Hawai’i is the one part of the USA proper that is unambiguously Asian, both in its origins as well as in its current demographics and orientation. Its idyllic image, writes Sharon Chang in her new book, Hapa Tales and Other Lies, is fraught with problems, namely that the Native Polynesian culture has been exploited over many years and in many ways. Right away, readers know they are in for a different interpretation of this vacation paradise.
In her introduction, Chang writes,
The multi-billion dollar corporate tourist industry, colonizer-run, continues to be backed by the US military, which has occupied Hawai’i since the overthrow of Queen Lili’uokalani, confiscating hundreds of thousands of acres of Native land for military use. Post-World War II, Hawai’i has become a center for American forces in the Pacific and one of the most militarized of the many places U.S. imperialism has colonized across the vast ocean.
Chang, the daughter of a Caucasian mother and father from Taiwan, also explores what it means to be hapa, or mixed race, in Hawai’i, a place with a predominately mixed-race population. Her travels to Hawai’i have helped her explore “racism, sexism, colonialism, militarism, imperialism, and more.” Chang admits that for most of her life, she also believed Hawai’i to be a multicultural paradise, especially when it comes to people of mixed-race backgrounds.
I ultimately allowed myself to be misled, becoming an abettor to colonialism at the expense of Hawai’i and her children, the Kanaka Maoli.
Each chapter in her book tackles a different problem perpetuated by colonialism and how Hawai’i helped Chang alter her views about the state and her mixed-race background. For one, the colonizers and settlers of Hawai’i have long exploited mixed-race women like herself.
Over many decades, bodies like mine, pictured as availably erotic-exotic in bathing suits or grass skirts, have become one of the most prominent reductive images Hawai’i generates in the minds of potential visitors. It’s also the stereotype that generates some of the greatest revenues for haole and Asian men who control the military and corporate tourist industry.
Haole is the Hawaiian term for Caucasian people. It’s difficult to think of a luau or hula dance the same after reading this chapter.
Chang also writes about passing/not passing as white or the majority on the mainland, especially when it comes to skin tone. In a tropical paradise like Hawai’i, people spend great amounts of time outdoors year-round and if someone isn’t used to the sun it will inevitably change his or her skin color. She tells a story about a white friend who also has a mixed-race son and how the two boys complain when they tan in the sun. The friend’s son will go back to being white when they leave Hawai’i, but Chang’s son is also biracial and naturally has darker skin. Is it bad to have dark skin? While white people “tan”, mixed-race people become brown or “Native” from the sun. One is socially acceptable on the mainland and to the haole in Hawaii, while the other isn’t. Chang writes,
As a Biracial Asian girl who grew up in SoCal where she was always Brown, lives in Washington where she’s always light, yet looks so ethnic after a few days in Hawai’i sun that ‘locals’ and even sometimes Native Hawaiians claim her—how in hell does all of this work?
The Hollywood whitewashing of Asian and mixed-race characters is another fascinating subject she addresses in her book. Although this is nothing new, Chang writes about Aloha starring Emma Stone as a mixed race Chinese Hawaiian Swedish woman. The movie was filmed in Hawai’i, but features very few Native people and is centered around white characters. It’s also surprising in the 21st century to cast a white woman in the role of a hapa woman, thereby erasing mixed-race people in Hawai’i.
Chang concludes by stating that her book “is not a happy book about Hawai’i, but it’s not a hopeless one either.” She hopes it will be the beginning of a new conversation “about what multiraciality looks like in relationship to gender, geography, land, and colonization.” She urges readers to appreciate the rich Native cultures in Hawai’i and to remember the resilience of indigenous peoples everywhere.