies

Many hotels today have an event at dusk at which men in loincloths light torches around the properties. This ritual was invented by Grace Guslander, the manager of the Coco Palms Hotel on Kauai, where part of the Elvis Presley movie Blue Hawaii was filmed.

Hawaiians traditionally used torches as a light source when walking or fishing at night. But it wasn't until the 1950s and Guslander that it became common to stick torches in the ground for lighting, Brown said.

Torch-lighting enjoyed brief Internet fame last year when a scantily dressed man carrying a torch ran behind Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Tsang, Hong Kong's then-chief executive, while they were posing for photos outside an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting.

A short video clip of the scene and a startled Clinton laughing became an online hit.

Coconut bras

It's not clear where coconut bras came from, though they are worn by some female hula and Tahitian hula dancers. Women from Pacific islands traditionally didn't wear tops at all, so they most likely originated at some point after first contact with Westerners, Brown said.

Fire-knife dances

Letuli Olo Misilagi of American Samoa, also known as Freddie Letuli, invented the fire-knife dance in 1946. He told a newspaper he came up with the idea in San Francisco when he saw a young girl performing with lightbulbs and a Hindu man who blew flames from his mouth.

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